We were staying with friends, and I was getting ready for the day in their daughter's bathroom. It was a typical tween-age space: cute stickers and sayings posted to the mirror, hair products and cotton balls and drugstore makeup on the shelf. A quote on the mirror caught my eye: "I'm Third." It came from Kanakuk, a Christian sports camp in Missouri. In smaller print, I found an explanation: "God first. Others second. I'm third."

Something about the quote struck me as off. I knew it came from the Bible. When the teachers of the law ask Jesus, "What is the greatest commandment?" he responds, "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself' " (Matt. 22:37-38). I assume the Kanakuk saying intends to echo Jesus, yet the Bible states the command in a less hierarchical manner. Love of God remains at the top of the list, but love of neighbor and self are inextricably related. In fact, Jesus' command implies that we will know how to love our neighbor only if we properly love ourselves.

I remembered that Kanakuk saying upon reading two recent articles about self-help. In the first, "Change We Can (Almost) Believe In," Time reporter Nathan Thornburgh describes his quest for personal wholeness at the Landmark Forum, "one of the country's largest personal-development workshops," and later through yoga. Thornburgh, who went feeling disappointed "about myself and my default noir outlook on life," said he walked away "increasingly curious about the vast number of people in the midrange of the self-help spectrum: the enthusiastic brigades of the transformists and yogis and New Agers who embrace change as a call to action."

The second, "Go Easy on Yourself, a New Wave of Research Urges," from The New York Times's Tara Parker-Pope, discusses new research surrounding "self-compassion," or "how kindly people view themselves." Parker-Pope covers the research of Kristin Neff, a Texas-based professor of human development, who says that "most people have gotten it wrong because our culture says being hard on yourself is the way to be."

It's easy for Christians to dismiss self-help regimens as self-centered and thus ultimately self-destructive and harmful to others. But Thornburgh hints at some Christian truth as he journeys through the self-help landscape. He embarks upon a Landmark course of self-discovery and realizes, for instance, that "we overestimate our importance to the universe." He writes, "I benefited tremendously from the uncomfortable mirror that the course had put in front of me." In his experience, the way to inner peace came via a hefty dose of humility and recognizing personal failings, something Christians often call an admission of sin.

Parker-Pope takes a different tack. She writes that many people confuse self-compassion with self-indulgence. Ironically, many people who offer support and kindness to others are unwilling to treat themselves in the same way. Parker-Pope writes, "The research suggests that giving ourselves a break and accepting our imperfections may be the first step toward better health. People who score high on tests of self-compassion have less depression and anxiety, and tend to be happier and more optimistic."

Thornburgh's and Parker-Pope's reports contain kernels of truth about human nature. Both affirm the need to acknowledge our shortcomings. Both also offer reasons to love ourselves. And yet a Christian understanding of self-love goes much farther. For Thurnburgh, self-help is a means to personal peace, becoming a better parent, and generally reordering one's life. Parker-Pope offers only one practical application of the self-compassion research: "Preliminary data suggest that self-compassion can even influence how much we eat and may help some people lose weight." Christian love, in contrast, acknowledges a source of love outside the self and a purpose for love that includes the self but extends far beyond personal well-being.

God's love anchors self-love and neighbor-love. As with self-help regimens, God's love provokes recognition of sin, and a recognition that we are unable to change sinful patterns by berating ourselves and trying harder. Instead of dealing with sin on our own or dismissing the problem of sin altogether, we receive first unity with Christ in his sinlessness and then transformative power from the Holy Spirit.

Moreover, God provides a rationale for loving ourselves that goes beyond inner peace and weight loss. He dignifies every human being as a creature "in God's image," with inestimable value to the Creator. As we understand God's love for us, manifested in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, so we begin to understand God's love for every person. God's love prompts us to love ourselves and to love other people.

Whenever love exists in a vacuum, it becomes idolatry. Loving ourselves without reference to our neighbors leads to self-centeredness. But loving our neighbors without loving ourselves refuses to acknowledge our common humanity and our common value before God.

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I haven't come up with a new slogan for Kanakuk, but I might start by omitting the word I and substituting it with we. Love, in its essence, is relational. God the Father loves the Son loves the Spirit, and God invites us to participate in this holy love, first by receiving it personally and then by extending it outward. Modern research may help us understand how to love ourselves, but only when that love is coupled with an understanding of God's love will it combine inner peace with outward acts of joyful service. Really loving our neighbor means loving ourselves with the love embodied in the life and death of Christ, the love of God that fuels the universe.