“You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39, English Standard Version). It is a cardinal commandment of the Christian life and, at first glance, a simple one. But what should we make of Jesus’ comparison to self-love? Most children, whether raised in a Christian home or not, are taught that selfishness is bad. So did Jesus mean, “Let sanctified love for your neighbor replace the sinful love which you feel for yourself”? Or was he saying, “You can’t love your neighbor properly until you properly understand how to love yourself”? Loving ourselves is natural to the fallen human condition, but Christ’s reaction to it is ambiguous—can self-love be a Christian concept? In this article I’d like to examine how Christian friendship offers an answer to our cultural crisis of narcissism by revealing a God-glorifying form of self-love.
A Culture of Narcissism
American historian Christopher Lasch leveraged the term “culture of narcissism” to refer to the prevalence of an exclusive and all-encompassing focus on the self.1 As traditional sources of identity like religion and the family eroded, individuals shored up their sense of identity by embarking on an endless quest for self-improvement, lured on by prospects of fame and fortune. Lasch published his book about narcissism in 1979; more than forty years later, our age of social media names like “Facebook” and “YouTube” has proven him to have been prophetic.
Narcissism hearkens back to the Greek myth of Narcissus, a hunter who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water and eventually melted away from his own burning lust for himself. Sigmund Freud, a founder of modern psychology, based his diagnosis of narcissism as a personality disorder upon this story. Lasch broadened the term from a psychological label to a description of contemporary life, and since then it has become common to describe any number of self-centered behaviors as narcissistic.
But there is an important nuance in the story of Narcissus: his admiration of his own image takes the place of love from another person. We should not mistake his attitude for self-confidence; rather, Narcissus’s obsession reveals his insecurity. Reveling in the imaginary embrace of an identical twin proved easier for Narcissus than receiving the love of a real other. Accordingly, Lasch describes narcissism as something more insidious than mere arrogance or bragging; it includes “dependence upon the vicarious warmth provided by others combined with a fear of dependence, a sense of inner emptiness . . . pseudo self-insight, calculating seductiveness, nervous, self-deprecatory humor.”2 Gazing longingly into a mirror is a pathetic and poignant posture for many around us today; it communicates not confidence in our own image, but a restless and insatiable thirst for a stable identity.3 The self is the center of our misery, and so a Christian response to narcissism must begin with a discussion of the self.
Revelation and the Self
The Christian faith communicates in the language of body and soul, and it attributes importance to both. Our bodies and souls are united in a single person. Of course, they are not inseparable. Our souls will depart from our bodies at death. Even while we live, we are familiar with experiences like daydreaming or déjà vu, in which our consciousness momentarily wanders to some distant place while our bodies remain stationary and functioning. But in our ordinary experience of life, body and soul move as a harmonious unit.
Moreover, our bodies are given to us as the place of appearance of our souls in the material world. Our bodies provide all sorts of sense data that confirm and support our existence as real people. Think about it: if you were just a soul with no body, how could you savor the visual beauty of a sunset, the sound of a symphony, or the embrace of another person? Just as scientists have instruments that allow them to gather information, so too our bodies are given to us as instruments by which we learn about God, the external world, and ourselves.
In Philosophy of Revelation, Herman Bavinck described self-consciousness as a primeval gift through which God makes himself known to us. Bavinck believed that within each human mind resides an inescapable “consciousness of dependence” which reveals the existence of God.4 The very fact that I think of myself as a person is a gift from God meant to draw me toward him. Rut Etheridge describes the deceit of worldly philosophy as “the ceiling of self”—the assertion that we can never get outside ourselves to know anything about reality.5 Actually, Bavinck’s work locates the explosive that demolishes this ceiling within the self, in the consciousness of dependence. This awareness demonstrates that a real God and a real world exist, and they do not revolve around me. Bavinck underscores the fact that our selves are given to us as instruments through which our relationship to God may be established.
So it is clear that we may lawfully love ourselves, including our physical bodies, as gifts and creations of God, bestowed upon us as means by which we may know him and his world. Loving ourselves is not automatically narcissistic, for the simple reason that our selves are not our own. Our bodies—not merely our souls, but our real physical flesh—are “a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God,” and we are to glorify him in them (1 Cor. 6:19–20). Those who engage in physically self-destructive behaviors trample upon this precious possession. So, too, those who glorify the flesh without acknowledging its source do great dishonor to the Creator of all.
But narcissism presents something far more sinister than appreciation for one’s bodily existence as a creature before God. Narcissus ignored God’s image and lusted after his own. We are called to love ourselves from the inside, in the first person. Narcissus tried to love himself from the outside, in the third person. Although it comes clothed in more fashionable attire, this same basic impulse is present today whenever we obsess over appearances and perceptions, wishing to worship the social media selves we have curated rather than acknowledging our real selves as creatures before God.
