He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’Matthew 22:37-39, NRSV
One can’t pursue the core of Christianity without considering this passage. The greatest commandment, according to Jesus, is one that held a central place in Israelite history, and Jesus confirms its importance for his disciples when he answers this question: what is the greatest commandment? But, the greatest commandment isn’t our topic.
Jesus identifies the second greatest commandment (unsolicited): love your neighbor as yourself. He says this is like the first (love God). I don’t know how many times I’ve talked about loving your neighbor or heard others talk about it, but that isn’t our topic, either.
Our topic is what surrounds that second commandment. It’s the part that gives us a frame of reference for what loving our neighbor looks like, functionally: love as [you love] yourself. Loving our neighbors parallels loving ourselves, and that can be difficult to parse. We often don’t have a good view of ourselves. I don’t mean that we don’t think well enough of ourselves, but we often don’t see ourselves clearly.
There’s a circular process to loving ourselves and loving our neighbor. Our understanding of one builds on the other, which then informs the first. For example: Ephesians 5:29 mentions that people nourish and tenderly care for their own bodies. The author is speaking about husbands and how they should love their wives as they love themselves. Loving oneself means nourishing and tenderly caring for one’s own body. Therefore, loving others (e.g. one’s spouse) means nourishing, and tenderly caring for, others’ bodies.
Similarly, James writes that if we simply wish someone well but don’t supply for their bodily needs, it’s no good. (James 2:15-16) I believe the implication is that the person to whom we’re wishing well is in need of food, and we only give them words (faith without works), but the idea is the same. We wouldn’t do that to ourselves; in loving ourselves, we nourish our own bodies. If we simply say we love our neighbor but refuse to act on that love in practical ways (e.g. helping nourish their bodies when they can’t nourish themselves), what good is it?
This is only an example of how understanding the ways we love ourselves informs how we love our neighbors, but as I mentioned, it’s a circular process. As one understanding builds, so does the other, and as the other understanding builds, so does the first.
Take 1 Corinthians 13, for example. This passage is most often applied to how we love our neighbors. It’s not difficult to see how the descriptions of love can be applied to others. After all, many of the characteristics are inherently interrelational. Envy, boasting, and arrogance are things we express about or toward others, and I think most people see kindness and patience as ways we treat others or postures we have toward others. That’s fine; I think the author meant them to be about others in the context of the letter. The Corinthians struggled to make space for one another, always trying to one-up each other in prowess, public recognition, spiritual gifts, etc. Remember, though, that we love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
If the description of love in 1 Corinthians 13 is about how we love others, then the second greatest commandment also makes it about how we love ourselves. What might it look like to hold our views of ourselves in the same light? Do you imagine that God would want any of us to speak in the tongues of men and angels, to move mountains, to prophesy and have all knowledge, or to help everyone around us but to hate ourselves? How could we claim to have love and use our gifts and resources for love of others without extending that same love to ourselves?
As with others, we can be patient with ourselves, kind to ourselves, not rude to ourselves, and not irritable with, or resentful toward, ourselves. We can believe in ourselves, hope in our futures, and endure even our own shortcomings and hardships. As the author writes earlier in the letter: I do not even judge myself (4:3).
Now we have two examples of how loving ourselves and loving our neighbors can inform each other, and as we understand one more and more, that understanding ought to continue the cycle of understanding the other. Because God is love, there’s no shortage of passages concerning love in scripture, which we can be challenged to consider from both sides. And, because God is love, God’s love for us and for others also informs our understanding of love for ourselves and love for others.
In that passage about spouses in Ephesians 5, Jesus’s love for the church is also compared with the husband’s love for the wife. Our love for ourselves informs our love for others, which also informs our understanding of Jesus’s love for us as believers.
Another popular verse, John 3:16, expresses the depth of God’s love for all the world, as does John’s opening chapter. Taken together with 1 Corinthians 13, those passages work to expand our understanding of how God’s love informs our own love, both for ourselves and others.
Passages like Luke 6:27 and Matthew 5:38-48 teach us to do good to ourselves as we would to our neighbors (our enemies), a difficult task in a society that fosters self-punishment, guilt, and shame.
Self-compassion, self-care, self-love – this is important to how we love our neighbors and how we love God. Whenever you read a passage about loving ourselves, loving God, or loving others, take some time to reframe the passage to apply to all three. Let your understanding of each inform your understanding of the others, because we’re called to love our neighbors as ourselves.
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