[A Response to a question about the “proper balance” between self-love and self-denial]
To try to answer this question, it’s important to understand that in the beginning, man’s will and desire were like a branch or reflection of the Lord’s will and desire, and he could truly love things and desire things for the same reason that God loves and desires things—because they were manifestations of God’s own goodness, perfection, and nature. Man didn’t have his own private perspectives, pursuits, opinions and desires that were SEPARATE or disconnected from God’s light and life. He was indeed an individual creature, with a will and a mind of his own, but he didn’t walk according to his own personal self-image, self-esteem, or self-evaluation that was separate from God’s perspective, but rather walked in God’s light, enjoyed His life, and saw and appreciated all things according as they were truly good; that is, because they partook of God’s goodness.
The problem came when, after eating (and becoming) a lie, man severed himself, or broke himself off, from that light, that living understanding, that true purpose, that one perfect desire, and then began to have a perspective, a desire, a will that was not from God, nor in God, nor for God, but rather from self, in self, and for self. Instead of loving things that he saw and experienced because they were various manifestations of God’s wonders, beauty, image, nature, truth, etc., man began loving things for personal and private and separate reasons. When man broke off from the will of God, everything he saw very quickly became a means to a personal end.
Man exchanged God’s perspective and purpose for his own. He could no longer see creation according to the truth. In fact, he saw nothing rightly because, in the fall, all things began to be viewed and comprehended through the darkened and perverted lens of self. Immediately, all things of the natural creation were known, understood and experienced, not according to God-given perspective and purpose, but entirely with respect to self-interest. As Paul says, “He exchanged the truth of God for a lie,” (Rom 1:25) and consequently became the center of his own world and a purpose unto himself. He saw all things in relation to personal benefit. Personal gain became the lens through which he understood, measured, and valued everything. All things were considered relevant to the extent that he felt personally interested in them. All things were true to the extent that he wanted them to be real. All things were good to the extent that he personally gained from them.
So self-love became a great thief. It saw the creation and loved it, pursued it, grabbed it, and used it for its own personal reasons. It even grabbed hold of religion and did the same. Religion became a means to an end, a collection of beliefs by which man pursued his own gain, and sought to feel better about himself. God was no longer man’s light, man’s view, man’s judgment or measure. No, man now had his own measure, his own judgment, and God (and all things) had were evaluated by self-love.
This is the condition of the natural man in the fall. He is born into the world reaching, groping and grabbing. He takes things and loves things and values things to the extent that they make him feel good about himself, or feel important, safe, accepted, valuable, powerful, wise, etc. in himself. This is called “having pleasure in unrighteousness” (2 Thes. 2:12). This is called pride, selfishness, and vanity, which almost everybody condemns in others, but excuses it in themselves. Consider these words of William Law.
“Man, by his fall, had broken off from his true centre, his proper place in God, and therefore the life and operation of God was no more in him. He was fallen from a life in God into a life of self, into an animal life of self-love, self-esteem, and self-seeking in the poor perishing enjoyments of this world. This was the natural state of man by the fall. He was an apostate from God, and his natural life was all idolatry, where self was the great idol that was worshipped instead of God. See here the whole truth in short. All sin, death, damnation, and hell is nothing else but this kingdom of self, or the various operations of self-love, self-esteem, and self-seeking, which separate the soul from God, and end in eternal death and hell. On the other hand, all that is grace, redemption, salvation, sanctification, spiritual life, and the new birth, is nothing else but so much of the life and operation of God found again in the soul. It is man come back again into his centre or place in God, from whence he had broken off.
