Danger of Self-Love

By Ken Green

The Danger of Self-Love, Paul Brownback, 157 pp. Moody Press, 1982. Price $5.95

“Self-love.” “Self-esteem.” “I’ve got to be me!” “Positive self-image.” “Self-worth.” “Feel good about yourself!” “Look out for number one!”

Many of the modern-day religious publications give much space to this concept of being fond of yourself.

Having been personally influenced by such writings, I approached this volume with reservations. As I studied the material, however, I began to realize that some valid points were being expressed. I do not agree with all of the conclusions that Brownback has reached, but I am convinced that humanistic philosophy has influenced the great emphasis currently being given to the subject of self-esteem.

The primary thesis of this book is that the focus of Scripture is the exaltation of God and not man. He who boasts is admonished to “boast in the Lord” (1 Cor. 27:3 1). Brownback says, “What I was hearing from the advocates of self-love seemed to me to be opposed to this flow of Scripture. It appeared that Psalm 139:14 was virtually being rewritten to read ‘Iwill praise me, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”‘

The writer begins with “some initial concerns.” He shows that this teaching is one that was virtually unheard of in the evangelical world until about 1974. It is not quite that new as an idea, however. “It was a prominent theme in secular psychology in the 1940’s coming to full bloom in the 50’s and 60’s.

Brief descriptions are then given of the rise of evolutionary thought, and the shift in modern thought to existentialism. Paul Vitz, in his volume, Psychology as Religion: The Cull of Self- Worship, notes: “The central concept (of existentialism, K.G.) is probably that of ‘being there’ (Dasein), by which is meant the intense fundamental awareness of one’s experience.”

The effects of this approach to life are briefly traced as to the individual and society. Particular notice is given to its effects on the different aspects of psychology, i.e., behaviorism, Freudian psychology, neo-Freudian psychology (inspired by men such as Abraham Moslow, Carl Rogers, and Erich Fromm).

Brownback believes that the writings of William James have served as an impetus for much of what is being said about “self” today. Some quite interesting quotations are given from James’ works on psychology.

A chapter is devoted to “The Self’-Theory of Erich Fromm. ” Fromm was one who pioneered the concept of “unconditional love.” Acceptance is not to be based in any way on performance. This finds application in self-love, as well as love of others.

Another chapter is given to “The Self-Theory of Carl Rogers” who was deeply influenced by Fromm, and who took the ball and ran with it. Some of the recent writings in Evangelical publications are then quoted and discussed. Bruce Narramore’s books (You’re Someone Special: Freedom from Guilt) are given more review than any others, but writings by James Dobson (Hide or Seek); Anthony A. Hoekema (The Sensation of Being Somebody) are also criticized.

I am not convinced that a fair evaluation has been given to all these writers. I have not read all the books cited, but I have read the writings of Dobson and feel that the self-worth and self-love he advocates is biblically based.

Some quotations are given from Narramore that I certainly find objectionable. But these appear to be based on unscriptural doctrines that are common to the evangelical world, rather than humanistic psychology. For example the quote: “When God looks on us, Ile sees us ‘in Christ.’ He doesn’t see our dirt. He sees us just as clean and pure as Jesus Christ Himself.”

The author of this book considers current teaching on self-love as a substitute, having “taking the place previously occupied by teaching on the victorious Christian life or sanctification. Ten years ago when a person came to his pastor with a sin problem, the pastor probably would ha ve opened the Word of God and shared the liberating truth of the power available to the believer through the Holy Spirit to live in victory.

“Today there is a good possibility that the pastor would remind him of his need to accept himself. . .”

I don’t know Brownback’s doctrinal presuppositions on sanctification, but I have a notion that I would not agree with them. And I’m sure there are “pastors” who would not encourage one with “a sin problem” (Don’t we all have that?) to repent and renounce the sin; but the writers critically reviewed in this book would certainly not be among them.

It is observed that in 2 Timothy 3:1-5, “lovers of self” is given as one of the characteristics of the perilous times. The Greek word is a compound made up of the word “self” plus philia, “the type of love described by contemporary self-theory, a feeling type of love.”

A biblical alternative to self-awareness and self-love is suggested by Brownback: “We believe the biblical alternative to the wave of concern over self-image is to have no self-image at all. ” He lays stress on the fact that we will be best adjusted when we forget self, or die to self, and live for God and others. The yoke of the ego is exceedingly heavy. The yoke of Christ is one of humility, selflessness, and service.

Discussion is given in this book to the Greek words agape and philia and the different concepts they denote. But I don’t believe enough attention is given to this in application. The idea of Matthew 22:36-40 implying self-love is discredited by Brownback. I believe, however the passage does necessitate agape love for self. This love is not the “fondness for self” that is the main focus of the book, but a true and healthy concern for self inseparably linked to one’s concern for others.

The author overstates his case at times, in my opinion. But for the most part, I feel that he has made an important contribution with this work. He has helped me see this matter from a different perspective. After all, the Lord did say,

“Blessed are the poor in spirit.

Guardian of Truth XXXI: 2, pp. 54-55
January 15, 1987