What’s wrong with the non-biblical command “Love yourself first?”
Richard Foster (and those who embrace his views) teach the non-biblical command “love yourself first.” We have to learn to love ourselves first. When we finally love ourselves enough, then we can start to love others. But this is not true: we do not have to learn to love ourselves first before we can love our neighbor. This non-biblical command contradicts the biblical view on human nature and it leads to idolatry. Jesus taught that “all the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments [love God above all and love your neighbor as yourself]” (Matt. 22:34-40). “Love God above all” is the most important commandment in the Bible and it boils down to worship God, submit to God, give glory to God. “Love your neighbor as yourself” boils down to take care of your neighbor consciously the way you take care of yourself automatically.
But this is not what Foster and many church leaders are teaching. Richard Foster claims (Celebration of Discipline, p. 114, emphasis mine) that “Jesus made the ability to love ourselves the prerequisite for our reaching out to others (Matt. 22:39).” Church leaders who promote Foster’s views, defend his idea with arguments such as “you can’t love another until you love yourself first” and “you can’t give to others what you haven’t received yourself first.” However, in the greatest-commandment-discussion Jesus does not command that we have to love ourselves first. Jesus presupposes an automatic self-love. Apparently, there is no need to say to us that we have to love ourselves first since it’s deeply ingrained in our human nature. We are selfish by nature. Nobody has to teach us that. The ‘love’ Jesus is talking about in “love your neighbor as yourself” has nothing to do with having warm, mushy feelings about ourselves or developing a high self-esteem. It’s far more down-to-earth. It’s selfishly and automatically taking care of our own interests. With this kind of automatic self-love in mind, Jesus says that we have to take care of our neighbor consciously the way we take care of ourselves automatically. Three Bible texts to illustrate this:
In Galatians 5:13-14 Paul says, “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” This shows that loving your neighbor means taking care of your neighbor, not having warm, mushy feelings about your neighbor.
In Ephesians 5:28-29 Paul says, “… husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body…” When the husband is hungry or thirsty, he will automatically look for something to eat or to drink. Taking care of your neighbor’s needs the way you take care of your own is what loving your neighbor is all about.
In Philippians 2:3-5 Paul says, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.” Again, it tells us that you have to take care of your neighbor’s interests consciously the way you take care of your own interests automatically.
The non-biblical command “love yourself first” may seem rather innocent, but it leads to idolatry. We are called to submit to God (love God) as our first priority. To teach that you have to love yourself first before you can love God or your neighbor is therefore teaching idolatry. The false command “love yourself first” encourages a primary focus on ourselves, our problems, our feelings, etc. Even drug addicts or people suffering from depression, who may not take care of themselves, are still primarily focused on themselves, not on their neighbors. Depressed people may struggle with self-hatred, but they do not struggle with selfishness. None of us does. This selfishness is biblically regarded as loving yourself. We don’t have to teach people to do that. Everybody is automatically selfish. If people wait until they feel they love themselves enough, they will never proceed to love others. This is wrong: the non-biblical command “love yourself first” leads to the idolatry of worshiping ourselves.
Photo by Bart via Flickr