Last night at Bible study we were having a lively discussion about loving our neighbor when one of the ladies paused. “Love your neighbor as you love yourself,” she read. “How are we doing with loving ourselves?” A sigh of understanding rippled around the room. We are a group of young(ish) American women: we know instinctively, as self-critical, comparison-driven ladies, that we do not love ourselves. The conversation veered. Why do we struggle with self-loathing? What kind of self-talk do we allow unchecked in our hearts? Heads nodded in agreement: we must stop beating ourselves up.
But is this what it means to love ourselves? As cold is only the absence of heat, love is simply the absence of a guilt trip? “Spare your neighbor shame as you spare yourself?” There’s gotta be more to it. Sure, lots of us heap condemnation on our own heads, lots of us chime in in agreement with the devil’s blame game. Perhaps we are in need of a pep talk. I remember Stuart Smalley, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like me!” The things we ought to rehearse fill the airwaves on Christian radio: I am a friend of God, I am a child of God, I am forgiven and loved. Still, if all we offer a neighbor in need is a Saturday Night Live soundbite, I’m thinking we’re coming up short. If it’s not enough to chirpily tell a homeless person “Dog gone it, God loves you!” then why is that the only way to love ourselves?
Maybe Jesus was getting at our quickness to indulge ourselves. Love your neighbor freely, as you don’t hesitate to love yourself. We turn the ringer off and don’t answer the telephone when we want to be alone. We pile the plate with seconds when we’re hungry, kick our feet up when we’re tired, marry our sweetheart. Is this what it is to love? To the extent which you endlessly gratify your own desires (good, bad, or indifferent), indulge your neighbor? But that doesn’t seem to accord with our definition of love. After all, love, according to I Corinthians 13, “is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Love isn’t taking our children on an unending shopping spree at Toys ‘R’ Us. Love is bigger than a blank check.
So what does it mean to really love ourselves as God loves, stripped of selfishness and pride? What would a life radiant with wholesome, godly love of self even look like? Love is a vibrant, robust set of attitudes and actions. Not only does love not abuse, love does seek the highest good. But it’s a peculiar twist to apply this hearty little verb to oneself: how can I deliberately love me without being self-seeking?
So I peel apart the passage one phrase at a time. Love is patient. Somehow loving myself means patience with my own lack of progress. And yet God’s great love never makes excuses for sin. What kind of love would that be? So I repent, I receive forgiveness, I turn right around and forgive myself, and then I press on “to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” Love, after all, perseveres.
Love is kind. As I would not drive my children past the point of exhaustion, I let myself rest. As I would not berate my neighbor, I do not abuse myself. As I give good gifts to my children, I receive good gifts from my Father. After all, it is true: I am a child of God.
Love does not envy or boast. So when my unruly heart leans longingly after something I don’t have, I pull it back. When my proud spirit swells up within, I give it a stern talking-to. To let my life fill with envy or arrogance isn’t loving, because it’s self-destructive. Likewise, love rejoices in truth, because lies are corrosive. And so love, while it forgives and keeps no record of wrongs, won’t ever coddle a lie or permit a sin to linger unchecked. Love is strong enough to confront the things that threaten it.
Love doesn’t insist on its own way, it isn’t self-seeking. At the end of the day, a giant handful of self is like so much straw that the wind blows away — empty, meaningless. Love is God-seeking, because to know God is the greatest treasure. To seek Christ in all His beauty is to fill with light, joy, hope, and peace. The person I really love I will give all I have of Jesus.
And there in the end seems to be the answer. To love myself is to love Jesus more. This is the love that never fails, the love worth giving to a neighbor. How am I doing loving myself? Well, how am I doing loving Christ?