A short scroll through my Instagram feed usually includes a variety of motivational quotes such as: “you must first and foremost love yourself,” “don’t be too hard on yourself,” “you deserve to be happy,” “your desires are valid and should be fulfilled.” The list goes on. These sentiments all belong to what I have labeled the self-love movement that is sweeping through our society relatively unquestioned and visibly transforming our culture.
This movement not only permeates our social media feeds, but flourishes on the bestselling book lists and even subtly pervades our churches, displayed through messages such as “you are enough,” and “you are worthy of love.” Our culture has made self-love into a type of savior, believing that our problems and failures result from a lack of self-love. These shallow characterizations obscures the true meaning of self-love and the beauty of self-denial.
True self love desires the best for ourselves and the highest pleasure, which might mean choosing self-denial, over fulfilling every desire. In a culture that glorifies temporary pleasure, it becomes easy to justify unhealthy indulgence in the name of self-love. Further, our feelings and desires do not automatically define reality, and fulfilling them does not always benefit us or others. Our culture of self-love settles for the easy and the feel-good solutions, when true pleasure often lies at the end of self-denial and a greater love for God, not ourselves. The British theologian C.S. Lewis argues, “No, your desires aren’t the problem. The weakness of your desires are the problem. You are like a child fooling about in slums with your mud pies because you can’t imagine what a holiday at the sea is like.” True self-love means pursuing Christ’s beautiful desires for us instead of our own.
Further, the contemporary self-love movement presents us with a skewed perception of ourselves that will ultimately lead to dissatisfaction and broken relationships. True joy flows from reckoning with our own insignificance and sinfulness, and standing amazed at a God who chooses to offer us undeserved love and grace. Our relationships will inevitably fail us, but God has chosen to keep pursuing us when time after time we have slammed the door in his face. Christ’s example on the cross blatantly contradicts our culture that tells us that in order to love others we must put ourselves first.
Finally, today’s self-love movement idolizes happiness. Society tells us to seek happiness at all costs, and abandon anything or anyone that hinders this feeling. If we are not happy, we automatically assume that something must be wrong with us or with our relationships. The self-love movement’s idolization of happiness results in unrealistic and damaging expectations. Jesus didn’t promise us happiness. We live in a fallen world filled with grief and pain. Why are we surprised when we feel its effects? Yet, Jesus did promise us enduring joy, which may not always result in tangible feelings of happiness. Rather, it provides an abiding peace and beautiful hope in the midst of our world of uncertainty. The self-love movement’s unending quest for happiness will inevitably result in exhaustion, and prevents us from resting in this true joy.
The next time you are scrolling through social media and inevitably encounter a sleuth of quotes praising the power of self- love, pause and think. How is this person defining self-love? What if the true meaning of self-love is deeper and more lasting than anything we could ever have imagined?