The recent years have seen a deluge of articles and social media posts focusing on self love. From “7 Ways to Practice Self-Love”1 to “8 Powerful Steps to Self-Love,”2 or, perhaps more comprehensively, “34 Ways to Practice Self-Love and Be Good to Yourself ”3—self-love has been in the news and in current conversations.
Some Christians—including Adventists—may feel a bit uneasy about this trend.4 Doesn’t the Bible speak about denying oneself and taking up one’s cross (Luke 9:23)? Didn’t Paul warn young Timothy about people who will—among other things incompatible with Christian values and a Christlike character—be “lovers of self ” (2 Tim. 3:2, ESV)? Is self-love just a convenient cover for narcissism and self-centeredness reflecting the root of sin and pride that caused Lucifer to rebel against God in a perfect universe? And what does it really mean to “deny oneself” and take up one’s cross? Should Adventists love their spouses and children, the world, their enemies—but not themselves?
Self-denial has often led to some sort of self-hate—in the past as well as today. In the Middle Ages many “denied” themselves, wore special clothing that constantly irritated the skin, or practiced self-flagellation in order to somehow “please” God and attain merits. Today we talk of self-hate or self-loathing. Self-loathing is often associated with a low self-esteem, a sense of continual inadequacy, or guilt.5 Psychologists and other caregivers have seen an increase in self-loathing among teenagers and young adults who have experienced body shaming, suffer from depression or anxiety, or struggle with other mental illnesses. This self-loathing can also be deeply rooted in past trauma or abuse. Clearly, denying oneself cannot mean hating or loathing ourselves—especially if we consider our lives and bodies to be part of God’s ongoing creation, which are, as David put it, “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:14).
Our sense of self-worth seems to be intricately connected with how we relate to ourselves and to the world surrounding us. Part of growing up involves stages during which a teenager wonders who he or she really is and where his or her place in this world is. That’s normal—and yet, it seems as if many get stuck in this phase.
Joseph’s story offers some surprising insights into the crucial question of our self-worth. The Bible tells us that he was Daddy’s favorite because he was a latecomer and the son of Jacob’s favorite wife (Gen. 37:3). Jacob honored Joseph by gifting him a special robe that distinguished him from his brothers. This special status didn’t endear him to his brothers, but it sure felt good.
Imagine the shock on Joseph’s system when he found himself bound and on his way to Egypt, where he was sold as a slave. Suddenly he was a nobody—someone who could be bought or sold at will. Joseph had to quickly learn a lesson that we all need to learn at one point or another: If we are dependent on others to tell us what we are worth, then we will be in for a rough ride and be horribly confused. This confusion and pain will wreak havoc with our relationships. We need to find our self-worth in what God thinks of us—how God sees us and not in the roles that we currently have. We are not important or valuable because of a title, an academic degree, a seven-figure investment account, or the way we dress or look.
God looks at each of us with glasses tinted with grace. He sees potential, beauty, talent that we can’t even imagine. Ultimately He was prepared to die for us so that we could get the opportunity to become all we were created to be. Now, that’s an intact self-esteem.
Joseph’s roller-coaster experience in Egypt prepared him to be the person God wanted him to be and to ultimately say to his brothers: “I am Joseph your brother, whom you sold into Egypt. But now, do not therefore be grieved or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Gen. 45:4, 5). When we know who we are in God, we can begin to project this healthy self-worth to others. That lies at the center of a conversation Jesus had with a Pharisee in Matthew 22:34-40.
The lawyer asks a seemingly innocent question: What’s the most important command? The question reflects a hotly debated issue in first-century Judaism and, having listened to some of Jesus’ statements about the law, the questioner must have hoped for a response that would damage Jesus’ reputation or even endanger His life.
Jesus quotes two Old Testament texts. The first one, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind,” comes straight from Deuteronomy 6:5 and is part of the Shema, the statement of faith that any Jew would recite daily. God is first, Jesus says, always. Devotion to God must be complete.
But then Jesus continues, this time quoting from Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus underlines that both commands are equal in their importance. We love God, and because we love God, we can love our neighbor—and ourselves. Jesus’ answer to the lawyer’s question about the hierarchy of God’s law pulled the rug from under the feet of the rabbis and scholars who loved debating that hierarchy. Instead, Jesus points us back to motivation and heart attitude. Loving God must be the basic and underlying reason we keep the Sabbath, love a neighbor, pay God’s tithe, live a healthy life, or respect the sanctity of another person’s marriage. Loving God leads to loving others, including ourselves. In fact, we can love God and others only because we know the God who offers Himself as a sacrifice to atone for our sins.
While Jesus didn’t include a complete interpretation of the text from Leviticus, a closer look at that entire chapter that focuses on holiness and morality helps us catch a significant nuance. The chapter contains a series of repetitions that tie the different sections together.6 The reference to loving a neighbor in Leviticus 19:18 needs to be read together with its parallel occurrence in Leviticus 19:34, where Israel is commanded to love “the stranger [or foreigner] who dwells among you.” Neighbor and stranger are to be loved equally— recognizing that we too are loved unconditionally by the Creator and Savior of the universe! The recognition of God’s great love for us gives us the freedom to love others—as ourselves.
Jesus’ final statement to the lawyer in Matthew 22:40 helps us grasp the importance and priority of the principle of love. “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” By focusing on this principle, Jesus invites us to apply love—God’s love and our love—to every relationship, challenge, or situation we encounter.
Jesus’ straightforward and ingenious answer to a carefully laid trap helps us understand the pivotal importance of love. This love goes way beyond the Valentine Day’s kind of love of red hearts, cute cards, and plenty of gifts. It offers us the foundation to extend this love to those around us, also including ourselves. If God really loves us that passionately, how can we question our own worth and wonder about our own value?
This value is not based on our achievements or even actions. It’s simply based on the fact that we can call Him “Abba”—our good Father who is merciful, compassionate, kind, just, righteous, forgiving, and so much more. I love the way Ellen White describes what God sees in each one of us: “The value of a soul, who can estimate? Would you know its worth, go to Gethsemane, and there watch with Christ through those hours of anguish, when He sweat as it were great drops of blood. Look upon the Saviour uplifted on the cross. Hear that despairing cry, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ Mark 15:34. Look upon the wounded head, the pierced side, the marred feet. Remember that Christ risked all. For our redemption, heaven itself was imperiled. At the foot of the cross, remembering that for one sinner Christ would have laid down His life, you may estimate the value of a soul.”7
That’s convincing enough for me.
1 Barbara Field, “7 Ways to Practice Self-Love,” VeryWellMind.com, see https://www.verywellmind.com/ways-to-practice-self-love-5667417.
2 Melanie Greenberg, “8 Powerful Steps to Self-Love,” Psychology Today, June 29, 2017, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/ the-mindful-self-express/201706/8-powerful-steps-self-love.
3 Jade Nyx, “34 Ways to Practice Self-Love and Be Good to Yourself,” Lifehack.org, https://www.lifehack.org/articles/communication/30ways-practice-self-love-and-good-yourself.html.
4 See, for example, “Self Love and Christianity: Are They Compatible?” https://www.beardedapologetics.com/blog/2020/12/26/self-loveand-christianity-are-they-compatible.
5 “Self-Hatred,” Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday. com/intl/basics/self-hatred.
6 Such as, for example, “You shall keep my Sabbaths” (Lev. 19:30), or “You shall . . . fear your God” (verses 14, 32). Cf. Stephen K. Sherwood, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Berit Olam (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical, 2002), pp. 74-77.
7 Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1900, 1941), p. 196.