I can’t stop myself from returning to Kierkegaard’s brilliant Works of Love. His take on Paul’s words that “love does not seek its own” is helping me to process how much of what I call “love” is actually just love for myself disguised as love for others.

Here’s Kierkegaard’s summary:

“Love seeks not its own. For the true lover does not love his own individuality. He rather loves each human being according to the other’s individuality. But for the other person ‘his own individuality’ is precisely ‘his own,’ and consequently the lover does not seek his own; quite the opposite, in others he loves ‘their own.'”

The picture here is of a person who truly sees every person around her and is fascinated by them. She sees what makes them distinct and is willing to put her effort into helping each person become more fully who they actually are, to dive deeper into the God-given distinctiveness they already possess. Kierkegaard sees that each person’s individuality is a beautiful gift from the Creator. In that sense, by helping someone lean into who God made them to be, we’re not even the true gift givers. The gift we give is a gift God has already given.

I love this way of considering self-sacrificial love. What are the actions I’d point to in order to prove that I’m a loving person? I’d probably talk about things I do for my wife and daughters or my friends. I’d think of the time I dedicate to those people or the ways I try to make them happy. But are these the best examples of true love? Kierkegaard would say no. When our acts of love are spent on people we are naturally attracted to, people for whom our acts of love also involve some benefit to ourselves, then these could be portrayed as acts of self-love.

Kierkegaard calls this type of loving small-mindedness.

The small-minded person finds others who are like him, or whose company he enjoys, and that’s where he’s willing to invest his time. But this is not love. Because the small-minded person is not giving himself to the one he loves. Instead, he loves that person because they already conform to him in some important way. True love, by contrast, seeks to pour itself out for the other. It seeks to make that person better. But making someone better is not the same thing as making someone more like what I want him or her to be. It actually means pouring out my own desires and interests in order to help the other be more fully who God has made them to be.

“One of the key factors that turns otherwise delightful people into jackasses is the insistence that everyone look, think, and behave just as I do. But true love invests in what makes each person unique.”

What do I see when I look at my neighbor? Do I see traits that I enjoy and so choose to invest my time there? Do I see traits that turn me off and so choose to make myself scarce? Or do I see what makes that person unique and value those traits for what they are rather than for the way they could benefit me? And do I see those traits as an opportunity to invest in that person, helping him or her to flourish more fully according to God’s design for him or her, rather than according to my preferences?

Imagine what our world would look like if we all looked at people in this way! Or forget about the world: what would our churches be look if we could adopt this mindset? What if we were a group of people who were serious about “stirring up one another to love and good works” (Heb. 10:24)? Kierkegaard calls this approach to life “squandering our lives”:

“In a certain sense his life is completely squandered on existence, on the existence of others; without wishing to waste any time or any power on elevating himself, on being somebody, in self-sacrifice he is willing to perish, that is, he is completely and wholly transformed into being simply an active power in the hands of God… His labor consists simply in this: to aid one or another human being to become his own, which in a certain sense they were on the way to becoming.”

One of the key factors that turns otherwise delightful people into jackasses is the insistence that everyone look, think, behave, and believe just as I do. But if we were all “squandering” our lives by investing in the things that make each person distinct, we would stop needing other people to match our preferences because we’d be so intrigued by their individuality and all of the potential that is simply waiting to be unlocked. Potential not to be more like what we imagine they could become, but potential to be more fully what God has created them to be.

Mark has been serving in pastoral roles for over 15 years. After a decade in various teaching and administrative roles at Eternity Bible College, Mark now works with Ryan as an associate pastor in Sacramento, California. His books include Resonate: Enjoying God’s Gift of Music and the New York Times bestseller Multiply: Disciples Making Disciples, which he co-authored with Francis Chan. This site contains affiliate links to products. We may receive a commission for purchases made through these links. There are costs associated with running the blog. These links help to cover overhead.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Mark, you said it beautifully, and what’s going on in our country and ever state with the protest, this kind of love is the love that can bring us together and unite us back into the united states. If there is a way to take this tragedy and turn it into something positive, it is this kind of love.

