“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus names these the two greatest (most crucial, central, important) commandments. And he said the latter is like the former. They are similar. They are related. Loving our neighbor is like loving God.
But how are we to love our neighbors?
Jesus covered this. We love our neighbors as we love ourselves. In the same way.
So, breaking this down, Jesus really gives three commandments here. Love God, love yourself, love your neighbor.
The way we love ourselves is to guide how we love our neighbors. That means if we hope to obey this commandment, we have to figure out how to love ourselves.
Jesus proposed a radical idea here . He did that a lot. One might immediately respond: who does this? Who loves the person next door the same way, to the same degree, with the same commitment, that you and I love ourselves? A huge portion of what we do, we do for ourselves. So that commitment I have to myself, that same commitment I am to show to my neighbor. Perhaps not with the same breadth, but to the same degree and with the same intensity. That’s how I read Jesus’ words.
Stop for a moment and consider how much of your life goes into thinking about yourself, planning for your own well-being, acting on behalf of you. That’s how we are to love our neighbors, too. I think another honest response to this might be “That’s not realistic!”
Jesus wasn’t realistic. I mean, Jesus did not look at the human reality around him and try to match or line up with it. Jesus spun this vision of a Kingdom that offers to turn the world upside down.
Love your neighbor isn’t “Live and let live.” Again being honest (dangerous habit), for many of us–including within the Christian community–live and let live would be a step up from how we behave much of the time. Jesus commanded something wildly stronger and more costly than that.* Merely going our own way and not judging, gossiping about, criticizing or impinging upon our neighbors falls sadly short of Jesus’ command. Again, if we lived up to this standard, collectively, we would make the world a vastly better place that it currently is. I’m convinced of that. It wouldn’t solve our problems but it would severely reduce the hatred and the friction that lead to conflict and, too often, violence.
However, Jesus doesn’t command, “Just leave well enough alone,” or “Let a bee be a bee and let it be.” He doesn’t even mention, “Let a sleeping dog lie.”
Jesus wants us to love ourselves. It’s the crucial step in his “get the neighbors loved” plan. When we learn to love ourselves, we’ve got what it takes to love our neighbors. I also suspect we won’t learn to love ourselves until we learn to love God–but also that as we learn to love ourselves, we learn to love God, so these are interconnected and spiral upwards (we hope) together. I must understand and apply God’s grace for me to love myself. I have to get it that I’m loved, and lovable, not when I behave myself or live up to the standard (whichever I’m buying into today) but now, always, because God actually is love. He loves me with this radical love that makes the Kingdom of God real by transforming me–me!–into someone with the capacity to love others.
So even though we are self-focused much of the time, loving ourselves for many of us actually proves difficult. Another honest answer to “love your neighbor as yourself,” for many of us, is “bummer for you, neighbor.”
Okay, that’s a long intro, and I’m not done yet. I don’t know what questions you ask yourselves when you tell people stuff, but I often ask, “Who am I to say this? Am I qualified?” For this topic, I know people who seem to like themselves a whole lot more than I like me. Liking is not the same as loving, but it gives me pause nonetheless. The flip side is, I’ve lived with depression and, in the words of songwriter extraordinaire Bill Mallonee, “I’ve been trying to negotiate peace/with my own existence” for a long time now–and it’s working. I don’t find loving myself particularly easy, but I am, and I think I’m even getting better at it,..slowly.
So my credentials here are, “This doesn’t come naturally, oh, far from it, but I’ve learned these things that help me.”
How do you love yourself?
I can see three main dimensions to loving ourselves: how we speak to ourselves, how we behave toward ourselves, and how we view ourselves. Put another way: self-talk, self-treatment and self-image.
I took the route through Jesus and his Kingdom to get here because I don’t believe that whatever makes us feel good is self-love. I don’t believe that always avoiding people who bother us or whom we find difficult is self-love. I don’t believe that spending all we have on ourselves and our family in the name of self-love is self-love. Too much is never enough; enough is enough, and too much is bad for us. How much is enough? Good question! We’ll ponder that in “How We Behave Toward Ourselves.”
Making ourselves feel superior to others is not self-love. Living in denial is not self-love. Refusing to surrender defenses that no longer help us survive but now hinder our spiritual and emotional growth is not self-love.
That list could probably go on for a while…
HOW WE SPEAK TO OURSELVES
Jesus taught me, about 10 years ago now, “Never say anything about yourself that Jesus doesn’t say about you.” Yeah, I’m telling you that Jesus said that to me. It’s not written in Scripture explicitly, but it’s a reasonable extrapolation of 1)Psalm 139, 2)the concept that Jesus is Lord (over who we are as well as what we do) which confirms with teachings like, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord’ and not do what I say?” 3)the various passages that show Jesus knows the hearts of people and what’s inside us better than we know ourselves (makes sense, being Creator and all), 4)and that his view of us is the one that counts, which all the teaching about his having final judgment over us clearly implies.
I call this life-changing. It saved me from losing arguments with myself over how bad I am, how much I screw up, how hopeless I am in my screw-ups and badness, etc.
