It is often said that you should love yourself before you can love another person. Or that self-love is conditional for being able to experience true love for another human being. Although decades have gone by in which I considered this a truth, I have come to realize that there is more to the story.
There have been many times when I felt that I didn’t love myself and even times that I hated myself. Can I still love others if I don’t love myself? And if self-love is conditional for loving others, how do I start with learning to love myself?
I wanted to find out what the Bible says about loving yourself, so I did some research. What I found, might surprise you.
For a Book about Love, the Bible is surprisingly silent on the topic of self-love. There is no command in the Bible that tells us we should love ourselves. Not one. You could even make a case to say that the Bible teaches the opposite.
But what about the commandment that says “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”? This commandment is given in the Old Testament (for example in Leviticus 19:9-17) as well as in the New. And you might know that this is the command that sums up all the commandments that deal with how to treat other people (Romans 13:9).
This commandment is often quoted to make the case that you can only love a neighbor if you love yourself first. As you will see, there is some truth to that, but it is not the entire truth. Because when you start meditating on this text, you will notice that this statement actually includes the assumption that everybody loves him or herself. So, this seems to be the starting point: People innately love themselves and they should treat other human beings with an equal amount of love.
When I first realized this, it raised some new questions:
- Are there exceptions? Are there people who are so broken by the world that they don’t love themselves at all and therefore are unable to love another?
- What does healthy self-love look like? What is too much, and what is too little?
- How do I love myself more so that I can love other people more?
Let’s deal with the questions one by one.
Am I too broken to love?
Is there such a thing as being too broken to love?
Yes, I believe there can be. Before I was born again, I was too broken to love. My heart was hard. I never knew love and had no clue how to describe love to anyone who asked what it entails. I just knew there was a gnawing hole in my heart, an emptiness, loneliness, and a yearning to have a deeper connection. With anyone. Well, you can see how that got me into trouble. And that trouble led to new disappointments, heartache and frustration, and an even harder heart. At some point I became utterly emotionless, operating in an almost robotic manner, thinking and acting without being consciously aware of any feelings. Not my own feelings, nor other people’s feelings.
All this changed after I gave my life to Jesus and He entered my heart. At once He filled my empty cup with a love I had never felt before, a Christ-like love. This type of love is reserved for people who put their faith in Jesus.
Listen to these verses:
- If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. (1 John 4:15-16, NIV)
- Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. (1 John 4:7-8, NIV)
- We love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:19, NIV)
This means that God, Who is Love, is the true source of love. In other words: in order to truly love, we need God.
So, in essence, before we are born again, all of us are too broken to truly love. Not just the people who have suffered through life.
What does healthy self-love look like?
Now that we know that God is the One Who supplies us with the capacity to truly love anybody, we know something else too: We can never love ourselves more than God and still love with a pure love.
God always puts Jesus at the center. If love yourself more than you love God, this would be a form of idol worshipping, and you would break the first and most important commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22: 39). If all your mind and all your soul and all your heart are filled with love for God, they can’t be filled with love for yourself.
In fact, we should love God so much, that in comparison we despise our own lives (Luke 14:26).
Maybe that is one of the reasons why the Bible is quite silent when it comes to self-love: Loving yourself first stands in the way of making God your first love, of loving Him with all your being.
But, how about the command that says that we should love our neighbor as ourselves? That must mean that there is such a thing as God-given, healthy, balanced, beneficial self-love. A kind of self-love that is a declaration of the love we have for God.
To know what that would look like, it might help to talk about what I see as 4 expressions of self-love:
There is a big difference between a healthy amount of self-preservation and an egotistical, unhealthy amount of self-preservation.
It is selfish to only look out for yourself since true Christ-like love is self-sacrificing (1 John 3:16). It is also sinful to lack trust in God and therefore act out of fear of being harmed.
But at the same time, taking care of your own body and mind is part of being a good steward of what God gave you. It makes you more effective for the Kingdom of God. So, keeping ourselves safe from harm can be pleasing to God, depending on the motivation. And your love for God is the only correct motivation.
