Self-love is basic to being human. It is one of the ways in which we are created in the image of God. God loves Himself and so seeks His own glory and happiness in all He does. This is the clear implication of Psalm 115:3, “Our God is in the heavens, and he does as he wishes.” The word the NLT translates wishes in the original Hebrew means pleases, delights, desires, favors, or likes. So God not only does whatever He wishes, but more specially He does whatever He pleases or whatever brings Him pleasure so that the ESV translates the same verse, “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.”
Jonathan Edwards had a wonderfully simple definition of self-love. He said that self-love is nothing more than loving your own happiness (Charity and Its Fruits, in Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume 8, Ethical Writings, ed. Paul Ramsey (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1989), p. 254). He said, “That a man should love his own happiness is necessary to his nature, as a faculty of will is; and it is impossible that it should be destroyed in any other way than by destroying his being” (WJE 8, p. 254). Loving yourself is a central part of what it means to be a person made in the image of God. If you take away that self-love, you take away a key part of what makes us human.
The mandate for having a healthy love of self is clearly implied in the second part of the great commandment, “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). Edwards observed that
Scripture from one end of the Bible to the other is full of things which are there held forth to work upon a principle of self-love. Such are all the promises and threatenings of the Word of God, and all its calls and invitations; its counsels to seek our own good, and its warnings to beware of misery. Which things can have influence upon us in no other way than as they tend to work upon our hope or fear. To what purpose would it be to make and promises of happiness, or denounce any threatenings of misery, to him who neither loved his own happiness nor hated his own misery? Or to invite and counsel him to seek the one, or warn him to avoid the other? (WJE 8, pp. 254-255).
If it is the nature of how God made us to love ourselves, then how does God’s love free us to love ourselves? It frees us by opening our hearts and minds to where our greatest joy is—in loving God! Our greatest love, our highest joy comes from knowing, relating, and loving God. God’s love for us first frees us to love Him and by doing so He frees us to love ourselves.
Because of sin, our self-love became disconnected from God’s love. As a result the self-love we have apart from God is only concerned with ourselves. It is self-centered. It is selfish. After the fall of Adam our love shrank and became myopic. We cannot see or appreciate showing love that is not rooted in our own self-interest and benefit. In essence our self-love has no compass, no guide to regulate it in relation to anything outside of us and our personal interests.
God’s love restores our self-love to its original design, being built upon the foundation of the love of our Creator and Father. Far from being decreased, God wants us to see that in loving Him, enjoying Him, and glorifying Him, our love for ourselves is increased and augmented. Loving God is seeking your greatest good, and therefore to love yourself and to pursue your own happiness to its fullest you need to find your joy in God. Edwards says,
A man may love his own happiness as much as anybody, and may be in an high exercise of love to his own happiness, earnestly longing after happiness, and yet he may place that happiness that he may in the same act be in an high exercise of love to God. As for instance, when the happiness for which he longs is to enjoy God, and to behold the glory of God, or to enjoy communion with God. Or a man may place his happiness in glorifying God; it may seem the greatest happiness to him that he can conceive of to give Glory as he ought to do, and he may long for this happiness. If he did not love what he esteemed his happiness he would not long for it. And to love his happiness is to love himself. But yet in the same act he loves God, because he places his happiness in God. What can more properly be called love to any being, or any thing, than to place one’s happiness in that thing? (WJE 8, p. 258).
You love yourself the best when you love what brings you the most joy and happiness. God’s love frees you to love yourself in the highest capacity possible.
Living a life of love reveals the spring of joy that Christ has with the Father. “I have told you these things so that you will be filled with my joy.” His joy was to love people with the love He had been given by the Father. When we begin learning to love that way, we begin learning about the joy that Jesus promises.