Monday, January 09, 2006

The Third Great Commandment?

The notion that learning to love ourselves is a prerequisite to loving others is such a fixture in American Christian minds that questioning it might cause some to react as though one is calling into question a tenet of historic Christian orthodoxy. Nevertheless, I think it needs to be challenged. The idea was definitely more prominent during the reign of humanistic theories of counseling that emphasized self-actualization. Believers scurried to find biblical prooftexts to demonstrate to the world that secular psychologists were only now discovering what God had revealed millennia before. Foremost among these was what Jesus identified as the commandment secondary but related to the great commandment to love God with our whole selves. After citing Deuteronomy 6:5 as the answer to a lawyer's query as to which was the greatest of the Law's commandments, Matthew (22:39) and Mark (12:31) tell us that Jesus cited Leviticus 19:18 as the second most important imperative: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Regardless of the fact that Jesus said he was referring to only two commandments, some have sought to find within the second imperative an implicit third - love thyself. Disobeying this one will make loving others difficult if not impossible.

This raises questions in my mind. Can you think of anywhere that the Bible attributes the mistreating of others to the lack of love for oneself? If not, what answers do the Scriptures offer to explain inhumanity, indifference, and cruelty? We need to frequently ask questions like these to insure that we are faithfully reflecting the themes, emphases, and categories of Scripture rather than those of the therapeutic spirit of the age.

Jesus was not insinuating that unless one loves himself he is incapable of loving others. Rather, he knew that self-love is already present and potent within every human heart. But how can that be? I think a great deal of the confusion about this issue stems from the fact that each of us can identify things we don't like about ourselves; things we wish were other than they are. I have in mind things like character flaws, sinful patterns of life, physical imperfections, and deficits in various skills and abilities. We may think or even say at times, "I hate myself because I....." But does it necessarily follow from the fact that there are things about myself that I don't like, that mine is a problem of not loving myself enough? No.

To think through this, we have to first consider what it means to love another biblically. There are many places we could turn in search of an answer but for the sake of time and space I'm going to focus on Jesus' teaching about loving our enemies in Luke 6:27-36. From this passage we can conclude that love involves pursuing and promoting another's well-being; acting in such a manner as to secure what is good for him or her. If that definition of love is granted, it becomes much more evident that none of us is deficient in the area of self love. Even the fact that there are things that I don't like about myself is a manifestation of my love for myself. Those things bother me because I want better for....myself! Likewise, craving the love of others is not an indication that I do not love myself but a sign that I do. I am intent on pursuing whatever I think will enhance my pleasure. The universality of self love is what leads the apostle Paul to call husbands to love their wives as themselves (Ephesians 5:28). He reasons that since a man and woman have become one flesh, then a husband should love his spouse in the same way that he already loves himself. "For no one hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church" (Ephesians 5:29).

"But," someone says, "that may be the general rule but there are many exceptions. What of the countless individuals engaged in self-destructive habits? What are we to make of the unfortunate reports of those who practice various forms of self-mutilating behavior or others who starve themselves to the brink of death on account of a distorted perception of their own bodies? These people obviously hate their own flesh and they are certainly not caring for themselves. I may reluctantly grant that most of us are objects of our own love but these folks certainly aren't." Admittedly this line of thinking is initially compelling and has a great deal of emotional force behind it. Nonetheless, I think that if self-love is understood in the manner that I have described, we must conclude that even such grossly self-destructive behavior is not a manifestation of the lack of self-love but rather evidence of why we stand in need of being liberated from its power.

Paul's use of the words "flesh" in Eph. 5:29 and "bodies" in v. 28 are examples of synecdoche, a figure of speech where the part is used to refer to the whole. This is evident from v. 33: "However, let each one of you love his wife as himself..." Saying that a man loves his own body or that no one hated his own flesh is another way of saying that we are intent on pursuing what we believe will make for our happiness, contentment, security, etc. As Pascal noted in his Pensees, even the decision to end one's own life is motivated by this inclination:

All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.
By denying that we stand in need of learning how to love ourselves, I am not suggesting that what I have called self-love is inherently wrong in all its manifestations. My point is not to advocate self-contempt. Perhaps no contemporary Christian author has done more to illustrate that the motivation to maximize our enjoyment is a good part of creation. Therefore, it is not to be rejected. However, as it did the rest of creation, humanity's revolt against our Creator perverted that self-love such that we are its slaves. God the Father sent forth God the Son to liberate us from that captivity and by the sanctifying work of His Spirit that liberty is being progressively worked out such that we are freer to be what we were made to be - lovers of God and each other.


Milton Stanley said...

Thanks for your treatment of this topic. You make some very good points. Although I'm not completely convinced by your case, I have to concede that the biblical writers give practically no attention to self-love.

I'm adding a link to your post to one on my blog on the same topic. Peace.

Mike said...

For some reason, I'm reminded of a commentary by two psychologists I read a few years ago - in Harper's or Atlantic, I think.

