Whenever we hear the expression "self-love," it usually conveys the concept of selfishness. If one would make the remark: "He certainly loves himself," that is usually not meant as a compliment; but rather refers to one who has an exaggerated idea of his own excellence, or one who is solely concerned about his own welfare with little concern for others, etc.
Yet, love of self, if rightly understood, is something that is not only good, but commanded by God:
When our first parents were created by God, they had the kind of perfect love described above by Our Savior. That is, they had the capacity for that perfect love of God, self and neighbor; and there was nothing inherent in their human nature that interfered with the exercise of that perfect love. But among the gifts that God had given them was a free will. They had to freely choose God's will, God's plan for their life. And before admitting them to the eternal beatitude for which He had created them, God put them to the test. Theirs was not an absolute freedom, for God placed a limitation to their dominion over all that He had created. (For a detailed account of this, cf. Vol. 40, n.1). In their failure to pass that test, they rebelled against the limitation God had placed on their freedom, and they not only lost divine grace and the capacity to love with a supernatural love, but their intellect was obscured, their will weakened, and they were left with an inclination to selfishness, a tendency to seek their own will rather than God's; that is, an inclination to inordinate self-love.
So we have the rightly ordered love of self which God commanded, and the inordinate love of self to which we are all inclined by reason of our wounded human nature. The whole of the Christian life is a struggle to overcome the latter in order to attain the former.
The "rightly ordered love of self" that Christ commanded is a love of self whereby man wills and seeks his own true good, both spiritual and temporal. It is a love guided by right reason and the truths of divine faith. It is the love of charity. The good that the Christian wills for himself is primarily God Himself (Whom he possesses when in the state of grace), and the eternal beatitude with Him in the life to come. And, secondarily, true self love has for its object the sanctification and salvation of his own soul and that of his neighbor. From this it is clear that man loves himself in the true Christian sense in the measure that he avoids sin and exercises the Christian virtues, making good use of the sacraments that God provided for our spiritual needs. It is obvious, then, that true love of self demands discipline and self-denial in regard to our unruly self-seeking tendencies. Fr. Alfonso d'Amato, O.P. brings this out in speaking of the commandment of love:
True Christian love of self also causes men to seek such temporal goods as are required for the well-being of the body: suitable food and clothing, shelter, lawful pleasures, etc. But these are sought not as an end in themselves, but insofar as needed for the attainment of the soul's sanctification and salvation.
But there is an order that must be observed in our love of self. God created us as humans made of body and soul. Of the two, the soul is the more important, for our eternal destiny depends on the condition of our soul at the end of earthly life, not of the body. It is the soul that loves or hates, that chooses God or rejects Him. Where a conflict between what the soul sees as good and what the body seeks, true love of self will choose the former. True Christian love of the body is marked by the desire to use its members in the service of God, in direct opposition to the worldly worship of the body so common today.
Since Christian love of self is the love of charity (which must include love of God, of self and of neighbor), we cannot love ourselves truly without loving God and our neighbor for His sake. We love ourselves when we love our neighbor, not only because it is our duty (and fulfilling our duty is a requisite for true love of self), but also because it redounds to our good, since we are members of the same body. As St. Paul explains, "If one member suffers anything, all members suffer with it; and if one member glories, all members rejoice with it" (1 Cor. 12:26). Too, we truly love ourself when we love our neighbor, for in doing so we merit an increase in grace. Finally, loving our neighbor is the best way of loving ourself, for by directing our focus away from ourselves it enriches our personality, as Fr. d'Amato points out:
In contrast with true Christian love of self there is inordinate self love, in which one is guided by one's own likes and dislikes instead of by right reason and the will of God. Such self love often causes one to seek the gratification of one's sense appetites and the pleasures of the body in a way contrary to the good of the soul and to the law of God. Inordinate self love will at times manifest itself in a spirit of rebellion against lawful authority, or in extreme pride in one's good qualities, achievements or possessions as if one were the sole source of those goods or good deeds. Such a one is oblivious of the warning of St. Paul: "What have you that you have not received and if you have received it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?" (1 Cor. 4:7)
It may also cause an excessive desire for honors and for the praise and esteem of others, as well as an excessive sensitivity to criticism of any kind. From all this we can see that inordinate self-love is not concerned about one's own true good, nor that of one's neighbor; but rather is destructive of that good, and that of the neighbor. In fact, St. Thomas Aquinas explains that inordinate self love is the root cause of every sin:
The egoism of which the Angelic Doctor speaks is the basic source of every form of turning away from God. From inordinate self love proceeds what St. John calls the three concupiscences of the flesh, the eyes and the pride of life (1 Jn. 2:16); and from these three concupiscences are derived the seven capital sins, the source of all other sins. (Cf. I II, 77, a.5). In other words, every sin whatever is a form of inordinate self-love.
