Jonathan Edwards: Love is the Opposite of Selfishness, Not Self-Love

I would show the nature of that selfishness of which charity is the opposite. — And here I would observe,

1. Negatively, that charity, or the spirit of Christian love, is not contrary to all self-love. — It is not a thing contrary to Christianity that a man should love himself, or, which is the same thing, should love his own happiness. If Christianity did indeed tend to destroy a man’s love to himself, and to his own happiness, it would therein tend to destroy the very spirit of humanity; but the very announcement of the gospel, as a system of peace on earth and goodwill toward men (Luke 2:14 ), shows that it is not only not destructive of humanity, but in the highest degree promotive of its spirit. That a man should love his own happiness, is as necessary to his nature as the faculty of the will is; and it is impossible that such a love should be destroyed in any other way than by destroying his being. The saints love their own happiness. Yea, those that are perfect in happiness, the saints and angels in heaven, love their own happiness; otherwise that happiness which God hath given them would be no happiness to them; for that which anyone does not love he cannot enjoy any happiness in.

That to love ourselves is not unlawful, is evident also from the fact, that the law of God makes self-love a rule and measure by which our love to others should be regulated. Thus Christ commands (Mat. 19:19 ), “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself,” which certainly supposes that we may, and must, love ourselves. It is not said more than thyself, but as thyself. But we are commanded to love our neighbor next to God; and therefore we are to love ourselves with a love next to that which we should exercise toward God himself. And the same appears also from the fact, that the Scriptures, from one end of the Bible to the other, are full of motives that are set forth for the very purpose of working on the principle of self-love. Such are all the promises and threatenings of the Word of God, its calls and invitations, its counsels to seek our own good, and its warnings to beware of misery. These things can have no influence on us in any other way than as they tend to work upon our hopes or fears. For to what purpose would it be to make any promise of happiness, or hold forth any threatening of misery, to him that has no love for the former or dread of the latter? Or what reason can there be in counseling him to seek the one, or warning him to avoid the other? Thus it is plain, negatively, that charity, or the spirit of Christian love, is not contrary to all self-love. But I remark still further,

2. Affirmatively, that the selfishness which charity, or a Christian spirit, is contrary to, is only an inordinate self-love. — Here, however, the question arises, In what does this inordinateness consist? This is a point that needs to be well stated and clearly settled; for the refutation of many scruples and doubts that persons often have, depends upon it. And therefore I answer,

First, that the inordinateness of self-love does not consist in our love of our own happiness being, absolutely considered, too great in degree. — I do not suppose it can be said of any, that their love to their own happiness, if we consider that love absolutely and not comparatively, can be in too high a degree, or that it is a thing that is liable either to increase or diminution. For I apprehend that self-love, in this sense, is not a result of the fall, but is necessary, and what belongs to the nature of all intelligent beings, and that God has made it alike in all; and that saints, and sinners, and all alike, love happiness, and have the same unalterable and instinctive inclination to desire and seek it. The change that takes place in a man, when he is converted and sanctified, is not that his love for happiness is diminished, but only that it is regulated with respect to its exercises and influence, and the courses and objects it leads to. Who will say that the happy souls in heaven do not love happiness as truly as the miserable spirits in hell? If their love of happiness is diminished by their being made holy, then that will diminish their happiness itself; for the less anyone loves happiness, the less he relishes it, and, consequently, is the less happy.

When God brings a soul out of a miserable state and condition into a happy state, by conversion, he gives him happiness that before he had not, but he does not at the same time take away any of his love of happiness. And so, when a saint increases in grace, he is made still more happy than he was before; but his love of happiness, and his relish of it, do not grow less as his happiness itself increases, for that would be to increase his happiness one way, and to diminish it another. But in every case in which God makes a miserable soul happy, or a happy soul still more happy, he continues the same love of happiness that existed before. And so, doubtless, the saints ought to have as much of a principle of love to their own happiness, or love to themselves, which is the same thing, as the wicked have. So that, if we consider men’s love of themselves or of their own happiness absolutely, it is plain that the inordinateness of selflove does not consist in its being in too great a degree, because it is alike in all. But I remark,

Secondly, that the inordinateness of self-love, wherein a corrupt selfishness does consist, lies in two things: — in its being too great comparatively; and in placing our happiness in that which is confined to self. In the first place, the degree of self-love may be too great comparatively, and so the degree of its influence be inordinate. Though the degree of men’s love of their own happiness, taken absolutely, may in all be the same, yet the proportion that their love of self bears to their love for others may not be the same. If we compare a man’s love of himself with his love for others, it may be said that he loves himself too much — that is, in proportion too much. And though this may be owing to a defect of love to others, rather than to an excess of love to himself, yet self-love, by this excess in its proportion, itself becomes inordinate in this respect, viz. that it becomes inordinate in its influence and government of the man. For though the principle of self-love, in itself considered, is not at all greater than if there is a due proportion of love to God and to fellow creatures with it, yet, the proportion being greater, its influence and government of the man become greater; and so its influence becomes inordinate by reason of the weakness or absence of other love that should restrain or regulate that influence.