  2. I agree with you 100% btw (it’s just good advice to be a better person), but let me throw out a philosophical question.
    If Kierkegaard considers self-love a type of loving small-mindedness in which we focus our love on those individuals of whom we are attracted to (i.e. spouse, chidden, friends, etc.), then that must mean it is purely self-serving…thus, “self-love” – If I understand that correctly.
    So, if the idea of investing time, love, energy towards a neighbor, colleagues, random person within our community or even out of our community, in order to build up and value said person in the way God desires – to what end? To build us up spiritually? To improve humanity? To show that random person what makes him/her unique and valued? To fill us up with peace and satisfaction because it is God’s desire. In the end, we feel better. Isn’t that in itself “Self-Love” (self-serving) on a large scale. Isn’t every choice we make, positive or negative, a self-serving move, thus being self-love.

    • Grant! This is super insightful, dude. You nailed it. One thing I didn’t say in this article is that Kierkegaard actually has a pretty robust concept of loving yourself. Basically, he follows Jesus’ statement to “love your neighbor AS YOURSELF” and says that Jesus is indication that in order to love your neighbor AS YOURSELF, you have to love yourself. His concern is that there has to be something more than loving ourselves (and that’s loving our neighbor). I think he’s right. But with regard to your thought here, I’m pretty sure Kierkegaard would say that the only hope we have for transcending self-love is to view life with reference to something higher (God, for him). You’re right, the highest any of us could hope for in seeing our actions be meaningful is the ultimate joy or positivity it brings to us (otherwise why would we do it?). But with reference to God, there is a higher purpose (telos is the theological word). As 1 John 4:19 says, “We love because he [God] first loved us.” So our love for neighbor flows out from God’s love for us and for our neighbor. However, and this again is a point at which I think your question is really insightful, I see a theme in the Bible of God rewarding those who love him and love others. Which means that even God has an eye on the joy it brings us to love other people. So it really does come down to self-love in a sense, but I think Kierkegaard (and God, and myself) would say that if our love is focused purely on ourselves, it’s small and weak. But if it flows beyond toward greater purposes, we’ll experience love ourselves. In one of the later chapters of this same book, Kierkegaard says that there is a sense in which we “acquire” or “attain” what we give (in love). So when we give away love to another, “this giving and this relieving are one and the same…I myself receive what I give to another.” I don’t know, does that muddy it or help it? It’s definitely mysterious territory.

  3. Mark, I am not sure I am following you and Grant on this self-love and loving others. I think the way you’re putting this, maybe a little dangerous and a way Satan may be able to come in and distort the truth and lead people astray.

    When I read the Word, I see LOVE and WARNINGS, so we don’t FALL to SIN. Everything, God the Father does, everything the Son Jesus did, and does today, and everything the Holy Spirit does, is in love so we can spend eternity with them in Heaven, and it’s all about us. I do not see them doing this for building the God Head up and making them feel better about themselves. In return everything we do here on earth should be reciprocated back to the Godhead, and for us, it’s all about God. Jesus demonstrated this love all the way to the end and forgiving the people that put him on that cross.

    Here is the danger in what I have seen in the church today. They use this love one other as, maybe an excuse to accept people and culture that goes against God. The LBGTQ community has come into are Churches and we have accepted them, and it has divided the Church, for some a complete split. God is very clear how he sees it. Leviticus 18:22. I have people say, this is law and I am not under the law; I am under Grace and Jesus has made me white as snow. I say Mat 5:17-20. Mark, I don’t know if your Church is one that has done this, but if it has, asked this question. Did I do it for God?

    I asked my Father in Heaven about this because in 1 Cor. 5: 9-13 Paul is very bold in what he said to do. So, I asked do we need to do this today, and is there a place for today’s Church for this community. He said Yes and Yes. He said, yes purge them, this is Satan infiltrating our churches and dividing us. He also said, yes, he wants a mission for this community from the Church. He wants the Church doors wide open and the church comes with love and support for the deliverance of this sin, not acceptance.
    What does this love look like today?