As we have seen, to love someone (self or others) is to wish him true good, both spiritual and temporal. In contrast with this, to hate someone is to wish him evil, whether spiritual or temporal. In the light of this the sinner can be said to hate himself, as the Scriptures testify: "He who loves iniquity hates his own soul" (Ps. 10:6). "Those who do evil are enemies of their own soul" (Tob. 12:10). It is in this sense that we understand the words of Our Blessed Savior: "He that loves (inordinately) his own life in this world shall lose it; and he that hates his life in this world (i.e. hates his unruly tendencies and disciplines them) keeps it safe unto eternal life" (Jn. 12:25).
The two self-loves of which we have been speaking are diametrically opposed to each other. One is self-giving, self-sacrificing, the other is self-seeking. One builds up, the other is self-destructive in the light of eternity. One turns to God, the other turns away from God. St. Augustine expresses this paradox in his usual terse way: "The one loves God to the point of disregarding self; the other loves self to the point of disregarding God."
Our Blessed Lord was referring to these conflicting loves when he said: "No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one and love the other; or else he will stand by the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and mammon" (Mt. 6:24).
Because of the secular culture of today's society, so many are growing up with their mind and heart turned away from God. The education system of our country and the media champion a concept of freedom that is biased against the principles of Christian morality. Even among many who call themselves Christian, their guiding light is reason alone, not reason enlightened by faith. And as we saw in the beginning, our reason has been obscured, our will weakened and left with an inclination to selfishness.
The concept of love we see portrayed day in and day out in the movies, on television and in the media portrays as normal and acceptable pre-marital sex, the use of contraceptives, adultery, divorce, etc. It is concerned only about the goods and pleasures of the body with complete disregard of the soul. They are clearly against any particular religion imposing its views, while in reality they are championing the religion of secular humanism.
Let us take the case of a young unmarried man who seeks the affection of a young lady. He aggressively by his words and actions expresses how much he loves her, all of which ends in fornication. What he calls love is in reality lust. If he truly loved his friend, he would be concerned about her true good (spiritual and temporal), and would be willing to sacrifice in order to attain it. But the fact is that he not only was not concerned about her true good, but rather robbed her of her most precious possession - the state of grace. In a word, in the language of the Scriptures, he hates her. His intense love was not for her, but for himself. He seeks her company not for her own good, but for the pleasure he derives from that relationship. That kind of love (lust) will never stand the test of the trials of married life. It is because so many relationships are based on that kind of love, that many of them end in divorce.
Or take the case of a young couple who engage in pre-marital sex, and do so with mutual agreement. They are mutually self-seeking, mutually unwilling to make the sacrifices that God demands to call down His blessings on their relationship. Those who without qualms of conscience engage in pre-marital sex, will very likely have little qualms of conscience about adulterous relationships during married life.
How are we to understand those words, "as yourself"? Theologians make the distinction between the love of esteem, which proceeds from our judgment as to the objective good or value of the object loved, and the love of intensity, which is a subjective experience or feeling with regard to the object loved. We should have the same "love of esteem" for our neighbor as for ourself, in the sense that we desire his spiritual good and eternal salvation as we desire our own; but we will not, as a rule, have the same subjective feelings as to his gains or losses as we have for our own.
Some may feel disturbed that they do not "feel" a greater love for God. The virtue of charity enables one to love God above all things with the "love of esteem", but not necessarily with the "love of intensity". God has commanded us to have love for Him above all things, not to feel that love. And the test as to whether or not we have it, is whether we would prefer Him above everything else, whether we would be willing to give up whatever might come between us and our love of God.
Every individual should think of his own salvation, his own pursuit of the truly good, as his first responsibility; for if he does not have right love of self, a love that flows from a grateful love of God, he is unable to love his neighbor rightly. So in this sense, we must love God above all things, and after love of God comes love of self, not a self-centered love, but a God-centered love . . . a love like that of Christ . . . self-sacrificing . . . self-giving, that is more concerned with serving than being served. In the measure that we have that kind of love of self, we will love others as Christ loves us. And as our Blessed Lord has told us, what we do to them, we do to Him. In that roundabout way we return His love.
Consequently, in the commandment to love our neighbor as ourself, the "as" does not signify equality, but likeness, that is, to love others as ourselves inasmuch as we have the same end. Just as we should love ourselves in God, so we should love them in God (Cf. d'Amato, ibid.). As we will good for ourselves, so we will good for them, for we are both God's children sharing His divine life.
Christian love of self, then, is a concern about what contributes to one's spiritual growth, and a zeal to discipline those self-seeking tendencies that stand in the way. Self-centered love, on the other hand, is but another name for egoism, which inclines one to self-seeking and self-exaltation in countless ways, leaving one an easy prey to the dragons of pride and sensuality.
We would do well to entrust ourselves to the Mother of Jesus, who, in her fullness of grace had the most perfect love of self, because hers was the most perfect surrender to the will of God. She knew so well that God wills only what is best for us, and she sought only the fulfillment of His will, cost what it may.
Mother of God, teach us that perfect love of self, which makes us aware of our self-seeking tendencies, and of our need of God's grace to support our efforts in countering them. Help us to see that we cannot love ourselves as we should in isolation, but must (at least through prayer) be concerned about the welfare of those around us in need. They too are your children. Pray for us now, and at the hour of our death.
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