No one has ever loved himself as much as Jesus. Let me explain.
Some of the greatest gifts God gave to humanity have been skewed horribly with the entrance of sin. The love of self after the fall is a complex idea for us as Christians to understand. We are inundated constantly with unbelieving philosophies of self-advancement, self-esteem, self-fulfillment, self-actualization, self-gratification, self-esteem, and more, and we often run in the opposite direction.
But we have to be careful. Theologians in the past have distinguished between (1) a natural self-love, which all creatures possess; (2) a sinful self-love, which all humans by nature possess; and (3) a gracious self-love, which God’s born-again people possess.
Natural self-love is part of the law of nature. Even animals possess it. To exist is, in one sense, to love oneself. According to the Puritan Stephen Charnock, “This self-love is not only commendable, but necessary, as a rule to measure that duty we owe to our neighbor, whom we cannot love as ourselves, if we do not first love ourselves: God having planted this self-love in our nature, makes this natural principle the measure of our affection to all mankind of the same blood with ourselves” (Works of Stephen Charnock, 1:223).
The person who eats and sleeps is showing a form of self-love insofar as he is preserving his life. One does not need to be a Christian to possess this type of self-love. Of course, with sin, people can and do show self-hate when they starve themselves or even destroy their bodies through gluttony. But the point is that all people show a degree of self-love when they breathe air to keep themselves alive or when they drink a glass of water to quench their thirst and hydrate their body.
When a person goes to the doctor and takes medication for an illness, he is doing so out of self-love. When we laugh with friends, we are showing self-love. When we put on warm clothes on a cold day, we are showing self-love. And so, much self-love is the result of a natural principle in all of us that compels us to seek to preserve the quality of our life.
The self-love that is to be avoided is carnal self-love. Because of original sin, this love arises in the human heart as naturally as we breathe. According to Charnock, self-love is in opposition to God “when our thoughts, affections, designs, center only in our own fleshly interest, and rifle God of his honor. . . . Thus the natural self-love, in itself good, becomes criminal by the excess, when it would be superior and not subordinate to God” (Works, 1:224).
Paul speaks of this sinful self-love when he says that in the last days people “will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant” (2 Timothy 3:2). Our thoughts, plans, and desires all focus on our own fleshly interest. Love of self, originally good, becomes bad because of sin. Our will becomes superior to God’s will; our glory becomes superior to God’s glory (John 5:44).
Sinful self-love is actually a form of self-hatred. When we place ourselves on God’s throne, we are doing what is in our worst interest. This type of self-love hurts, destroys, kills, and leads to unhappiness and judgment. All sins are a result of this warped love. Another Puritan, Thomas Manton, says, “The root of corruption is carnal self-love, for it is at the bottom of other sins; because men love themselves, and their flesh as themselves, more than God” (Works of Thomas Manton, 12:68).
For example, our anger arises usually because our will is not being done in the way we expect it to be done. We envy because we want what someone else has and feel pain at his blessing. Impatience results, like anger, from our will not being accomplished as quickly as we would like. Greed is wanting more for self than is needed. And pride is having a self-worth that is higher than we ought to have.
Sin and Self
Charnock understood that sin always aims to satisfy self, and since it spreads over our entire being, it affects how we interpret all things. For example, according to Charnock, we generally interpret all of our own actions as true and good, even if they are not:
The understanding assents to nothing false, but under the notion of true, and the will embraces nothing evil, but under the notion of good; [and] the rule whereby we measure the truth and goodness of proposed objects is not the unerring Word, [as it should be], but the inclinations of self, the gratifying of which is the aim of our whole lives. (Works, 1:224)
This is a vital point about how the natural man operates in this world. Our acts are almost always justified, usually as something good. Our inordinate love of self means we try to dress up all of our acts as good because sinful self-love demands self-justification. Sin and self are the same for the natural man.
Idol and Idolater
Self-love is idolatry; in fact, as Richard Sibbes says, “He is the idol and the idolater; he has a high esteem of himself, and those that do not highly esteem him he swells against them” (Complete Works of Richard Sibbes, 4:183). This explains why true conversion is so difficult. We love ourselves so much that our desire to relinquish our throne is nonexistent.
Sometimes we hear from well-intentioned people, “Do you want to accept Jesus into your heart?” But true conversion happens when we willingly, albeit painfully, give up our throne, relinquish our will, and happily serve the King’s ways and desires. Speaking to the Jews, Jesus said, “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44).
Sinful self-love is thus a battle between man and God. Who will have the glory? God’s glory, as our highest end, has been replaced with our own glory as our highest end, which is the fountain of all our sins.
The cure for self-love is self-love.
The good self-love we ought to attain to is what Charnock calls “a gracious self-love.” Speaking of the three types of self-love, he says, “The first is from nature, the second from sin, the third from grace. The first is implanted by creation, the second the fruit of corruption, the third is by the powerful operation of grace” (Works, 1:224). To truly love ourselves, we must love ourselves as God would have us love ourselves. We love ourselves truly when we love ourselves on his terms.
When we are in Christ and doing everything to the glory of God, we are truly loving ourselves. We are loving ourselves even more than the natural self-love that is in every creature, both man and animal, because we are thinking of eternity and not just this present evil age.
For example, our Lord says to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24–25). This is true self-love: to deny oneself — which is to relinquish sinful self-love — in order to gain one’s life.
Similarly, those who leave family for the sake of Christ “will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life” (Matthew 19:29). Gracious self-love is living a life of denial of self, serving Christ first and foremost, and believing the promises that await the faithful. Sinful self-love wants to be first and have the priority, but as our Lord says, “Many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Matthew 19:30).
How Jesus Loves Himself
Our Lord is the preeminent example of gracious self-love. He truly practiced what he preached: “In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’” (Acts 20:35).
Here Paul highlights the importance of gracious self-love when we help the weak: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” If we want to be blessed, then we are not going to attain that through carnal self-love but through gracious self-love.
In Ephesians, Paul explains how the man “who loves his wife loves himself” (Ephesians 5:28). This is gracious self-love. A husband who sacrifices for his wife is truly loving himself. This may be applied to our Lord, who is the husband of his bride, the church. By loving us, he is loving himself. And by loving himself, he is loving us. The self-love of Christ, which is holy and pure, is the reason why we have been saved from our sin.
No person on earth has ever loved himself as well as Jesus. The true solution to the problem of self-love in this world, then, is the self-love of Jesus.