Self-love is the wishing of good to one's self. All persons have self-love. Self-love is natural. It seeks the good. Since we are not self-sufficient, the goods are those that will perfect us as humans. At the time of birth, natural self-love is the very first movement of the will and appetites. It is designed to guide us to our highest ends-to perfect us.
- Self-love seeks the good.
- Self-love seeks the personal good, i. e., man as a person seeks the good.
- Self-love seeks the personal good in society.
The nature of this impulse requires human interaction with its surroundings. Humans are not self-sufficient beings. God did not make us to be self-sufficient. It is important to realize that for the most part we were made to look outside of ourselves for true happiness. God and His creation, all things in time and eternity, are to be objects of our attention, each in its proper order and importance.
CHARACTERISTICS OF TRUE SELF-LOVE
The characteristics of true self-love are the same as those which Aristotle gave for friendship (Nicomachean Ethics, p. 293ff):
- Everyone wishes his friend to exist and to live.
- Everyone desires good things for the friend.
- Everyone does good things for the friend,
- Everyone takes pleasure in the friend's company.
- Everyone is at peace and one mind with the friend sharing joys and sorrows.
Virtuous people, therefore, have true self-love. It is not a bad thing. It motivates us to seek the best for us. It is the basis and the norm by which we are to love our neighbor (Mark 12:33 and Romans 13:9-10). True self-love encourages us to care about others (Bond, 1996).
THE LOVE OF SELF
The love of self is the basis for all our desires and passions. When we obtain the good we feel delight, happy. Even the opposite passions are closely connected with love. All our hatreds and repulsions, all our sorrows, hopes, despairs, all our enterprises, fears and angers, ultimately point to the place where our treasures of love lie. Love is the principle of our actions since it is the principle of our passions. Human acquisition of goods is connected with their psychological happiness. Loss and deprivation of goods are connected with sadness and hurt.
Thomas Traherne a 17th century pastor and philosopher put it like this: "As love is the root of endeavor, so is it the spring of all the passions: They all depend upon love alone. We are angry at that which stands in our way, between our love and its object: We desire an absent good, because we love it: We hope for it, when we conceive its attainment feasible: We rejoice in it, when we have it: We fear to lose it: We grieve when it is gone: We despair, if we cannot get or recover it: We hate all that is opposite to it" (Traherne, 1968, p. 45-46). All of what Traherne said is true, only if we care enough about ourselves to hold and attain what we love. It is not a virtue to care about nothing; it is a psychological malady! The fact that we care about things that please us is normal and expected. The issue of self-love is not that we care about things that are important to us, for that is a given, it is what and who we care about.
A ROOT OF VICE - DEFECT IN LOVE
Every vice is a defect in love. As legitimate self-love is included in every virtue, illegitimate self-love is the basis for every vice. This type of self-love is called inordinate self-love. Inordinate love means "out of proper order". It lacks an appreciation for the authority of natural law and justice. From a psychological point of view it makes the self the center of the universe-good is what is good only for the self, without others considered, bad is what is unpleasant to self, without others considered.
Inordinate self-love seeks a particular thing out of its proper place. Although it is seen as "good" it is actually noxious (Adler, 1991) and detrimental to the health and development of the total person. This person is not doing what is best for self but only that which he or she thinks the self to be. A false image is constructed and fed. The individual clings to the glorified self-portrait because it relieves anxiety, satisfies perceived needs, and represents the negative qualities of the real self as glorious ideals instead.
For example, the compliance and submission of a "moving toward" personality (dependent personality traits) come to be viewed as goodness, love, saintliness, and service. The assertiveness, aggression, and power strivings of the "moving against" personality (aggressive personality traits) come to be viewed as strength, heroism, and leadership. And the aloofness of a "moving away" personality (independent personality traits) is interpreted to be self-control and wisdom (Kirwan, 1984, p. 179). Inordinate self-love is selfishness.
