I had a high school friend who was insecure, socially
awkward, and overweight. He envied the skills (and good
looks) of classmates; he vilified himself for his frequent
social blunders; and he castigated himself for his
My friend, however, was in the top five percent of the
honors class of a magnet, honors high school; he just
never reached the top one percent. And he was
the second chair trumpet of a nationally recognized
orchestra; he just never made first chair.
Despite his many successes, he saw others do better and
it discouraged him. My heart went out to him. We became
friends, and in the lunchroom I listened as he told
story after story of how students, teachers, and his
parents misunderstood him.
His discouragement deepened into depression, and he
finally sought a counselor. The counselor said his
problem was self-hatred, and that he needed to grow his
I thought he loved himself too much.
And I still think so
I don’t mean to be harsh—this was a friend for whom I
cared deeply—but the counselor’s advice increased his
troubles; he didn’t grow more joyful, he grew sorrowful.
His problem wasn’t self-hatred, and the solution
wasn’t heightened self-love.
Real hatred fosters ill-will for the hated one; it
delights in the humiliation, pain, and failures of the
hated object. My friend harbored zero ill-will
for himself, he disliked his pain and
humiliation, and he was furious at his
failures. He wanted the high marks, good looks, and
social acceptance of others. He was angry at himself for
He was angry because he loved himself so much.
Elie Wiesel (a Nobel Laureate and holocaust survivor)
said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s
indifference.” So, the opposite of high self-love
would be high self-indifference. If my friend lacked
self-love, he would be indifferent to his sufferings.
Yet my friend was anything but indifferent about
himself. In fact, “himself” was all he thought of, and
“he” was the topic of every conversation. His
counselor’s advice simply exacerbated his
self-absorption. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, my friend
had a “ruthless, sleepless, unsmiling concentration on
What’s the other option?
Too many Christian teachers today have adopted that
secular counselor’s message of heightened self-love.
They see the commandment, “Love your neighbor as
yourself,” and claim that it contains the hidden
commandment: “Love yourselves more.”
I understand why the world cheers on greater self-love
(what other option do they have?); but I can’t
understand why Christians, like lemmings, leap into
this trap as well.
Love is more than a feeling; love is action. (That’s
why lovers promise devotion: “I will love you to the end
of days”—they mean, “I’ll care for you no matter what,
even on the days I don’t feel it.”) But my
friend’s actions were already devoted toward
himself. He didn’t need more self-love with its
selfish-action; he needed something better.
He needed an attitude of self-acceptance. He
refused to accept his own gifts, looks, body-style,
personality, and intelligence (which was quite high—just
not the highest).
Isak Dinesen wrote, “Godly pride is faith in the idea
God had when He made you.” My friend lacked Godly
pride. He was disappointed in how God made
him. He envied the gifts of others; he coveted their
personalities, looks, and intelligence.
He was mad at himself for lacking such gifts; he was
angry with others for having them; and he was furious
with God for his design. All because of his devotion to
So what are we to do?
Most of us have friends who suffer the agony of
self-dissatisfaction. Many of us personally suffer such
self-disgust. The throbbing anguish is almost
unbearable. Instead of increased self-love, I urge us to
consider that we really need self-acceptance.
Scripture says God chose us and made us his most prized
treasure (Duet. 7:6) and that we are his joy
(Heb. 12:2); God declares us to be his poem,
his masterpiece (Eph. 2:10).
Imagine the genius Leonardo da Vinci (not DiCaprio)
giving you his Mona Lisa. What would he say if
you whipped out a paintbrush and said, “Let me just fix
that smile”? He’d shout, “Stop! It’s my masterpiece.
Anything you add to it will subtract from it.”**
We are God’s masterpiece. Anything we add will
subtract. Even if we’re not perfect.
Self-absorption is usually a sign of envy
Augustine said, “Envy is sorrow at another man’s good.”
Envy sucks joy from our lives. Sir John Gielgud (a
famous English actor) exposed the torment of envy as he
“When Sir Laurence Olivier
played Hamlet … and the critics raved … I wept.”
The cruel, double agony of envy is this: we are
mournful at our failures and we are grief-stricken at
the success of others. Envy’s sorrows rob our souls of
Only in the acceptance of “the idea God had when he
made us,” will we have joy. No longer sensing the bitter
envy of self-love; just contentment as his masterpiece.
No longer hiding a masterpiece behind sheets of shame;
no longer burying our talents.
What we most need
Thomas A Kempis wrote, “Self-love is more harmful to
you than anything else in the world. The proportion you
give love to a thing is the proportion that thing will
rule you. If your love is pure, simple, and well
ordered, you will be a slave to nothing.”
In the end, we need something beyond self-love or
self-acceptance: we desperately need to know the
love of our maker (which existed before time).
We need to be filled with the love of the Master artist
who loves us as we are.
* Attaining balanced emotional health is
complex. Sometimes we need more rest, sometimes
better diet and exercise, sometimes counseling to
deal with past issues, and sometimes we need to
correct a chemical imbalance. But we all need a
“Godly pride” for his “idea” in making us, and we
all need to resist envying the gifts of other.
** (I first heard this masterpiece metaphor, or
something similar, in a Tim Keller sermon.)