Humility and Self-Love: Mutually Exclusive or Mutually Essential?

–Dr. Garry K. Brantley

I don’t know whom they were talking about, but it was obvious that he was in deep trouble. Apparently, this guy had been a real “jerk” to one of them, and these teenage girls wanted his head on a platter.

I observed this scene while at a mall in Georgia where I used to live. They were huddled together, hands on hips, making those head and eye gestures that teenage girls do so effectively. Taken together, their body language said, “He’s disgusting, and we’re going to make his life miserable!”

As I walked past this angry gathering, I overheard one of them say above the din, “Yeah, he’s in love alright…in love with himself!” “Whoa,” I said to myself as I strode down the mall, “He really must be a jerk.” Like those irked teenagers, I agreed all-too-quickly that loving self is intrinsically narcissistic and, quite frankly, disgusting.

To buttress my conclusion, I quickly called to mind several biblical passages that place a premium on humility, and warns against thinking too highly of oneself (cf. Lk. 18:10-14; 1 Pet. 5:6). Yet, as I was mentally dismantling this obviously-insensitive guy, another passage nudged its way into my thinking. “Love the Lord your God… and your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39).

“Love your neighbor as yourself?” Doesn’t that statement imply that we should love ourselves? In fact, doesn’t it imply that without a healthy love for self we cannot adequately love others. It appears, then, that the Bible makes two, mutually-exclusive demands of us: (1) humility; and (2) self-love. How do we reconcile the two?

In response to this apparent dilemma, C.S. Lewis wrote in the Screwtape Letters: “[God] wants to kill [humans’] animal self-love as soon as possible; but it is His long-term policy…to restore to them a new kind of self-love—a charity and gratitude for all selves, including their own.” I think Lewis was right. In the biblical sense, love for self does not suggest a self-centered arrogance. Nor does humility demand a self-deprecating, devaluing of our own self worth.

Taken in tandem, these two biblical principles bring our view of self into proper focus. An humble, self love means we will delight in our own accomplishments—and those of others—as the marvelous work of God in our, and their, lives. As the Holy Spirit develops these biblical traits within us, we truly will “love our neighbors…as ourselves!”