Americans have been confused about self-love since the nation began. The founding generation operated with the misguided Enlightenment notion that benevolence was natural to mankind. Benevolence, they thought, was grounded ultimately in self-love. John Adams argued that self-love emanated outward in widening concentric circles. Self-love was thought to be the source of benevolence.
Not to be outdone, our day hosts misguided thoughts of self-love, making it a difficult subject for Christians to navigate, especially in light of the pervasive influence of self-help and psychotherapy. The Puritan Stephen Charnock is a helpful guide for a difficult subject. He defined three types of self-love: Natural self-love, sinful self-love, and gracious self-love.
All creatures possess natural self-love. When a person eats and sleeps, they are preserving their life according to the dictates of God’s world. Certainly, sin’s influence can turn eating into self-hate through starvation or gluttony. Nevertheless, when a person takes medicine for an illness or drinks a glass of Adam’s Ale, this is part of the law of nature God created for human existence. God placed an aptitude within living things to preserve their life. So, whether you apply sunscreen to prevent sunburn or laugh at your friend’s joke, you are showing the sort of self-love that, in itself, is good. Why is it good? Because it is operating according to the convention God designed.
All humans possess sinful self-love. Sinful self-love perverts the goodness of natural self-love. This self-love is carnal, lusting after selfish fleshly interests. Its thoughts, plans, and desires rebel against God’s design. Sinful self-love is a type of pride that hurts and destroys others. This is always the result when people think more highly of themselves than they ought (Rom. 12:3). It simultaneously makes one the idol and the idolater. Such was the Pharisee who prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (Lk. 18:11). Sinful self-love is against God and neighbor. It’s also against the self.
Sinful self-love is the source of self-hate. How so? It is in the best interest of man to joyfully submit themselves to God. And so it is that sinful self-love abandons man’s best interest. The manifestations of self-hate are many: self-pity, self-will, self-gratification, self-actualization, self-harm, self-applause, laziness, greed, anger. In each is heard the defiant shout, “My will be done!”
But didn’t Jesus command us to hate ourselves? “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (Jn. 12:25). There is a type of self-hatred that is righteous and a type that is sinful. The righteous self-hatred acknowledges that God’s creatures suffer from Original Sin. This condition ought to be lamented. The sinful nature is hated and pitied. True discipleship must turn from self (“whoever hates his life”) and serve Christ by serving others (Phil. 2:21). So, Paul says, “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (1 Cor. 10:24). Elsewhere he says, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4). You ought not to seek your own advantage (1 Cor. 10:33). Rather you should live so as not to please yourself (Rom. 15:1). None of this means you should torment the self, yet many people are tempted by the fallacy of purification-by-self-hate. This casuistry can even happen on a collective level. Lyndon Johnson thought he was purifying the spirit of the United States when he declared War on Poverty. In truth, it was a self-destructive war on the American experiment.
The sinful self-hatred is self-contempt leading to cruelty toward self and others. When the pride of self becomes disappointed with oneself, it lives for revenge, first upon God, then upon Me, then on others. It is fundamentally atheistic. The person hates God and resents the world he has made and the story God has written for him. But he can’t strike at God, so he strikes at the greatest thing God made, human beings (Gen. 1:31). Jesus said to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt. 22:39). Sinful self-hate inverts the great commandment, “hate others as you hate yourself.” This type of self-hatred may appear humble, but it is not Christian humility because it is a cynically low view of all souls. It twists love and hate into a pretzel, making one love their hate.
Sinful self-hate is spreading like kudzu. It is an enemy of the gospel. Why? Because it substitutes the facts of God’s self-sacrificing love for the tyranny of self-gratifying feelings. It says, “I love my hate so much, that I must not allow the self-sacrificing Love of God to destroy my hate.” It redefines love as feelings rather than actions. When love is what you feel, then love will wax and wane. When the feeling goes away, the love goes away. None of this is consistent with the love of Christ in the gospel. God exists whether we feel it or not. God loves whether we feel it or not. God gives life. God helps the blind to see. God enlightens the dark. God leaves the ninety-nine. God overcomes sin and enables dead men to rise out of the grave to be new creatures. The gospel of Jesus Christ summons creatures of sinful self-love to relinquish their feelings as absolute and happily receive the greater love of Jesus, who laid down his life for his friends (Jn. 15:13). It is only in Jesus Christ that the gnarled perversion of paradoxical self-hate is destroyed.
All God’s chosen people possess gracious self-love. This comes only by the operation of the gospel. The Father loves Jesus because he laid down his life to save their people (Jn. 10:17). So too for us. Self-denial is the path toward eternal life (Mt. 16:24f). Gracious self-love is bold self-denial.
Jesus commands that disciples “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt. 22:39). Why? Because hate can’t produce love. Only love can produce love. The psychotherapeutic gospel is where the ultimate sin is refusing self-care. Those who put a Christian gloss on such things argue that before someone can love their neighbor as themselves, they must set off on a Homeric Odyssey of self-love. The psychotherapeutic age defines self-love as warm, self-affirming, pan-acceptance. It is a lifestyle of indulgence writ large. In contrast, the Bible defines love as self-sacrifice (Jn. 10:11; Rom. 5:8; 1 Jn. 3:16). Jesus is not commanding a health and wellness imperative of sentimental narcissism. Love is the fulfillment of the law (Rom. 3:10)—you shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet (Rom. 3:8f). In other words, love is respecting your neighbor’s family and property. So, Jesus presupposes self-love, commanding disciples “to love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk. 12:31). Since love is the fulfillment of the law (Rom. 3:10), loving yourself is fulfilling the law toward yourself, namely, respecting yourself.
G.K. Chesterton said, “It is an old story that names do not fit things.” There is a sinful kind of self-hate and a righteous kind. And there is a sinful kind of self-love and a righteous kind. Sinful self-love is self-hate. Righteous self-hate is self-love. In this complicated topic, it’s tempting to accuse confused Christians of outrageous rebellion, when their offense is an addled submission to William James, convincingly dressed in holy vestments. The only way to learn the right kind of love is through the cross of Christ. B.B. Warfield said that rather than cultivating the self, Jesus “was led by his love for others into the world, to forget Himself in the needs of others, to sacrifice self once for all upon the altar of sympathy. Self-sacrifice brought Christ into the world and self-sacrifice will lead us, His followers, not away from but into the midst of men.”
Stephen Charnock, The Complete Works of Stephen Charnock, 5 vols. (Edinburg: Banner of Truth Trust, 1985), 1:223 – 225.
C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 193-195.
Mark Jones, Knowing Sin: Seeing a Neglected Doctrine Through the Eyes of the Puritans (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2022), 121 – 128.
Gordon Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 220f.
Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church in Huntsville, Alabama, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.