Love Your Neighbor As Yourself

While doing research on my message for Sunday, I came across the following words from John Piper on what it means to love our neighbor as ourselves:

While the old error hinged on the word "neighbor," the modern one hinges on two assumptions about "as yourself." First, the words are assumed to be a command rather than a statement. That is, it is assumed that Jesus is calling people to love themselves so they can love others as they love themselves. Second, this self-love Jesus supposedly demands is assumed to be equivalent to self-esteem, self-acceptance, a positive self-image, or the like. The proponents of this interpretation put the two assumptions together like this: A person's first task in obedience to Jesus is to develop a high self-esteem so he can fulfill the second half of the command, to love others as he now loves himself.

Is this what Jesus meant? I think not. These two assumptions depend on each other, so let us look at them together to see if the text bears them out.

Grammatically it is impossible to construe the words "as yourself" as a command. When you supply the verb, the commandment reads simply, "You shall love your neighbor as you in fact already love yourself." Jesus is not calling for self-love; He assumes it already exists. As far as we know, Jesus never entertained the thought that there could be someone who didn't love himself. To use Paul's words in Ephesians 5:29, "No man ever hates his own flesh but nourishes and cherishes it."

If this is so, the self-love Jesus talks about is quite different from the self-esteem so often assumed to be his meaning. To show what Jesus means by self-love we can pose the following question: Is it not reasonable to assume that the two uses of "love" in the command "Love your neighbor as your love yourself'' will have the same meaning? Jesus makes it plain what he means by the verb "love" in the first half. It means to interrupt your schedule and use up your oil, wine, and money to achieve what you think best for your neighbor. It means to have a heart disposed to seek another person's good.

Giving the word "love" the same meaning in the second part of the command, we get this: "You shall seek the good of your neighbor, just as you naturally seek your own good. Nourish and cherish your needy neighbor, just as you by nature nourish and cherish yourself."

Another way in which Jesus said essentially the same thing was, "Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them." "Do so to them" corresponds to "Love your neighbor." `Whatever you wish that men would do to you" corresponds to "as you love yourself." Self-love is thus defined in the Golden Rule by our desire for others to do us good.

Self-love Not Commanded but Assumed

In sum, then, "Love your neighbor as yourself" does not command, but rather presupposes, self-love. All human beings love themselves. Furthermore, the self-love Jesus speaks of has nothing to do with the common notion of self-esteem. It does not mean having a good self-image or feeling especially happy with oneself. It means simply desiring and seeking one's own good.

And we should note that Jesus' point is not affected by the fact that most people have a distorted notion of what is good for them. A man may attempt to find his good in a bottle of brandy or in illicit sex or in a fast motorcycle. Nevertheless, all human beings desire and seek what they think, at least in the moment of choosing, will make them happiest.

A Very Radical Command

Only when one sees "self-love" in this light will the tremendous force of the command "Love your neighbor as yourself" be apparent. This is a very radical command. What I mean by "radical" is this: it exposes the root of our sinfulness and, by God's grace, severs it. The root of our sinfulness is the desire for our own happiness apart from God and apart from the happiness of others in God. All sin comes from a desire to be happy cut off from the glory of God and cut off from the good of others.

Another name for this root of sinfulness is pride. Pride is the presumption that we can be happy without depending on God as the source of our happiness and without caring if others find their happiness in God. Pride is the passion to be happy contaminated and corrupted by two things: 1) the unwillingness to see God as the only fountain of true and lasting joy, and 2) the unwillingness to see other people as designed by God to receive our joy in him. If you take the desire to be happy and strip away from it God as the fountain of your happiness, and people as the recipients of your happiness, what you have left is pride. Pride is the pursuit of happiness anywhere but in the glory of God and the good of other people.

Now Jesus says, "Love your neighbor as yourself." And with that commandment he cuts to the root of our sinfulness. How so?

The Longing to Diminish Pain and Increase Pleasure

Jesus says in effect: I start with your inborn, deep, defining human trait -- your love for yourself. This is a given. I don't command it; I assume it. All of you have a powerful instinct of self-preservation and self-fulfillment. You all want to be happy. You all want to live and to live with satisfaction. You want food for yourself. You want clothes for yourself. You want a place to live for yourself. You want protection from violence against yourself. You want meaningful or pleasant activity to fill your days. You want some friends to like you and spend some time with you. You want your life to count in some way. All this is self-love. Self-love is the deep longing to diminish pain and to increase pleasure.

Everyone, without exception, has this human trait. This is what moves us to do this or that. Even suicide is pursued out of this principle of self-love. In the midst of a feeling of utter meaningless and hopelessness and numbness of depression the soul says: "It can't get any worse than this. So even if I don't know what I will gain through death, I do know what I will escape." And so suicide is an attempt to escape the intolerable. It is an act of self-love.

Now Jesus says, I start with this self-love. This is what I know about you. This is common to all people. You don't have to learn it. It comes with your humanity. My Father created it. In and of itself it is good. To hunger for food is not evil. To want to be warm in the winter is not evil. To want to be safe in a crisis is not evil. To want to be healthy during a plague is not evil. To want to be liked by others is not evil. To want your life to count in some significant way is not evil. This was a defining human trait before the fall of man into sin, and it is not evil in itself.

