Is it sinful to love ourselves?
It goes without saying that we must turn to Scripture for the answer to this question.
Three Words for Love
A preliminary question is: What does the Bible mean by love?
In daily speech, particularly in this sensual age of ours, love is a much abused word. Often it means nothing but infatuation, sexual passion.
There is in the Bible only one word for love which at times has this connotation. It is the word eros—a term never used in the New Testament and occurring only a few times in the Old Testament—that is, in the Greek translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint. This word denotes a longing and yearning for someone. The desire may be lawful or unlawful. This word for love is used in a favorable sense in Proverbs 4:6 where we read concerning Wisdom: “Love her, and she will keep thee.” This love is awakened by the attractiveness of wisdom. “She will bring thee to honor, when thou dost embrace her.” In Esther 2:17 eros denotes the love of King Ahasuerus for Esther—a conjugal but not an adulterous love. In other passages, however, this same word has an unfavorable meaning; for the love of the senses so easily degenerates into a sinful attachment (See Ezekiel 16:33; Hosea 2:5).
We do well to remember that the “love” of which the world speaks, for example in its literature and its songs—especially those heard on radio and television—is often nothing but sexual desire; in many instances it refers to unlawful, impure sexual passion. It has nothing in common with the love extolled in the Word of God.
The love of which the New Testament speaks is caned either philia or agape. The first of these two terms denotes a warm affection based on or stimulated by the winsomeness of its object. It may indicate a holy love, but it is never used of our love for God since the notion of reverence is lacking. It is an emotional, impulsive love. This is the word which Jesus used only in his third question to Simon Peter, at the occasion of the latter’s reinstatement as an apostle (John 21:17). Peter had used this word in his two preceding answers though Christ had used the other term (agape). Apparently the Lord wanted to say, in his third question, that Peter’s shameful betrayal of his Lord seemed to prove that he lacked not only the profound reverential love indicated in the word agape but even that personal affection to which the word philia gives expression.
Agape is doubtless the greatest word for love which we find in Scripture. Trench says concerning it that the truth of God devised this new word; that it was “born within the bosom of revealed religion.” There is no trace of it in any of the heathen writers, nor in the works of Philo and Josephus, secular Jewish authors. This is not strange; for the love which it characterizes can flourish only where the Spirit of God has taken possession of one’s heart. Agape is the love of understanding and choice, of esteem and reverence. It is not based on personal preference but on a high regard for the fellow man as one created in the image of God, or for the fellow· Christian as a fellow-member of the body of Christ. Love, in this lofty sense, can be cherished even toward those who do not personally attract us, who hate us or whom we dislike for their personal characteristics. It enables us to bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things. It suffers long, is always kind, does not envy, takes no account of evil (I Corinthians 13).
This noble word for love occurs abundantly in the New Testament. It is used of the redeeming love of God for his people, of Christ for his own, of the Father for the Son; also of the love of the Christian for his fellow men and brethren in Christ, and of the believer for God his Father and for Christ his Lord.
Christian Love Includes Self-love
It has been said that this love (agape) is an affection which asks for no loving response and excludes all love for oneself. It is defined as disinterested, unmotivated love. This is the position of Anders Nygren, Swedish theolOgian, in his Agape and Eros. He declares that Christian love of the lower sort (philia) seeks God as the highest good; but agape, the highest love for God and man, excludes all love for self.
With this position we cannot agree, for the simple reason that it is contrary to Holy Writ. There is no higher love than that which God requires in his law. This love rules out all egoism but not a regard for one’s own wellbeing and happiness. It conflicts with selfishness but not with true self-love. Love for self is not necessarily a sinful love.
Both in the Old Testament and in the New the second table of God’s law is interpreted as requiring that we love the neighbor as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 22:39). The thought is not that self-love is permissible while neighbor love is mandatory. Neither are the words “as ourselves” intended as a concession to our sinful weakness and selfishness. The law of God is perfect and makes no concessions to our evil inclinations. God demands no substitution of neighbor-love for self-love. He does not say: ‘“Thou shalt love thy neighbor instead of thyself.”
The words “as ourselves” make our love for self the standard and measure of our love for others. There can be no higher love than this; for the law which requires this love is the expression of the perfect will and the spotless holiness of God. No higher law could have been given to Adam in the state of righteousness, even though its form would have been different. As a matter of fact, this same law, as regards its spirit, had been written in Adam’s heart; if he had obeyed it he would not have done so by denying himself the fulfillment of his needs.
What is True Self-love?
Self-love is not identical with selfishness. To be selfish means to be self-centered; to make oneself the hub or center around which one’s whole life revolves; to evaluate all things by the extent to which they promote our own earthly advantage. But to love ourselves means to seek our own highest good, both for body and soul, not primarily for our own but for God’s sake. who made us in his own image that we might find happiness in reflecting him and might glorify him. We want to be happy because God made us to be happy. The man, therefore. who truly loves himself is a God-centered, not a self-centered, person. Self-love, like neighbor love, is basically love for God.
Self-love is one of the marks of the image of God; for God loves himself and seeks his own glory. Being only a creature man should not seek his own glory but God’s. However, man’s love for self, if it is genuine, is a faint reflection of God’s love for himself. The difference is that God’s love for himself is centered in himself while man’s love for himself is centered in God. He loves himself for God’s sake.
If man’s self-love, in the good sense, were contrary to God’s will, God would not appeal to our self-interest in presenting the message of the gospel. The blessed evangel constantly appeals to our interest in self and our search for happiness. For example, redemption is often presented under the figure of a great feast. In saving sinners God has another purpose besides promoting his own glory. Surely, his glorification is the primary purpose of our salvation. It is of primary importance but it is not primary in the order of our experience. In that sense it is not first but last. Sinners do not come to God because they feel they should glorify him. They come because they are lost, because they are burdened with a sense of guilt and crave forgiveness; because they yearn for peace and cannot find it in themselves, in others, or in things temporal. Then, after finding salvation in Christ, they develop a passion for serving and glorifying God. Through sin we have lost interest in both: our own spiritual well· being and the promotion of God’s honor. Through the grace of God we learn to value, to love, ourselves and to love God.