The point they made was that their obversation and extensive experience in dealing with criminals revealed a distinct excess of self-love; which they call self-esteem. For various reasons, our culture has assumed for the last two generations that bad behaviour was caused by "low self-esteem." In fact, the opposite may well be true.

And I can think offhand of several OT stories that illustrate God's dim view of excessive self-love.

Very nicely written and thoughtful post. Thanks.

Grace & Peace

KP said...

You're welcome, Milton, and thanks for your feedback and the link. I hope we can dialogue further about this issue.

Mike, I've read either the same study or a similar one. In fact, I just mentioned it to a friend with whom I had lunch today. Scientific American ran a related article called "Exploding the Self-Esteem Myth". Thanks for your kind words.

Byron said...

Dead-on, Keith; self-love is our problem, not the answer. We all love ourselves; every single person in the world. Period. Self-love is a psychological import that we have brought unthinkingly into our Christian faith to the point where we actually think that it's Biblical. Good post (as usual!).

faithfilly said...

I came across your writing by looking for Christian material touching on the subject of self-destructive behavior. After having gone through many articles on that subject, yours is the best reminder of what is needed to be focused on.

Most people cannot understand this destructive flip-side to self-love and I believe that damage comes from humanistic psychology/psychiatry.

Growing up with only learning what self-centered parental love is leaves a person clueless as to recognizing what loving others looks like. It takes a miraculous act of God to go the supernatural direction, especially when the devil never stops with his daily temptations to steal away the gifts God desires to grace His child with.

Reading your writings also reminds me of how much believers need one another. I just wish that someone someday would reveal to me that I too have things of worth to offer others.

KP said...


I'm glad you found the article helpful. I really appreciate your taking the time to let me know. Thank you.

I certainly understand the desire for and blessings of being encouraged with the knowledge that we have something of value to benefit others. I'm convinced that the primary way the Lord helps us discover how he has gifted us is not through spiritual gift inventories but through the honest feedback of other believers who recognize and affirm our abilities. Even when that's not present, however, we can be assured that we have something worthwhile to contribute for the Lord says that he gives spiritual gifts to each of us for the common good. Take heart.

Thanks again for introducing yourself and encouraging me. I hope you'll find other material here that will assist you in your growth in grace.

faithfilly said...

Since the only way I can respond is by commenting, I wanted to add a P.S. for all your writings in general.

Maybe it comes from a lot of reading or maybe it's simple intuition (or both?). It just seems interesting that how from a few lines in a paragraph one can rapidly know the way another thinks.

After having read more of what you write, it is wonderfully uplifting to find another rare person who thinks so identical. I feel like you will understand fully what I mean by what I'm about to say: The world (again, generally speaking) seems like it is losing its sanity and ability to think sensibly.

Unfortunately most of modern theology seems to be suffering with this same curse. I wanted to be sure to also thank you for all of your time and effort you have dedicated to all your other peices of writing.

Someday when I can manage to quit deleting everything I write, I hope you don't mind if I make a link to your blogs.

I've read Ed Welch's book called, "Blame It on the Brain?" It's a great book, so I imagine that his book, "Self-Injury: When Pain Feels Good," is also quite helpful (in spite of how brief it might be).

Seeing your mention of it confirms my decision to get a copy. I only pray that my quest for ending indirect self-destructive habits is not just another act of selfishness. If it is, then I wonder if I have a heart for God after all.

KP said...


You were right about my understanding what you mean about the world's insanity. It's something I think about often. David Powlison, a colleague of Welch's at CCEF, frequently cites Ecclesiastes 9:3 with respect to this: "...the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead."

The inability to think sensibly is an outworking of our rebellion against the One in whom all things hold together. Ours is not essentially an intellectual problem but an ethical one. As Paul wrote in Romans 1, the determination to suppress the truth of our being creatures who owe our Creator honor, worship, and obedience leads to darkened understanding and foolishness that appears to us as wisdom. All sin is irrational. Adam and Eve were mad to think that they could hide from the omnipresent Lord. Satan persists in his defiance despite the fact that He knows he is no match for his foe. And I continue to return to empty cisterns, thinking that perhaps this time they will satisfy. Our capacity for self-deception is staggering and should drive us to cast ourselves on Christ's mercy. I need a Savior not only from hell when I die but from myself as I live.

I empathize with your continual deleting of what you write as well. My own perfectionism can be paralyzing at times. I've come to see how much pride and the fear of man are involved in that. I frequently call to mind something I read in one of Francis Schaeffer's writings: "If, in this life, we must choose between perfection and nothing, we will always have nothing." You express yourself well in writing so I encourage you to blog away. And once you do, I'd be honored to be among those you link to.

I'm pleased to know that you're going to acquire Ed Welch's booklet. I'd be interested in hearing what you think of it after you've read it.

Thanks again for your kind and encouraging words.

faithfilly said...

Foolishness appearing as wisdom is a scary thought. It's been a roller-coaster ride for me of ups and downs between sorting out how often has what I thought was wisdom happened to be foolishness instead. Your statement, "I need a Savior not only from hell when I die but from myself as I live," is something I'm always begging God to have mercy on me with. I don't come across too many people who seem to understand what that means (or even care).

