The world around us is teaching self-love and self-esteem. Self-esteem is a popularized aspect of humanistic psychology, which is based on the belief that all are born good and that society is the culprit. The system places man as the measure of all things. The emphasis on self is exactly what began in the Garden of Eden, and it is being intensified through the humanistic teachings of self-love, self-esteem, self-fulfillment, self-realization, self-etcetera. In promoting self-esteem, the California Self-Esteem Task Force has been largely responsible for bringing humanistic ideology and psychology into both the public and private sectors. (It is interesting to note that in mid-1988, the Task Force paid tribute to James Dobson, the king of self-esteem, by featuring him in their newsletter. In addition, his book Hide or Seek is on their reading list.)
The influence of the Commission on Self-Esteem in California is spreading across the nation. John Vasconcellos is calling for a national initiative on self-esteem similar to the one he introduced in California. Vasconcellos made it amply clear that the self-esteem movement should and does operate against what he regards as the antiquated teaching that man is a sinner. He says that there are two views of mankind in this country: man as a sinner and man as intrinsically good. He declared that this is the underlying issue of the self-esteem movement. Because they do not believe in Jesus Christ, secular humanists have only self at the center of their being. We can see how those who do not know Christ want to love, esteem, and fulfill self, because that's all they've got. But what's the Church's excuse?
Underneath all of the self-reference rhetoric is an attack upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is not a frontal attack with the battle-lines clearly displayed. Instead, it is skillfully subversive and is truly the work, not of flesh and blood, but of principalities, powers, the rulers of darkness of this world, and the spiritual wickedness in high places, just as delineated by Paul near the end of his letter to the Ephesians. And the sad thing is that many Christians are not alert to the dangers. More than we can number are being subtly deceived into another gospel -- the gospel of self.
We find that much confusion has come into the professing Church through the use of the popular self terminology. On the one extreme, we find people such as Robert Schuller, who seems to have bought the entire secular humanistic stance in his book Self-Esteem: The New Reformation. Schuller abhors the term sinner and believes that one must build a person's self-esteem before he can come to know Christ. He misses the entire point of what brings a person to the cross of Christ. On the other hand, there are those who have picked up the terminology and been unaware of the implications and confusion that such words carry. By adopting and adapting the popular concepts of humanistic psychology, professing Christians say we have self-esteem, self-love, self-worth, etc., because of who we are in Christ, but the underlying ideology follows.
Right along with the rise in the influence and the popularity of psychology has been a shift from an emphasis on God to an emphasis on self throughout much of the professing Church. In very subtle ways, self takes first place. And, as self takes first place, the attitude of being a bond slave to Christ is replaced with the attitude of being a volunteer at one's own convenience. Love for others is acted on only if it is convenient.
With all of this emphasis on self, it is natural for a Christian to ask if it's okay to love self. How might Jesus answer that question? Although the question of self-love is not a trick question like those asked by the scribes and Pharisees, it is the kind of question that begs a particular answer of "yes" or "no." An answer of "yes" easily leads to all kinds of self-preoccupation. The answer "no" elicits a possible response of "Well, then should we hate ourselves?" Jesus did not always answer questions the way His listeners would expect. Instead, He used the question as an opportunity to teach truth. His emphasis was always on God's love and our love for God and others.
Linguistically, agapao is other-directed throughout Scripture, never self-directed. The concept of self-love is not the subject of the Great Commandment. It is only a qualifier. When Jesus commands us to love God with "all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength" (Mark 12:30), He is emphasizing the all-encompassing nature of this agapao love (an action-love that is beyond the possibility of the natural man, and only possible through divine grace). If He had used the same words for loving neighbor, He would have encouraged idolatry. However, for the next degree of intensity he used the words, "as thyself."
Jesus did not command us to love ourselves. He did not say that there were three commandments (love God, love neighbor, and love self). Instead, He said, "On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets" (Matt. 22:40). Love of self here is a given -- a fact -- not a command. We know of no Scripture that teaches that an individual does not already love himself. Paul said, "For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the Church" (Eph. 5:29). Christians were not admonished to love themselves or to hate themselves. Self-love, self-hate (which is simply another form of self-love and self-preoccupation), and self-deprecation (possibly a disguise for blaming God for not giving the self greater personal assets), are all self-centered attitudes. Those who complain about not loving themselves generally are dissatisfied with their feelings, abilities, circumstances, etc. If they truly hated themselves they would be happy to be miserable. All human beings love themselves.
From the totality of Scripture, and within the particular context of Matthew 22, the love one naturally has toward himself is commanded to be directed towards others. We are not commanded to love self. We already do. We are commanded to love others as we already do ourselves. The story of the Good Samaritan, which follows the commandment to love one's neighbor, illustrates not only who is our neighbor, but what is meant by the word love. Here, love means to extend oneself beyond the point of convenience to accomplish what is deemed best for the neighbor. The idea is that we should seek the good of others just as fully as we seek the good (or what we may even mistakenly think is good) for ourselves -- just as naturally as we tend to care for our own personal well-being.
Another Scripture that parallels this same idea of loving others as we already do love ourselves is Luke 6:31-35, which begins with "And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise." Evidently, Jesus assumed that His listeners wanted to be treated justly, kindly, and mercifully. In other words, they wanted to be treated according to expressions of love rather than expressions of indifference or animosity. Jesus then goes on to clarify this kind of love as contrasted to the love given by sinners. He says, "For if ye love them which love you, what thanks have ye? for sinners also love those that love them. ... But love ye your enemies. ..."
The kind of love that Jesus emphasized was action-oriented, and was that kind that was selfless and was not motivated by gaining returns. Since it is natural for people to attend to their own needs and desires, Jesus turned their attention beyond themselves.
That kind of love for others comes first from God's love, and only then by responding in wholehearted love for Him (with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength). And, we cannot do that unless we know Him through His Son. The Scripture says, "We love Him because He first loved us" (1 John 4:19). We cannot truly love (agapao, action-oriented love) God without first knowing His love by grace; and we cannot truly love neighbor as self without first loving God. We believe that the proper Biblical position for a Christian is not to encourage, justify, or establish self-love, but rather to devote one's life to loving God and loving neighbor as [one already loves] self.
* Adapted from an article by the same name in the Fall 1988, PsychoHeresy Update (EastGate Publishers, 4137 Primavera Road, Santa Barbara, CA, 93110 -- now named the PsychoHeresy Awareness Letter). For more on this subject see the Bobgans' books Prophets of Psychoheresy II (reissued as James Dobson's Gospel of Self-Esteem & Psychology), and Four Temperaments, Astrology & Personality Testing (pp. 86-91).