There’s this teaching that is really popular in the church right now, and it goes something like this:
Jesus said that the two greatest commandments are to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39). And so (the teaching goes), if I have to love my neighbor as I love myself, it means I can’t really love others until I learn what it means to love myself.
Can I be straight with you? This is a lie.
I’m not trying to throw the people who may have taught this to you under the bus; I think they probably meant well and were deceived themselves. But this is a clever manipulation of words, not a Scriptural principle.
Loving ourselves is not really the problem. We already do that. We do it really well.
I can hear some of you objecting already. You may have major self-esteem issues, or have wrestled for a long time with believing the truth of your identity in Christ, and be thinking that you are the very last person in your life that you love. But that’s because we are thinking of love in present-day American terms. We are thinking of it as a feeling. As some warm, fuzzy, positive emotion that wells up within us when we turn our thoughts toward a particular object.
And love can and does sometimes include those feelings. But those feelings by themselves are not love.
It’s this terrible definition of love that is destroying marriages both outside and within the church. I don’t get those feelings when I look at him anymore. I must not love him. I should leave. What if we treated our children that way? There are a lot of of times – washing poop out of underpants, carrying heavy bodies back to bed in the middle of the night, telling them to please for the last time stop jumping on the couch, that my feelings for my children are not exactly warm and fuzzy either. But there is no doubt in my mind that I love them deeply, fiercely, and I would never abandon them or turn my back on them, no matter how much they sometimes frustrate me.
We cannot stand on a definition of love is that measured in feeling.
We must stand by what the Bible says is love.
So what does it say?
When Jesus was discussing those two greatest commandments with his followers and those who had come to hear his teachings, there was a man in the crowd, who, like we often do, wanted an out from the responsibility of loving his neighbor. Luke’s gospel records that the man “wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?'” (Luke 10:29)
Jesus’ response was to tell the story of the Good Samaritan. A man attacked by bandits was left for dead by the side of the road. Both a priest and a Levite, whom the New Testament often portrays as full of their own self-importance and satisfied with their place with God, the type of people we would definitely put in the category of “loving themselves” walked by without lifting a finger to help. The third man to pass by was a Samaritan. Samaritans were known to be outcasts, shunned by Jews and considered of little value in society. There’s a good chance that the man in Jesus’ story wasn’t feeling so hot about himself when he stumbled upon this man in need. But he stopped anyway. He dressed the man’s wounds and put him on his donkey, and took him to safety.
That’s the picture Jesus used to explain to us what it means to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
We treat every need we encounter as we would want someone else to respond if the need was ours.
As it says in Philippians 2:4: “Each of you should look not only to your own interests but also to the interests of others.” Loving your neighbor as you love yourself has nothing to do with how you feel about yourself. It has everything to do with whose interests you’re looking out for. Because who doesn’t look to their own needs?
Most of us don’t have to look any further than our wallets to see how well we look to our own needs. What if you took the commandment to love others as you love yourself as a financial mandate? Do you give away as much as you spend on yourself? I know, you have bills – I do too. But what is that money really going to? Is it not meeting the needs that you have for shelter and clothing and food and transportation? And beyond that, so many things that we do not actually need like data plans for our phones, and 1000 channels on our TVs, and trips to Starbucks, and new toys for kids and adults alike?
We love ourselves. How can we deny it?
And even when you consider people you would typically categorize as not “loving themselves,” who do you think of? Do you think of teenagers who are caught up in heartbreakingly destructive habits like eating disorders and self-mutilation and promiscuity and drug abuse? Because I’ve known those teenagers. And I can tell you that while it doesn’t look like love in the way it manifests itself, the root of those behaviors is self-interested.
Please hear what I’m saying; I’m not trying to minimize the pain people face or the real need many have for Christ to intervene and bring healing and show them a better way. But can you see how even the ways in which we hurt ourselves and destroy our lives with sin is an attempt to meet our own needs? That with every cut, and every skipped meal, that teenager is looking at her own pain and trying to find a way out?
The problem is not that we don’t love ourselves. The problem is that we don’t we realize we are loved by God.
The apostle John knew he was loved by God. In his gospel he describes himself over and over again as the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” and it was from that identity that he was able to faithfully serve God and others.
He reminds of this in his first epistle:
“How great is the love the father has lavished on us that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (1 John 3:10)
And again: “We set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us.” (3:19-20)
And again: “This is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (4:10)
And again: “We love because he first loved us.” (4:19)
God loves you.
Don’t rush over those words because they are familiar.
That is the truth.
Stand on God’s word this morning. Know He loves you. And then allow that great love you did nothing to receive spill out of your heart into obedience to those two great commandments: Love God, love others.