The Self-Love Trap

I had a high school friend who was insecure, socially awkward, and overweight. He envied the skills (and good looks) of classmates; he vilified himself for his frequent social blunders; and he castigated himself for his shortcomings.

Sad student r2

My friend, however, was in the top five percent of the honors class of a magnet, honors high school; he just never reached the top one percent. And he was the second chair trumpet of a nationally recognized orchestra; he just never made first chair.

Despite his many successes, he saw others do better and it discouraged him. My heart went out to him. We became friends, and in the lunchroom I listened as he told story after story of how students, teachers, and his parents misunderstood him.

His discouragement deepened into depression, and he finally sought a counselor. The counselor said his problem was self-hatred, and that he needed to grow his self-love.

I thought he loved himself too much.

And I still think so

I don’t mean to be harsh—this was a friend for whom I cared deeply—but the counselor’s advice increased his troubles; he didn’t grow more joyful, he grew sorrowful. His problem wasn’t self-hatred, and the solution wasn’t heightened self-love.

Real hatred fosters ill-will for the hated one; it delights in the humiliation, pain, and failures of the hated object. My friend harbored zero ill-will for himself, he disliked his pain and humiliation, and he was furious at his failures. He wanted the high marks, good looks, and social acceptance of others. He was angry at himself for their absence.

He was angry because he loved himself so much.

Elie Wiesel (a Nobel Laureate and holocaust survivor) said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” So, the opposite of high self-love would be high self-indifference. If my friend lacked self-love, he would be indifferent to his sufferings.

Yet my friend was anything but indifferent about himself. In fact, “himself” was all he thought of, and “he” was the topic of every conversation. His counselor’s advice simply exacerbated his self-absorption. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, my friend had a “ruthless, sleepless, unsmiling concentration on the self.”

Unsmiling indeed.

What’s the other option?

Too many Christian teachers today have adopted that secular counselor’s message of heightened self-love. They see the commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and claim that it contains the hidden commandment: “Love yourselves more.”

I understand why the world cheers on greater self-love (what other option do they have?); but I can’t understand why Christians, like lemmings, leap into this trap as well.

Love is more than a feeling; love is action. (That’s why lovers promise devotion: “I will love you to the end of days”—they mean, “I’ll care for you no matter what, even on the days I don’t feel it.”) But my friend’s actions were already devoted toward himself. He didn’t need more self-love with its selfish-action; he needed something better.

He needed an attitude of self-acceptance. He refused to accept his own gifts, looks, body-style, personality, and intelligence (which was quite high—just not the highest).

Isak Dinesen wrote, “Godly pride is faith in the idea God had when He made you.” My friend lacked Godly pride. He was disappointed in how God made him. He envied the gifts of others; he coveted their personalities, looks, and intelligence.

He was mad at himself for lacking such gifts; he was angry with others for having them; and he was furious with God for his design. All because of his devotion to self. *

So what are we to do?

Most of us have friends who suffer the agony of self-dissatisfaction. Many of us personally suffer such self-disgust. The throbbing anguish is almost unbearable. Instead of increased self-love, I urge us to consider that we really need self-acceptance.

Scripture says God chose us and made us his most prized treasure (Duet. 7:6) and that we are his joy (Heb. 12:2); God declares us to be his poem, his masterpiece (Eph. 2:10).

Imagine the genius Leonardo da Vinci (not DiCaprio) giving you his Mona Lisa. What would he say if you whipped out a paintbrush and said, “Let me just fix that smile”? He’d shout, “Stop! It’s my masterpiece. Anything you add to it will subtract from it.”**

We are God’s masterpiece. Anything we add will subtract. Even if we’re not perfect.

Self-absorption is usually a sign of envy

Augustine said, “Envy is sorrow at another man’s good.” Envy sucks joy from our lives. Sir John Gielgud (a famous English actor) exposed the torment of envy as he admitted,

“When Sir Laurence Olivier played Hamlet … and the critics raved … I wept.”

The cruel, double agony of envy is this: we are mournful at our failures and we are grief-stricken at the success of others. Envy’s sorrows rob our souls of joy.

Only in the acceptance of “the idea God had when he made us,” will we have joy. No longer sensing the bitter envy of self-love; just contentment as his masterpiece. No longer hiding a masterpiece behind sheets of shame; no longer burying our talents.

What we most need

Thomas A Kempis wrote, “Self-love is more harmful to you than anything else in the world. The proportion you give love to a thing is the proportion that thing will rule you. If your love is pure, simple, and well ordered, you will be a slave to nothing.”

In the end, we need something beyond self-love or self-acceptance: we desperately need to know the love of our maker (which existed before time).

We need to be filled with the love of the Master artist who loves us as we are.


* Attaining balanced emotional health is complex. Sometimes we need more rest, sometimes better diet and exercise, sometimes counseling to deal with past issues, and sometimes we need to correct a chemical imbalance. But we all need a “Godly pride” for his “idea” in making us, and we all need to resist envying the gifts of other.

** (I first heard this masterpiece metaphor, or something similar, in a Tim Keller sermon.)

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What do YOU think?