SELFISHNESS MAKES THE INDIVIDUAL THE CENTER OF REALITY
The extreme egoism of selfishness makes the individual the center of reality and causes him or her to credit self with undue importance. Right reason and common sense should show the individual that his or her place is not such in the order of reality. But it does not. Inordinate self-love must abandon reason for the irrational. Rather than letting reason be the ruler over the passions (desires), it becomes their servant. The irrational is grasped to sustain selfishness.
Humans seem to have an innate ability to distort reality for their own personal gain. The inner push to satisfy our basic impulses causes us to have a tendency to impose ourselves on our environment regardless whether what we want is good for the situation or not. There are four ways we deal with reality that lead to problems:
- Hiding reality - i.e., hiding evidence
- Ignoring reality - i.e., ignoring evidence.
- Manipulating reality - i.e., manipulating evidence.
- Manufacturing reality - i.e., manufacturing evidence (Dolhenty, 1999).
Reality becomes distorted because our desires push us to hide, ignore, manipulate, or manufacture what really is the truth of the situation. Inordinate self-love always requires such reality distortions to survive the penetrating gaze of simple human reason!
Humans label and seek out objects that they see as good. Whether they ultimately are good is not the point for the inordinate self-lover. Whether others get hurt in the process is also beside the point. What matters to them is that the objects are wanted. Possession of them feels good. It makes them feel strong and in control.
BUSINESS AND SELF-INTEREST
E. E. Jennings conducted a study on 162 American business executives and then offered this statement to describe their overall attitude toward success in business:
Ambitious business executives do not regard as success-contributing those practices ordinarily regarded as good human relations. They believed that self-interest was the basis of all human nature, that it is safer to be suspicious of men and assume their nature was more bad than good.
In sum, they believed that in order to compete they needed to be selfish, because their competitors were also basically selfish. Philosophically and practically speaking selfishness is a fundamental human problem because selfishness begets selfishness. As R. C. H. Lenski said (MacArthur, 1984): "Cure selfishness, and you have just replanted the Garden of Eden."
In my opinion, no matter the external regulations or incentives, social harmony will not occur without men and women having a love, a caring, for each other. Justice alone is not enough. It is a good start. It may be the best we can do naturally, but it will disintegrate if it is treated only as a principle with no core motivation to care about the other person.
THE REMEDY FOR SELFISHNESS
The remedy for selfishness is not asceticism but a proper appreciation and ordering of all the real goods in the world. Thomas Traherne states it well:
They tell us it (real happiness) doth not consists in riches, it doth not consist in honors, it doth not consist in pleasures. Wherein then, saith a miserable man, doth it consist? Why in contentment, in self-sufficiency, in virtues, in the right government of our passions &c. Were it not better to show the amiableness of virtues, and the benefit of the right government of our passions, the objects of contentment, and the grounds of self-sufficiency, by the truest means? Which these never do. Ought they not to distinguish between true and false riches as our Saviour doth; between real and feigned honors, between clear and pure pleasures and those which are muddy and unwholesome? The honor that cometh from above, the true treasures, those rivers of pleasure that flow at his right hand for evermore, are by all to be sought and by all to be desired. For it is the affront of nature, a making vain the powers, and a baffling the expectations of the soul, to deny it all objects, and a confining it to the grave, and a condemning of it to death, to tie it to the inward unnatural mistaken self-sufficiency and contentment they talk of. By the true government of our passions, we disentangle them from impediments, and fit and guide them to their proper objects. The amiableness of virtue consisteth in this, that by it all happiness is either attained or enjoyed. Contentment and rest ariseth from a full perception of infinite treasures. So that whosoever will profit in the mystery of Felicity, must see the objects of his happiness, and the manner how they are to be enjoyed, and discern also the powers of his soul by which he is to enjoy them, and perhaps, the rules that shall guide him in the way of enjoyment. All which you have here, God, the world, yourself, all things in time and eternity being the objects of your Felicity, God the Giver, and you the receiver (Traherne, 1960, p.105-106).
