She seemed to want to lock swords. I was a member of a panel discussion and we were introducing ourselves to each other beforehand. One lady, with some background in counselling, seemed intrigued as to my presence. A Bible teacher? What would I bring to a discussion about life and relationships? Then I accidentally stepped on a landmine.
I mentioned something that connected spiritual maturity with loving God and loving others. “Say that again, I want to make sure I heard you right, say that again!” I knew where this was going. “That wasn’t what Jesus said!”
So I pre-empted the attack (while wondering if I should be concerned that this person would be influencing the audience with insight into human relationships!) I asked if she was going to insist that Jesus’ main point was self-esteem and that we really should be loving ourselves first and foremost? She was. She did. Oh dear.
Is that what Jesus said?
When asked for the greatest commandment, did Jesus offer two or three love responses? Love God, love neighbour, love self? Does Jesus mean, “love your neighbour in the same way that you must love yourself?” or does he mean, “love your neighbour in the same way that you do love yourself?”
Do we need to love ourselves so that we can love our neighbour? In technical terms, I suppose we are wrestling with which verb is assumed in the final part of the sentence. Is it one that commands or one that describes?
Is there anything in the gospel accounts, such as Matthew 22, or in the context of Leviticus 19:18, to suggest that our self-love is commanded rather than assumed? Nothing. Is there anything in the Bible as a whole that urges people toward self-love?
Well, yes, there is. And it isn’t coming from above. It comes with a hiss. You can’t trust God’s Word, He’s holding out on you, you need to be in charge of what’s best for you. The incurvature crisis moment of Genesis 3 should be in our thinking when we ponder the issue of self-love.
Simply because some people are so broken that they become overtly self-destructive, does not mean that the normal state of self-love maintained by most people is therefore the measure of emotional health. It is dangerous to assume that what is normal is therefore right.
In our broken world we tend to think of personhood as a matter of being a healthy individual. The person is a thinking and choosing individual with their own set of capacities and strengths. Out of that strength comes the possibility of engaging with other individuals in a healthy independence, by some mechanism of social contract.
This might seem accurate, but do we really want our understanding of personhood to come from Boethius, the sixth century translator of some of Aristotle’s works? Shouldn’t we press back into the biblical explanation?
That is, personhood consists in the loving relationships for which we were created. With God first and foremost, and with others also made in His image. Perhaps a spouse, other relatives, friends, colleagues, neighbours, etc.
Relationships are not a pragmatic means to a self-serving end – not for God and not for us. It is only in the brokenness of sin that using others to serve ourselves can make any sense (be that a divine glory pursuit, or a human taking advantage of others).
Jesus didn’t command us to love ourselves. Firstly because he knew that is already the focus of our affections. He was urging his hearers to love God and love others, to be drawn out of the broken reality toward the actual divine design for humanity. Secondly because he had come to die to draw us out of that self-love.
It would make no sense to demonstrate on the cross a love so captivating that it would draw us out of the death of self-love, but undermine that with direct instruction to love ourselves.
It is natural, it is normal to love ourselves. But that doesn’t make it right. Instead of pursuing the self-love options, let’s enjoy the life to the full offered by the only One able to overcome the magnetic power of incurved affections. Love God. Love others. And live.