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A Christian View of Self

Pensive Woman 15890414_s“That I feed the hungry, that I forgive an insult, that I love my enemy in the name of Christ—all these are undoubtedly great virtues . . . But what if I should discover that the least among them all, the poorest of all the beggars, the most impudent of all the offenders, the very enemy himself—that these are within me, and . . . that I myself am the enemy who must be loved—what then?” Psychiatrist Carl Jung raised this question, and then answered as follows:

As a rule, the Christian’s attitude is then reversed; there is no longer any question of love or long-suffering; we say to the brother within us ‘Raca,’ and condemn and rage against ourselves.

Jung found this reversal of attitude lamentable because, in his view, “the acceptance of oneself is the essence of the whole moral problem and the epitome of a whole outlook on life.” Before deciding whether Jung’s view is compatible with the Christian perspective, we should acknowledge that the Christian perspective is not as simple as many people assume.

On the one hand, Christianity teaches that humans are created “in God’s own image” (Genesis 1:26), only a little lower than the angels and “crowned with glory and honor” (Psalm 8:5). On the other hand, it teaches that humans possess a “fallen nature” that makes them prone to sin. The first teaching invites pride; the second, humility.

James and Peter tipped the balance in favor of humility—both wrote, “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6, 1 Peter 5:5) Moreover, the story of the centurion and the parable of the Pharisee and the publican reinforce that teaching. (Matthew 8:8, and Luke 18:13) Not surprisingly, Christians have embraced that emphasis throughout the centuries.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, however, the practitioners of the then-new field of psychology, including Jung, noted a correlation between some patients’ emotional problems, notably feelings of unworthiness and guilt, and their Christian faith. Over time, many psychologists went far beyond Jung’s position. They postulated that emotional well-being depends not only on accepting ourselves, but also on loving and esteeming ourselves unconditionally, a well as on overcoming guilt.

That perspective remains dominant in our culture and is responsible, together with other factors, for many people abandoning their Christian faith. Meanwhile, many other people remain faithful but are intimidated by the supposedly scientific arguments opposing their faith. They cannot help but wonder whether the traditional Christian view of self is mistaken.

The best starting point in addressing that concern is Jesus’ statement of the two greatest commandments, loving God and loving our neighbor. His phrasing of the latter—“love your neighbor as yourself”—is significant because it specifies not only what we are to do but also the manner in which we are to do it. We are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. The clear implications are that we already love ourselves and that self-love comes naturally, whereas loving others requires effort.

We should note that Jesus did not direct us to love others either more or less than we love ourselves, but “as we love ourselves”—that is, as much as we love ourselves. This suggests the need for a balance in our loving. If we love others less than ourselves, we are in danger of neglecting our neighborly obligations. On the other hand, if we love them more than ourselves, we are in danger of neglecting our own human needs.

Everyday experience reveals that relatively few people love others more than themselves and that the reverse is quite common—indeed, is the norm. We humans tend to be self-absorbed and not infrequently selfish. Thus, Christ’s directive to love our neighbors as we love ourselves is a more balanced and reasonable psychological guide than the self-love and self-esteem model of contemporary psychology.

But that leaves us with Jung’s point that self-acceptance is “the essence of the whole moral problem and the epitome of a whole outlook on life.” Is this idea compatible with the balanced view Christ expressed? Before answering, we need to clarify the terms self and acceptance.

The word self seems so simple as not to need definition, but in fact there are more than a dozen different definitions, including “an inner core that dominates,” “a perceiver of things,” “consciousness,” and “a center of perception.” The definition I propose in Corrupted Culture incorporates these but is simpler:

Self is synonymous with human being and person and has two dimensions— physical and metaphysical (intellect, emotion conscience, will). Together, these dimensions produce behavior (words and deeds). When behavior is habitual, as Socrates noted, it defines one’s character, and therefore can be considered a quasi-dimension of self.

The word acceptance may seem unobjectionable, but it denotes approval, and when applied to individuals, it clearly implies that they are completely acceptable just as they are. However, that is false. To be human is to be imperfect and therefore open to improvement. (Incidentally, though many psychologists and psychiatrists use the term self-acceptance, their professional activity contradicts it because it is directed toward change, in least in the matter of accepting or rejecting oneself.)

In light of the above analysis, Christians should not be comfortable with psychology’s emphases on self-love and self-acceptance. Traditional Christian thought regards self-love as something already present in us (except in aberrational cases of self-hate). Therefore, it does not need emphasizing; our emphasis should instead be on loving others. The same tradition regards self-acceptance as an invitation to emotional, intellectual, and spiritual stagnation.

What emphases on self, then, are compatible with Christianity?

First, the one that Socrates famously recommended and the Christian intellectual tradition has consistently affirmed: self-knowledge—seeking the truth about ourselves, especially our intellectual, moral, and spiritual strengths, weaknesses, and potentialities.

Secondly, self-improvement—maintaining efforts to cultivate our strengths, overcome our weaknesses, and realize our potentialities.

These emphases are as positive and life-enhancing as modern psychology’s, yet they enjoy the advantage of avoiding the twin dangers of narcissism (in the case of self-love) and stagnation (in the case of self-acceptance). Moreover, when pursued in the context of perceiving ourselves as created in the image and likeness of God and being recipients of God’s love, they provide a surer path to an emotionally healthy and meaningful life.

Copyright © 2014 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved