“You can’t love others well until you love yourself.”
I’ve heard the phrase (or at least something like it) used as a starting point for a self-help message by a “preacher” on tv and seen it plastered on pictures online… The tv personality (and most of the professing Christians that I have heard/seen use the phrase) supposedly got the idea from Mathew 22:39.
“The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.” (HCSB)
I’m sure you noted that the first half of the verse indicates that this is a “second” following something before it. I’m also sure you noted that the primary factor in this verse is “your neighbor” not “yourself.”
But let’s back up a moment and get some context – in the 22nd chapter of Matthew, Jesus finishes a long string of parables and deals with several “test questions” brought to Him by the Pharisees and Sadducees (taxes and resurrection respectively), and then comes the following passage.
But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” ~ Matthew 22:34-40 (ESV)
Here Jesus has quoted from Deuteronomy 6:5 for the greatest, most defining commandment from God, and then He summarizes the whole of the Law with His added “second commandment.”
If you go back and read Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and even Numbers, you get a much better sense of what “loving your neighbor as yourself” looks like, than if you just have the self-esteem toting, “you are special and deserve to be loved,” material success focused societal lense of our day.
Jesus’ statement even taken by itself cannot come close to being interpreted as meaning anything along the lines of “here Jesus has acknowledged the truth that if you don’t like yourself you’ll be an angry and unhappy, and therefore unloving person. Because if you can’t even accept yourself for who you are and stop being critical of yourself, you’ll never be able to love people.” No. The context of the statement and its relation to the Law of God make the treatment of your neighbor the primary and only subject in that sentence. No person listening to Jesus at the time would have inserted anything about their “self feelings” into what was being taught.
Inserting the “importance of good self-esteem” concept into the statement also becomes impossible in light of Jesus’ direct teachings on the subject of “self.”
Then Jesus told 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. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. ~ Matthew 16:24-27
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple. Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is of no use either for the soil or for the manure pile. It is thrown away. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” ~ Luke 14:26-35 (ESV)
These passages obviously indicate that the disciple is to be marked first and foremost by self-denial and self-sacrifice. And I believe this is further attested to by the way the epistles echo Jesus’ summary of the “Law and Prophets.”
For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. ~ Romans 13:9-10
Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called? If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. ~ James 2:5-17 (ESV)
No mention of how you feel about “you” except to point out hypocrisy or self-deception.
In fact, I would submit to the reader that something of an opposite perspective is being taken by Jesus (and His Apostles) – that being something like this: “you already love yourself so much that you should be treating others as good as you treat yourself.”
NOTE: Something of the idea in Ephesians 5:29 comes to mind as a Scriptural phraseology for what I’ve suggested above.
You see, human beings are so selfish that even in the case of those who are suicidal and/or “hateful” of themselves in one way or another, they are still so focused on themselves that they are literally loving/worshiping themselves over anyone else. Romans 1:18-32, 3:10-18, 3:23, Jeremiah 17:9, etc…
To paraphrase several great preachers; we don’t need more/better self-esteem or to learn to love/accept/be happy with ourselves – we need to repent of our selfish selfcenteredness and evil, and to hold God in high esteem and love Him to the utter forgetfulness of ourselves so that the only thing left for our consideration is how best to obey His commands.