The Joy of the Gospel can be found in putting others before ourselves and loving one another as we love ourselves. Consequently, a disordered love of self, both in excess and in defect, can hinder our mission to live out this core truth. While there will often be a temptation toward either extreme, a balanced love of self is possible and will bear abundant fruit in the harvest of our lives.
St. Thomas Aquinas instructs that love is willing the good of the other, seeking what is best for the other over even our own desires. This vision of love is modeled by Jesus Christ and the saints who, even while accepting suffering and mistreatment from others, saw themselves as worthy of God’s Love just as much as anyone else. Seeing that spiritual needs are of a much greater value than the physical, we have many images of men and women, who, while they may have neglected the physical needs, always sought their own spiritual good, which Aquinas would affirm as accurately loving oneself.
Every person is here for a reason and is unrepeatable, irreplaceable, totally unique and is owed “to be treated as an object of love, not as an object for use”. In our search to serve others, it might be appropriate to allow our physical needs to fall by the wayside, like a poor father eating very little and skipping meals to ensure his wife and children have enough to eat. However, in order to live out the Joy of the Gospel, it is best to avoid the two extremes of, not one’s self-esteem, but the important relationship we have with ourselves.
Excessive Love of Self
St. Thomas says, “Self-love or egoism is manifestly the source of all sins.” This excessive love of self involves too much of a focus to be placed on one’s self, which in turn can cause the inversion of Christ’s Gospel message. Persons with this egoist self-love seek to put themselves before others, and instead of “love one another as you love yourself,” they hope others will love them as much as they love themselves. This is simply narcissism and inhibits the Christian from exercising the true love we are called to show one another.
In 1 Peter 5:8, St. Peter instructs, “Let your love for one another be intense.” If we are narcissists, we cannot put others before ourselves and will only seek another’s good when it is convenient or comfortable for us. While we might succeed at times in a diminished love, St. Peter says “intense,” not diminished, which helps us to understand the trajectory we must aim for if we are serious about our faith.
St. Augustine clearly identifies the danger excessive self-love puts us in with regard to our relationship with God. He states, “There can only be two basic loves…the love of God unto the forgetfulness of self, or the love of self unto the forgetfulness of God.” A narcissistic love of self tends to push God out of the picture. He is always ready to ascend the throne of our hearts, but He will never remove our free will and take our hearts by force.
However, when we come to realize that we have put ourselves on the throne of our hearts, God will help us with the revolution to win them back for Him. St. Francis of Assisi states, “Above all the grace and the gifts that Christ gives to his beloved is that of overcoming self.” There is an abundance of direction on how to overthrow our tyrannical selves in the wisdom of the Church found in Scripture and Tradition. Besides Scripture, I recommend The Three Conversions in the Spiritual Life by Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., Imitation of Christ, and The Dialogue of St. Catherine of Sienna for starters. Furthermore, making known to God our desires for a revolution is a good first step toward opening the door to the grace and gifts Christ longs to give us.
Defective Love of Self
While it is a great good to seek self-sacrifice and self-denial in our relationship with God and others, we also want to be weary of debasing ourselves to the point of self hatred. Scripture does say, “It is better to be lowly in Spirit” (Proverbs 16:19), however, this is a lowliness in which we still retain our value, in that, recognizing our place before God, we realize His power and our need for Him. We want to reject the effects of our brokenness in fallen human nature, i.e., our weakness, sinfulness, and failures in love, however, in our lowliness, we must still embrace the value given to us by our Father who made us good.
St. Paul lives this out as he recognizes that it is not himself that he hates, but the effects of his brokenness as he says, “We know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold into slavery to sin. What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate…Now if [I] do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me…Misierable one that I am! Who will deliver me from this mortal body? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ Our Lord.” (Romans 7:14,15, 20, 24, 25).
In this way, St. Paul shows us how to apply to ourselves the adage, “Hate the sin, not the sinner.”
He further recognizes that, even with the baggage of doing what we hate, we still preserve great value as children of God as “Those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God…and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:14, 17). As God’s children, we are close to God, who cannot love anything contrary to the good, and, because God made us inherently good, our sins aside, we can too say with St. Paul, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38,39).
If we are Christians, we cannot hate what God loves. Whether this refers to others around us or ourselves. Furthermore, we can counter the temptation to self-hatred through recalling God’s Infinite Love for us. This includes not only the amazing gifts we can find each passing moment that He gives us, but also the very fact that we exist now, and the fact that Jesus took up the cross, giving Himself up for us so that we may be with Him forever. No matter how abstract these truths might seem to us at times, there can be no doubt that God loves us.
And to remember that Truth of God’s love for us reminds us of our true value as humans. When we keep in mind our worth, it helps us to love ourselves in the balanced way that we are meant to. However, we should not misconstrue this love with the modern day notion of self-esteem, which is merely a superficial “good feeling” about oneself. This balanced love of self is not feeling good about the nice things we can do. This is a love of self in which we seek the true good for ourselves, forgiving ourselves when we fail, and accepting ourselves totally with all of our talents and weaknesses, realizing that we are not perfect, but we are also not hopeless.
Love For God’s Sake
It is necessary that we love ourselves, and others, for God’s sake. Simply stated, we want to love what God loves and hate what God hates. This includes loving others even after a great fault committed by them, but also we must love ourselves even after a great fault we commit. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies in the realm of forgiveness and, in holding a grudge against ourself, project our feelings onto God’s Mercy. The proper understanding of God’s Infinite Mercy is in one aspect what differs between the response of St. Peter to his betrayal of Jesus and that of Judas.
To love ourselves for God’s sake means to see ourselves as God sees us, both with true humility and mercy. Furthermore, we look through ourselves back to God with great gratitude for how amazing He has created us and everything around us. Like it is with all things human, balance in love of self can be difficult, however, through this balance we can love more perfectly and be who we are meant to be, which, St. Catherine of Sienna tells us, will set the World on Fire.