This is potentially the most controversial blog I have ever written. As I’ve often stated, the Bible isn’t primarily offensive because of what it says about our sexuality. It is offensive because of what it says about our humanity. You may disagree with what you are going to read. That’s okay! We often grow the most when some of our closely held assumptions are challenged.
In American Christianity we have accepted and repeated a phrase that I believe is blatantly untrue. Here it is: God wants you to love yourself.
Every time I read it or hear it, I bristle. Why?
Let’s begin by acknowledging that God’s people have always been tempted to mix true worship with the pagan idolatry of the culture in which they lived. This is evident to us as we learn about the Israelites in the Old Testament, sacrificing in the high places instead of in the Temple, and as we read about followers of Jesus in the New Testament pressuring new believers into circumcision. What is so often less evident to us is our own tendency to put God in the blender with what our culture worships.
Our culture worships the self. The idolatry of our modern age is humanism. It’s all about you. Live your best life. You do you. Secular humanism teaches that truth is found by looking inward and connecting with your authentic self. We are so accustomed to thinking like this that we don’t even recognize this as a form of idolatry.
While many Christians reject the obvious “me-ism” of our culture, we are less aware of how we blend godliness with the god of self. The statement, “God wants you to love yourself” is a prime example.
A Theology of Self-Love
There is no verse or passage in the Bible that tells you to work on loving yourself. “But wait!” you might say. “What about the second greatest commandment to love your neighbor as yourself? Certainly we can’t love others unless we work on loving ourselves.”
What Jesus was saying here is, “Give your neighbor the same amount of devotion that you give yourself.” The assumption is that there is already a level of care and attention you devote to yourself. Whether you struggle with pride or insecurity, you are consumed with your own welfare.
While not everyone has what we might call a “high self-esteem,” everyone is naturally committed to their own survival, comfort, and happiness. This logic is used again in Paul’s teaching to men in Ephesians 5. “In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church.” No one reads this passage and thinks it is about how men should go to the gym and care for their bodies. We all know it is calling husbands to unselfishly love their wives.
The Bible explicitly and clearly warns us about self-love. In Romans 1 and 2 Timothy 3, Paul describes a pagan culture in which people will be “lovers of themselves.” Rather than loving ourselves, Jesus challenges us to deny ourselves and to lose our lives that we might find them. This isn’t about cultivating self-loathing. Instead, it’s about cultivating a posture of beholding God and being so focused on Him that we cease to be our own obsession. The life of a Christian is supposed to mean crucifying the self so that Christ can reign within us. We live not for ourselves, but for the glory of God. Paul meant it when he wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.”
Why Pursuing Self-Love Is Dangerous
My objection to the “love yourself” message is not only because it is theologically incorrect. We must understand that living contrary to Scripture has real-life consequences. Following the latest “Christian” self-help guru instead of worshiping the one true God is a rabbit hole that can lead you to reject the truth of God in favor of teaching that feels less offensive to the flesh. The problem is this: If the gospel you believe is not offensive to your flesh, it is a false gospel! Jesus died, not that we might live in self-confidence and continuous comfort, but so that we would become dead to self and alive in Him.
Friend, let’s not forget that the most seductive idolatry is that which maintains a thread of truth. While it may have all the trappings of what seems true, self-love theology is rooted in lies. The lie that:
You are inherently good.
You can save yourself through positive thinking.
You are powerful and in control of your destiny.
You deserve to have all of your dreams come true.
As familiar as these phrases may sound, they don’t have a foundation in Scripture. Let’s compare them to what the Scripture teaches us. Instead of being inherently good, Scripture teaches that without Christ we are enemies of God, with nothing righteous within us. Rather than deserving to have our dreams come true, the Bible teaches that we deserve death and damnation for our rebellion. Instead of being powerful and in control, we see in God’s Word that we are like a blade of grass, here today and gone tomorrow. Rather than being able to save ourselves, Scripture tells us that we do not even have the power to change a single hair on our heads or add one day to our lives.
