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[Jesus,] who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Hebrews 12:2

Self-love. Eros love, to use the Greek. I love myself and I want happiness for me. Is that wrong? Some would say so; they would say that it is wrong for me to want anything for myself. Real love, they might continue, is selfless and total unconcerned for self. This line of thinking has already caused me no little consternation in my own life as I think of my motives in a loving relationship. It is a common way to think within Christianity, but is this true?

Apparently, Jesus believe I should love myself. After all, He explicitly endorses self-love:

You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself. Apparently, if I do not love myself then what hope has my neighbor of receiving my love? What hope do I have of obeying Jesus if I don’t love myself?

Bernard of Clairvaux, the 12th century monk, offers a progression of four “degrees” of love that help me think through this (see his work, On Loving God). From lowest to highest, they are:

1) Love self for the sake of self. This is selfish, self-centered love. He refers to this as “carnal” love. This “first degree of love” is where we all start.

2) Love God for the sake of self. This is where I begin being “in love” when another is involved. I remember saying, “I can’t live without you.” It is loving another because of the happiness it brought me. I began my Christianity this way; I loved God for what He could do for me. Whether it was keeping me out of hell or keeping me healthy…I loved God for what I got out of the relationship.

3) Love God for solely because He is God. As I persisted in my relationship with God and begin to know Him, I found myself coming to love Him for whom He is. He is God and I love Him for that alone. And, as a consequence, I found that as He drew me closer to Him I began to see myself in the intense light of His perfect holiness. There was nowhere to hide; in every act I saw my sin. I loathed myself for the stink of my own sinfulness.

4) Love self only for the sake of God. God never loathes me. Jesus died for me; there is no greater expression of one’s love for another than this. A reporter once commented to Mother Teresa how much she loved the poor. She replied, “I don’t love the poor; Jesus loves the poor and I loves Jesus.” She loved the poor for the sake of Jesus. So it is with me: Jesus loves me; therefore, I love myself for the sake of Jesus. This is Bernard’s “fourth degree of love.” Given what I know about myself, what goes on within me, I have no other basis for proper self-love than this. Any other basis of self-love would be delusional and be the selfish love of Bernard’s first degree: self-love for my own sake.

If I love myself for God’s sake, then I say to myself, it is very good that I exist. In fact, philosopher Josef Pieper (Faith, Hope, Love) asserts that self-love is the love “on which all other [types of love] are founded and makes all others possible.” If I cannot apply the test, “it is very good that one exists” to myself, then to whom else can I really apply it? If the deepest form of love is union with another, then whom else am I more one with than with myself? As Pieper says, “unity is closer to the source than union.” With Jesus and with my wife I am becoming united; only with myself am I in unity.

Self-love is a consequence of my creation, of believing in my deepest self that it is good that I exist, then it must be good to seek my own happiness. I am, it seems, created to be a hedonist…a hedonist according to Bernard of Clairvaux. What does it mean to be a Christian hedonist?

If eros is self-love, then look at the other extreme, agapē love, the love God has for us. It is often described as selfless love, sacrificial love, a love free of self-interest, self-protection, or self-gratification. We say that Jesus died for us out of His agapē love for us…but then what do we make out of the joy He felt as He went to the cross? He was joyful because He loved His Father and out of love for Him and for us was crucified. Doing something for the One He loved and for us, who He also loved, gave Him joy. How, then, can we say that Jesus’ love was selfless and free of self-interest? Was it purely agapē love as we like to define it? Is there such a thing as love that is absolutely selfless?

Let’s try the philosophical technique of reductio ad absurdum, taking this idea of selfless love to its logical conclusion. If selfless love is best, then what about painful love? If it is good that I get nothing out of love, then wouldn’t it be better if it hurt? No.

This selfless characterization of agapē love sounds to me like a very antiseptic love, and I think it is a wrong characterization. I love my wife and my love gives me great pleasure. Should I not want that for myself? I love myself, shouldn’t I want happiness for me? Frankly, I cannot conceive of loving my wife without the accompanying joy and happiness it brings me. I cannot conceive of loving God joylessly. The feeling seems mutual; the old prophet Zechariah tells us that God sings over us (Zephaniah 3:17).

Eros, self-love, and agapē, selfless love. If self-love is that upon which every other love exists, then where does self-less love fit? Does eros end where agapē begins? I don’t think so. Consider the paradox of hedonism: it is the concept that one cannot find happiness by seeking it; rather, one finds happiness by living a virtuous life. However, one does not deny the received happiness as the reward of virtue. Bernard says the same thing about love:

Love is an affection of the soul, not a contract: it cannot rise from a mere agreement, nor is it so to be gained. It is spontaneous in its origin and impulse; and true love is its own satisfaction. It has its reward; but that reward is the object beloved. For whatever you seem to love, if it is on account of something else, what you do really love is that something else, not the apparent object of desire.

Tricky stuff. It seems that if I love serving God or love making Him happy, then those are the objects of my love and not God Himself. My joy, then, would be based on service to Him (likely as I define it) or His happiness (also likely as I define it) rather than God alone. My love for Jesus must be based on my affirmation that it is very good that He exists and my desire (out of self-love) to be united with Him. I am choosing to reorder my life to be in loving relationship with Him. It that because of self-less love or self-love?

I love God and I love my wife. I hope I would find it true were it ever put to the test that I would do anything for them, even giving my life. It is self-less in the sense that I desire nothing more than them. It is selfish in that out of their joy of being loved I receive the very pleasant reward of joy, the desire for which is born out of my self love, my eros.

So, unconditional love between lovers would be each wanting only the other, and out of the joy of the other experiencing joy. In this light, to even talk of “sacrificial love” seems foreign; for the lover there is no sacrifice, there are only acts of love for one’s beloved. For the joy set before Jesus, he endured the humiliation of the cross…my, what love.