    I can honestly say, I Love Derek Chauvin. I hate the SIN of MURDER that came out of this guy, but I do forgive him. Why can I say this? Because Jesus and the Holy Spirit lives in me and this is what they did, and I don’t want to find out if our Father in Heaven is a Liar. Mat 6:15. I hope he gets right with God and I hope to see him in Heaven, because I know there is no sin to big that are Father in Heaven can’t forgive.

  4. Mark I only have two experiences on this topic. In the late 70’s and for about ten years my Mother friended a girl that went to our church and she became family and she was a Daughter that my Mother never had, and she was family. She came out at Church and saying she is gay. This was the way my Mother found out she was gay, and she was in shock. My mother kept telling her, she loves her, but she doesn’t like the sin she is living. She called me, saying this is going to end our relationship, and she was going to lose her Mom, and I said, why? We still love you we just don’t like the sin your living in. She yelled at me saying, your Mom told you to say that, and she storm off. My Mom didn’t even know I went to talk to her.

    The next one was a friend that I met through my wife’s work, and we became good friends and we were on a bowling team with him and his mate. We did this for a couple of years and then California past same sex marriage and in two months we got an invitation to the wedding, I struggle with this, I went to my Pastor at the time and didn’t really get any help. I prayed and prayed about this and I was convicted I could not go to the wedding and this caused friction with my wife. I went back and prayed and prayed and I got an answer to let her go.

    Here is what my Father in Heaven revealed to me. These people weren’t born this way it took many years to come to accepting this lifestyle and accepting themselves as gay. This was all Satan doing with the help of the flesh, and the world.

    My Mother and I passed the test. How easy would it be to say, I accept your lifestyle? This is all they wanted to hear they could not understand that we loved them, because to them it was a lie.

    Now picture yourself on judgment day and you’re in front of Jesus. Who will pass the test on judgement? Me calling it a sin and telling the truth, someone accepting them and never telling them they are living in sin. I don’t want Jesus telling me I never knew him.

    If you follow Jesus there will be a cost and it will not be easy. Look in the bible to see what it looks like to follow Jesus. You will see something different than this motivational and prosperity gospel that is teach in a lot of our Churches today.

    Last thing Marriage is a Covenant of God between a Man and a Woman and when we step on God’s covenant bad things happen. Our Father in Heaven is not happy with us. Today bad things are happening. Wake up Church and church and get a backbone and turn back to God.

    If you feel the conviction, Thank God and chase after Jesus.

  5. It has gotten quiet on this blog.

    To all Christians, what I am seeing on TV that is going on in our cities across our nation is Sin and it’s not uniting us. I want you to put Law and Order up on one side, and on the other side, put Lawlessness and Anarchy. Which side will God be on, and which side will Satan be on? When you do this, I think the answer is very clear. God would be on the side of Law and Order and Satan would be on the side of Lawlessness and Anarchy. Now I am going to show you how Satan is a light and very tricky. He has taken Justice, and the fight for justice in the name of love, and you have the right for justice. Many Christians and Pastors have fallen for this. Rev. Al Sharpton, Jessie Jackson and yes MLK. They all have broken away from Law and Order and use the tool of Protest. Look up the meaning of Protest and you will find it is all tools of Satan and it divides us and does not unite us. Many Christians have followed these men in the fight for justice. Proverbs 29:26

    No where in the bible you will read life is fair, and you have a right for civil rights. We will only receive Justice through Righteousness by Obeying God almighty and following our Lord Jesus by keeping the commands, and respecting and loving others, and FEARING God. 1 Peter 2:17.

    Churches look deeply and ask, have I fallen for some of Satan’s light and made the argument I did it all for God? Reading the bible you will find when a nation turns away from God terrible things happen, like what I am seeing today, and when a Nation puts God as King and Ruler, and follow Gods way the Nation is very bless. Read Judges it is a good example of this.

    Our Churches need to lead this fight and put God back in his rightful place as King and Ruler. When I watch all these news channels, I don’t hear anything of God, he is completely out of the conversation, and we need him back in the conversation and follow his ways.

    Mark, If this makes sense to you, I would love to work with you and the other churches in our area, to find a solution and turn to God and have a great awakening and revival.

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