It is easy for Christians to dismiss self-improvement regimens as self-centered and thus ultimately self-destructive and harmful to others. During 2011 in Time magazine Nathan Thornburgh wrote an interesting article titled “Change We Can (Almost) Believe In”. In his article, he displayed hints at some Christian truth as he journeys through the self-help scene. He embarks upon a course of self-discovery and realizes, for instance, that “we overestimate our importance to the universe.” He writes, “I benefited tremendously from the uncomfortable mirror that the course had put in front of me.” In his experience, the way to inner peace came via a hefty dose of humility and recognizing personal failings, something Christians call an admission of sin.
Mr. Thornburgh’s article contains seeds of truth about human nature-affirming the need to acknowledge our shortcomings while also offering reasons to love ourselves. A Christian understanding of self-love goes much deeper than that. Love, as described in the Bible, is entirely different from the love as espoused by the world. Biblical love is selfless and unconditional, whereas the world’s love is characterized by selfishness. For Thornburgh, self-help is a means to personal peace, becoming a better parent, and reordering one’s life. That is what gurus do; they pull from you, attack your weaknesses and try to turn it around into a strength. They coach and manipulate you. Preliminary data suggest that self-compassion can influence how much we eat and may help some people lose weight. Christian love, in contrast, acknowledges a source of love outside of self and a purpose for love that includes one’s self but extends far beyond personal well-being. John 13:34–35, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this, all men will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.”
God’s love combines self-love and neighbor-love, and one does not exist without the other. While the self-improvement community attempts to mimic these attribute. God’s love provokes recognition of sin and recognition with an acknowledgment that we are unable to change sinful patterns by berating ourselves and trying harder. The message of the gospel is that we can never be good enough to get to heaven. We must recognize that we are sinners who fall short of God’s glory, and we must obey the command to repent of our sins and place our faith and trust in Jesus Christ. Christ alone was good enough to earn heaven, and He gives His righteousness to those who believe in His name Romans 1:17. There is an understanding, a very logical understanding I might add of the inability to deal with sin on our own or dismiss the problem of sin altogether, we receive first unity with Christ and then transformative power of the Holy Spirit.
Moreover, God provides a foundation for loving ourselves that goes beyond inner peace and weight loss. He dignifies every human as the Imago Dei meaning being as a creature “in God’s image,” Genesis 1:27 with inestimable value to the Creator. As we understand God’s love for us, manifested in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, so we begin to understand God’s love for every person. God’s love prompts us to love ourselves and to love other people. Whenever love exists in a vacuum, it becomes idolatry. Loving ourselves without reference to our neighbors will lead to self-centeredness. However, loving our neighbors without loving ourselves refuses to acknowledge our common humanity, and value before God. Modern research may help us understand how to love ourselves. Nevertheless, only when we have God’s love will it combine inner peace with outward acts of joyful service. Loving our neighbor means loving ourselves with love embodied in the life and death of Christ. We are to take our eyes off ourselves and care for others. Christian maturity demands it. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” Philippians 2:3–4.
May the everlasting love of an eternal God continue to feed your soul.