To illustrate this, we may suppose the case of a servant in a family, who was formerly kept in the place of a servant, and whose influence in family affairs was not inordinate while his master’s strength was greater than his; and yet, if afterward the master grows weaker and loses his strength, and the rest of the family lose their former power, though the servant’s strength be not at all increased, yet, the proportion of his strength being increased, his influence may become inordinate, and, from being in subjection and a servant, he may become master m that house. And so self-love becomes inordinate. Before the fall, man loved himself, or his own happiness, as much as after the fall; but then, a superior principle of divine love had the throne, and was of such strength, that it wholly regulated and directed self-love. But since the fall, the principle of divine love has lost its strength, or rather is dead; so that self-love, continuing in its former strength, and having no superior principle to regulate it, becomes inordinate in its influence, and governs where it should be subject, and only a servant. Self-love, then, may become inordinate in its influence by being comparatively too great, either by love to God and to fellow creatures being too small, as it is in the saints, who in this world have great remaining corruption, or by its being none at all, as is the case with those who have no divine love in their hearts. Thus the inordinateness of self-love, with respect to the degree of it, is not as it is considered absolutely, but comparatively, or with respect to the degree of its influence. In some respects wicked men do not love themselves enough — not so much as the godly do; for they do not love the way of their own welfare and happiness; and in this sense it is sometimes said of the wicked that they hate themselves, though, in another sense, they love self too much.

It is further true, in the second place, that self-love, or a man’s love to his own happiness, may be inordinate, in placing that happiness in things that are confined to himself. In this case, the error is not so much in the degree of his love to himself as it is in the channel in which it flows. It is not in the degree in which he loves his own happiness, but in his placing his happiness where he ought not, and in limiting and confining his love. Some, although they love their own happiness, do not place that happiness in their own confined good, or in that good which is limited to themselves, but more in the common good — in that which is the good of others, or in the good to be enjoyed in and by others. A man’s love of his own happiness, when it runs in this last channel, is not what is called selfishness, but is the very opposite of it. But there are others who, in their love to their own happiness, place that happiness in good things that are confined or limited to themselves, to the exclusion of others. And this is selfishness. This is the thing most clearly and directly intended by that self-love which the Scripture condemns. And when it is said that charity seeketh not her own, we are to understand it of her own private good — good limited to herself. The expression, “her own,” is a phrase of appropriation, and properly carries in its signification the idea of limitation to self. And so the like phrase in Phil. 2:21 , that “all seek their own,” carries the idea of confined and self-appropriated good, or the good that a man has singly and to himself, and in which he has no communion or partnership with another, but which he has so circumscribed and limited to himself as to exclude others. And so the expression is to be understood in 2 Tim. 3:2 , “For men shall be lovers of their own selves;” for the phrase is of the most confined signification, limited to self alone, and excluding all others.

A man may love himself as much as one can, and may be, in the exercise of a high degree of love to his own happiness, ceaselessly longing for it, and yet he may so place that happiness, that, in the very act of seeking it, he may be in the high exercise of love to God; as, for example, when the happiness that he longs for, is to enjoy God, or to behold his glory, or to hold communion with him. Or a man may place his happiness in glorifying God. It may seem to him the greatest happiness that he can conceive of, to give God glory, as he may do; and he may long for this happiness. And in longing for it, he loves that which he looks on as his happiness; for if he did not love what in this case he esteemed his happiness, he would not long for it; and to love his happiness is to love himself. And yet, in the same act, he loves God, because he places his happiness in God; for nothing can more properly be called love to any being or thing, than to place our happiness in it. And so persons may place their happiness considerably in the good of others — their neighbors, for instance — and, desiring the happiness that consists in seeking their good, they may, in seeking it, love themselves and their own happiness. And yet this is not selfishness, because it is not a confined selflove; but the individual’s self-love flows out in such a channel as to take in others with himself. The self that he loves is, as it were, enlarged and multiplied, so that, in the very acts in which he loves himself, he loves others also. And this is the Christian spirit, the excellent and noble spirit of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is the nature of that divine love, or Christian charity, that is spoken of in the text. And a Christian spirit is contrary to that selfish spirit which consists in the self-love that goes out after such objects as are confined and limited — such as a man’s worldly wealth, or the honor that consists in a man’s being set up higher in the world than his neighbors, or his own worldly ease and convenience, or his pleasing and gratifying his own bodily appetites and lusts.

From Charity and its Fruits.

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