Love Your Neighbor as Yourself
by Ted Schroder, May 14, 2006
The Gospels record that Jesus affirmed that the second great commandment is to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (quoting Leviticus 19:18 in Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-31; Luke 10:27,28) This is easier said than done. It raises all sorts of questions in our minds. One of them, asked by a lawyer in order to narrow its application was, “Who is my neighbor?” But before I get to that let me ask this question: “How does God expect us to love our neighbor?” The answer is inherent in the commandment: apparently by our understanding of how we love ourselves. We are expected to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
This raises another problem. There is a strain of teaching in some Christian circles that would denigrate self-love. Conviction of sin is so heavily stressed in some teaching that the believer is led to an attitude of self-abhorrence and self-loathing. But how can such an attitude be compatible with measuring our love for others by our love for ourselves?
The confession of sins that I prayed every Sunday morning in church, as a child from the Book of Common Prayer (1662), went like this: “We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty, Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent, And are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; The burden of them is intolerable…” In the evening service I prayed: “We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws…And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders…”
As a normal high-spirited, and mischievous child, I received my fair share of recrimination from my parents for bad behavior, but to have to believe every Sunday that I was a miserable offender, and that the burden of my sins were intolerable, was asking a lot. The theological currency was debased by over frequent use of those words.
There is no doubt that we are meant to repent of our sins, to abhor and to loathe our self-centeredness. Sin is ingrained in us, and infects every part of us, so that no aspect of our lives is free from the taint of sin. The results of our sins are seen every day on the front pages of our newspapers, and in the records of the police, law courts, divorce lawyers, mediators, counselors, ministers and medical personnel. If we see ourselves clearly we are aware of our shortcomings and our need for cleansing and forgiveness, as Isaiah experienced in his vision in the temple (Isaiah 6:1-7). Christ died to atone for our sins and to give us a new heart, but there will always be the need to confess our sins and to seek for further forgiveness (1 John 1:8,9) which he promises to give us.
Therefore we are meant to love our neighbors as fellow sinners equally needing the same cleansing and forgiveness as ourselves. There can be no room for self righteousness or condescension on our part to others. We see them, as well as ourselves, as candidates for regeneration, rehabilitation, and resurrection. They are to be loved, as we are, for our possibilities, our potential. We see ourselves as sinners in recovery. So we should see others.
One of the biggest barriers to loving our neighbor as ourselves is the inability to love ourselves as God loves us. Many hate themselves, or what they have become, and have no love to give to others. Many love themselves in the wrong way, and seek to bolster their love of themselves in self-destructive ways. So they drug and drink themselves to death, or cause the violent deaths of others.
There is a proper and an improper form of self-love. There is selfish love of self, and there is a spiritual love of self. The person who does not know how to love himself properly is not capable of loving others. He is so obsessed with his own need for love that he cannot relate positively to others. The ‘selfish,’ exclusive love of self, does not care for anyone beyond himself. The ‘proper,’ inclusive love of self, seeks the good of others, because it recognizes what it needs for oneself.
When a person degrades herself by allowing herself to be used by others and exploited, she has not learned to love herself. When a person allows himself to be bought, bribed, or otherwise corrupted, he has not rightly learned to love himself. When a person seeks power and fame, and abuses it for his own satisfaction, he has not learned to love himself rightly. When a woman becomes a doormat for others and enables them in their tyranny, she has not learned to rightly love herself. When a man wastes his time and energy in the service of empty accomplishments in order to boost his ego, he has not rightly learned to love himself. When the frivolous woman throws herself into social engagements in order to escape her loneliness, she does not understand how to love herself rightly. The woman who is depressed or otherwise self-destructive, who surrenders to despair because she has been betrayed or rejected, does not know how to love herself rightly. When a man who is self-tormented tries to martyr himself, or take his own life, he does not have a genuine understanding of how a man ought to love himself. When a person measures his worth by the standards of success in the culture, and feels himself a failure, he does not possess proper self love.
