I’ve often heard it said in evangelical messages, books, and articles that God’s Word teaches three kinds of love—love for God, love for others, and love for self. The supposed proof is Matthew 22:39, where “Love your God with all your heart” is called the first and greatest commandment. Number two is its corollary: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Clearly, we are taught to love God above all and love our neighbor above all but God. So where does that leave love of self?
We Already Love Ourselves
Despite the common teaching that it does, Matthew 22 does not command us to love ourselves. The clear proof of this is that in verse 40 Jesus says, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” He states that there are two commandments, not three. The commandments are love God and love our neighbor. If He were commanding us to love ourselves, He would have said there are three commandments, not two. In reality, He commands that we have two objects of our love (God-love and others-love) and assumes a love that’s a given (self-love).
When in Ephesians 5 God commands a husband to love his wife as he loves his own body, is God teaching a man to love his own body? Of course not. He is simply recognizing that a man does love his body, as demonstrated in the fact that he feeds and clothes it and takes actions for his own self-preservation. As we would jump out of the way of a speeding car (which comes naturally out of our inherent self-love), so we are to risk our very lives to pull someone else out of the way of a speeding car (which does not come naturally as does our self-love, but actually violates our self-love because it is self-sacrifice out of love for others).
Scripture recognizes that we do love ourselves, as shown by the fact that we “look out for number one.” It is perfectly natural to put ourselves first. Even the suicidal person is acting out of what he thinks (wrongly) is his own self-interest—“I would be better off dead.”
God acknowledges the reality of self-love, but He certainly does not teach it as a Christian virtue to be cultivated. Rather, it is an existing reality, necessary for our survival, in some respects healthy, but in other ways very much tainted by our sin. Our instinct to take care of ourselves is something we are to extend to others, that we might lovingly take care of them.
A False “Virtue”
In today’s psychological model, even within the church, self-love has sometimes been elevated from a fact of life into a virtue to be cultivated. And it is being cultivated not as subordinate to, but as a priority over, love for God and love for others.
In his book When People Are Big and God Is Small, Ed Welch writes:
Pastors of many growing churches preach almost weekly about healthy self-esteem, as if it were taught on every page of Scripture. Too many Christians never see that self-love comes out of a culture that prizes the individual over the community and then reads that basic principle into the pages of Scripture. The Bible, however, rightly understood, asks the question, “Why are you so concerned about yourself?” Furthermore, it indicates that our culture’s proposed cure—increased self-love—is actually the disease. If we fail to recognize the reality and depth of our sin problem, God will become less important, and people will become more important.
When self-love becomes a virtue to be cultivated, it magnifies our commitment to acting only in our own best interests, not in the best interests of others.
Scripture makes a direct value judgment on “self-love” in 2 Timothy 3:1-5:
But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God—having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them.