“Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus gave us this as the second of the two greatest commandments. Paul described it as the summation or fulfillment of the whole law. No complicated explanations, lists of caveats, or endless parsing – just “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
And we westerners have taken it to heart. Sort of. It’s more accurate to say that we have taken it and fit it to our hearts.
It has morphed from “Love your neighbor as yourself” to “Love your neighbor because you love yourself” to “Love yourself so you can love your neighbor.” Instead of reflecting the one who gave the command it has been, to create a term, Gollum-ized into a twisted, nasty, self-focused, inverted mantra. We have made ourselves the focus of the love.
Watch reality TV some time. It could be American Idol, The Biggest Loser, The Bachelor, or something else. But no matter which show it is there is good chance that you will hear something to the effect of “You know, you just have to love yourself before you can love anyone else.” It’s the American mantra of self-love that we claim leads to real love but really offers no love at all.
The claim of increasing one’s self-love in order to love others more is rubbish. Increased self-love impedes love of others; it is an obstacle. It’s not even real love, more like idolatry. And it is not what Jesus intended and it is not the kind love about which Paul wrote.
Jesus knew the reality of human nature, that we value ourselves above anyone else. So he used the human commitment to our own well-being and comfort to set the bar for love of others. In one simple phrase Jesus called us out of ourselves and into an others-focused life. The reality of self-love ought to be a constant reminder of the need for real others-love.
As Christians, we know that the origin of genuine love does not come from within. And, in fact, the reality of self-love is a twisted, idolatrous worship. We love others because we are loved, because God loved us first, because from him comes our worth. We love ourselves because we make ourselves better than others and seek to be our own god.
When we seek to love our neighbors as ourselves we are not to idolize self. No, we are to be aware of our propensity for self-care and self-comfort and transfer it willingly to others to care for and comfort them instead. We are to love them as we love ourselves not because we love ourselves.