Recapturing Biblical “Self-Love” With Augustine’s Help
If Christians read the writings of the fourth century church father Augustine, they will discover a biblical definition of self-love that can help Christians to fulfill the Christians life.
When they come to the evangelical table to exchange ideas, many Christians place the term self-love in the psychological chair. For example, Christians discuss salvation, forgiveness, and spiritual growth as elements of self-forgiveness. In this model, liberation form sin comes when the soul absolves itself from all the pain that it caused its psyche while it got drunk, indulged in sexual immorality, and self-destructed on Instagram. After they look to God for redemption, many at the evangelical table attempt to grant themselves a secondary form of salvation, following the secular, therapeutic models of self-love.
Though the this concept of self-love now has a reserved spot at the evangelical table, the concept lacks biblical justification. Jesus did not tell his disciples to forgive themselves. He told them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Matt. 16:24b-25).” Moreover when Christ tells his followers to love their neighbors as themselves, he appeals not to humanity’s inherent goodness but to humanity’s inherent evilness (Mk. 12:31). Jesus declares that all of us come into the world corrupt and evil and with hearts wrapped around the pole of selfishness. As Paul notes in Ephesians 5:29, no one comes into the world hating their own body. In short, the command to love others as we love ourselves does not demands us to practice self-love. Rather, God encourages us to transfer our self-centered self-love to others. Such self-denial appears to leave little room for the evangelical notions of self-love.
Yet according to the fourth century church father Augustine, Christians do not have to abandon the concept of self-love. Rather, they should guide the term back to its vintage, theological seat. Augustine writes,
Ourselves we love the more, the more we love God .
The church father believes men and women should pursue self-love, for love descended from God’s righteous character. Though men and women could not fully discover God apart from the Scriptures, their love of love would direct them to their need to know God. As their knowledge of God grew, they would grow in their ability to love love which has originated in their minds through the handiwork of God. The love of love that originates in the human soul will lead Christians to love God and others more. To borrow from John Piper’s terminology, Augustine believes men and women will be most satisfied when God is most loved. Augustine writes, “The mind’s self-love is true…for its own good, only when grounded on the love of God.” The man or woman who pursues the love of God loves their own souls the best. In short. Augustine believes God-centered self-love spurs men and women to love God and neighbor with biblical truthfulness.
According to Augustine, such righteous charity needs be highlighted by the church for it benefited human society. The church father writes,
What is love perfection? To love our enemies, and to love them to the end that they may be our brothers.
Proper self-love leads the believer away from self-concern to a concern for God that then manifest itself in a concern for another’s well-being. The Christian who is motivated by love longs to see his cruelest enemies become his dearest spiritual confidants. Instead envying the wealth or fame of his antagonist, the man who knows biblical self-love will pray and work for his foe’s salvation. Augustine notes, “You love him, not what he is but what you would have him be; thus, when you love your enemy, you love your brother.” In short, Christian self-love does not lead to self-forgiveness but to the forgiveness of others.
For Augustine, this understanding of biblical self-love became the defining test of the Christian faith. Those who love love express their faith in Jesus through loving others. Augustine concludes,
If you love the Head, you love the members; if you do not love the members, neither do you love the Head.
Since Augustine thought all Christians should love non-Christians as if they were Christians, he believed all true Christians should love both the head, Christ, and the body, those who had believed and those whom Christians hoped would one day believe. In short, those who knew biblical self-love will love others well because God leads, “us to do things for the benefit of those we love.”
Though the physiological idea of self-love runs afoul of Scripture, Augustine employees the term theological to express the rich Biblical ideal of Christian love. Evangelical Christians should not dismiss self-love terminology from the evangelical table. Rather, they should help the term return to its vintage, Augustinian seat that champions love of God and the love of neighbor as the truest manifestations of self-love.