I walked past the bag of trash sitting on our back deck several times that Saturday morning.
I didn’t pay it much mind since I was usually on my to accomplish another task. And admittedly, I’m not always the best at making the 75-foot trek to the side of the house where the garbage bins are anyway—I’m better at overlooking the offenses of a stinky trash bag by the back door for a little too long.
I’m working on it.
My husband, Judah, had been gone all morning for a work event, and I was beginning to count down the minutes until his return. As I paused to do a mental sweep of the checklist of items I wanted to finish before he arrived, I thought, “Judah would be so happy not to see that trash bag by the back door.” Now, Judah is in no way an overbearing, ungrateful husband—he’s very gracious with details like that, and actually takes out the trash more often than I do. However, he does really appreciate and notice when I’ve gone the extra mile in the little things. Suddenly I was fired up with motivation to take care of that bag of garbage. I lugged that bag of trash around the corner to the garbage bin, love for Judah putting a spring in my step all the way there.
Do It For Who?
I hear it and read it almost every single day—instagram reels, product ads, memes, proclaim it loudly and proudly:
Do it for YOU.
Get the car.
Go to the gym.
Take the vacation.
Pursue the dream job.
Buy the outfit.
The motivation of putting ourselves first and foremost is touted as the highest and best kind. We’re told it will make us better people, make us happier, more fulfilled, kinder, more content. I’ve heard several times that we need to model this for our children, because they need the example of people choosing themselves first so they’ll follow suit.
But is that really true? Is motivation of and for “self” the best and most loving kind? I beg to differ.
The Danger of Self-Love
In 2 Timothy 3:1-9 we see a description of the difficulty the last days will hold before Jesus’ return. In verse 2 it lists a number of traits that will characterize the wicked people of that time. What’s the first trait on that list? Lovers of self.
This should cause us as Christians to stop and repent of any ways in which we’ve fallen for the idea of self-love as the highest of virtues. It’s actually anti-Christ. If we’re true followers of Jesus we must adopt His example as the epitome of right living.
I’ve heard some argue that in Matthew 22:39 when Jesus says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” He is declaring that we first need to learn to love ourselves in order to truly love others. But after digging into this passage and consulting some other godly people on the matter I would argue that this is, rather, a statement that we ought to love others as we already do love ourselves. Think about it: we clothe ourselves, feed ourselves, we want others to value and care for us, and generally want the best for ourselves in every way. All of these—and more—are how we’re called to treat fellow image bearers.
Philippians 2:3-8 is an almost-daily conviction passage for me.
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Our motives, words, actions, and attitudes are to reflect the reality of what Jesus has done for us. He came to this earth as a servant and loved us—literally—to death so that we could be saved from a horrific eternity separated from His glorious presence. Are we supposed to respond to this by choosing ourselves? By putting ourselves first? Our answer should be a definitive, trembling, “May it not be so.”
In fact, the Bible goes so far as to say that the way we love others is indicative of our love for God. If we say we love God but neglect to love those He’s put around us we’re liars. All we need to do is read this parable in Matthew 25 to see that.
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’” (vv. 31-40)
Then, right after this, we read that the King turns to those on his other side—who’d professed to love Him, but had not loved others well—and said, “Depart from me,” and cast them into hell (vv. 41-46)
This is serious; how and why we love matters.
Is it wrong to do anything for ourselves?
As with all of the most intriguing lies, there’s a sliver of truth mixed in: often doing good for others will result in good for ourselves. This is what makes it so tricky. When I took the trash out for Judah I, too, enjoyed the clean deck. Or, consider the disciplines of exercise, healthy eating, or sufficient sleep—we’ll surely reap physical, mental, and emotional benefits if we practice these. It also sets a good example for those around us (like our spouse, children if we have them, and others in our sphere of influence). And, it’s not always wrong to do activities simply for enjoyment, like grabbing a yummy coffee or getting a manicure.
