In a culture where love is all out of whack, “self-love” has been distorted as well.
When Jesus included the call to “love your neighbor as yourself” in his list of the greatest commandments, he was assuming that people do in fact love themselves. This is a pretty safe assumption to make – we as creatures tend to love ourselves first and foremost, and to put our own interests above the interests of others. Selfishness is a reflexive attribute of our fallen state.
What is different about the world you and I grew up in and the world that first received this teaching of Jesus is the idea of “self-esteem.” We have been told that the most important thing to have is this stuff called self-esteem, that we are to believe in ourselves so we can achieve something important. In this age, trophies are not only for the winners, but for everyone who participated. Gym class games that are competitive are moved aside for those that make “everyone a winner.” In the old model, one “winner” would imply that the other people are “losers,” and we don’t want to damage this fragile thing called “self-esteem.” I believe the self-esteem guru’s have pure motives, but I am not so sure how helpful their advice is. Placing too much emphasis on self-esteem seems to run contrary to some scriptural imperatives like “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought…” (Romans 12:3) or “If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself” (Galatians 6:3).
At the same time, some people struggle with recognizing their legitimate worth in Christ. Far from self-love, these people struggle with self-hatred. They loathe the person looking back at them in the mirror and struggle to see anything of value in themselves. The marketing machine of our culture has built itself on the ability of advertisers to convince people that they lack and that they are not enough. They are not skinny enough so they need this diet product (like Jenny Craig), they are not flawless enough so we need this skin product (like Proactive), they are not powerful enough so they need this deodorant (like Axe, or Tag). This ease with which I recall actual product names and claims is a frightening commentary on our culture. Growing up with the ad machine telling them we are not enough, or that we lack – maybe we need our teachers and Saturday morning cartoons to help us find our self-esteem again?
I think that finding and living with a biblical concept of “Self-Worth” is a bit like trying to navigate a narrow road with a ditch on either side. The one ditch would be self-love: pride, vanity, selfishness, and arrogance. The other ditch would be self-hatred: insecurity, fear, approval addiction, and self-loathing. Finding the road is the trick. What does a grounded, biblical picture of self-worth look like? John Ortberg calls is “appropriate smallness.” It is standing before God and others with true humility, with the attitude of servant to all – while at the same time understanding that we have immense value because God has attributed unsurpassible worth to us. At the end of the day, something is only worth what someone else is willing to pay for it (as we have all been reminded with the real estate crash). If this is true, God has established our worth in dramatic fashion. The price He was willing to pay for humanity in its broken state was astounding: the perfect life of Christ.
This is the secret to loving yourself in the appropriate way – understanding that while you are nothing on your own, in Christ, you are enough. You are valuable because God decided you are valuable. He loves you and prizes you because you are His. Helping our students discover their true value in Christ is essential in inoculating them against the pull of their culture.