“And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
This is the well-known “Part 2” of the Greatest Command as given by Jesus. For context, Jesus was asked which of the commandments was the greatest. He responded by saying, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Then, for good measure, he gives a second. He says the second is similar to the first. Love your neighbor as yourself.
A common teaching surrounding this verse is the idea that “you have to learn to love yourself before you can properly love others.” But I don’t think that is at all what Jesus was trying to say. Let’s not be fooled, every one of us loves themselves. I’m not saying everyone is confident in themselves or likes everything about themselves. I’m also not saying that depression and similar mental health concerns are invalid. What I’m saying is that simply by existing, we love ourselves.
Part of the confusion here is that Hollywood has trained us to think of “love” as a hyper-emotional and moving state of affection. While that is a common side-effect of some kinds of love, that isn’t the definition of it. Love is an active word. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul lists several characteristics that love is and is not. Nearly all of them have to do with some sort of action. Love isn’t simply a sappy feeling of affection, it’s an unconditional and selfless concern for another person. That’s what Jesus calls us to – to unconditionally and selflessly concern ourselves with the greater good of our neighbor, no not just the person that lives next door, but everyone that you share this Earth with.
You see, we love ourselves plenty. We spend most of our lives thinking about taking care of ourselves. Jesus is asking us to take that same amount of effort and then give it to your brothers and sisters all around you as well. The same way that you want and work to take care of yourself, your health, your well-being, your relationships, your spirit, you should also want and work to take care of your neighbor. That’s the love that Jesus is talking about.
He says this commandment is similar to the first. But one is about loving God, and the other is about loving other people. That seems pretty different at first glance. But the truth of the matter is that you cannot fully accomplish either of the two without the other. To love God is to love his people. To love people fully we must first know the love of God.
The problem isn’t that we don’t love ourselves enough to be able to love anyone else. The saying “you have to love yourself before you can properly love others” really should be changed. The truth is that you have to love God before you can properly love others.
We need to learn to fall in love with God, not ourselves.
Let me come to know you and love you more. Let me always seek to love you most above all else in my life, including myself. Let that love overflow into love for others. Help me to love them as you do.
In Jesus’ Name,