I recently had an interesting conversation with a friend on Facebook who posted a quote which said that self-protection ought to be avoided because it was a form of self-love, the assumption being that self-love is itself wrong. Of course, the point of the quote was simply to argue against a selfish fixation on our own wellbeing above that of others, but I disagreed with the premise that self-love is morally wrong. The discussion that followed made me decide to post something on the topic here as well.
We can certainly begin by acknowledging that self-love is at the root of a deadly collection of sins. Ever since the time of the Fall, when Adam sinned by desiring to raise himself to equality with God, no idol has been worshiped with greater fervor than man has lavished upon himself.
This leads rather naturally to the assumption that self-love is itself sinful. However, such an assumption is unjustified. The mere fact that a thing may be corrupted does not prove that it is bad. (Before the Fall, all of creation was corruptible but good.) The question, then, is whether self-love is inherently bad or becomes bad under certain circumstances.
One starting point for considering this question can be found in the fact that God loves himself, thus proving that not all self-love is wrong. Furthermore, God loves human beings, which means that humans ought to be loved. (Note that this is not the same as saying human beings deserve to be loved.) Jesus makes this explicit when he commands, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13).
Now, it would be logically possible for a human to be obliged to love all human beings except himself. However, if self-love is not inherently evil, as is proven by God’s self-love, and if humans qua humans are to be loved as a general principle, such a position would be hard to justify without explicit scriptural backing, which is lacking. In fact, when we turn to Scripture we find Christ suggesting the opposite when he commands, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (emphasis added). At first glance one might conclude this was merely a concession to the unavoidable fact of human self-love, but can anyone seriously argue that the One who commanded “Be ye perfect” would have shied away from declaring “You shall love your neighbor and not yourself,” if that were in fact the right course?
How, then, does self-love become sin? When we begin to love ourselves above our God or our neighbor. Returning to Mark 12, Jesus declares, “The foremost [commandment] is, ‘Hear O Israel! The Lord your God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” God first, God most, always; our fellow man next, for he is created in God’s image. When this order is disrupted, and only then, self-love becomes sin.
Of course, leaving the theoretical for the practical, in our daily walk self-love does require constant control because it is so insistent on pride of place in our lives. Why not treat it as actually bad, since it is so inclined in that direction? Two reasons: First, because if in fact human beings ought to be loved, and if there is no scriptural exception for the particular human whom one happens to be, then failure to love oneself properly would actually be sin! Virtuous self-love dictates that we ought to always seek what is truly best for ourselves, provided always that it does not interfere with our duty to love God first and neighbor next.
Secondly, treating self-love as inherently sinful often leads to a dangerous misdirection of effort as we strive for virtue. When we believe that the existence of self-love stands between ourselves and God, we will naturally attempt to eradicate it. This leads to a difficult and ultimately harmful struggle to uproot a thing which is not actually bad; while at the same time, every ounce of effort devoted to this attack on self-love will not be devoted to our proper goal of seeking God’s grace to learn to love him and his human creation better.