And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these. (Mark 12:30-31)
I recently heard a sermon based on this verse. To be fair, the pastor did warn us that he was going to throw a curve ball on this one, but I was still a little taken aback when the pitch was released. Not only did the sermon have almost nothing to do with my neighbor, but it had almost everything to do with me. And not just that I should love myself so I’m able to love my neighbor (we’ll discuss that thought in a minute), but that I should love and take care of myself more; and learn to put myself first for a change.
Because I’m very familiar with this Pastor, I will give him the benefit of the doubt and say that I do see an element of truth in what he was trying to convey. Though I won’t go so far as to say that I agree with him; or that I’m completely comfortable with most of his instruction on this topic. But it got me to thinking about the familiar teaching that says we must learn to love ourselves more, so that we can more fully love others. After all, how can you effectively love others when you don’t love yourself?
If there’s one thing this world is not short on, it’s self-love.
I know of nowhere else in the world where people love themselves more than in the United States. Yet, our violent crime rates are rising rapidly. Not to mention the overall crime committed in this country is increasing as the years go by. But this is not just a problem in the United States; it’s spreading throughout the world. And it was a problem when Jesus walked the earth.
Over the centuries the Jewish people had moved far away from God and had become estranged in their relationship to Him. By the time Jesus came on the scene, they no longer knew God. They saw Him as rigid and distant; and most worshiped Him by the letter of the Law only. Many out of obligation. Their leaders were oppressive and lorded their position over the people; and this legalistic attitude spilled over into their relationships with one another, as well. But that was never God’s intention or desire.
After spending 3-1/2 years with His disciples modeling God’s definition of love, the night before He was crucified Jesus said to His disciples:
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” (John 13:34)
Even after all the time they had spent with Him, this must have come as somewhat of a surprise to them. I can just imagine their thoughts when He said this: “So, wait a minute Jesus. You’re saying that all our efforts to keep the Law aren’t enough? Now we have to love people? As you’ve loved us? But you’re God. We don’t have that capacity!”
Now, if He commanded them (and by extension, us) to love others as He loved them, that begs the question; how exactly did Jesus love them? What example(s) did He leave for them to follow with one another? Many! But for one, let’s look at what Jesus was doing immediately before dropping this bombshell on His disciples:
John 13:3-5, 12-15
3 “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; 4 so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5 After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.”
12 When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. 13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.
This type of behavior was completely foreign to the disciples. Not only did they NOT wash each other’s feet, but those who did were slaves. Never would a brother wash another’s feet; and certainly not their Lord! No, that would not and should not ever happen.
But it did happen. And He set the example for all generations of Christians to come. In fact, washing the disciples feet wasn’t the most radical thing He’d ever done. And it isn’t the only behavior type required of us. He set the supreme example of what love looks like when He came to die for a wayward, sinful, and hostile world.
In Philippians 2:1-8, Paul does a pretty great job of laying this out for us:
“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit,if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God
something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!”
So, how did Jesus love?
He set aside His deity; making Himself nothing.
The Creator became creation; taking on the nature of a servant.
He never asserted His right over us as Creator;
or His power as Almighty God.
Instead, He humbled Himself,
taking our sins upon Himself and experiencing death for all.
He loved us sacrificially, sincerely, eternally.
What about loving ourselves?
Unsurprisingly, the Bible never tells us to love ourselves. That comes all too naturally. What the Bible does assert is that we love others. Wait, don’t we have to love ourselves in order to love others? Therein lies the deception. To understand the fallacy in this, it’s important to know and differentiate the various types of love as they are referred to in the Bible:
- Phileo – Friendship. Affectionate, platonic love.
- Eros – Romantic love
- Storge – Familial. Unconditional love.
- Agape – Unconditional, sacrificial, selfless love. Highest form of love.
Now, consider the following verses:
One of the scribes came and heard them arguing, and recognizing that He had answered them well, asked Him, “What commandment is the foremost of all?” Jesus answered, “The foremost is, ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall LOVE the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall LOVE your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-31)
“A new commandment I give to you, that you LOVE one another: just as I have LOVED you, you also are to LOVE one another.” (John 13:34)
For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through LOVE serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall LOVE your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:13-14)
Each time the word LOVE is used above it is referring to the Greek word Agapao (Strongs 26), or Agape. By definition, Agape love is selfless, sacrificial, unconditional, etc. It’s the love that God has for His creation. The love that drove Jesus to sacrifice Himself for our salvation. To gain a more full understanding of Agape Love, let’s look at 1 Corinthians 13:4-8:
Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)
This kind of love does not require self-love before it is able and willing to lavish itself on the object of its affection. It loves because it can’t do anything else. In ourselves, we are not able to love in this way. But it’s not because we need to love ourselves more; that only leads to narcissism and pride.