Hence is to be seen the true ground and necessity of that mortification and self-denial with regard to all our senses, appetites, tempers, passions and judgments. It is because all our whole nature, as fallen from the life of God, is in a state of contrariety to the order and end of our creation, a continual source of disorderly appetites, corrupt tempers, and false judgments. And therefore every motion of it is to be mortified, changed and purified from its natural state, before we can enter into the kingdom of God. Thus when our Lord says, “Unless a man hates his father and mother, yea, and his own life, he cannot be My disciple”; it is because our best tempers are yet carnal, and full of the imperfections of our fallen nature. The doctrine is just and good; not as if father and mother were to be [emotionally] hated; but that love, which an unregenerate person, or natural man, has towards them, is to be hated, as being a blind self-love, full of all the weakness and partiality with which fallen man loves, honors, esteems, and cleaves to himself. This love, born from corrupt flesh and blood, and polluted with self, is to be hated and parted with, that we may love them with a love born of God, with such a love, and on such a motive, as Christ has loved us. And then the disciple of Christ far exceeds all others in the love of parents.
Again, our own life is to be hated; and the reason is plain, it is because there is nothing lovely in it. It is a legion of evil, a monstrous birth of the serpent, the world, and the flesh; it is an apostasy from the life and power of God in the soul, a life that is death to heaven, that is pure unmixed idolatry, that lives wholly to self, and not to God; and therefore all this “own life” is to be absolutely hated, all this self is to be denied and mortified, if the nature, spirit, tempers and inclinations of Christ are to be brought to life in us. For it is as impossible to live to both these lives at once, as for a body to move two contrary ways at the same time. And therefore self-denial has an absolute necessity in the nature of the thing itself.
Thus when our Lord further says, “Unless a man forsake all that he has, he cannot be My disciple;” the reason is plain, and the necessity absolute. It is because all that the natural man has is in the possession of self-love, and therefore this possession is to be absolutely forsaken and parted with. All that he has is to be put into other hands, to be given to divine love, or this natural man cannot be changed into a disciple of Christ. For self-love in all that it has is earthly, sensual, and devilish, and therefore must have all taken away from it. And then to the natural man all is lost, he has nothing left, all is laid down at the feet of Jesus. And then all things are in common, as soon as self-love has lost the possession of them. And then the disciple of Christ, though having nothing, yet possesses all things, all that the natural man has forsaken, is restored to the disciple of Christ a hundred-fold.
So we are to deny self. But what does this mean? It means not believing, trusting, obeying, or following that separate will and purpose that springs up in us (with all of its reasons and justifications) independently of God’s will, God’s good, and God’s purpose. It means realizing that the manifestations of our personal, separate will, which have no ground in, or desire after the perfect will of God, are corrupt, selfish, and satanic (just like when Peter told Jesus He didn’t need to die on the cross, and was told, “Get behind me Satan!”). It means understanding that everything that doesn’t flow from the will and Spirit of God in our hearts, has another source, and is actually dangerous to our well-being, and prone to pull our affections and goals and emotions into things that are damaging to our soul and also to the body of Christ.
Therefore, to ask what the right balance is between self-love and self-denial, is a question that often implies some great misunderstandings. Now, it is certainly true that we are told to “love the Lord our God with with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.” But this commandment in no way suggests that we are to love our neighbor with the kind of egocentric self-love that reigns in fallen man. The truth is, if we genuinely love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love His truth more than our lies, then we will progressively and quite naturally love His work, His will, His image, His kingdom, and His manifestation wherever we find it...both in ourselves and others. And of course we won’t want to harm ourselves, or do or think evil to ourselves, for the same reason that we would not want to harm or do evil to an angel, or to anything that was created by Him to glorify Him. In this way, loving your neighbor as you love yourself becomes easy and natural, because you love both for the same reason, with the same light and perspective, from the same source, and for the same end. But both your love for your neighbor, and your love for yourself first need to be crucified, cleansed, and purified, or BOTH are simply expressions of personal, private, and fallen selfishness.
Apart from the inward work of the cross truly changing the heart (and the nature of your love), you will only love your neighbor because of what you personally gain by doing so. You will love them for the praise and appreciation you receive from them, or for their unhealthy dependence on you, or for the way that they unite with you in your personal desires or interests. And you will love yourself because you want a better self-opinion or more self-esteem; because you do not want to feel embarrassed, or insecure, or ugly, or unappreciated, or because you do not want to feel inferior to this or that person.There is no right balance between this kind of selfish love and self-denial.The one grieves and crucifies the other, and there is always war between them.