The Wise Virgins
There are many passages in Scripture besides Jesus’ summary of the second table of the Decalogue, which serve as proofs for the truth just expressed. We shall confine ourselves to just one of these passages: the parable of the five foolish and the five wise virgins. We recall that when the Bridegroom came, after a long delay, the five foolish virgins begged the five wise virgins to give them some of their oil. The latter refused, saying, “Peradventure there will not be enough for us and you.” They did not say: “We love you more than ourselves; if some of us must be shut out from the feast, we are willing to be lost that you may be saved!” There was no indifference concerning the plight of the foolish virgins; witness the words: “Go ye rather to them that sell and buy for yourselves.” Nevertheless, the wise kept their oil and did not give it to those who had none. They did not love these friends more than themselves!
What About Moses and Paul?
A few other passages may seem to sound a different note. Moses desired that his name should be blotted out of the book of life if God would not forgive and spare his rebellious people of Israel (Exodus 32:32). And Paul testifies to his great love for the Jews when he says: “I could wish that I myself were anathema from Christ for my brethren’s sake, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (Romans 9:3). But this is simply a testimony to the great love of these two great saints for God’s people, not at all a proof that they were not interested in their own salvation. Both Moses and Paul loved God’s people, his chosen people, with an unspeakable love. It was a faint reSection of the love of Christ for the elect. They would rather suffer eternal loss themselves than to see the chosen race cast out because of its sins. Jesus himself exclaimed: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Yet there is nothing in these two instances, of Moses’ and of Paul’s love for Israel, which proves that there is no self-love in agape.
Though the wish of Moses and Paul discloses the greatness of their love for Israel, it is significant that their wish was not granted. Nor could it be, since both men were elect and God’s sovereign election is unchangeable. The very fact of their amazing love for God’s people proved their love for God and the fact that their names were written in the book of life.
Not Less Than Ourselves!
It is hardly necessary to state that self-love easily degenerates into selfishness. One of the hardest things which God requires of man is to love his neighbor as himself! The rich young ruler showed that he had no real understanding of the law of God when he said blithely, in response to this summary of the second table (See Matthew 19:19b): “All these things have I observed from my youth.” That summary makes the extent of our love for self the measure of our love for others. “As ourselves” means: not less than ourselves. It demands, for one thing, that we contribute to the needs of the poor more than the bare necessaries of life. It requires a generous contribution of our surplus among those who are in need. By making our intense concern for our own welfare the test of our love for our fellows, particularly for our brethren and sisters in Christ, the Lord promulgates a principle for the individual and for the Church which is sweeping in its demands.
Whom to Love Most?
There are problems in this field. In most instances the rule: as ourselves creates no difficulty in its application. As a rule we can do for the neighbor what we do for ourselves without facing the necessity of having to choose between ourselves and him. But sometimes we have to choose for the one or the other. Often we must choose for the neighbor. For the demand is that we must not love him less than ourselves. Love seeketh not its own, says Paul (I Corinthians 13). Elsewhere he exhorts his readers: “in honor preferring one another.”
In difficult situations, circumstances will point to the proper decision. It may be, for example, that my life is almost spent and that I have no dependents while the friend or the neighbor in peril, for whom I may risk my life in the hope of saving his, has a large family of small, motherless children. In such cases love demands the highest sacrifice.
This is certain: If we make our own comfort and convenience our supreme concern and refuse to make real sacrifices for our fellow man, we are guilty of selfishness; we have enthroned self and dishonored God. Such selfishness is the opposite of genuine self-love; it shrivels the soul, robbing it of lasting joy—the joy that stems from loving the neighbor for Christ’s sake.
The truth that true love of self is not merely permissible but obligatory has far-reaching implications for all of life. It has significance for our homo and church life but also for our life in the social, political, and economic sphere. For example, it justifies man’s striving for a sufficiency of material goods and his passion for liberty. It gives us the right to protect our legitimate interests in a lawful way when a neighbor or society needlessly jeopardizes them. It warrants the drawing of the color line in matrimony since experience proves that interracial marriages are usually productive of much misery. It condemns political systems which make the individual the slave of the state, instead of making the protection of the rights of the individual citizen its prime objective. It frowns on every economic system which violates the rights of these individual citizens, and throttles free enterprise, for the sake of equalizing prosperity and eliminating the need for individual charity.
If the individual has the right but also the duty to love himself—that is, to seek and promote his own physical and spiritual welfare—no government and no economic system is legitimate which discourages and punishes thrift, even when thrift stays within the bounds of justice. It is not the proper function of those in authority to compel us to do for others what we should do voluntarily in love.
The command: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” is addressed to the individual. (“Thou” is Singular, not plural.) It is the divine rule governing our individual, personal conduct—in the home, in the church, in society, in business, in our political life. But it is not the law which God lays down for our civil rulers as rulers. Though magistrates are divinely called to show mercy to the guilty, their fundamental task is to administer justice—to give everyone his due. They are not called upon to force the individual citizens by means of the power to tax to love their fellow citizens as themselves. Love that is forced is no longer love. Yet on no other basis could any government ever justify the socialistic policy of taking from the few as much as is necessary to supply every need of the many. Such a policy can not rest on the foundation of justice. Communism, Socialism, Interventionism or the Welfare State—all of these conflict with the principle that the administration of justice is the only legitimate function of civil government.