Our underlying goal for anything we do should be to live in a way that brings glory to Christ. When we recognize that we belong to Him and therefore must be good stewards of our minds, bodies, and spirits, we’ll enjoy the fruit of living as God intended us to. As 1 Corinthians 10:31 says, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”
If our motivation is ultimately love for God, we’ll care for our bodies and enjoy the common gifts of grace in such a way that doesn’t become an idolizing of self. It will be a Christ-exalting display of wise living and partaking in wholesome fun (like taking vacations or getting a new outfit) with thanksgiving and moderation as He intended us to. And, we’ll know when it’s best to forego these activities for the sake of glorifying God and loving those around us.
However, if our ultimate motivation for any of these good things is to put ourselves first we’ll certainly get thrown off balance. We’ll begin prioritizing ourselves to the neglect of others, develop a sense of entitlement, and resent when serving and loving others gets in the way of our wants and needs. Even the good things we might do for others will stem from a prideful desire to be recognized or viewed a certain way rather than humble service regardless of who notices. Self-love will inevitably clash with loving others at some point (and usually many points) throughout our day, and it’s then that we have to choose whether we’re going to neglect others for our sake, or deny ourselves and love others for Jesus’ sake.
The Fruit of Self-Love
So, what is the true result of this “do it for you” mantra that comes at us from the world, the flesh, and the devil?
I’ll start close to home.
If I’d “loved myself” in my trash bag story I would’ve left that bag right there (as I have far too many times). I’ve seen self-love in my own heart come out in plenty of other ways, from grumbling when my kids wake me in the middle of the night to sulking when the budget doesn’t have room for a new pair of shoes (or going against my conscience, and buying them anyway). Self love has made me grumpy at my husband for an extra-long day at work rather than considering how I can love him when he returns. I’ve seen it come out in self-pity when I feel overlooked rather than considering how others might be in need of encouragement themselves. Is the result of any of this self-love greater affection, compassion, peace, and joy in our home? Absolutely not.
Let’s look a little further.
I recently read a devastating article by a woman who chose to leave her husband and children for the sake of loving herself. It’s not even hidden: it’s the whole point of the piece. She says,
“I loved my husband, it’s not that I didn’t. But I felt that he was standing between me and the world, between me and myself.”
This is not an isolated incident either. The amount of times I’ve read accounts of people leaving their spouses for the sake of their dream job, another person, or for any other excuse to fulfill themselves is dizzying. They’re ripping apart their families for the sake of their own personal fulfillment.
Self-love manifests itself in poor choices that lead to everything from job loss to drug addictions (because they’ve been taught to do what feels best to them). Self-love leads to fractured friendships when one party dares to challenge the other’s viewpoint, and is labeled toxic as a result (because everything becomes offensive and “unloving” that doesn’t affirm and validate the whole of someone’s ideas). It means moving from one failed romantic relationship to another (because both people want to be served, but neither are willing to serve).
Disease, mutilation of the body, broken hearts, and disillusionment are rampant in the wake of “self-love” in regard to sexual expression. In summary, it leads to poor character, awful work ethic, laziness, selfishness, pride, bitterness, loneliness, and sorrow. Does it often feel liberating in the moment? Sure, it does. If it didn’t feel good then no one would pursue it. But its end is ultimately death: death of actual love, death of character, death of deep relationships, death of a truly fulfilling life.
We need a vision that goes far beyond ourselves in order to deny our flesh that so badly wants to be gratified in the moment. And this is where the hope of the gospel lies. Because of Jesus, we have the ability to say ‘no’ to sin and ‘yes’ to a life of true love—God’s love.
I recently heard a song—one of those with lyrics so countercultural it makes you pause. Here is one of the verses and the chorus:
I don’t want to live this life
Only for the sake of mine
Show me where my selfishness must go to die
Show me that I have enough
I don’t need to store it up
Everything I hold to tight will turn to dust
When everything’s stripped away
The only thing that remains
Is the love I gave away
The love I gave away
On my final day
All that will count as gain
Is the love I gave away
The love I gave away
[‘Show Me What it Means’ by Land of Color]
Friend, let’s not buy the self-love lie. Let’s stop listening to our faulty feelings and instead look to our perfect Savior for the key to a life of joy: selfless, radical love for others, in His name and for His glory.
One trash bag at a time.
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