Implied in this directive, we have to know what Jesus says about us in order to say only what he says and reject everything else. That means studying, meditating on, and internalizing his words. That means spending time with him and letting him speak those words to us. That means surrounding ourselves with the community of people who will speak God’s words to us. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:
But God has put his Word into the mouth of men in order that it may be communicated to other men. When one person is struck by the Word, he speaks it to others. God has willed that we should seek and find His living Word in the witness of a brother, in the mouth of a man. Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth. He needs his brother man as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation. He needs his brother solely because of Jesus Christ. The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure.
Getting into some specifics:
Jesus will say I sin but will never say I’m a loser, or hopeless, or irredeemable.
Jesus will tell me what I do wrong only as a means of leading me to do right. He will never make me feel condemned and hopeless. That’s the other guy. The difference between “godly guilt” (or conviction) “that leads to repentance” and “worldly guilt that leads to death” is the former always, always offers a way to act on it to go in a better direction (repentance means “to turn around and go the other way”); the latter leaves you to rot in self-accusation and self-loathing.
Jesus won’t call me all the names I call myself. He doesn’t go into rages at me. He has compassion for me when I feel awful about myself. He isn’t piling it on; he’s refusing to cast that stone at me, and he’s the only one qualified to hurl it.
This next is hard, not because it’s really any different than the preceding but because all of us who have experienced it know the power it wields. The negative, destructive things someone told you about yourself, Jesus never says them. The false prophecies and condemnations spoken over you–“You’ll always be like this,” “You are the worst –,” “You are hopeless,” “You’re a failure,” “You’re pathetic,” “You’ll never amount to anything,” “You’re worthless”–are wrong, because Jesus doesn’t say them. Jesus calls you his beloved. Most damaging, the messages that you now tell yourself because you bought that person’s oft-repeated lies when you were too vulnerable to fend them off, THOSE ARE NOT WHAT JESUS SAYS ABOUT YOU. Therefore, don’t say them.
This is very easy to type and very difficult to live. Sometimes these messages have sunk so deep into our being we are barely aware we speak them in our minds. “That’s just who we are.”
NO< IT’S REALLY NOT. Not if Jesus doesn’t say so. Which, thank God, he doesn’t.
I believe these are habits of thought. Like any habit, they take time and discipline to break. Good habits take time and consistency to form. Studies show that bad habits are easier for us to break when we simultaneously establish other, better habits with which to replace them.
So when that voice in my head says, “You suck!” I’ll do better if, instead of saying, “Shut up!” or “No I don’t!” or trying to ignore it, I say (aloud or in my head, depending on the company I’m keeping at that moment) “Actually, Jesus says he loves me and enjoys my company. A lot.” When I’m suffering the accusation that, because I have again failed in the area in which I most often fail, this proves I, myself, am a failure, I remind myself that Jesus’ measures of success and failure are the only ones that count, and his view goes something like, “Do not worry about what you will eat or drink or wear, because your heavenly father knows you need them; instead, strive for his kingdom and these things will be given to you, as well.”
When I can’t, then I tell someone who will tell me the Truth, capital T. I need someone who knows me well enough to speak Truth in a way I can hear it (“For God’s sake, you dummy, when will you learn that God loves you” isn’t all that effective, for me) and someone whom I trust enough that a)I will tell them, and b)I will give their words credence. I have to trust that they really know what Jesus says about me versus what I am saying about myself when my head or heart is in the dark and can’t see light. I have a sister, along with several friends, who love me in this way.
Needless to say, I don’t follow this perfectly every time. I’m still getting there. But I see progress. I come back out of the darkness more quickly. This has helped–not solved, but helped–my overall struggles with depression. My trust in Jesus has grown.
Loving myself this way is how I love other people when I’m doing a good job of loving them. Especially when I’m mentoring or discipling, I’m focusing on speaking God’s truth to them, confronting the lies they believe about themselves, replacing those with Jesus’ love and grace.
The funny part is (and if you’re prone to guilt, maybe don’t read this paragraph) if we aren’t believing what Jesus says about us, if what we’re saying contradicts what he’s saying, we’re calling him a liar. We’re claiming to know better. So if the above seems too touchy-feely or pop psychology for you, put it in these terms: We disobey the Lord of the Universe when we insist that we know ourselves better than he does and refuse to believe what he tells us. Being “tougher on ourselves” does not make us better disciples, if by “tougher” we mean self-criticism outside of simple confession of sin and repentance; it often puts us in the position of trying to pay God back with our self-punishment. I think our pride is wrapped up in that approach. Believing and saying only what Jesus says about us is submission to his reign as King. He gets the final say; we don’t. That’s what obedience means, whether for how we spend our money or our time or how we speak to ourselves.
I think the most important commandments are the ones we most need to obey, both to glorify God and for our own wholeness and joy. Of course, it may also be true that all other commandments follow directly from these. Therefore, growing in loving ourselves in a godly way is not extra or sentimental or a nice idea. Loving ourselves and becoming people who can love our neighbors as ourselves is central to our role in the Kingdom of God. Jesus thinks it’s a really big deal.
Here again, what he says goes.
*I’d love to tell you this was his most radical commandment, but he also said, “Love your enemy.” We’ll save that for another time.