Let’s face it. We live in a narcissistic, selfie-absorbed culture. It’s all about me – my thoughts, my dreams, my fulfillment, etc. However, Christians operate under a different paradigm. We are not our own; we’ve been brought with a price. I confess that whenever I see someone who claims Christianity also adopt an “I love me” attitude, I question if they really understand what Christianity is all about.
But then I consider Jesus greatest command, to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and mind and love your neighbor as yourself. (Matt 22:37-39)
Hmmm, love your neighbor as yourself.
In the book The Kingdom of God, a compilation of essays on various aspects of the kingdom of God, Dr. Anthony Bradley, associate professor of Christian ethics and theology at Kings College, offers a good perspective in his essay “The Kindgom Today.” He states,
To ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ demands that we love ourselves well. To love oneself well is to do what is necessary to sustain one’s life and to fulfill one’s responsibility to preserve one’s human dignity, holiness, chastity, property, and reputation and to bring glory to God the Creator.
While this may seem like a narcissistic self-love kind of thing, Bradley puts this love in perspective. Well ordered love flows from God and should be the parameter by which Christians consider what it means to truly love. It is only through the lens of how God has loved us that we can love well, as John states, “we love him because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19). This affects the application of God’s kingdom work now in which we humans serve as the instrument.
So is it ok for Christians to love themselves? Absolutely! But not in a selfish, self-fulfilling sense. Rather, it is a love that derives from identity in Christ based on who God made us to be. But note that loving oneself is ultimately about loving neighbor. Loving oneself is not a selfish love. Rather, it is a love that rest in the security of who we are in Christ and what has been given to us through him. This love has an anchor in submission, as Bradley notes,
It is an obedient love that submits to God’s authority, desires to be guided by his instruction, and determines to carry out his will prudently. Jesus says that those who love him will obey what he commands (John 14:15). This type of love is not an autocratic, coerced love–if there is such a thing–but a love characterized by willful reciprocation out of gratitude because of God’s pursuant, liberating, and transformative love first shown to the people of the kingdom.
Following Bradley’s line of thought and what I consider the weight of Scripture to communicate, Christians that do not love themselves well according to their identity in Christ are challenged to love God and neighbor. It may very well be that one proclaims a self-love. But unless it is rooted in proper identity, it is not properly loving self and disables us from recognizing barriers to loving God and neighbor as we should. To be sure distortions in loving self will be counter-productive and may actually bring harm to ourselves and people we deal with.
And that leads to Bradley’s commendation to do what is necessary to sustain one’s life. This is not about navel gazing and dissecting every aspect of our life. Rather, it’s an intentional effort to persistently set our affection on Christ and who we are in him. That does take honesty with ourselves and our issues to consider if there might be impediments. As the psalmist cried, “Search me and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts. And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. (Ps. 139:23-24). It’s a commitment to learning the truths of God’s love for us so that we can walk in them. It is only through this orientation that we can view ourselves properly and live accordingly.