Make the Measure of Your Self-Seeking the Measure of Your Self-Giving

Whether it has become evil in your life will not be exposed as you hear and respond to Jesus' commandment. He commands, "As you love yourself, so love your neighbor." Which means: As you long for food when you are hungry, so long to feed your neighbor when he is hungry. As you long for nice clothes for yourself, so long for nice clothes for your neighbor. As you desire to have a comfortable place to live, so desire a comfortable place to live for your neighbor. As you seek to be safe and secure from calamity and violence, so seek comfort and security for your neighbor. As you seek friends for yourself, so be a friend to your neighbor. As you want your life to count and be significant, so desire that same significance for your neighbor. As you work to make good grades yourself, so work to help your neighbor make good grades. As you like to be welcomed into strange company, so welcome your neighbor into strange company. As you would that men would do to you, do so to them.

In other words make the measure of your self-seeking the measure of your self-giving. The word "as" is very radical: "Love your neighbor as yourself." "As!" It means: If you are energetic in pursing your own happiness, be energetic in pursuing the happiness of your neighbor. If you are creative in pursuing your own happiness, be creative in pursuing the happiness of your neighbor. If you are persevering in pursuing your own happiness, be persevering in pursuing the happiness of your neighbor. In other words, Jesus is not just saying: seek for your neighbor the same things you seek for yourself, but seek them in the same way -- the same zeal and energy and creativity and perseverance. Make the measure of your own self-seeking the measure of your self-giving. Measure your pursuit of the happiness of others by the pursuit of your own. How do you pursue your own well-being? Pursue your neighbor's well-being that way too.

Loving Others Instead of Ourselves?

Now this is very threatening. Because we feel immediately that if we take Jesus seriously, we will not just have to love others "as we love ourselves," but we will have to love them "instead of loving ourselves." We fear that if I follow Jesus in this, and really devote myself to pursuing the happiness of others, then my own desire for happiness will always be preempted. The neighbor's claim on my time and energy and creativity will take over any time and energy and creativity I have for pursuing my own happiness. So the command to love my neighbor as I love myself really feels like a threat to my own self-love. How is this even possible? If there is born in us a natural desire for our own happiness, and if this is not in itself evil, but good, how can we give it up and begin only to seek the happiness of others at the expense of our own?

The First Commandment Saves the Second

I think that is exactly the threat that Jesus wants us to feel, until we realize that this -- exactly this -- is why the first commandment is the first commandment. It's the first commandment that makes the second commandment doable and takes away the threat that the second commandment is really suicide to our own happiness. The first commandment is, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind" (Luke 10:27). The first commandment is the basis of the second commandment. The second commandment is a visible expression of the first commandment. Which means this: Before you make your own self-seeking the measure of your self-giving, make God the focus of your self-seeking. This is the point of the first commandment.

"Love God with all your heart" means: Find in God a satisfaction so full that it fills up all your heart. "Love God with all your soul" means: Find in God a meaning so rich and so deep that it fills up all the aching corners of your soul. "Love God with all your strength" means: spare no strain or exertion to put yourself in a position to see the all-satistying grace of God poured out on you and through you. "Love God with all your mind" means: Find in God the riches of knowledge and insight and wisdom that guide and satisfy all that the human mind was meant for.

In other words take all your self-love -- all your longing for joy and hope and love and security and fulfillment and significance -- take all that, and focus it on God, until he satisfies your heart and soul and mind. This is not a canceling out of self-love. This is a fulfillment of self-love. Self-love is the desire for life and satisfaction rather than frustration and death. God says, Come to me, and I will give you fullness of joy (Psalm 16:11). I will satisfy your heart and soul and strength and mind with my glory. This is the first and great commandment.

Perplexities Will Always Remain

I don't mean that this answers all our questions about love, or that it takes away every kind of threat in loving our neighbor. There are many perplexities in the life of love. There are competing claims on our limited time. There are hard choices about what to give up and what to keep. There are different interpretations of what is good for another person. I don't mean here that all of that becomes simple.

What I do mean is this: loving God sustains us through all the joy and pain and perplexity and uncertainty of what loving our neighbor should be. When the sacrifice is great, we remember that his grace is sufficient. When the fork in the road is unmarked, we remember that his grace is sufficient. When we are distracted by the world and our hearts give way temporarily to selfishness, we remember that God alone can satisfy, and we repent and love his grace the more.

A World of Expanding Joy in God

It is a very radical command. It cuts to the root of sin, called pride. Remember, this root of pride that gives rise to all other sins, is the passion to be happy contaminated and corrupted by two things: 1) the unwillingness to see God as the only fountain of true and lasting joy, and 2) the unwillingness to see other people as designed by God to receive our joy in him. But that is exactly the contamination and corruption that Jesus counteracts in these two commandments.

In the first commandment he focuses the passion to be happy firmly on God and God alone. In the second commandment he opens a whole world of expanding joy in God and says: people, human beings, everywhere you find them are designed to receive your joy in God. Love them the way you love yourself. Show them, give them -- through every practical means available -- what you have found for yourself in God.

To sum up, the ancient misunderstanding of the command, "Love your neighbor as yourself" was the lawyer's attempt to restrict the meaning of"neighbor" to a certain group and thus to raise a question he hoped would conceal the real problem-his failure to be the person the commandment was calling him to be, one whose compassionate heart would never allow him to pass by on the other side of the road.