On the Necessity of Self-Love

I remember growing up in the 1980’s.  One of the big musical hits was Whitney Houston’s, “The Greatest Love of All.”  It had wonderful lyrics about believing that children are our future, overcome adversity, etc.  But it wasn’t until I was older that I realized what the eponymous “Greatest Love” was: “Learning to love yourself, it is the greatest love of all.”

I would venture that most believers would say that self-love is the source of much of our sin.  We love ourselves above others.  We turn inward and selfish.  I reflexively cringe when I hear any touchy-feely gobbled-gook about self-affirmation and love.  I reject outright the philosophy of Norman Vincent Peale: “I’m okay.  You’re okay.”

As a teacher I can see the harm in too much focus on the self.  This can lead to vanity and self-centeredness.  I’ve observed parents who have convinced their children that they are privileged princes and princesses who must make others bend to their will and meet their needs.  One of the biggest challenges of growing out of adolescence is to think about things bigger than yourself and your feelings and your desires.  Nurturing an ego will retard a person’s growth in adulthood.

And yet we need self-love.

We are commanded to engage in self-love.

When they asked Jesus what was the greatest commandment, He responded with the Shema: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all of your strength.”  But in addition there is another commandment, no less great: The Golden Rule.

According to the Golden Rule, we must love our neighbor as ourselves.  I spoke about this in my classes, and I was struck that I kept getting the same question: “What if you don’t love yourself?”

I find it very interesting that we live in an age where so many of us deny sin.  We call it habit or culture or choice, but it isn’t sin.  We are told that calling people sinners damages their self- esteem, that you alienate them from God and the Church.  Some have ceded this ground.  I am often shocked at how rarely sin is taught in some grade schools.  And yet denying sin does not improve self-worth.

As the years go on, I encounter more and more self-hatred and less and less a sense of sin.  When you tell young people that their only value is determined by their brains or money or looks or talent, this leads to a horrible sense of self.  There is always someone smarter, richer, prettier, and more talented than you.  In that sense, they see their life as having less value than another.  Their secret fear is that they are, at base, worthless.  I have seen first hand how this sense of worthlessness has driven young people to destructive choices.

But here is where acknowledging sin is helpful.  If there is no sin, then nothing I do is bad.  But the flip side is that nothing I do is good.  Everything is pointless.  But if I acknowledge that I sin, then I also acknowledge that there is a goodness and authority higher than myself to which I fall short.  And when I come to a full awareness of my sins, I realize that I cannot be good on my own.  I need someone to save me.

And this is where Christ comes to the world to show us our value.  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son…”  The phrase “the world” can be misleading.  St. Augustine said that Christ loves each one of us as if we were the only ones in the world.  We should individually read that passage and say “For God so loved (insert your name here), that He gave His only Son…”

My life is worth the life of Jesus Christ.  This is not a statement of inflated ego.  This is what Christ has communicated from the cross.  Jesus thought that my life, my simple, silly, sinful life, was worth dying for.

How can I ever deny my value after that?  If I were to say that my life is worthless, I must therefore, by logic, infer that Christ’s life is worthless since He gave that life for me.  But Christ’s life is not worthless, therefore my life is not worthless either.

I have worth.  I have value.  And so I must love that which God has deemed valuable.

This is not a statement of ego and pride, the source of all sin.  This is not an inflated sense of self.  This is an acknowledgement of God’s goodness in me.  Ego wants to indulge the self, like a bad parent who spoils a child, giving into their every whim and robbing them of the happiness of full maturity.   A good parent will help a child learn self denial for a greater good.  True love of self will lead  to self denial for the greater good as well.

Self-indulgence, while pleasurable, prevents us from achieving a truly blessed happy state. If I really loved myself, I would do that which would save my soul, not that which feeds my temptations. Just as when we love others, we seek their good, i.e., their salvation, and so, too, the same as with us. I must love this life God has given me, and then freely give it away. I have to acknowledge that it is a gift, freely given to me, so that I may freely give it. But if I do not believe that this life has value, who could possibly want it? Why would I give it?

It is only by loving that which Christ loves, myself, that I can fully imitate Him in laying down my life daily for others. Love of self is not the greatest love of all, but is the necessary step to the higher love of others and to the Highest Love of God.

Copyright 2014, W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

I am a devoutly Catholic theology teacher who loves a popular culture that often, quite frankly, hates me. I grew up absorbing every movie, TV show, comic book, science fiction novel, etc. I could find. As of today I’ve watched over 2100 movies and tv shows. They take up a huge part of my life. I don’t know that this is a good thing, but it has given me a common vocabulary to draw from in order to illustrate whatever theological point I make in class. I’ve used American Pie the song to explain the Book of Revelation (I’ll post on this some time later) and American Pie the movie to help explain Eucharist (don’t ask). The point is that the popular culture is popular for a reason. It is woven into the fabric of our lives and imaginations, for good or ill. In this blog I will attempt to bring together the things of heaven with the things of earth. Of course this goal may be too lofty for someone like me.

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