In what sense, if any, ought I to love myself? The way that our culture defines “self-love” is unbiblical and worldly. And many verses in the Bible make me hesitant to believe that there is anything inherently lovable in me. (“There is none who do good, no not one.”) Nowhere in the Bible can I find a command to “love myself,” much less an explanation of what that would be like. And yet, self-hatred seems equally unbiblical. I know I’m missing something here. Could you share your thoughts on this?
This is a great little question. A couple of comments first. Although you and I are sinners, and, by nature, objects of wrath due to those sins, it is also true that we were made in God’s image. Everything God made is good. In Genesis 1:31 we see that God made us, not only good, but very good. God created us so that he could love us and so that we could love other people. If God loves us, and if God wants others to love us, then we must be lovable–very lovable.
There is no biblical command for us to love ourselves, just like there is no biblical command for us to breathe or to eat. We naturally love ourselves. For example, if there ever were a command that God did not need to issue, it was the command to be fruitful and multiply. Yet God gave this command in Genesis 2. We have done that well. I suppose a command to love ourselves might be in this category. God wants us to do it, but he does not feel a big need to command ourselves to do this. In fact, he never repeated the command to be fruitful and to multiply, as it is not necessary. Jesus did say to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. In this, it is implicit that Jesus assumes we love ourselves. There are a number of other passages in which it is implicit that we love ourselves.
So, what should love of self look like? You are right that there is a kind of self-love which is unhealthful and destructive. This is the love of self which excludes our ability to love others and to love God. We should love ourselves enough to see that we stay reasonably healthy. We should love ourselves sufficiently to protect ourselves from harm, and to protect ourselves from those who would do us harm (unless it is in seeking first the kingdom). We should see that we have sufficient food and water, and if the food tastes good, that is better than if it tastes bad. Enjoying ourselves is not sinful. We can see that in the book of Ecclesiasts, in which Solomon tells us that it is better to be wise than to be foolish and it is better to enjoy life than to not enjoy life. We should love ourselves enough that we seek out a life-partner who will love us back. Think about how you ought to love another person–you should seek that he or she is reasonably healthy, fulfilled, secure, hopeful and close to God. You should take care that this is true of yourself, but not in a way that excludes other people having these things. You should love yourself enough to pay your bills and to stay out of jail (unless it is in the cause of Christ).
Let me give an example which might be helpful. Some people have an extreme closeness within their own family. This love within the family, in and of itself, is a good thing. But for some, their love of family is so internalized, that they seem incapable of loving neighbors or people not like themselves. They are overly “tribal.” In this case, family love, like self-love, which is normally a good thing can become very unhealthy. Jesus wants us to love our neighbor, not just our family. But he does want us to love our family. This can be an analogy to self-love, which is a good thing, but it self-love causes us to not love others then it has become sinful.
Galatians 6:5 might be helpful. In this passage, Paul tells us that each of us should carry our own load. We need to care of our own basic needs if at all possible, not becoming a burden on others. This is a kind of healthy self-love. Seeing that I am reasonably well fed, well dressed and well housed is a form of self-love. But in Galatians 6:2 he also tells us that we should be willing to carry each other’s burdens–especially when those burdens become overwhelming. Both are true. We should love self and we should love others. These do not contradict. Self-loathing, self-hatred and self-injury are sinful. They are also very harmful. God never suggests such a thing. Loving self and loving others are not a contradiction. There is a reasonable balance to this, and in a healthy church, others are so committed to loving us that we can safely give more energy to loving others because others are so committed to loving us. But our love of others should not produce a self-destructive tendency. Extreme asceticism, which has been practiced by certain Christian groups is not helpful.
I hope this helps.