The latest idea God and I have been turning over together is the greatest commandment. When Jesus is asked by a lawyer what the greatest commandment in the law is he answers with this, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your life, and with all your mind. This is the first commandment, and it’s the one that really matters. The second is similar, and it’s this: you must love your neighbor as yourself. The entire law hangs on these two commandments–and that goes for the prophets, too.” (Matthew 22:37-40). I’ve read this command from Jesus more times than I can count and heard teachings on it, but it’s that last part of the second command that keeps jumping out at me lately, “as yourself,” that I’ve not heard discussed much. Why not just state love your neighbor and end there, what’s so important about loving my neighbor “as myself”?
This has sent me on a rabbit hole of sorts as I’ve searched and talked with others. First I find that Jesus didn’t come up with the phrase himself at that moment. If you search back a couple of thousand years you’ll find it recorded in the book of Leviticus 19:18 when the Lord was speaking to Moses. He was giving out commands through Moses for the people of God to follow. At the end of telling the people not to hate their kinsmen in their heart or to take vengeance or bear a grudge against them, God says, “Love your fellow as yourself: I am the LORD.” Clearly, this has been an important command to understand for quite some time.
As I meditate longer I’ve come up with the idea that I can’t love another beyond the capacity that I love myself. The love that I am able to receive from God is the love that I am able to give away to another. If I am capable of receiving then I am capable of giving, therefore, I will love my neighbor as myself. And I think it goes beyond just the word love. The ability of forgiveness I am able to receive is the forgiveness I’ll be able to give away. The grace, or kindness or you fill in the blank that I give to myself is how I will show grace or kindness to my neighbor.
At the beginning of time when sin entered the world our relationship with ourselves was broken. The man and the woman felt shame and so they hid from themselves, covering themselves with fig leaves, hiding behind a bush. God has been pursuing us ever since then not just to restore a relationship with us but to bring us back into relationship with ourselves and restore a healthy self-image to us that he always intended.
Too often today, when self-image and self-esteem are talked about in the church, it is looked down upon because it gets confused with pride and selfishness. We are instructed instead to follow another of Jesus’ commands to deny ourselves (which I think he meant in a much different context) and we’re supposed to give and sacrifice to the point of self-denial but often it is to the point of self-destruction. When I hear the greatest commandment talked about often it’s summarized as “love God, love others,” and we just drop the part of loving yourself. To say it is even taboo.
My spiritual director helped me clarify my thought in a healthy way. It’s not that Jesus is saying to love yourself in a prideful way, he’s saying to love yourself as God loves you, to see yourself as beloved. It is out of this love that I believe you can truly love your neighbor. First, you must immerse yourself in the first command to love God with all your being. This will set your identity on solid rock because you will know who God is and who you are because of it. With a restored self-image you will then love, forgive and bestow grace unto your neighbors, seeing them in the image of God as well, all of us new creations in Christ Jesus.
So what is your view of yourself? How much do you love yourself right now at this moment? If you’re having a hard time loving your neighbor perhaps you need to shift your focus on loving God first so that he, in turn, may show you how he sees you, fully loved and fully forgiven.