The truth is, we don’t even understand why we love ourselves, or what we are loving, until the Lord really begins to “separate the precious from the vile” in our hearts by His light and judgment. And apart from this light, it is inevitably the wrong things that we naturally love and want to have validated, praised, and approved in ourselves. For example, we have painful emotions of insecurity, fear, embarrassment, telling us we’re not as good as so-and-so, or we’re unloved by this or that person. But instead of letting the cross put to death the nature and will that feels these things and demands to be accepted, appreciated, affirmed, and encouraged, we justify our feelings, declare that they are valid, and seek for ways to have our needs met. Or we feel concerned about how we look, and are troubled by always feeling ugly or unimpressive, but instead of letting truth expose and put to death the fallen, independent will that focuses so much on self-praise, we try to encourage ourselves by saying that God considers us good, acceptable, and special just how we are.
Now, the problem with saying that “God accepts you just how you now are,” or that He “made you just the way that you now are,” is that it is generally untrue. God certainly did create you. And He most certainly does love you, even beyond what man can imagine. But the “way that you are” (unless you can experientially say with Paul “it is no longer I who lives, but Christ who lives in me”) is largely something that YOU created, by a partnership with sin, by loving darkness, by making provision for the flesh, by pursuing selfish ends, by taking pleasure in unrighteousness, following the impulses of selfishness and pride, by protecting and even joining to the lies and ways of your enemy, as well as by things like wrong social pressures and norms, bad parenting, etc.
Man is NOT in the image and likeness of God in his fallen condition. He is in the image and likeness of another king, another father, another god. Jesus said this plainly to the Jews, “You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do.” (John 8:44) This is the natural condition of man, and as such, it is indeed correct to say that the Lord is the creator and source of our life, and the lover of our soul, but it is not correct to say that this first birth is what God accepts, or wants us to accept and approve and love. “Jacob (the second birth) I have loved; but Esau (the first birth) I have hated.” (Mal 1:2-3) The sad truth is that much of what we are is the result of resisting grace and refusing correction. And in this soil, many large weeds and strong plants have grown up and born fruit which the Father did not plant. It is not right to say that God loves this, or accepts it. Our Lord said, “Every plant which My heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted,” (Matt 15:13) And, “God knows your hearts. For what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God,” (Luke 16:15).
So, if the question remains, “How then do I know what to hate and what to love?”… I believe there is a very simple answer to this question. The answer is, to make it your primary business to love the Truth. Only the appearance of truth in the heart can separate and give discernment between what Christ comes to save, and what He comes to destroy. The natural mind, the emotional mind, the sentimental mind cannot discern these things. Only by cleaving to the truth (which always begins its work in us as a reprover, a corrector, an exposer, a “swift witness,” a consuming fire, a fuller’s soap, etc.), choosing it always above ourselves, above our will, above our fears, above our reasons and excuses, above our goals…. only this makes room in our hearts for truth to teach, to divide, to kill, and to make alive. We naturally don’t have the resources or abilities to figure out some sort of balance, or choose some sort of middle ground. Our only job, and our only hope, is to choose Truth (in all its appearances) over self (in all its appearances), and let the Lord form His own love in our hearts. As I said previously, His love will cause us to love Him, our neighbor, and ourselves from exactly the same source, for exactly the same reasons, and towards exactly the same end. It is all one river, flowing from one Fountain, towards everything that bears His image, nature, and purpose.
And let me just add, that until this love is reigning in us, there will be many briars and thorns that prick our hearts. I mean, there will be many things that feel hurtful, offensive, scary, upsetting, and embarrassing, simply because our own WILL still wants things for ourselves that are independent and separate from God’s will and goodness. When you feel these briars and thorns, the one thing you should never do is excuse them, justify them, give them wrong names, or speak false peace to them. These are your enemies. They are the enemies of God, and the real resisters of His love. When you feel the pain that arises from having your own will and desires unmet (which is perhaps the most common source of pain in man), HOLD THE WOUND OPEN, spread it out before the Lord, show it to the High Priest, and do not seek any excuse or relief for it except for what comes to you by the power of Truth crucifying and removing the cause.