What is legitimate self-love? If we are called to love everyone, that includes ourselves. No one is to be excluded from our love, not even ourselves. If we value God’s creation, God’s gifts, we must value ourselves as one of those gifts. If God values us then we cannot but do otherwise. If God, by his grace, finds us worthy of love, then we should also. “We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) We learn what love is from seeing how God loves us. We appreciate God’s love by recognizing how high a price he has set on us in the Cross.
Proper self-love is the standard by which we shall love our neighbor. We ought to love our neighbor as we ought to love ourselves. We ought to love our neighbors as we are loved by God. We love ourselves by seeking God’s kingdom, seeking his truth, seeking his blessing, seeking his fulfillment and satisfaction, seeking his goals for our lives. We love ourselves by seeking God’s best for us. We love ourselves by taking care of ourselves. It is our responsibility to take care of ourselves so that we have the ability to love others, to have something to give them. What we want for ourselves we will want for others We have a need for forgiveness, for respect, for love, for health and wholeness..
In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) we can identify with either the victim, who has been left half dead by the side of the road, or the other travelers. The priest and the Levite, who hurry on past, lest they too are assaulted, are insecure. They see anyone who needs help to be beneath them. They are too wrapped up in themselves, and their self-sufficiency, to consider the needs of someone else. Their’s is a selfish self-love, turned in on themselves, because of their insecurity. If we identify with the victim we can imagine how we would like to be treated by others. We know how we would like to be loved by realizing how we ourselves would like to be treated under the same circumstances. The kind of care the Samaritan provided is an illustration of the kind of care we believe is implied by the qualification “as yourself.” This is the teaching of the Golden Rule: “do to others what you would have them do to you.” (Matthew 7:12) He does what we would like others to do for us: dressing our wounds, taking us to a hotel, and taking care of us until we recover, to continue our journey unaided.
The victim stands for anyone who is mugged on the road that is life. The wounds received may be emotional rather than physical. The roadside may be a family in which there is much emotional pain that is covered over and denied. The family or the relationship may be controlling and manipulative. The robbers may be those who hold emotional power over the victim, who strip him or her of his sense of self love, beat him down over the years, and leave him to live a diminished life – half alive, and half dead. The antagonists may be priests and Levites, religious people, church people, upstanding in the community; but nonetheless robbers of the lives of those they abuse. There is no freedom to become your own person, to form your own God-given identity, in that relationship. So many people are robbed of a healthy self love by those who beat them down and expect them to conform to what they expect them to be, instead of what God has created them to be. So much domestic violence takes place because of lack of proper self love.
A person with proper self love has such a healthy regard for himself, and a sense of the worth of his own identity in Christ that he does not have to cling onto another in a co-dependent way. He is willing to give up the other person, to allow him to distance himself, to let go in the relationship, for the sake of the good of the other person. So many friendships, and family relationships, founder because there is the need to see the other person as a way of fulfilling oneself in a co-dependent ways. If we love the other person, we are willing to let them go their own way for the sake of their future growth. To love our neighbor as ourselves means not to cling on to them (for we do not want others to cling on to us), or stifle them with our expectations and claims on them. We value our independence. Therefore, we would not demand that our neighbor, or family member, become like us, or model themselves on us, or agree with us, in order to be accepted. To love our neighbor as ourselves is to respect the separate identity of the other person, and to rejoice in their independent development apart from us.
Loving our neighbor as ourselves is a safeguard against loving our neighbor less than ourselves, as well as loving others more than ourselves. To love others more than ourselves is to beggar oneself, to not take care of ourselves so that we cannot continue to love others.
Jesus said that we should love ourselves as we would love our neighbor, for to love oneself in the right way, and to love our neighbor is the same thing. When you love yourself in the same way as you love your neighbor, you love your neighbor as yourself. The teaching of Christ is that a person should love his neighbor as himself, that is, as he ought to love himself. Is this something you do? Is this something you need to work on for yourself, and for those you love? What do you need to do in order to love your neighbor as yourself?
(Some material is taken from Soren Kierkegaard’s, “You Shall Love”, in Works of Love)
An audio version of this presentation is to be found on www.ameliachapel.com.
Amelia Plantation Chapel, Amelia Island, Florida
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