Ed Welch's booklet is well-written (like most of his writings). I'm always looking for a new concept to keep and I found one on page 22. People have a natural desire to be unique (maybe because only God is truly unique?), so to punish one's self for not being better than s/he is makes sense. Ever so often the saying, "Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less," has to be reapplied for spiritual adjustments (I speak for myself here).

That booklet wasn't all I read since my last post here. I also finished another wonderful book by Ed Welch called, "Depression, A Stubborn Darkness." Due to it having been a long time since I bought a book on the topic of depression (plus having several books on that topic anyhow), I was just curious to see if I could learn anything new. I was pleasantly surprised! My favorite part in that book was his focus on legalism and the consequences that can bring upon a person.

I even got another book by Welch (which I just began reading). It's called, "When People Are Big and God Is Small." Even though I've been reading about that topic lately elsewhere (the internet I guess?), it seems like something that is productive to study deeply upon (aside of course from scripture itself).

I wish a Christian would write a book on how to know when you've bought enough Christian self-help books. I think I have about 1,000 now. I'm including expositions on scripture, so I don't know if that would also qualify as self-help. Self-help sounds selfish but yet it is self that needs help because self-desire is the source of temptations.

I'm not sure if there is anything so confusing as knowing if answers to improving self can come from books apart from the bible. They are interesting to ponder over, but the huge problem that seems to arise from the whole principle is that it does not have the reader thinking of herself or himself less. How do you read a self-help book without thinking about yourself? I'm curious as to if and how you'd comment on that.

KP said...

Good to hear back from you, Sheila.

I'm glad you acquired and benefited from Welch's book on self-injury as well as the other titles you referred to. I've read both and consider them excellent tools to help us reframe common problems of life in a radically God-centered manner. Attempts to make sense of ourselves without reference to our Creator and Redeemer are futile.

I think that for many reasons it's advisable not to think in terms of self-help though I understand the qualification you made. Likewise, I think it can be conufsing to speak of self improvement. Both phrases, because of their pop-psychological association, give the impression that the self is autonomous and has the innate capacity to determine the ideal to which it should be moving and to effect the necessary change. I think it better to speak of maturing in Christ, growing in holiness, conforming to the likeness of Christ, etc. In other words, the language of progressive sanctification. This puts things in a gospel-centered context which keeps us focused on the grace of God and its goal - that we more accurately reflect Christ who is the true image of God.

Catchy, memorable sayings can sometimes prove helpful but more often than not I think they make things more cloudy. An example is the saying you mentioned: "Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it's thinking of yourself less." Thinking of myself less can mean one of at least two things. Usually, when we say that someone is always thinking of himself, we mean that he is in the habit of seeking pride of place. He selfishly seeks to get ahead, make a name for himself, and enjoy comfort and ease even at the expense of others. His satisfaction trumps all other considerations. In this sense, to think less of oneself would be to heed Paul's command in Philippians 2:3-4: "Do nothing from rivalry or conceit but in hummility count others as more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others." As he goes on to explain, Christ is the exemplar of such humility in his willingness to obey his Father and serve us (despite his rightful claim to glory)even to the point of a shameful death. In light of this, thinking of myself less means being increasingly motivated by love for God and neighbor as opposed to exclusive self interest that makes the fulfillment of my desires the ultimate end for which I'm living.

Thinking of myself less could also mean that I have fewer episodes of self awareness. Humility, from this perspective, would manifest itself in my not having any consciousness of myself whatsoever. From your question about how you can read a self-help book without thinking about yourself, I take it that this is the sense you're assuming. But I don't think this is biblical let alone possible. It seems to have much more in common with Eastern philosophy in which our aim is to be absorbed into the impersonal One than with biblical Christianity.

God created us as self-conscious beings so thinking about ourselves is not inherently wrong. In fact, the Bible teaches us how we are to think about ourselves in relationship to God, others, and the rest of creation. Thinking about myself is a prerequisite to my obeying Jesus' command to treat others as I would have them treat me. I can't think of anywhere in the Bible that a complete void of thoughts about oneself is presented as a commendable goal. The critical issue is not one of the frequency with which I think about myself but that when I am thinking about myself it is with sober judgment (Romans 12:3)and not the exaggerated self-importance to which I am prone. The only way this will be accomplished is by my mind being renewed and reoriented by God's Word.

Since part of Christ's plan for building his church involves endowing some with gifts of teaching, I do believe that we can prosper from books other than the Bible (Odd that people never question the value of sermons. It's always books for some reason.) to the extent that they help us understand and apply biblical truth.

faithfilly said...


Thank you for your comment, especially since it seems to be just what I needed to be straightened out on! It does seem a bit nutty to never think about one's self when we are to love our neighbor as we love self. I'm reminded of the fact that many times I get confused over the Golden Rule because what I interpret as how I'd like to be treated is not the same as what most other people want. I appreciate correction and truth, but (in today's world especially) most people don't appreciate such honesty at all.