The Contemporary Fashion of Loving Ourselves

The Contemporary Fashion of Loving Ourselves

I recently heard a homily in my parish that encouraged parishioners to love themselves. It was not the first time I heard such a statement made from the pulpit, but my reaction was the same as before—disappointment. That was understandable. After all, in my childhood, youth, adulthood, and middle age, the references to self I encountered were about respecting myself, controlling myself, disciplining myself, in some cases denying or even sacrificing myself, and most prominently improving myself. Maybe my memory is fading, but I can’t recall ever being encouraged to LOVE myself.

In fact, I was warned against being self-absorbed, self-centered, self-indulgent, self-important, or self-righteous. And those warnings were not infrequently accompanied by a reference to Narcissus, the mythological youth who saw his own reflection in the water and became so enamored of it that he perished. I heard those warnings at home, in school, and very definitely in religious instruction.

Before discussing the change that has occurred in both the Protestant and Catholic perspective, as well as in American culture in general, let’s briefly consider the philosophic and religious foundation of the older perspective.

Socrates taught that knowing ourselves is the first step in knowing the world around us, gaining wisdom, and pursuing right action. Plato taught that we are torn between emotion and reason. He offered the allegory of a charioteer with two horses, one pulling him toward good and the other toward evil, with the direction of his life depending on his control over the struggle. Aristotle taught that character depends not on what we believe and/or say about good and evil, but rather whether we choose to do good or evil. Christianity taught that, though we are made in the image and likeness of God, original sin has left us vulnerable to confusion, misunderstanding, and sin.

It is noteworthy that both ancient philosophy and traditional Christianity, as well as Judaism, regard humans as imperfect—that is, capable of both wisdom and foolishness, good and evil—and therefore in need of self-control and self-improvement, both of which require sustained effort.

The new teaching in religion and the general culture that we should love ourselves is a dramatic departure from the traditional philosophical and religious view. The question is whether it is truer and wiser than the traditional view or just an old fallacy in more fashionable clothing. My examination of the arguments offered for it suggest the latter. Here are some examples:

1) A group called Seattle Christian Counseling wrote “God Wants You to Love Yourself, Too” and continued, “Having a successful faith life is going to start with you learning to love yourself. . .God designed you and made you perfectly the way you are, and He loves you just that way. Here are some Bible verses telling us of God’s love.”

I expected what followed would support the idea of self-love, but it didn’t. The first example was Song of Solomon 4:7 which is about Solomon’s love of his bride! The second was Psalm 139: 13-15, which simply praises God’s wonderful works. The third was Ephesians 5:29, which speaks of nourishing and caring for one’s body, which is very different from loving oneself. The fourth is Proverbs 19:8: “To acquire wisdom is to love oneself; people who cherish understanding will prosper.” I suppose the first clause could be taken as urging self-love, but the second clause suggests the entire sentence is simply saying “you will be well rewarded for seeking wisdom.”

2) The staff of The Bible Study Tools posted “Bible Verses about Self Love,” leading off with this statement: “God commands us to love others as we love ourselves. How can we love others if we do not first grasp the love of God for us and in return, love ourselves, right? . . . Scripture is filled with verses meant to build our self-esteem and healthy self love. Below are a few of our favorite Bible verses about self love.”

Next came 32 verses, almost none of which spoke favorably of SELF-love. Most were like these: Genesis 1: 26-27 “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” John 13:34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”

Interestingly, one of the quoted passages could be interpreted as a caution against self-love rather than a command for it. That one was Romans 12:3 “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.”

However, one of the cited passages from Scripture deserves special notice, and that is Matt 22:39, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” As I noted, at the outset of their compilation, the authors said, “How can we love others if we do not first grasp the love of God for us and in return, love ourselves, right?” The answer to that is, no, wrong! You  have linked loving God with loving self without any basis for doing so except for your preconceived notion that love of self is essential to loving others.” They no doubt got that preconceived notion from a narrow view of Jesus’ command to love one’s neighbor. They may have assumed that most people are woefully deficient in self-love and need to acquire it before they can love others; thus they never consider that Jesus’ could have meant “you already love yourself, as most people do; now love your neighbor equally.”

3) Joe Cuda, a Catholic Apostolate Center member, wrote an essay titled “Love Yourself” in that organization’s publication, expressing a point of view very similar to the one expressed above. He made a very similar mistake. Speaking of Jesus’ command to love one another, he writes: “It’s easy to take that verse at face value and think, ‘Just love your neighbor.’ But the modifying phrase, ‘as yourself,’ tells us we need to love ourselves in order to fully love our neighbor. We need to be merciful to ourselves if we are to be merciful to others . . . God wants us to be kind to ourselves. He wants us to overcome those self-critical thoughts and stop holding grudges against ourselves. He yearns for us to forgive ourselves and to believe in the gifts he has given us.”

Though the authors of examples 2 and 3 may not realize it, the idea that we must love ourselves before we can love others implies that human beings are already wonderful, indeed lovable, just as they are. In effect, this ignores the reality of original sin and human imperfection. Equally important, it implicitly denies the value of self-control, self-discipline, self-denial, self-sacrifice, and the ideal of self-improvement.

In sharp contrast to the perspective of the authors who extol self-love in their essays, and the pastors who do so from their pulpits, is the view expressed by Dr. Tom Neal, who published “Conquering Self-Love” in Word On Fire.

Neal wrote, “Pope Francis has cautioned that the biggest enemy of mercy is ‘self-love.’ He adds that St. John of the Cross agrees, and teaches that the greatest work of divine mercy in us is God’s work of overcoming our distorted “self-love” so that we might become capable of the selfless love that is the origin of mercy.”

My hope is that the considerable energy people are focusing on loving themselves will be redirected to becoming lovable to others and, most of all, to God.

Copyright © 2023 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Vincent Ryan Ruggiero