Do a little Internet search using the words, “learn to love yourself before you can love others.” Wow! Psychologists and counselors seem to use this idea as a theme. Add the word “Bible” to your search. You’ll see that many Christian counselors often offer the same advice. After all, the Bible tells us we must learn to love ourselves before we can learn to love others. Problem? Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 19:19, 22:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27; Romans 13:9; Galatians 5:14; and James 2:8 all refer to loving your neighbor as yourself. Problem! The Apostle Paul teaches, “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Gal 5:14).
Calvin declares, “Now, although Paul adds ‘as thyself,’ he is not saying that we must love ourselves first of all, then secondly love our neighbors. No; our Lord is here exposing the disease that prevents us from loving one another.”
We do not need to learn to love ourselves in order to love others. It is quite the opposite. We love ourselves too much. As Calvin goes on to teach his Geneva congregation, “[I]f people were less devoted to themselves, there would be great love and harmony amongst us all. But we are disposed to love ourselves too much, and this excessive love blinds us and robs us of all reason, good judgment and fairness.”
We are so self-centered that we actually believe we must have greater self-love to properly love others. Again, God tells us just the opposite.
Hence, we must employ the test which God has given us here, and examine ourselves to see whether we have excessive love for ourselves, and whether the love that we have for our neighbors is not, in reality, shallow and cold. In short, God is seeking here to remedy the hypocrisy that has blinded us so much. He wishes people to wake up to the fact that they must not flatter themselves, so he says, ‘It is not enough to love one another; you must love your neighbors as yourselves.’
As a start, we must stop being so self-consumed and so self-centered and attend to the needs of our neighbor at least as much as we seek to please ourselves. In Calvin’s words, “God ought to have the dominion; then, instead of loving ourselves, we will set out to fulfill that to which he has called us.”
The quotations are from, John Calvin, Sermons on Galatians, Kathy Childress, trans. (Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 1997), 521-522.