God commanded Israel, through the prophet Moses, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). Jesus taught the same thing as the second great commandment (Matt. 22:39). But how do I do this if I don’t love myself? If I don’t love myself, does that lower the standard of love I am required to show other people? Or perhaps the issue is more along the lines of, How do I love others if I don’t think I have any value?
Not everyone deals with this issue, but some Christians do. Furthermore, even if you don’t struggle with it, the answer(s) should be beneficial to all.
I’ve been thinking through this for a while, and I’ve come up with two basic ways to answer it. There is a direct answer, which doesn’t actually get at the root of the issue, and there is an indirect answer, which, I think, does. I should also note, I am addressing this from a pastoral and theological perspective, not a psychological one. A psychologist can address a different aspect of it.
First the direct answer: When God commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves, he’s talking more about our actions than our feelings. When we think about love in terms of actions, no one has ever hated themselves. Even people who harm themselves do so because they love themselves. That is, it pacifies an emotional hurt. Self harm is, ironically, selfish. The biblical command to “love your neighbor as yourself,” applies especially to our actions. Instead of focusing our attention on our own wants and needs, God would have us focus it on our neighbor’s wants and needs. This is the substance of the Law, and it applies to us universally, regardless of our self-image.
But if you’ve ever struggled with this issue, then you probably know that my first answer doesn’t really get at the heart of the issue. It’s more an issue of self-image and how that affects our relationships with others. If I don’t I have much (or any) value, then what good am I to those around me? So the indirect answer is to consider where our value comes from. Your value comes from three sources: creation, redemption, and sanctification.
God created you in his image. He created every human being in his image. This means that every human being, though fallen and corrupted in sin, bears characteristics of God, including strength, compassion, and reason. Luther’s explanation of the First Article of the Apostles’ Creed captures this well: “I believe that God has created me and all that exists; that He has given and still preserves to me my body and soul, my eyes and ears, and all my members, my reason and all the powers of my soul …” You are valuable to God, because he created you, and you are valuable to other people, because God endowed you with his own characteristics.
Second, God redeemed you through the blood of his Son, Jesus Christ. This especially has to do with your value to God. Monetary value is subjective; it all depends on what a person is willing to pay. One person may be willing to pay $5 for a cup of coffee. To someone else, that cup of coffee might not be worth it, so they don’t buy it. But the value is $5, because someone will pay it. So what did God pay for you? The blood of Jesus. Luther captures this well in his explanation of the Second Article of the creed: “I believe that Jesus Christ … has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, bought me and freed me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with silver and gold, but with His holy and precious blood and with His innocent sufferings and death; in order that I might be His own …” You are valuable to God, because he paid the ultimate price for you.
Third, God sanctifies you through the work of the Holy Spirit. To be precise, sanctification isn’t so much a source of your value, as it is God proclaiming your value to him. That is, God calls you his child. That is the first part of sanctification. Furthermore, he is constantly working to renew in you the image of God. Luther captures this well in (guess what) his explanation of the Third Article of the creed: “I believe that … the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in the true faith …” God calls you his child, and, though you remain fallen and corrupted by sin in this life, he is working to renew you, day by day, after the image of God. This is often gradual, sometimes painful, and always difficult to see in ourselves, but the Holy Spirit is doing this work in you. This results in a growth in good works. This growth does not change your value before God, because, through faith, your value before him is already equal to that of Jesus. But this growth in good works is beneficial to your neighbor.
Your value does not come from how other people treat you or what other people say about you. Your value comes from how God treats you and what he says about you. He created you, he redeemed you, and he calls you his child.
The peace of Christ be with you all,