By nature, all people are aimed at preserving themselves, just like animals are. We want to survive. So, we make sure that we have enough food, water, a roof over our heads, etcetera. Right after entering this life, we learn that by nature, we don’t like to suffer.
A baby who has no concept of who he is, let alone has an opinion about himself, simply screams at the top of his lungs to get sufficient food, a hug, or a clean diaper.
Even when later in life we are so ill or depressed that we want to die or harm ourselves for distraction, this stems from a need to try to end suffering we don’t want to endure, often without thinking about the long-term consequences of our approach.
Jesus teaches us that we should treat people the way we ourselves would like to be treated. He says: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12, NIV)
Nobody wants to be hungry, sad, or have pains and aches. And that is why we are inclined to look for ways to prevent this type of suffering. This means that even with the littlest amount of self-love, you can still treat your neighbor as you would like to be treated, simply by shielding them from the same hunger, sadness, or pains and aches you don’t want to feel.
Christians can take this to a higher level as the Holy Spirit opens up the ability to share the very things they crave: God’s love, spiritual food from God’s Word, mercy, forgiveness, and so much more.
That is why I don’t think Jesus gave these commandments to teach us to love ourselves first, but to teach us to love God first so that from a transformed heart, we can share all the goodness we crave as a result with the people around us.
When you think about it that way: This very commandment then tells us to spread the Gospel, to teach the Way to eternal life, because isn’t eternal life with Jesus what we want for ourselves?
By nature, one nourishes and cherishes one’s body (Ephesians 5:29).
But even on the days when you really don’t feel like taking care of yourself, you should still do it out of love for God. First of all because being a good steward of your body shows that you respect the fact that God made your body the temple of His Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). But also because looking out for yourself enables you to look out for others.
A simple example is that I can’t teach the Word of God to anyone when I’m physically or spiritually malnourished. I have to keep my mind healthy by eating healthfully, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep.
Taking care of myself in this way helps me to study the Bible with a clear mind and ample energy. And while studying the Bible, the Holy Spirit gives me insights to share with you.
But I could also take self-care too far, for example, if I would be obsessing about my diet for the purpose of being appreciated for my appearance. That just draws the attention away from Jesus towards food and beauty.
So even expressions of self-care should be motivated by God’s love and practiced for God’s glory: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31, NIV)
Understanding how important self-care is for my walk with God helps me to love my neighbor in the same way. Either by encouraging them to do the same or by caring for them the way I like to be cared for.
Self-appreciation can be a fickle thing. How good we feel about ourselves might change from one day to the next, or even from one minute to the next. I think this is caused by the measures we use.
If you use a fallible measure, you will get a fallible outcome. So why not use an infallible measure?
The Bible teaches us that there is a difference in the way we and God measure people: people look at the outward appearance while God looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7).
So when we look at ourselves through a worldly lens, we can only measure our qualities by the output we perceive: How often we say or think bad things, how we are liked by other people, how often we do good deeds, etcetera.
But God’s measure of your quality is different; He looks at how much your heart is like His: filled with His light and His love, pouring it out with every heartbeat.
That is why the only objective and stable measure is the Word of God. How eager and faithful you are when it comes to living out all that the Bible teaches, is a good indicator to measure the temperature of the love you have for God.
And there is an added bonus: the more you love God, the more you will also start to appreciate yourself. Simply because you will appreciate His handiwork more. You will start to see how His hand has formed you precisely the way He wanted to. Perfectly fit for the plan He has for you. You will see how innate things that you might have disliked before – maybe the color of your hair, your voice, your size, your family, are actually perfect in a way because all of it was planned by God before the earth was even formed. All of it serves a perfect purpose for His glory. Yes, you are wonderfully made to fulfill a wonderful purpose (Psalm 139:13-14, Ephesians 1:4, 2:10).
Loving yourself in that way gives a whole new meaning to loving your neighbor as yourself. Seeing them through the eyes of their Maker, Who loves them and loves you despite any imperfections, makes you appreciate them all the more.
