Most people are familiar with Jesus’ proclamation of the greatest commandment:
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘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.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” ~ Matthew 22:34-40
I heard a Christian pastor give his explanation of the second part of this commandment; he said that it is essential that you love yourself. He said that you can’t love your neighbor if you don’t first love yourself. I’ve heard this theory on more than one occasion and it always strikes me as ridiculous. Here is my take on it.
First, in the flesh we are lovers of self and we really need no reminder or instruction to “look out for number one.” On the contrary, scripture seems intent on changing that focus. Philippians 2:1-5 says we should consider others better than ourselves and do nothing out of selfish ambition. Yes it also says to look out “not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” But again, I would suggest that the first ‘command’ is a given, and the point of this verse is on moving from internal focus to external focus.
Second, if I am to “love myself,” what specifically am I to love? My fleshly desires, selfishness, greed, envy…? Those all sound like the fleshly nature described in Galatians 5 and I’m pretty sure none of us would say we are supposed to love those things about ourselves. They aren’t exactly praise-worthy. So what? My love, joy, peace, patience…? Those things are the fruits of the Spirit (also Galatians 5), but consequently, those are because of Christ in me, not because of me. It could accurately be said that those attributes – to the extent they are present in me, are there in spite of me. Indeed, those characteristics are most present in me when there is less of me and more of God.
Third, let’s look at what Paul says about his own mindset. In Romans 7, he calls himself a wretched man and gives thanks that God has saved Him. I wonder if some would tell Paul he needs a better self image? And yet Paul does have an accurate knowledge of who he is. He tells believers to follow him as he follows Christ. In Philippians 3:2-11 he lists out the ‘credentials’ that would entitle him to boast. But notice he concludes that all those things are rubbish compared to the greatness of knowing Christ. Paul’s focus is not on himself – it is on Christ. And he recognizes that anything good in him is from Christ, and because of Christ.
I think scripture is clear that our focus does not need to be directed more toward ourselves and how lovable we are. Please understand I am not advocating that we err on the other end of the spectrum by dwelling on how wretched we are. What I am saying is we shouldn’t be focused on ourselves, period. We should be focused on Christ, and His majesty and His love, and the wonder that He has redeemed us, and forgiven us, and set us in right relationship with Him. That we should strive to more fully comprehend the grace that has been given to us, in spite of what we deserve. I suggest that this is what will prompt us to love God and others as we (already, naturally) love and look out for ourselves.
The more we understand our depravity apart from Christ and our need for His redemption, and understand that by His blood spent on the cross He gave us what we could never earn or deserve… the more we will extend grace toward others and love others.
Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little. ~ Luke 7:47