Chatting with my wife one day she raised the question, ‘How do we really love ourselves in a healthy and biblical way?’ Let’s face it, postmodern society has been swamped by a plethora of pop psychology answers with minimal or no reference to biblical values, courtesy Joel Osteen, Oprah Winfrey, et al. Melanie and I (still on a learning curve ourselves) decided to air the topic in our house church gathering over two Sunday mornings. We based our discussions on Mt. 22:34-40, Jesus’ response to the legalistic Pharisees: “‘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 neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Some introductory comments:
- It’s always problematic when, in Pharisee fashion,’ officials’ rule congregations with wrong motives and legalism. 
- Any kind of legalism heavily affects our self-image, as a community and as individuals. The Pharisees obsessed over the Old Testament’s 613 laws plus those of their many traditions.
- Every day all good Jews recited the Shema of Deut. 6:4-5. Note how Jesus replaced the Shema’s ‘loving with strength’ with ‘loving with mind.’ I appreciate that, because my mind constantly boggles at the greatness of our sovereign, beyond-genius, loving God (cf. Is. 40:12-26). I also appreciate Jesus’ simplification of things, reducing the 613 commandments to essentially two! (btw, Jesus also particularized ‘neighbour’ as the needy person crossing our path – it’s actually impossible to demonstrate his agape-love to the billions in our world today)
- Everything hinges on loving God supremely. We love God because he first lavishly and unconditionally loved us in Christ (1 John 4:19). You see, a biblical self-image has everything to do with gracious relationship rather than clinical rules, i.e. our relationship with God, our neighbour and ourselves. Such relationship always leads to actions of love.
In a society obsessed with ‘self,’ personal ambition and success, believers need to heed the apostle Paul’s warning in 2 Tim. 3:1ff, ‘But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive… without love…’ (the ‘last days’ of course began with Jesus’ and the Spirit’s coming: Acts 2)
- When talking about a valid self-love, we’re not condoning self-absorption and self-centredness. Jesus exhorted us to ‘deny’ ugly self-love, take up our cross (a killing instrument) and follow him (Mk. 8:34). Paul says the same in Gal. 2:20. What we are talking about here is a valid self-esteem balanced with an esteem for others: ‘Each of you should should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others’ (Phil. 2:4). Mt. 22:39 is rendered in the MSG, ‘love others as well as you love yourself,’ yet many evangelical scholars insist that Jesus’ words here don’t apply to a proper self-love, which I find puzzling in terms of the wider biblical revelation.
- After all, all of mankind was created ‘in the image of God’ (Gen. 1 & 2), which pleased him no end. In addition, all believers, having been affected by disastrous egoistic choice (Gen. 3), have been ‘re-created’ in Christ! (2 Cor. 5:17). You have to love that! In fact, our bodies are now God’s magnificent ‘holy temple’ (1 Cor. 6:19-20). That should kill all Gnostic tendencies about body and soul.
- Note Jesus’ own security and self-identity in the Father’s love. At his baptism there came a voice from heaven, “‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased'” (Mt. 3:16-17). That ‘blessed assurance’ sustained him through thick and thin. So it can work with us.
In summary, how do we pursue a valid and biblical self-esteem??
- By believing the Bible, the witness of God’s love for all mankind in Christ. It’s a biblical and psychological fact that we cannot truly love others if we don’t truly love ourselves. To quote one of my favourite authors, Henri Nouwen: ‘Claiming your own blessedness always leads to a deep desire to bless others. The characteristic of the blessed ones is that, wherever they go, they always speak words of blessing. It is remarkable how easy it is to bless others, to speak good things to and about them, to call forth their beauty and truth, when you yourself are in touch with your own blessedness!’ (cf. Mt. 5’s Beatitudes).
- By finding our identity in the God of the Bible. [In these days of LGBTQ et al, personal pain would be much lessened if we (as recommended for example by apologist Ravi Zacharias in his responses to the gay movement), sought our identity in GOD] Furthermore, when secure in our divine identity we won’t be so quick to compare ourselves to others (their personalities, intelligence, looks, giftedness, etc), nor will we allow manipulators to ‘control’ us and steal our peace and joy. Anthony De Mello (Indian Jesuit priest and psychotherapist, 1931-1987) in The Way to Love, wrote bluntly, ‘Look at your life and see how you have filled its emptiness with people. As a result they have a stranglehold on you. See how they control your behavior by their approval or disapproval. They hold the power to ease your loneliness with their company, to send your spirits soaring with their praise, to bring you down to the depths with their criticism and rejection. Take a look at yourself spending almost every waking moment of your day placating and pleasing people, whether they are living or dead. You live by their norms, conform to their standards, seek their company, desire their love, dread their ridicule, long for their applause, meekly submit to the guilt they lay upon you; you are terrified to go against the fashion in the way you dress or speak or act or even think. And observe how even when you control them you depend on them and are enslaved by them. People have become so much part of your being that you cannot even imagine living a life that is unaffected or uncontrolled by them’ . Wow! In John’s Gospel the Jews are said to be incapable of believing because they look to one another for approval: ‘How can you believe if you accept praise from one another, yet make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God?’ (Jn. 5:44)
- By learning to receive God’s love for us in Christ. This is fundamental to all Christian living and loving. Some of us find it so difficult to receive from others, even a deserved compliment.
- Mark de Jesus suggests we love ourselves according to the very practical 1 Cor. 13:4a (Paul’s Hymn of Love): ‘Love is patient, love is kind.’ Let’s learn to be patient with ourselves, with regard to personal and spiritual growth – life is a marathon, not a sprint. And let us learn to be kind to ourselves. One mother of a number of busy children disclosed how once per annum she books herself into a top hotel for at least two days, only to return a much better mom!
 I must warn against a new tendency to draw the Church back into subtle legalism, viz the multi-layered ‘Hebrew Roots and Sacred Name Movement’ in the USA and even my own country, where many post-apartheid Afrikaner friends (I am 50% Afrikaans myself) imho are going through an identity crisis of sorts. These folk accuse us of ‘replacement theology,’ i.e. replacing the old covenant with the new, which of course is exactly what Jesus did according to all of Galatians, Col. 2:16ff, Heb. 8, etc! If we are ‘replacement theologians,’ then so are they, i.e. replacing Jesus (full light) with OT law (shadow). I don’t give up my bacon that easily, lol.
 Within days of our discussion, a middle-aged single mother we have been mentoring, phoned me. She was desperate to escape the accusations of a wayward and manipulating son that claimed she had never loved him nor would ever love him. I shared de Mello’s words with her. She wrote back almost immediately so say all false guilt was gone and she was free!