Love Yourself Without Being Selfish — Is It Possible?

I’m updating Jonathan Edwards’ great sermon series Charity and Its Fruits into contemporary, readable English. I just finished the rough draft of an insightful section in his sermon called “Charity Contrary to a Selfish Spirit” regarding whether a person can love himself without being selfish. I intend to polish it more than this, but wanted to share anyway:

Having a selfish spirit is not the same as self-love, or at least it doesn’t have to be. A Christian spirit is not contrary to all self-love. A person can certainly love himself without having a selfish spirit. It’s not contrary to Christianity for a person to love himself. Or we might say it’s not contrary to Christianity for a person to love his own happiness (since these two are basically the same thing). Christianity does not have a tendency to destroy mankind’s love for his own happiness, for if it did, it would have a tendency towards destroying humanity itself. And Christianity is not destructive of humanity. Thus, it’s fitting for a man to love himself.

Indeed, to love one’s self is a necessary aspect of man’s nature, much like a faculty of his will is necessary to his nature. It is impossible, therefore, to destroy his love for himself in any other way than by destroying his very being.

The saints love their own happiness, especially those that are now perfect in their holiness. Both saints and angels in heaven love their own happiness! Of course they do! Otherwise, their happiness, which God has given to them, would not be happiness at all. Why is this? Because when a person loves something, he enjoys it and finds happiness in it. But if the saints and angels in heaven do not love their happiness, then that would mean that they don’t enjoy the happiness God has given them, which is absurd. Anything a person does not love, he will not be happy in it. So clearly they love their own happiness.

Another way we can see that loving ourselves is not unlawful is by remembering that self-love is the standard by which our love for other people is measured. God’s law makes self-love the measure by which our love to others is regulated. This is why God gives this command: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 19:19). Of course, this command presupposes that we may and must love ourselves.

Furthermore, we can see that self-love is not unlawful because the Bible, from one end to the other, is full of things that are set forth as working on the principle of self-love.

For example, all of the promises of God assume that people love their own happiness since happiness is often part of what is promised. What good would it be for God to make a promise of happiness to a person who did not want or love his own happiness? This same thing can be said for all of the calls and invitations God gives to people throughout Scripture. They too assume a love of one’s own happiness.

From Jonathan Edwards, “Charity Contrary to a Selfish Spirit” (Updated for Today’s Readers)