“Remember to love yourself.” That’s what my barista wrote on the side of my coffee early on a Tuesday morning. I read it and squinted at the slogan in disapproval. Not only because I still had sleep in my eyes, but also because I found the catch-phrase nauseating. I was in college at the time, beginning to learn the ABCs of theology, and it seemed to me this advice clearly underestimated how unworthy we sinners are of love. I can save face for others, sure, but I know everything I’ve done, every thought I’ve had. I know how easy it is to be embittered toward God and neighbor instead of loving them. So how can I love myself?
But should Christians be so averse to this concept of loving oneself?
Before we condemn or try to redeem this mantra, we should acknowledge a few things about the idea of self-love.
How Does the World Talk About Self-Love?
Whether you’ve encountered the slogan in a movie or book, or have received the unsolicited advice of social media influencers, chances are you’ve been told that loving yourself is something you should do. But there isn’t a concrete definition for what it means to love yourself. It’s defined and used in a variety of ways.
In pop-culture, the expression is often used to encourage people to accept themselves as they are. To embrace where they are in life without criticism. If you’re self-conscious about your body, love yourself works to help you accept and embrace how you look. For others, loving yourself means to let go and stop worrying about mistakes made in the past, to be proud of all that you’ve accomplished when no one else recognizes your victories. The voices of criticism and shame are loud—in the world and in our own heads—and this expression seems to offer the antidote.
Love yourself can also be shorthand for assuaging a troubled conscience. In this sense, the expression can be used as a way of living in denial. We can either work on areas of struggle or continue neglecting them in the name of self-acceptance. Sometimes, then, the internal stress we feel is because we know we can do better—we know we need to reconcile with that person, we know we spend too much time scrolling through social media, we know we can more easily sit in self-pity instead of doing something proactive.
As Christians, we should acknowledge the reality of our circumstances and the real world we live in: We make mistakes, we sin, we have regrets, we hurt and have been hurt by other people. It’s not self-betrayal to acknowledge those things and try to change.
How the Bible Talks About “Self-Love”
The Bible addresses “self-love” both negatively and positively. In 2 Timothy, Paul says, “In the last days…people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive…without self-control…swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Tim. 3:2-5). In this sense, people who are known to be “lovers of self” function as blackholes; taking from others but refusing to give in return.
Consider also Paul’s summary of the law: “For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Rom. 13:9). Did you catch that? Paul is saying that the way we love our neighbors is through the Golden Rule: to treat them as we want to be treated. This isn’t the same as looking in the mirror and giving yourself affirmations, but it does assume that we know how we want to be cared for.
Paul also says, “Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church” (Eph. 5:28-29). This language suggests much more than keeping ourselves from malnourishment. Paul assumes it’s perfectly fine to look after our well-being and to avoid putting ourselves in unhealthy situations.
In both the summary of the law and Ephesians 5, the Bible gives permission to focus on things that nourish, cherish, and build up our own lives.
In a case of mistaken identity, we Christians often try to be humble and pious through self-deprecation. We can’t accept compliments or allow others to acknowledge our achievements. We refer to ourselves only in the bleakest terms possible. To be fair, this language of self-lament does exist in Scripture (Ps. 22:6; 51; Rom. 7:24-25). But Scripture doesn’t give us the impression that this is the only kind of language we have for ourselves, as if we’re meant to live in a perpetual state of sackcloth and ash. In context, self-lament is issued after we recognize our sin. But when we look to the Lord in repentance, he is the one who holds our heads high (Ps. 3:3).
The Love We Need Most
Love yourself in secular discourse often boils down to self-affirmations. An over-correction to this in Christian circles often boils down to self-deprecation. But the Bible points us to something more powerful than what we can say about ourselves—it points us to what our creator says about us: We are the apple of his eye (Ps. 17:8); we are his beloved (Isa. 43:1; Jer. 31:3); he came to save us so that we “may have life and have it abundantly” (Jn. 10:10).
Since the concept of self-love can be used positively and negatively, the question of whether it’s good or bad misses the point. We must tell the truth about ourselves—about our sinfulness, about our tendency to vie for glory at the expense of others. And we must acknowledge that the love we need most we cannot give ourselves.
But we also shouldn’t despise what God loves. Knowing we’re loved by God moves us toward confidence and humility.
God knows us better than we know ourselves. This means that if we pursue communion with God, the one who knows all things, we will in turn learn and know more about ourselves. By learning more about the beauty and wonder of God, we realize that it’s this God who extended grace to us for our past mistakes and extends grace to us now through our current anxieties and uncertainties.
A biblical view of self-love is one where we’re setting boundaries in our life that help us to live healthy and peaceful lives. It’s an aspiration “to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one” (1 Thess. 4:11).