How do you love yourself? We are exhorted in the greatest commandment to apply this love to others, so it’s worth a bit of thought. It is also far more nuanced than one might think. Love itself is as complex a word and emotion as is possible. If we put aside advertising campaigns and cultural pressure to devote ourselves to underserved, navel-gazing self-love and truly look at the love we do have for ourselves, an interesting picture can appear.
Re-Visiting Common Verses
I can read the same thing in the bible and understand and experience it very differently on different occasions – sometimes as a result of its relevance to the particular things going in my life, sometimes because of my mood, and sometimes inexplicably. There are parts of it that I go long periods of time thinking that I understand, only to have some glimmer of further insight that enhances my understanding. These shifts are frequently very small but can feel like revelations.
In the category of biblical teachings, I found fairly straightforward is Jesus’s delineation of the greatest commandment. When challenged by the Pharisees on which commandment is the greatest, Jesus responded:
You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the Prophets depend on these two commandments. (Matthew 22: 38,39)
I don’t know that Jesus could have been more clear and straightforward in this statement. This is one that I felt I understood, even if the practice of it is a lifelong and powerful challenge. A recent reading of C.S. Lewis shifted my understanding of it and shed immense light. C.S. Lewis says, in A Mind Awake:
You are told to love your neighbor as yourself. How do you love yourself? When I look into my own mind, I find that I do not love myself by thinking myself a dear old chap or having affectionate feelings. I do not think that I love myself because I am particularly good, but just because I am myself and quite apart from my character. I might detest something which I have done. Nevertheless, I do not cease to love myself.
This contemplation forced me to more fully assess what we are asked by Jesus to do. He does not encourage us to love others as we do God. To love others “as yourself” is a very specific admonition and one that is not as clear-cut as I’d thought. How indeed do we “love ourselves?” As Lewis points out, it is with an element of both acceptance and rejection. There is a level of allowance that we give ourselves that results from understanding as no other human does what has resulted in our being at this particular place at this particular moment in time. This contextual understanding is one that we don’t always afford others.
At the core of what Jesus is asking us to do is essentially to want the best for our neighbor – to be rooting for them. This is not just an emotional experience, but one that requires attention to our emotions and a conscious effort to want the highest good for those around us. It also asks that we give others the benefit of the doubt in terms of their motivations – not the easiest of tasks in all situations.
The Sin and Not the Sinner
As Lewis also goes on to elucidate, this also allows the admirable yet difficult undertaking of separating our thoughts and emotions about an action versus the actor – i.e. hating sin and loving the sinner. This is exactly the grace that God affords us and that we are being admonished by Jesus in this commandment to offer our fellows. We are offered the grace of continuing to try, to repent, to acknowledge that we have sinned and are sinners, and yet to persist in our efforts to make progress against sin. We don’t deserve this grace. Neither does our neighbor and yet we are to offer it, as God does to us.