Not pretty enough. Not smart enough. Not accomplished enough.
In a culture dominated by social media, these are the messages that we’re constantly being fed. This destructive comparison has especially affected the younger generation and young women, contributing to increasingly higher rates of depression and suicide. For victims of abuse and domestic violence, the shame and insecurity caused by others can be crippling.
Self-love fights back against shame and low self-esteem with the message that we need to start loving and accepting ourselves just the way that we are, flaws and all. We can’t love others if we don’t first love ourselves, proponents say. True confidence and security, then, comes from self-love.
But is this really the case?
What is self-love?
At its root, self-love is the pursuit of one’s own well-being and happiness and the avoidance of shame and insecurity. It rests on this idea described by the Buddha,
“You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserves your love and affection.”
According to this way of thinking, we are all inherently lovable and worthy of affection. Some liken it to being your own best friend or partner, your own personal cheerleader. It may take the form of self-care practices like relaxation or indulgence in your favorite foods, “being kind to yourself” by reciting positive affirmations and mantras, or meditating on your own strengths and accomplishments.
It’s important for Christians to note the difference between this way of thinking and where the Bible says our worth comes from. The idea that humans have inherent worth is one that is affirmed throughout Scripture. God bestowed dignity upon us when he created us in his image (Gen. 1:26-27). It is his image in us that gives us value—value that exists apart from our appearance, life experience, or contribution to society. This is why the Bible so clearly calls us to protect, defend, and care for all of life—because all people are made in the image of God.
What does the Bible say about self-love?
Many point to Jesus’ command in Mark 12:31 as evidence for the Bible’s support of self-love. We should love our neighbors as we love ourselves, so it must follow that we cannot love others if we do not love ourselves first. This reasoning, however, misinterprets the text, which rests on the assumption that all of us already love ourselves. We may still struggle with insecurity, but, as described in this context, we all still naturally pursue our own happiness and well-being.
2 Timothy 3:2-4 warns us of the last days, when people will be “lovers of self” rather than “lovers of God.” It reminds us of our tendency to love ourselves above God. Our love of self can become destructive. While the self-love movement suggests that we are all inherently good and loveable, the gospel reminds us that apart from Christ, “none is righteous” (Rom. 3:10) and “no one does good, not even one” (Rom. 3:12). It is true and good that we are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27) and that this reflection of his image gives us inherent worth, but it can become dangerous if we forget the reality of our sinful nature apart from Christ.
Where can we find true love, acceptance, and confidence?
The heart of the self-love movement—pursuit of happiness and well-being—is not unfamiliar to God’s design. But it does miss the target. Instead, the Bible teaches that “in [God’s] presence there is fullness of joy; at [his] right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psa. 16:11).
The Bible does not diminish the struggle of insecurity or depression. Rather, it offers a greater hope and confidence, one that far surpasses the promises of the self-love movement. It tells us that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). Through Jesus, “we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:16-17). This is our greatest confidence: that the King of kings has adopted us as his sons and daughters, not through any work of our own, but through his great mercy and grace in Christ. He has fulfilled the law so that we may be fully accepted. This truth should instill deep confidence and obliterate all pride.
The gospel not only frees us from our comparison culture and the pressure to meet the world’s standards, it allows and encourages us to look at ourselves for all that we are—broken sinners in need of a Savior—not with denial or a kind of shallow optimism, but with the power of him who has overcome sin and death. What’s more, the gospel empowers us not only to acknowledge our weakness, but also to boast in it, for God’s “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). In Christ, there is no place for self-glorification nor self-loathing, because our new identity as God’s children has been freely bestowed upon us.
The Christian’s call to die to self
For Christians, the Bible distinguishes between the old self and the new self (Eph. 4:22-24). In a culture that prioritizes the self at all costs, the Bible teaches us to die to our old selves and to “put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:24). Because of Christ’s sacrifice for us, we are no longer bound to self-interest but can follow the call to “deny [ourselves] and take up [our crosses] daily and follow [Christ]” (Luke 9:23). As Jesus said, “whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24).
One danger of the self-love movement is that it may lead us to merely accept our old selves as they are, suppressing any desire for change. But God desires much more for us than this; he desires our sanctification, our conforming to the likeness of Christ (Rom. 8:29). It is only when we have died to our old selves and put on our new self that we are truly freed to love others. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19), not because we love ourselves first.
Living with an outward focus
I’ve found that in my own struggles with body image, insecurity, and feelings of inadequacy, the key hasn’t been to think of myself higher or to love myself more. Instead, freedom has come as I’ve filled my mind with thoughts of God and his promises. It is only when we start to see God for who he really is that we will be able to see ourselves for who we actually are. We will delight in his creation, not because we are the ones worthy of our affection, but because we know that he is a good and perfect creator.
There’s nothing wrong with combating insecurity. We should fight it, however, with the truth of Scripture—truth like that from Psalm 139:14 that says we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” If our sole aim in meditating on this verse is to increase our own self-esteem, though, we’ve missed the point. Our delight in his wondrous creation of our bodies should align our hearts with David’s, whose song was a prayer of praise to God (Psalm 139:14). Worship is the ultimate aim, not self-worth.
So I encourage you—when you experience the crippling effects of insecurity, don’t look inward, look outward. Remind yourself of your God-given identity and of his sacrifice to make the unworthy worthy. Fix your eyes on the cross, and let the weight of your sin and inadequacy turn your heart to worship of the only One truly worthy of all our love and affection.