You’ve heard the saying, “in order to love others you first have to love yourself.” We’re often told that we need to “look out for number one.” We’re bombarded with messages from our society that you have to put our own interests first. Advertising campaigns are driven by the message that you ought to put yourself first. Slogans like, “you deserve a break today.” “Have it your way.” “Because I’m worth it.” “Be all that you can be.” All of these are pleas for you to do what’s best for you and in so doing to buy the product that will make you feel better. The message is clearly sent to us that we need to love ourselves.
There’s also a false gospel being preached that encourages us to put ourselves first. Are you in a marriage that isn’t bringing your happiness? No problem! God certainly doesn’t want you unhappy. You’ve got to look out for yourself. Just do away with the marriage that isn’t bringing you happiness and find someone new who will make you happy. Are your children driving you crazy? That’s okay, just wrap yourself up in your career and search for your own identity and let the kids fend for themselves. Besides they’re going to have to face the world sooner or later.
The “me first” attitude prevails in our world today. And unfortunately this same attitude has crept into the church. Instead of being God centered in our worship we are often man centered. When looking for church many want one that will meet “their” needs instead of looking for a church that’s focused on God and glorifying Him. Many have a consumer mentality in their approach to church. If you don’t like the “product” that’s being offered in one church move on to another that’s more suited to satisfying your wants and your desires.
There are valid reasons for looking for the right church. But we need to be careful about our motives when we look for the right church. Are we looking for a church that faithfully teaches the Word and is Christ centered or are self-interests at the top or our list?
We must ask ourselves the same questions as we strive to be the church God desires. Is the goal to glorify God in all we do? Or is the goal to do what makes us happy?
I’ve heard Scripture twisted to promote too much love of self and too much of a focus on self-interests. One passage that’s been used is found in Matthew 22:39 which is part of the study we’ve been involved in for a few weeks now.
We’re continuing our Loving God Loving People series today and returning to Matthew 22:34-40.
We’ve discussed how we are to love God with all our heart, soul and mind and today I want to examine closely verse 39 where it says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
This is something I believe has been twisted by many and has even been misused in the church at large. I think it’s important that we clear up our understanding of what love for self is and isn’t before we move on to better understanding how we can love our neighbor properly. In our future studies we’ll take a closer look at who our neighbor is and how we can more effectively love our neighbor, but it’s important that we first consider what Jesus meant when he said love your neighbor as yourself.
Let’s return to the passage that is the basis for our series. Matthew 22:34-40
Matthew 22:34 But when the Pharisees heard that He had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together.
35 Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying, 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” 37 Jesus said to him, ” ‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 “This is the first and great commandment. 39 “And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”
It’s important that we understand clearly what Jesus is saying here and to understand what He is not saying. Does the text say, “You shall love your neighbor and you shall love yourself”?
There is an ideology out there that would suggest you interpret this passage that way. The idea is, “you can’t properly love others until you love yourself.” But is that what Jesus meant when He said; “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”? What did Jesus mean?
He simply said You shall love your neighbor as yourself. He commands us to love our neighbor. He makes it clear that it is a command with the words, “you shall.” What He doesn’t do is command us to love ourselves. The words “you shall love” are not placed in front of yourself. Jesus simply commands us to love others as we already love ourselves. Self-love here is assumed not commanded. It’s assumed that we already love ourselves.
We are born into this world as self-centered creatures. A baby will let you know very quickly that he’s hungry or tired or needs to be changed. It’s natural for us to be in tune with our own needs and to seek to have our needs met. God designed us to get hungry, thirsty and tired. It’s normal for us to love ourselves enough to eat when we’re hungry to drink when we thirst and to rest when we’re tired. Loving ourselves is the norm. It comes naturally to us.
Jesus is assuming our love for self and is commanding us to love others like we naturally love ourselves.
In the book, Knowing the Face of God, Tim Stafford points out:
“Self-love is so ordinary that Jesus used it as a reference point: Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” When I was in elementary school, the teacher sometimes solved the first problem on a sheet of homework to show us how the others were solved. Jesus used our love for ourselves in the same way. “Notice how you love yourself,” he said, “and love your neighbor in the same way.” 1
That’s a great way of putting it. “Notice how you love yourself, and love your neighbor in the same way.”
Our natural tendency is to love ourselves and we are to love our neighbors like we naturally tend to love ourselves.
The fact that we do love ourselves is supported in Ephesians 5:29.
29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church.
We don’t hate ourselves. We feed and care for ourselves. Jesus knows that we love ourselves and He commands us to love others in the same way.
John Piper says this about self-love,
“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 happiness. That’s what Jesus starts with when he says, “as yourself.”
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. 2
We don’t need to spend time concerned with how we can better love ourselves. We don’t need to read books or attend seminars on loving ourselves. The point is that we already do love ourselves. Loving ourselves is something we do naturally. It’s natural to take care of ourselves. You feed yourself and dress yourself and keep yourself warm when it’s cold and try to stay cool when it’s hot. When we’re sick we take medicine or go to the doctor so we’ll feel better.
