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Is Self-Love Always Selfishness?

“Narcissus” by Caravaggio (1594-96)

We all say we’re against selfishness. But what is selfishness? And if God hates selfishness, why does our own happiness play such an important role in Biblical motivation? Some people think of selfishness as merely loving oneself, and that love for self is where the sin in selfishness lies. As you will see, I think we can define selfishness with more precision.

As far as I’m concerned, Jonathan Edwards answered these questions well, and he has in turn helped me answer them. Edwards spoke of self-love quite a bit in his writings. He explored the topic often in his personal notebooks (aka “Miscellanies”). Perhaps I can summarize his thought well enough here to help you as well (if you’ve not already come to conclusions on the matter). I’ll be using most his seventh sermon in Charity and Its Fruits, “Charity Contrary to a Selfish Spirit.”

First, let’s establish what self-love is in general. Self-love is the pursuit of your own happiness or joy. Your love of happiness is absolutely crucial to who you are as a person. In fact, your will functions because of self-love. To remove self-love would obliterate your humanity, for it would obliterate your will. You are hard-wired (so to speak) to seek happiness and joy, and this is because of your innate self-love.

Generally speaking, self-love is not innately evil. First, since self-love is innate to human nature, self-love is not evil. Some might concede that self-love is innate, but they might argue that self-love is an innate quality of our depraved human nature. Yet, happiness and joy was certainly a part of human nature before the fall, so the essential quality of self-love (in general) is not a mark of depravity. Second, Scripture assumes that we have self-love, and it does not condemn it. In fact, the authors of Scripture use self-love as a bench-mark for our love for others:

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” Leviticus 19:18

“And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Matthew 22:39 (cf. Leviticus 19:18; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27)

“For the commandments … are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Romans 13:9 (cf. Gal 6:15; Jame 2:8)

“In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.” Ephesians 5:25-32

These Scriptures show that there is something in self-love that is innate, and that self-love, as a good, is even the gauge by which we recognize that we are loving others as we ought. Yet these Scriptures also betray the dark truth that self-love often goes awry. That the Scriptures have to tell us to love others, and indeed, make this love for others along with love for the God the very sum of all morality, shows that we do not love as should. Indeed, we distort and twist self-love. Self-love becomes inordinate, and by it we sin. Many Scriptures condemn selfishness or inordinate self-love. “Love does not insist on its own way” (1 Cor 13:5). In 2 Tim 3:2, Paul warns that in the last days “people will be lovers of self.” Something has gone very wrong with self-love. Since the fall, broken self-love is the norm. It is the air we breathe. Inordinate self-love is so much a part of who we are in our depravity that we are often blind to its extent and effects.

So self-love in general is good and necessary. But there is an inordinate self-love that is selfishness. What makes self-love inordinate? When does our pursuit of happiness turn into sin?

First, self-love is not sinful in the degree or height of our personal happiness. Psa 4:7 explodes with personal happiness: “You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound.” The saints in heaven are very happy people. Their joy and gladness has no limit. Their self-love is full to the brim and overflowing. The Lord promises to bring great happiness to his people with himself in Psalm 81:10: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it.” David is exuberant: “I will be glad and exult in you” (Psa 9:2). God does not want us to cap our own happiness or self-love. So self-love is not inordinate in its limit or height. The Lord brings his people great happiness and joy. In fact, this happiness from the Lord is so great, we could not even fathom it, save for special revelation: “But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory” (1 Cor 2:7).

Self-love becomes selfishness in two ways. First, our own self-love may be important in our minds compared with the happiness and self-love of others (including God). We regard too highly our own self-love vis-à-vis our love for the glory of God and others’ self-love. Just because you love your own happiness does not mean that you fail to consider the glory of God or happiness of others. The problem again is not that such men love themselves too much, but that they do not love God and others enough. Jonathan Edwards puts it well:

“In some respects wicked men do not love themselves enough. They do not love themselves as much as the godly do. They do not love that which is indeed their true happiness. Therefore it is said of wicked men that they hate their own souls. But in other respects they love themselves too much” (Charity and Its Fruits, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards [Yale] 8:257).

We are simultaneously capable of enjoying great happiness and of wanting to see God greatly glorified and others equally happy. Most men do not do this, and so they are selfish. The sin is not in the degree of self-love but in its comparison.

Second, self-love turns into selfishness when our happiness is founded upon the things connected with ourselves. A person is selfish when they love their own personal good, rather than the good of others. Here again the problem is not the degree of self-love but the place where it is found. Here a person’s love for himself excludes others. We delight in our personal, private good. The person who is selfish in this way is deceived into thinking that their happiness is found when they are personally excelling. They think their personal honor, glory, riches, and pleasure is the way to find happiness.

So selfishness is not a high degree of happiness or in a desire to be very happy. Selfishness is not merely self-love. Selfishness is either when this pursuit of happiness is too important to us compared with the glory of God and happiness of others, or when our pursuit of happiness is directed only towards our own good. Such selfishness is such a long-standing characteristic of human nature that we now regard it to be a minor offense. Yet Paul laments, “For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ” (Phil 2:21). The Bible sees selfishness as an absolute opposite to true Christian love. More on that next time.

About Ryan Martin

Ryan Martin is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Granite Falls, Minnesota. Prior to that, he served as the associate pastor of Bethany Bible Church in Hendersonville, North Carolina. He is on the board of directors of Religious Affections Ministries. Ryan received his undergraduate degree at Northland Baptist Bible College, and has received further training from Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis, Minn. (M.Div., 2004; Ph.D., 2013). He was ordained in 2009 at Bible Baptist Church of Elk River, Minn. (now Otsego, Minn.). He has a wife and children too. Ryan is the associate editor of Hymns to the Living God (Religious Affections Ministries, 2017). He contributed to the Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 2017) and is the author of Understanding Affections in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards: "The High Exercises of Divine Love" (T&T Clark, 2018).