01/20/2012 01:25 pm ET Updated Mar 21, 2012

What Does The Bible Tell Us About Self-Love?

Do you love yourself?

This question may feel like gooey self-help silliness, or the manifestation of a narcissistic culture. After all, isn't one of the problems today that people love themselves too much, and love others not enough? Isn't self-love the root of greed and abuse, and doesn't loving oneself mean complacency and an end of the desire to change and improve?

The truth is, however, that most of us do not love ourselves nearly well enough, and this is the cause of so much of the pain that is inflicted on others. When seen though a clear lens, "Do I love myself?" is an essential and illuminating question.

In order to understand this we must first understand the true nature of love. We usually think that love is simply a feeling that arises from an attraction that can change or disappear over time. This sense of what love means, though, comes from our basic survival impulse that drives us to look for acceptance through the positive attention of another, out of the fear of rejection and abandonment. Every infant naturally feels this, but many of us seem to carry this fear in to adulthood, and then call it "love." This need for security, however, is not true love because it seeks only to receive, and is limited to how one feels at any particular moment, dissolving once the needs appears to be met. Once the need arises again (which it always does) we frantically go looking for new "love."

This is false love, which can be simply defined as: The desperate need to be seen as special in order to feel safe.

True love, though, is not an emotion or an attraction. And it has nothing to do with safety and acceptance. Quite the contrary: While false love arises from the fear of lack and the need to receive, true love always arises from gratitude and the determination to give. True love appears when we courageously see our fears as they are, and surrender to the knowledge that creation is good and that all life is part of a greater plan, for which we are responsible.

True love can be defined as: The commitment to know, experience and contribute as deeply as possible to the growth of someone or something.

This definition tells us that true love is an investigation, in which you seek to deeply know something or someone in order to be of service. Just as one who truly loves gardening will eagerly read books and attend lectures about horticulture so that he/she may more effectively tend the beloved plants, one who truly loves another will naturally want to know as much as possible about the other in order anticipate and care for his/her needs. True love is also an experience, in which you seek to feel the emotions and inner reality of someone so that you can draw close. Just as one who truly loves art goes to museums to experience the world through an artist's eyes, one who truly loves another will seek to connect to another at a deep emotional level to share his/her pain and joy. And true love is a conscious action, in which you find ways to assist in the growth of someone or something. Just as one who truly loves justice will work to help the innocent and to identify those who do harm, one who truly loves another will continually find ways to help him/her become more fully realized.

This definition is very much aligned with the biblical injunction about love: "You will love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your might." This typical translation, however, does not reveal the inner meaning that is embedded in the Hebrew. A fuller translation reads, "Love all of life -- the imminent spark that animates your consciousness (Adonai), and the transcendent mystery of creation (Elohim) -- with all your knowing, with all your feeling and with all your determination to act." These three components -- knowing, experiencing, acting -- are the fullness of true love.

With this clear distinction between false and true love, we can see what happens when this is turned inward to self-love. False self-love is: The desperate need to feel that I am better, and therefore more deserving, than others, so that I will feel special and will not be abandoned. True self-love is: The commitment to objectively know myself as I am, to fully experience life as it comes to me, and to honor my potential by continually seeking ways to grow.

Why is self-love so important? The simple truth is that we treat others in the same way that we treat ourselves, because we can only give what we have. When I see love as a means to get approval so that I can feel better about myself, I will see others as objects for whose attention I seek or avoid. Because I am harsh and continually see faults in myself, I will be harsh and critical of others. And since I am uncertain about my worth, I will be uncertain about the worth of others, and about creation itself. I will be left feeling cynical and angry at what seems to be the unfairness of life and the selfishness of others. This horrible dynamic is the source of abuse and atrocities of all sorts, and begins with a terrible distortion of self-love.

But when I know that love is the very mechanism of growth, I will forgive myself for my mistakes as one accepts a child's fall as she is learning to walk, with the commitment to learn and develop; I will see myself as I am without the need to condemn or praise; I will view my life as a great gift and adventure for which I am grateful; and I will embrace my emotions in all their variety as a part of what it means to be alive. Then I will naturally treat others in this lovely way -- with compassion, openness and kindness, and with the commitment to be an agent of their growth.

Another famous line from the Bible -- "Love your neighbor as yourself" -- also points to this truth. Again, standard translations leave the message flat. More accurately translated, this line actually reads "And you are going to love others in the same way that you love yourself." This, then, is less a commandment than a statement of fact.

Understanding and accessing true love is at the core of all spiritual practices, which teach us that love is the ultimate reality, and the most powerfully transformative energy that we can access. These practices lead us to the paradoxical realization that the more you truly love yourself, the less time and energy is spent thinking about yourself because you do not seek approval, try to impress, or wonder how you appear, but instead seek to contribute in a helpful way. You now have the courage to allow yourself to be seen as you are, without the masks or costumes that you created to lure or repel others. Then more internal space is opened in your heart to allow the reality of others to enter, and true love is awakened, bringing healing and joy wherever it shines.