And there is nothing wrong with tending to the needs that we have. It’s normal. It’s natural. It’s not evil to eat when we’re hungry or drink when we are thirsty. It’s not evil for us to rest when we’re tired or to seek shelter from the elements or to protect ourselves from danger. All of these are normal aspects of our love for ourselves and there’s nothing evil in taking care of ourselves.
What is wrong is when we are so consumed with self-love that we fail to love God and we fail to love others. It’s natural to love ourselves. It’s not evil to love ourselves in a way that we take care of our own basic needs but to love only ourselves to the neglect of loving God and loving people is wrong because that goes against God’s commands.
And remember that the problem is not that we love ourselves but that we tend to love ourselves too much.
Scripture makes it clear that we are to be God centered and others centered and instead of self-centered. Paul makes the point in Philippians 2:3-4.
Philippians 2:3 Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. 4 Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.
And Paul’s words in Romans 12:10 instruct us to show a brotherly kind of love for one another that honors them as better than ourselves. And in Romans 15:2-3 we’re reminded that we love like Jesus does when we look out for the needs of others in a way that builds them up.
Romans 15:2 Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, leading to edification. 3 For even Christ did not please Himself; but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached You fell on Me.”
Christ set the ultimate example for us by not living His life to please Himself. He laid down His life to offer us salvation. We need to follow His example of living lives that put God and others before ourselves.
It’s all too easy for us to get unbalanced in our love for self and to love ourselves too much. We can easily get caught up in living life to please ourselves and leave loving God and loving people out of the picture.
What we need to understand is that we already love ourselves and we need to love others in the same way. All too often we’re selfish and self-centered and we look out for ourselves and fail to love others as we naturally tend to love ourselves.
As we continue our studies we’ll look closer at loving our neighbor and let’s remember that we already love ourselves. It’s a given. And in the same way that we love ourselves we need to love our neighbor.
Don’t get caught up in the “me” mentality that’s advertised and pushed in our society. We do love ourselves and we often love ourselves too much and how easy it is for us to be led astray into loving only ourselves and not loving God and others, as we ought. Remember the challenge is loving others like we already love ourselves.
Our natural love for ourselves will be kept in check if we love God as we should.
We’ve spent a couple of weeks looking at loving God. If we love God as we ought we won’t be too self-absorbed or unbalanced in our love for self. If our love for God is in place then we’ll love our neighbor as we love ourself.
John Newton said…
When people are right with God, they are apt to be hard on themselves and easy on other people. But when they are not right with God, they are easy on themselves and hard on others.
You see if your love for God is right then your love for self will be right and your love for your neighbor will be right.
Maybe you’ve realized today that you do love yourself too much and you don’t love others enough. If that’s the case then you need to take a closer look at your love for God, because if you truly love God as you should then the love for neighbor will take care of itself. You won’t be self-absorbed but you’ll live a life that’s focused on serving others.
Remember that we naturally love ourselves and that is how we are to love our neighbor. While acknowledging our natural love for ourselves, we need to be careful that we don’t love ourselves too much and lead self-centered lives. Like the man married to the woman overheard at a party saying,
“My husband and I have managed to be happy together for 20 years. I guess this is because we’re both in love with the same man.”
We do love ourselves and it’s easy for us to love ourselves too much. But Jesus calls us to love God with all our heart, soul and mind and to love our neighbor as ourselves while in contrast the world tells us to love ourselves first and foremost.
Remember the Sunday school chorus, Jesus and others and you? The gist of it is that Jesus should be your first priority, then others and then yourself. That’s not a very popular message in our culture today. But that message of that little chorus is so true—that when you put Jesus and others ahead of you then you’ll find real joy.
Let’s be careful we aren’t duped into believing the phrases we hear so often like, self-esteem, self-actualization, self-fulfillment, self-determination, and self-sufficiency. Everywhere you turn the message is me, me, me.
I’ve noticed that our Josiah has picked up on the phrase “mine” that is so common among little guys his age. Why is everything “mine” when you’re almost two? Because we have a natural love for self—just as God’s Word clearly tells us—we tend to never grow out of the two year old phase where everything is mine.
The challenge is keeping our love for self in check.
We must heed the words of Jesus in Matthew 16:24 when He told us to deny ourselves. He told his disciples,
“If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.
Each of us this morning is a person who loves self. You do love yourself—that’s a given. The question is do you love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind and do you love your neighbor as yourself?
We’ve been commanded to love our neighbor just like we love ourselves and in our studies ahead we’ll be taking a closer look at who our neighbor is and how we can show our love in practical ways.
We want to be a church that is marked by our love for God and our love for people. We’re not here to inflate our own egos. We’re here to bring glory to God and to reach others with the gospel of Jesus Christ so that ultimately they can also glorify God.
Let’s be a people who love God with all our heart, soul and mind and who love our neighbors in the same way we love ourselves.