19 thoughts on “The Self-Love Trap

  1. Sam, you are extremely (not simply somewhat) correct in this piece. I have lived may years, watched the lives of many people, and am reasonably well-read. In going through life, I have observed in myself and others, the inclination to measure ourselves against others. Sometimes the comparison is detailed (such as intelligence or looks), sometimes it is a bottom-line evaluation (taking into account all elements), but we also have the ability to choose who we measure ourselves against. Against some, we look reasonably brilliant, against others, we look shabby. The point of all this is that we must realize that all this analysis is to no good end. God made us the way HE wanted us. HE gave us certain things to work with. In certain areas we are long-suited, in others we are short-suited (I personally have a few “voids), but we are each who HE wants us to be, and we should, in our own beings, honor Him in our whole lives. We have only to look around us to see the greatness of people who honor Him, and the abject sorrow of those who do not. We can CHOOSE!

    • Hi Jim,

      Someone once said that if we really loved our neighbors as ourselves, we would be just as happy that they succeeded as we would if we succeeded.

      That would take a miraculous heart-change from God.

      Which is just what the gospel should require. It’s always something that only God can do; only his love for us can satisfy.


  2. In his Confessions, Augustine says that the nature of sin is disordered loves.

    In a certain sense, he claims that we can never love anything too much (even ourselves); it’s that we don’t love other things enough. We should love God the most, others second, and ourselves third.

    All sin, despair, suffering, and doubt (Augustine claims) are the result of loves that are out of proportion or out of order.

    So, in the Augustinian sense (and who are we to argue with him?), our problem isn’t that we love ourselves too much, it’s that we love God and our neighbors too little.

    (Just some thoughts of mine after reading my own article!)

    • Sam, I am told that part of the problem in the limitation of being able to love other people is we cannot love others more than we love ourselves. This is because we do not know anyone we know ourselves, and that among people, trust is a huge component in our ability to love. What say you?

      • Hi Jim,

        Yes, I’ve heard people say that as well. To begin with, I still think our ability to love is based on our acceptance of God’s love for us (“we love because he first loved us”).

        But I also think that this “wisdom” comes from people who think we don’t love ourselves. They see people berate themselves, disappointed in themselves, angry with themselves, or who are wounded through some past trauma.

        My heart goes out to these wounded people. But must of the self-loathing is precisely because we love ourselves so much.

        In a sermon on loving our neighbors as ourselves (using the same passage others use to justify self-love) Jonathan Edwards said we use all kinds of reasons not to help other people; and then he shows how we still love ourselves:

        But we say that “They are not truly poor, that I only have to help people when they are truly destitute.” —Should we relieve neighbors only when they are in extreme
        destitution? That is not agreeable to loving neighbors as ourselves. We get
        concerned about our situation long before we are destitute. Love your neighbor
        as you love yourself.

        But we say that “They brought the trouble on themselves. I don’t have to help them.” —But Christ loved and pitied you and laid himself out for you to relieve you from all
        that want and misery which you brought on yourself. Should we not love others as
        Christ loved us?

        Edward continues:

        We may – by the gospel – be obliged to give to others when doing so means we
        have to suffer ourselves. How else is that rule “bearing one another’s burdens”
        fulfilled? If we are never obliged to bear others burdens except when we do it
        without burdening ourselves, how do you bear others burdens?

  3. So excellent! I’m sharing and urging the young people in my life to read! My dad warned me of the self esteem movement 30 years ago. It is so deceptive, doing exactly the opposite emotionally and worse, spiritually fools people into believing they are not in need of God. It just breeds prides…that awful, destructive, cancer of the human heart. Thank you for an excellent article encouraging humility before God.

    • Trina, could not agree with you more! self-love leads to pride. Pride also for the negative parts of us, that are not to be flaunted with- just accepted. And acceptance does not mean, we should continue with our angry outburtst, “because God made us irritable”, it means that we have to love our naighbour more and save him or her the trouble of hearing us jell at them:):D

  4. Very well done as usual.
    I just had one question about the statement in the heading (What’ the other option, 4th paragraph), “He needed an attitude of self-acceptance. Under the heading, (What we most need,2nd paragraph), “In the end we need something beyond self-love or self-acceptance: the love of our maker.”
    I get what you’re saying, but I think a tiny bit of clarification might help.

    I was one of those you’re talking about, but because I didn’t receive grace in my “Christian” upbringing, it was hard to believe that God accepted me. I began fighting the lies by believing the truth in God’s words. What happened was, my focus changed from, “it’s all about me and my pain,” to the fact that “God’s acceptance of me was pre-approved (on the cross) even before I began to heal.”

    I will say it again and again, “IT IS FINISHED.” This was spoken by Jesus on the cross and put into action when he rose again. Amen

    Thank you so much Sam for caring for others more than yourself, by not being afraid to speak the truth.

    In the writing world that is called, “The Prophet” voice. (Not an OT prophet). A prophet voice can either help change your perspective or cause you to stop your ears and run.

    P.S. Keep keeping it real.

      • Just one teeny-tiny nit-picky and I do mean. itty-bitty insignificant, unimportant question. Did you mean to say after self-acceptance: the to know the love of God our maker. Such little words – so little time. Oh and just one more thing sir, (Columbo) Annie’s comments made not make sense. That didn’t. Hah hah, I’m counting on your sense of humor here.

        I recently joined a writer’s critique group. Does it show.

        I do so look forward to your posts. But, you are clogging up my saved messages box, so when is your next book being written? I already have your first one on my Kindle.


  5. Sam, Just started reading your blogs. This one is a gem. Thank you Sir. Very very true… Great insight…