I see investing in yourself and working on yourself as an expression of self-love, because who would invest time and effort in something he doesn’t care about? The more time we spend working on something, the more we start to care about it. As we pour in more time and effort, it literally increases in worth, because it costs more.
Some people might tell you that you are okay the way you are, mistakes and all. It might be uncomfortable to hear, but there is something terribly wrong with that idea: We are not okay, mistakes and all. Because of our sins, we hurt people, we hurt ourselves, and most of all we hurt God. And for that, we need redemption and forgiveness. So, we are not born okay, Jesus makes us okay. Even better: He makes us perfect (Hebrews 10:14).
To continue to walk in this perfection, the Bible teaches us to not give in to sin (1 Corinthians 9:25-27, Hebrews 12:4, Romans 6:12-14). All the while we are being sanctified. And the process of sanctification doesn’t end in this lifetime because we can always become purer and Godlier. Believing that you don’t need to grow or change is a recipe for disaster. That mindset in itself is far from humble, and growing in humbleness is part of one’s walk with Christ.
Spiritual growth is an automatic consequence of a committed Christian’s life. We always look to Jesus, and by having the Word of God as a mirror and a thermometer, we see how we can grow to be more like Him. When we do this earnestly, we will find thoughts, attitudes, and things we do or say that disgust us, that need to be put to death. That means that there will always be parts of us that we just don’t love, and shouldn’t love. Simply because we should not love sin.
Realizing this has set my mind at ease. I’m not sinning because I am evil, but I realize that I am sinning because I hate sin so much! And my disappointment and disapproval enable me to go to the Father with my mistakes and change my ways.
The beauty of self-development is that the more you grow, the more you will be able to help others to develop themselves too. And loving others as yourself means that you want them to have the same good fruit that you have tasted.
How do I love myself more?
When I was struggling with a severe lack of self-love, nobody could ever tell me how to love myself more. Instead, they gave me tips like “Just smile into the mirror every morning”, like that was going to solve anything. None of those tips helped in the long run, of course, so I felt hopeless until I found God.
God is the only One Who will make you truly experience love from the inside out when you put your faith in Him. And in the process, you won’t become more vulnerable, but stronger.
All people start out looking for a source of love outside of themselves. Infants look to their parents not only because they need food and protection, but also to form an image of themselves, to decide if what they do is right or wrong, and to figure out whether they are loveable or not.
When bonding between parents and children goes awry, this can wreak havoc on a child’s image of him or herself.
This process is a picture of how we should look to God our Father for our needs, and learn who we are and how to be the best we can be. And when our bond with God grows, and you experience His steadfast love for you firsthand, your self-image starts to heal.
People have told me that those who do not love themselves enough, will look for that love somewhere else and so become vulnerable. But now I know that this isn’t correct. People are designed to love God first, so not to be self-centered, but God-centered.
It is a lack of this love for God that causes one to replace it with love for something else. That object of affection then becomes the center of our lives (and thus an idol). This object of affection can be ourselves, another person, money, science, an addiction to drugs, pornography, and whatnot. And that leads to our demise since nothing but God can lead to the regeneration of life and true love.
If you ask a person who doesn’t love Jesus why he loves himself, he will likely talk about things related to accomplishments, possessions, talents, and maybe some character traits. None of that lasts, while true love lasts forever (1 Corinthians 13:13). So, how can that be true self-love?
If you love that you are patient, and you lose your patience one day, will you stop loving yourself? How about if you lose your job, your spouse, or your ability to sing? Your world will crumble if those things are what define you and are at the center of your world, instead of Someone Who never ceases to exist.
People change but God never changes. Thus only by leaning on Him can self-love be secure, as it will not depend on the fickle emotions and perceptions of ourselves.
So, this is the truth by which my self-love is growing:
True love puts Jesus at the center. When you love Jesus more than anything, all the rest will flow from that love. Even healthy self-appreciation, self-worth, and confidence.
The closer you draw near to Him, the more you become like Him, and the more you’ll see yourself and others through the lens of His love.
Don’t build your house of self-love on sand, but on the enduring Word of God.