Is Loving Myself a Prerequisite to Loving Others?
By Beth Demme
I know I am supposed to love my neighbors. After all, it’s in red in the Bible!
So why is it hard with certain people? Maybe it’s hard to love some people because I don’t really believe God loves me.
When Jesus was asked which commandment was “the Greatest,” he boiled the law down to two provisions—love God and “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:39) (See also Mark 12:30-31; Luke 10:27)
When Jesus was asked “who is my neighbor,” he responded with the parable of the Good Samaritan. You know this parable. A man is robbed, stripped, and beaten. In need of help, he is seen by three passers-by. The first two people go out of their way to avoid the injured man. They are described as a priest and a Levite. We are told these two men refuse to help even though they share a common ancestry, ethnicity, heritage, and religion with the victim. To the third passer-by, the Good Samaritan, the victim was a political and religious other, yet the Samaritan “was moved with pity” and stopped to help. (Luke 10:25-35)
When Jesus says “love your neighbor as yourself,” he doesn’t define “neighbor” by religious, political, or even geographical boundaries. In God’s eyes, every human is my neighbor.
I don’t normally think of the commandments as having prerequisites, but maybe this one does. Can I love my neighbor (defined without religious, political, or geographical boundaries) if I don’t, first, love myself as God loves me?
Dr. Bo Karen Lee, a theologian with Princeton Theological Seminary, writes: “[I]t is crucial to learn to love oneself in God, i.e., to see myself as one who is profoundly beloved of God, for without it, [I am] utterly unable to love others in God.” How do we do this? “The key here is that as the individual comes to know God more, she comes to know God’s delight: God’s delight in her, God’s delight over creation, and God’s delight in others. … With this new perception, the face of the other is transformed and given new beauty.”
As I’ve shared here, I struggle to see how God can delight in certain “others.” Often, it’s easier for me to vilify the person (or their political or religious views) than to see God’s delight in them.
That is a signal to me that I’m out of sync with God. Jesus tells us, “it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:45) If my heart abounds in connection to God, and love of God, my mouth will speak from that abundance. If my connection to God is stunted or clogged, my words and thoughts will reflect the absence of God.
It’s tempting to think “surely God wants me to use my judgment and provide correction where it’s needed.” But actually, Jesus says: “Do not judge and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.” (Luke 6:37) “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Luke 6:41)
When I’m tempted to correct, condemn, or judge others, I’m putting up a mirror, reflecting how narrow my own connection to God is.
Instead of accepting God’s free grace, I treat my relationship with God like a negotiation. Worse, I judge others by that same standard. God loves me because I’m a good person who prays and reads the Bible. But them, well, they aren’t living up to their end of the bargain. They aren’t living the way God wants them to and for that, there will be hell to pay … literally.
When I start judging others instead of examining myself, the love of God is no longer flowing through me. I’ve stopped receiving it, and I can’t transmit it. In those times, I don’t love my neighbor as I love myself. Instead, it might be more accurate to say I hate my neighbor as I hate myself.
When that happens, I need to do as Dr. Lee prescribes and seek to know God more so that I can know God’s delight in me, in creation, and in others.
More Like This From Beth: