From the self-help boom of the 1980s and ’90s to the self-love movement of our modern era, the cultural consensus in America has long been clear: To solve our problems, we need to focus more on ourselves.
Insecure? “Repeat these self-empowerment mantras.” Failing at your job? “It’s because you don’t believe in yourself!” Relationships falling apart? “Try loving yourself more.” Sad, lonely, anxious, angry or depressed? “Commit to more self-care!”
The underlying premise of these recommendations is that the source of our struggle is a lack of self-focus. If we just dedicated more time to meeting our needs, knowing ourselves and bettering ourselves, the broken pieces of our lives would fall into place. If we could finally learn to love ourselves enough, our relationships would be healthier, our jobs would become more fulfilling, and we’d at last have the confidence to chase after the things we want. We’d achieve the self-actualization many motivational speakers and lifestyle gurus glorify, and our greatest desires would become reality.
There are a few problems with this theory. First, there is no indication that our society is suffering from a lack of self-focus. In addition to being consumers and creators of a hugely lucrative self-help/self-love industry (including books, conferences, podcasts, blogs and Instagram accounts), millions of us are also avid users of technology and social media platforms that are individualized and personalized.
We are endlessly committed to learning more about ourselves, our personalities, our strengths and weaknesses. We constantly employ tools to ensure our needs are conveniently met and our interests are instantaneously satisfied. We want to know ourselves, find ourselves, learn how to really be ourselves. We spend much of our time and money figuring out ways to do these things. But there is simply no evidence that the problem we’re facing today is too little self.
The second hole in the idea of the all-healing power of self-love, self-help and self-care is that, logically, the self can’t be both the problem and the solution. If inside ourselves we find what ails us—insecurity, doubt, depression, anxiety, fear—the solution to those issues can’t be found there, too.
That’s because the self isn’t the solution at all. Actually, the self is the problem.
This leads to the biggest fault of this mentality, what I call “trendy narcissism.” I refer to this in my book, “You’re Not Enough (& That’s Okay).” The self is not the source of special power, wisdom or healing. We won’t become fulfilled by loving ourselves and focusing on ourselves more. To do so is unbiblical.
In fact, 2 Timothy 3:2 says that one of the characteristics of the “last days” will be people who are “lovers of self.” We are never commanded in Scripture to engage in self-love, self-empowerment or any kind of self-centeredness. We are instead called to the opposite: to deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow Christ (Luke 9:23).
Does this mean we are to hate ourselves? Does it mean that, if we already struggle with self-loathing, that we should wallow in negative thoughts about ourselves, our abilities or our bodies?
Absolutely not. Self-hate is simply the other side of the self-obsession coin. Rather, we are to see ourselves as who God says we are: fearfully and wonderfully made in God’s image, and, if we are Christians, His cherished children worth dying for (Genesis 1:27; Psalm 139:14; 1 John 3:1; John 3:16).
Nor does denying ourselves mean we shouldn’t rest, have fun, and do things that make us feel rejuvenated. God made us to need rest, and He certainly calls us to enjoy the blessings He’s given us. We also are free to take steps to reach our goals and add necessary discipline to our lives.
But we are called away from self-obsession and into something better: self-forgetfulness. It means— we rely not on self-sufficiency, self-care or self-empowerment for our strength but on surrender to Jesus. He is our source of wisdom, solace, confidence, peace and love—not ourselves.
And the love that He gives us compels us to focus on others before we think of ourselves. When Jesus commands, “love your neighbor as yourself,” this is not a call to feel affection toward ourselves before we can feel affection toward those around us (Matthew 22:39). The kind of love Jesus is describing is the love for ourselves that’s innate—the one that drives us to meet our own needs, seek our own safety, and satisfy our own hunger and thirst. He’s saying: With the same instinctive drive that compels you to take care of yourself, take care of other people.
In “Mere Christianity,” C.S. Lewis points out that the love to which we are called as Christians isn’t about feelings—either toward ourselves or our neighbors—but about action. He writes, “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did.”
The popular mantra, “You can’t love other people until you love yourself,” is simply untrue. First, it seems to imply that love is primarily thoughts and feelings you have about yourself rather than a decisive action. Second, it makes us the source of our love for others, rather than Christ. Third, it prevents us from seeking to serve the people who need our help now, because we are constantly deferring love of others until we’ve achieved the ever-elusive love of self.
Here’s the point: We’re wasting time trying to find what we’re looking for—peace, purpose or power—inside ourselves. Despite what influencers, authors or motivational speakers may tell us, we’re not enough. We need the God who made us to save us and sustain us. When we direct our gaze to Him, He helps us see ourselves and those around us rightly, and He gives us an identity and meaning that’s so much bigger than what we can muster on our own.
Relying on ourselves for the love and fulfillment we seek will only leave us exhausted. Instead, we must rely on Christ—the Living Water that quenches our thirst and the Bread of Life that satisfies our hunger—to find everything we need. ©2021 Allie Beth Stuckey
Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version.
Allie Beth Stuckey is a speaker, author, commentator and host of the “Relatable” podcast, which analyzes culture, news, politics and theology from a Biblical perspective.