It has been preached and taught for decades by pastors and counselors: In order to love others, you must first learn to love yourself. This belief is based on the answer Jesus gave to a Pharisee when asked which is the greatest commandment?
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22:37-38 NIV)
Over the years, the conclusion about the second greatest command has been that Jesus was making a conditional statement. Being able to love your neighbor was wholly dependent on loving yourself. Thus, if you didn’t love yourself, you couldn’t possibly love your neighbor very well. As I read and studied the Scriptures during my early years as a Christian, I became very skeptical that this is what Jesus had in mind.
First of all, if we have to learn to love ourselves before loving others, then we will have to spend a great deal of time focusing on ourselves while justifiably neglecting others. This does not seem consistent with what Jesus taught in terms of denying ourselves and focusing on the needs of others. (Luke 9:23-24; Matthew 20:26-28).
Secondly, this seems to be an interpretation of Jesus’ words through the lenses of western culture where focus on self reigns supreme. One of the greatest challenges to understanding the Scriptures is to interpret them through the eyes of the writer rather than imposing our own biases upon what we read. For example, the 3000 conversions at Pentecost (Acts 2:38-41) have been used by many pastors and church growth experts to justify their focus on desiring large congregations, but at the same time ignores that the Lord said the road to eternal life is narrow and few find it (Matthew 7:13-14).
And finally, nowhere does Jesus directly instruct us to love ourselves. Why would that be if loving ourselves first is necessary to love others? Could there perhaps be another way to interpret the 2nd Commandment? I believe so.
I concluded long ago that there is an assumption made in this commandment—we each love ourselves already. Thus, I think the commandment can be best understood if we recognize the focus and attention on ourselves comes quite naturally. We have no problem with it; we do it all the time. In this way, we “love” ourselves. We do our best to provide for ourselves what we think we need—food, shelter, clothes, relationships, etc. The command is merely stating that we do the same for others as we do for ourselves.
Now in a fallen world, the demonstration of love can be very tainted and skewed, but we are still each trying, in our own way, to provide ourselves with what we think we need. We may be holding onto a very toxic or abusive relationship because the known is better for us than the unknown. We may waste time watching hours and hours of television or movies or playing computer games rather than what we should be doing—paying attention to our spouses and children, or doing homework—because we fear failure and we’re protecting ourselves from embarrassment. Even if we cut ourselves or starve ourselves, we are doing what we think will help us, no matter how destructive it may be. We may be seeking attention, making a cry for help, or protecting ourselves from something we deem a threat. Regardless, it still revolves around us meeting our perceived needs. In this sense, we are loving ourselves. We always do.
So let’s do away with this unbiblical thinking that we have to first learn to love ourselves before we can focus on loving others. Let’s instead focus on how we can meet the needs of those around us just as we are already locked in on how we meet our own. It won’t be easy or natural, but it may be the way to learn how to best love ourselves. For it was Jesus who said it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35).
© Jim Musser 2019