When I was younger, I struggled immensely with low self-esteem. I hated my naturally curly hair and sought to cover up the coils with the heat of a hot iron. I berated myself for being too quiet. I compared myself with other girls and assumed there must be something wrong with me since I didn't get boys' attention as they did.
If cultural ideology was a person, they would have wrapped their arms around me and whispered sweetly in my ear, "You just need to love yourself." Our culture teaches how low self-esteem is combated with self-love–that in order for us to feel more confident, pretty, etc., we must love ourselves. But is there any truth to this? Is it biblical for us to love ourselves?
There is an element of truth to the encouragement to love ourselves. Each one of us was created by God. Genesis 1:26 says that God made us in His image, which means that every person has worth and value in the eyes of God. To hate ourselves or pick at how God created us devalues our identity as image-bearers. The creative intentionality of our God to shape our noses, choose our heights, and select the pigment of our skin is meant to lead us to rejoice, not scowl. Being an image-bearer means we are to treat ourselves and others with kindness and respect and take care of the bodies God gave us.
But being an image-bearer also means that God created us uniquely and intentionally to reflect His image. While we should be grateful for how the Lord made us, who we are and what we look like is not meant to point others to ourselves but to God. This is where biblical truth and cultural ideology begin to deviate. Self-love is exactly what it sounds like: love of self. While the encouragement to love oneself can remind us of our worth, where the encouragement goes too far is its permission to glorify oneself. Listen to how self-love encouragement glorifies the self:
"Loving yourself means you do what's best for you."
"Your relationship with yourself is the most important and longest relationship you'll ever have."
Mostly every article I read about self-love also included this sentiment: loving yourself isn't selfish. Again, it is right and good to view ourselves as God sees us and created us. That is biblical. However, self-love fails to be biblical when it exhorts us to place ourselves before others. Listen to how the Bible contrasts with self-love ideology:
"Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves." – Philippians 2:3
"If anyone wants to be first, he must be last and servant of all." – Mark 9:35
The love that we see in Scripture is not selfish; in fact, Scripture makes it known that love is not self-seeking (1 Corinthians 13:4–5). True love is not selfish–it is sacrificial. We see this truth boldly in the sacrifice of Christ. 1 John 3:16 says, "This is how we have come to know love: He laid down his life for us." Jesus loved us so much that He laid down His life for us, even though we did not deserve such a sacrifice.
What my younger self needed was not self-love but to rest in the love of Christ. Thankfully, over time how I viewed myself changed but not by placing the spotlight on myself but by placing the spotlight on the cross. Our identity in Christ defines our self-worth. Therefore, low self-esteem is not combated with self-love but with the sacrificial love of Christ. When we feel broken and worthless, we need to bask in Christ's love. We need to remind ourselves of who we are in light of what Christ has done.
As we rest in the love of Christ, we can see ourselves as God sees us. Not only this, but when we rest in the love of Christ, we are fueled to love others rightly. 1 John 3:16 continues by saying, "We should also lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters." We model the sacrificial love of Christ on the cross as we make sacrifices for the sake of others. Placing others before ourselves does not mean that we allow ourselves to be harmed for the sake of seeking to show love. There are situations where we need to distance or remove ourselves from people who do us harm. But what it does mean is that we strive to consider others' needs before we consider our own and strive to serve rather than be served. When we take our eyes off ourselves, we can fixate on the love of Christ and share His love with others.