Friend, you need to embrace the bad news of your brokenness and helplessness before God in order to be able to accept the good news of the Gospel.
We are saved by God through Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ alone. And that does not just apply to eternal salvation. God is our salvation in every area of our lives, including our battles with insecurity and rejection. The message of “love yourself” implies that you can save yourself–you can give yourself the worth and security you need. Instead, the Bible tells us to focus our confidence on God, establishing our worth and security through a relationship with Him.
The True Antidote for Low Self-Esteem
At this point, you may be wondering if God even cares about your low self-esteem. Low self-esteem is real. Even as you read these words, you may be so crippled by insecurities that you can barely face another day. You hate your body. You despise your past. You wish you were someone else.
Throughout decades of living as a Christian, I know what it feels like to be on the self-love and insecurity yo-yo: one day feeling good about myself and the next day in the tank because of my failures. Up and down I went, based on how well (or poorly) my kids were behaving, how I fit into my jeans, and whether or not someone appreciated my latest ministry effort. At one point I realized that I was spending about 90% of my energy thinking about myself–how I felt, what others thought about me, what I thought about myself, wondering how I could feel better about myself… on and on it went.
What ultimately solved my self-esteem problem was not therapy or self-love, but confronting my lack of belief that God loved me. Friend, I was a forty-year-old woman in Christian ministry but had never been honest with my fear that God would reject me. This fear drove me to overwork, to worry about what people thought about me, and to compulsively seek approval.
We don’t have a self-love problem–we have a God-love problem. Like me, you may have grown up in church singing, “Jesus Loves Me” from the time you were a toddler, but saying it and believing it are two different things.
The solution to your self-esteem problem is not to look inward, but to look upward. Rather than self-confidence, God confronts our fears and insecurities with the promises of His steady and constant love, His presence with us, and His faithfulness. Instead of building you up with self-affirmations, God says, “Look at me and know that I love you.” He said to Joshua, “Be strong and courageous, because I am with you!” The source of Joshua’s courage and confidence had nothing to do with his self-esteem and everything to do with God.
There is nothing wrong with someone saying, “Your hair looks nice” or “You did a great job on that presentation.” That’s called encouragement; we all need feedback from people who care about us. The difference is that self-love idolatry makes us absolutely dependent on thinking and hearing only positive things about ourselves. Our “fuel” to keep going is rooted in how good or successful we are rather than on how deeply we are known and loved by God.
Your low self-esteem isn’t ultimately a psychological problem, but a spiritual one. You matter because you were intentionally created by God Himself. He breathed His image into you. The Bible says that He knows you intimately and recorded every day you would live before you were even born. As David said, “Such knowledge is overwhelming to us!”
What does it practically look like to find your security in God? Allow me to suggest three practical steps you can take.
Spend time every day in worship. Worship is not the songs we sing on Sunday. It is an intentional posture of the heart that focuses on the greatness of God. Most days, I physically get on my knees to worship God, reading a Psalm, listening to worship music, or reflecting on God’s character. This puts my focus and confidence squarely on Him, not on me.
Read books that awaken your love for God, starting with the Bible. You might begin with the Gospel of John, paying attention to what Jesus says about Himself. What does it mean to you that He is the Light of the World, the Bread of Life, the Way, the Truth, and the Life? The Lord reveals Himself through the Bible, and we also benefit from teachers who help us understand the Scriptures. A few of the books that have deepened my walk with God include Satisfy My Thirsty Soul* by Linda Dillow, The Knowledge of the Holy: The Attributes of God: Their Meaning in the Christian Life* by A.W. Tozer, and Absolute Surrender* by Andrew Murray.
Spend time with people who reinforce your confidence in God, not in yourself. You need friends who won’t tell you to “trust your heart” but instead will encourage you to seek God’s wisdom and direction. You may have to seek out this kind of friendship, but you can’t fight the world’s thinking all by yourself.
Leave self-love behind. Be assured, Friend, that the love our Savior has for you is far greater than any love you could ever have for yourself.
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