WHAT IS THE OPPOSITE OF SELFISHNESS?
The opposite of selfishness and greed is not a rejection of all objects and a rush to inner nothingness as Buddhism teaches, but possession (in thought) and appreciation of all objects according to their proper order and importance. The key attitudes are gratitude and thankfulness as God's grace and goodness is seen at the center of all things. Individuals who possess everything they ever wanted and still end up unhappy possess things in themselves, apart from God. Without a vision of God's generosity and provision at the center of all things, they are ultimately empty and impotent in their ability to give the human heart a real and lasting satisfaction and happiness.
God has always wanted His people to live by the type of faith that results in love toward Him and each other. Both the Old and New Testaments command us to "love the Lord our God with all our hearts, and our neighbor as ourselves" (Joshua 22:5; Leviticus 19:18; Mark 12:29-31). Jesus in Mark 12:29-31: "The most important commandment is this: 'Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.' The second is equally important: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' No other commandment is greater than these."
GOD IN ESSENCE IS LOVE
The Bible records many names for God. Many of them reveal some truth about God or some role God fulfills. For example: El-Elyon-God Most High; El-Shaddai-Almighty God; Jehovah-Jireh-the Lord will provide; Jehovah-Rapha-the Lord who heals; Jehovah-Nissi-the Lord our banner; Jehovah-Shalom-the Lord our peace; Jehovah-Raah-the Lord our shepherd; Jehovah-Tsidkenu-the Lord our righteousness; Jehovah-Shammah-the Lord is present; Adonai-Lord (Thiessen, 1986, p. 24). There are more. But John captures the essence of God when he said in 1 John 4:7-8: "Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is born of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God-for God is love."
God in His essence is love. Jesus in His essence is love. "God showed how much he loved us by sending his only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through Him. This is real love. It is not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins." And as other Scriptures record, the Son showed His love by yielding Himself to be that sacrifice. "For even I, the Son of Man, came here not to be served but to serve others, and to give my life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45).
If Jesus Christ is our ultimate example of behavior and attitude (Philippians 2:5-8), then we should follow His lead when we are trying to discern the differences between true self-love and false humility and asceticism, or self-indulgence. Hebrews 12:1-4 is very instructive:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily hinders our progress. And let us run with endurance the race that God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, on whom our faith depends from start to finish. He was willing to die a shameful death on the cross because of the joy he knew would be his afterward. Now he is seated in the place of highest honor beside God's throne in heaven.
Notice that denying Himself is not interpreted as altruism-- giving no consideration to personal interest but only the interest of others. Jesus Christ is God's ultimate expression of love in action. And terminal to the loving action on the cross was "the joy that was set before Him." He valued the best over all other things. And He pursued it with passion, even though it meant temporary pain and deprivations.
With Jesus as our example, we learn that self-love is good. It led Him to the right hand of God the Father. It will lead us to fellowship with our Creator and Redeemer if we allow God to stir and guide it according to His Word. Inordinate self-love, or selfishness, will lead us in the opposite direction, away from God into eternal darkness and damnation.
Adler, Mortimer J. Desires: Right and Wrong. New York: MacMillan, 1991.
Aristotle. The Ethics of Aristotle: The Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. By J.A.K. Thomson. London: Penguin, 1976.
Bond, E. J. Ethics and Human Well-Being. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1996.
Dolhenty, J. "A Theory of Public Nonsense." Internet site: www.radicalacademy.com.
Kirwan, William T. Biblical Concepts for Christian Counseling. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984.
MacArthur, John Jr. 1 Corinthians. Chicago: Moody, 1984.
Thiessen, Henry Clarence. Lectures in Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1986
Traherne, Thomas. Centuries. Wilton: Morehouse, 1960.
Traherne, Thomas. Christian Ethicks. Ithaca: Cornell, 1968.
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