Imagine Michelangelo’s famous painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel: Adam with his face uplifted toward his Creator. Before the Fall, every aspect of Adam’s physical being pointed to God: muscles with which to tend the garden, eyes with which to take in the beauty of creation, a mouth with which to name the creatures, ears with which to catch the sound of the Lord walking in the cool of the day. As the pinnacle of this physical existence, Adam rejoiced in his relationship with Eve, his complement and helper, whom he called “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen. 2:23). As Paul said to the Ephesians, this spousal affection represents a pure and God-glorifying form of self-love: “He who loves his wife loves himself” (Eph. 5:28–29). Only after the Fall came the shame of nakedness, an anxious awareness of how one looks in the eyes of another person. After the Fall, self-love is no longer so simple; now, as one philosopher put it, “I am never at one with myself.”6
Nevertheless, even the desire to see a reflection of ourselves is not inherently bad. The Bible is full of commands to examine and test ourselves (1 Cor. 11:31; 2 Cor. 13:5). Peter stresses the importance of maintaining a good reputation among unbelievers (1 Peter 2:12). James specifically uses the analogy of a mirror to describe the person who looks into the law of God and changes his or her behavior accordingly (Jas. 1:22–25). And God in his great wisdom has provided a means by which we can see ourselves in greater clarity than any technological mirror can provide. That means is friendship.7
Sharpening One Another’s Countenance
If our bodies are the instruments with which God equips us to serve him, our friends’ bodies are the instruments by which God ministers to us. He has not left us to commune with disembodied spirits; he communicates to us in tangible ways—through his Word and sacraments, certainly, but also through the presence and actions of flesh-and-blood friends. Our love for Christian neighbors stems from viewing them as gifts from God, just as we view our own physical existence as a part of his fatherly care. With their hands as well as their hearts, our friends demonstrate the love of God to us.
When Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit to lead and guide his disciples into all truth, certainly he meant that each believer would individually experience the Spirit’s inward presence (John 16:12–15). But he preceded this statement with the overarching command to “love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12), and this gift of the Spirit is clearly communal as well. Within the unbreakable bonds of Christ’s love that unite the universal church, we ought to expect the Spirit to move not just inside our own hearts but also through the mouths of others. In the timely words of a friend who brings Scripture to bear on your soul, you may hear echoes of the very voice of God. Your Christian friends are the closest thing you will experience on this side of glory to the actual living, breathing presence of Jesus Christ himself.
And one of the merciful things that Jesus does to us in our sanctification is to reveal us to ourselves. Sharing time and space with a Christian friend accomplishes this. In such interactions I glimpse things about myself which I could never see in a mirror, both strengths and sins.8 In the language of the King James Version, “Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend” (Prov. 27:17). If you want to know yourself better, get to know a Christian friend. You will be challenged, humiliated, refreshed, and encouraged.
We ought not to shy away from the deep love which should characterize such friendships, even to the point at which David could say that Jonathan’s love for him surpassed the love of women (2 Sam. 1:26). This pleasure in the physical presence of our Christian friends is a far cry from lust. I glimpse a picture of the face of a dear Christian brother or sister, and I am filled with unimaginable joy that surpasses any worldly idea of attraction. That joy grows exponentially when the person really stands present before me—a moment that has grown all the more precious in the days of coronavirus. In that dear friend’s face, I get to glimpse “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). So we rejoice over our beloved friends and family members as physical manifestations of God’s grace to us, and in doing so we unite the cardinal commandments of loving God and loving our neighbor in one.
Lasch was right; narcissism is the defining phenomenon of our day. The title of Chuck DeGroat’s recent book, When Narcissism Comes to Church: Healing Your Community from Emotional and Spiritual Abuse, hints at the devastation of cults of personality within the community of faith as well.9 But where the demonic tentacles of narcissism creep into the lives of Christians, the love of Christ can still triumph. We are not condemned to stare into a pool, like Narcissus, and wonder if there is anyone out there who could love us as we wish to be loved. We are already surrounded by the love of God, not just in his constant providence but more particularly in the guise of Christian friends. And as we learn to become dealers in this precious commodity of brotherly love, giving and receiving it, we will experience the beautiful truth that made it possible for the Scriptures to say, “The soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (1 Sam. 18:1).………………………………………
1 Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1979).
2 Lasch, Culture of Narcissism, 33.
3 Michael R. Kearney, “Faith and Fruit in a Post-Christian World: Identity,” Outlook 69, no. 3 (May/June 2019): 10–12.
4 Herman Bavinck, Philosophy of Revelation, ed. Cory Brock and Nathaniel Gray Sutanto (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2018), 56.
5 Rut Etheridge III, God Breathed: Connecting through Scripture to God, Others, the Natural World, and Yourself (Pittsburgh: Crown & Covenant Publications, 2019), 5.
6 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Donald A. Landes (New York: Routledge,  2012), 362.
7 Of course, the same could be said, perhaps even in stronger terms, about a Christian marriage. Friendship, however, is both more of a universal experience than marriage and more underappreciated in terms of intimacy in our current culture.
8 In philosophical terms, this awareness of oneself in relationship to others is referred to as empathy. See Edith Stein, On the Problem of Empathy, trans. Waltraut Stein (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1989).
9 Chuck DeGroat, When Narcissism Comes to Church: Healing Your Community from Emotional and Spiritual Abuse (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2020). See John van Dyk’s discussion of this book in Christian Renewal 39, no. 10 (April 10, 2021): 12–13.………………………………………
Mr. Michael R. Kearney is a graduate student and research assistant in the Department of Communication and Rhetorical Studies at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. He is a member of Covenant Fellowship Reformed Presbyterian Church (RPCNA) in Wilkinsburg, PA.