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
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
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.
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
The First Commandment Saves
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
“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
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
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