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.