Did Jesus Say I Must “Love Myself” First?
If you think you should love yourself first, you missed his point
Doug Britton, MFT
“Loving yourself first” (before you can love others)
Introduction: Multitudes of people, Christians included, go through life feeling discouraged, depressed, and unlovable. Understandably, they desperately want to escape a negative self-image.
Many people think the “cure” to a poor self-image is to learn to love yourself.
In fact, some people think Jesus said you must love yourself before you can love others. They support this idea by pointing to Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). They think “as yourself” means you cannot love others unless you first love yourself. As you will see, that’s not what Jesus was saying.
If we aren’t called to love ourselves, does that mean we should hate ourselves? No. God doesn’t want you to go through life saying, “I hate myself.”
The alternative to loving yourself is not hating yourself. It is to fully grasp and enjoy God’s love for you.
You will read more about enjoying God’s love later in this study. But first let’s look a little deeper at the idea of “loving yourself.”
Did Jesus make loving yourself a third commandment?
The phrase “love your neighbor as yourself” comes from Jesus’ answer to the question, “Which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” (Matthew 22:36). Let’s look at the full passage:
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:34-40)
In this passage, Jesus said there are two great commandments, one of which is to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:34-40).
If we say we can’t love others until we love ourselves, we are essentially saying Jesus gave us a third commandment. In fact, without realizing it, we are suggesting that to love yourself is the second greatest commandment, for we are saying it comes before the commandment to love others. We are saying that loving ourselves is a precondition to loving other people.
Notice that Jesus said, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:40). He didn’t say “on these three commandments.”
Jesus was (and is) a superb communicator. He would have said “on these three commandments” if that was what he meant. But that’s not what he meant. He did not give us a third commandment.
Throughout the Bible, we are commanded to love others—without being told to “love ourselves first.” For example:
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. (John 13:34)
Do everything in love. (1 Corinthians 16:14)
Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. (1 Peter 54:)
This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another.: (1 john3:11)
Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. (1 John 3:18)
Did Jesus say to love yourself first?
Jesus simply said to love others “as yourself.” He didn’t say to love others after you love yourself. That’s just something people read into the passage.
Let me illustrate another way you could read into this passage — and be just as wrong: Imagine that I hate myself. Since Jesus said to love my neighbor “as myself,” does this mean I should hate my neighbor since I hate myself? After all, I am supposed to love my neighbor the same way I love myself. (I’m sure you would agree it’s obvious this isn’t what Jesus was saying.)
When Jesus said to love your neighbor, he wasn’t saying to love your neighbor after you love yourself. And he wasn’t saying to hate your neighbor if you hate yourself.
He was simply saying to love other people.
What does “as yourself” mean?
What does loving your neighbor “as yourself” mean? It’s pretty straightforward. Throughout the Bible, it is assumed that we love ourselves. It is part of human nature, part of what it means to be a human being. Here’s how Paul put it:
After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church. (Ephesians 5:29)
When Jesus said to love your neighbor “as yourself,” he simply was emphasizing how important it is to love your neighbor, to be genuinely concerned for others’ welfare. He was not adding a third commandment or a precondition to loving others
Let’s look at another verse that helps us see this point. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul wrote that each husband “must love his wife as he loves himself” (Ephesians 5:33). Was Paul saying a husband can’t love his wife until he learns to love himself? Of course not. That would have nullified his forceful instructions to husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5:25-32).
Jesus was not talking about feeling love for yourself
You might say, “But I hate myself” or “I hate my body.” That may seem to be true on one level. Many of us are disgusted with ourselves or our bodies. Some are even self-destructive.
But Jesus wasn’t talking about feeling love for ourselves. He was talking about the reality that underneath everything else, at the core of our being — even under self-loathing or self-destructive behavior — we want the best for ourselves.
What does it mean to “love your neighbor”?
I’ve been writing about the idea of “loving yourself.” Now let’s take a look at what Jesus meant when he said to “love your neighbor.”
Once again, he wasn’t talking about feeling love. In Mark 10:29-37, Jesus showed us what he meant by telling a story about a Samaritan man who helped an injured Jewish man.
Read the story. When you do, you will see that loving your neighbor means being concerned about other people — seeking the best for them, and helping them in their time of need.
Self-love can be dangerous
Is it absolutely wrong to feel self-love (or to love yourself)? Not necessarily. It may be possible to say something such as, “I love myself because God created me, and he loves me.” Or, you might say, “God loves me, so I am lovable.” However, this can be a dangerous road to travel since it’s easy to focus more and more on ourselves — our accomplishments, our popularity, our power, our wealth. That’s why the Bible actually warns against self-love.
But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy … (2 Timothy 3:1-2)
When Paul wrote these words, he was writing about selfish, self-centered love—a type of love that is very different from the self-giving love God wants us to have.
The key is to enjoy God’s love
If loving yourself is not the answer to a negative self-image, feelings of inferiority, or sense of failure, what is? Is self-hate the opposite of self-love? No. That clearly is not God’s desire.
The answer is to understand the depth of God’s love, mercy, forgiveness, and grace. He demonstrated this love in the most powerful way possible when he sacrificed Jesus on the cross to die for our sins.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions — it is by grace you have been saved. (Ephesians 2:4-5)
When we understand God’s love, when we deeply know he loves us, we don’t need to focus on loving ourselves. The more we experience God’s forgiveness and love, the more we think of him and the less we think about ourselves. When we are excited and secure in his love for us, we don’t need to try to find meaning by loving ourselves.
We can rejoice and say, “I am loved.”
Your love, O LORD, reaches to the heavens, your faithfulness to the skies. (Psalm 36:5)
But I am like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God; I trust in God’s unfailing love for ever and ever. (Psalm 52:8)
The LORD appeared to us in the past, saying: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving-kindness.” (Jeremiah 31:3)
How priceless is your unfailing love! Both high and low among men find refuge in the shadow of your wings. (Psalm 36:7)
What does it mean to grasp and enjoy God’s love?
Would you like to know more about God’s love? If so, check out this online Bible study: God’s love for me — A personal Bible study on God’s love for us.
1. Should you stop trying to love others until you love yourself (or until you feel love for yourself)? Why or why not?
2. Does God want you to hate yourself or feel bad about yourself? Explain your answer.
About Doug Britton, MFT
Doug Britton, Bible-based Marriage and Family Therapist, has helped hundreds of thousands of people as a therapist, clinical director of a treatment center, seminar speaker, radio cohost, and author of over twenty books that show how to apply God's truths in your daily life. (Visit www.dougbrittonbooks.com.)
Copyright © 2020 Doug Britton. Permission granted to print for personal use. (Scripture verses are from the New International Version, copyright © 1984.) See reprint policy.