The Bible tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves. That's a pretty good sound bite. Jesus himself said that if you do that and love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and mind, that sums up the entire law in a nutshell.
But there is nothing simple about loving our neighbor as ourselves. There is not even anything simple in understanding what it means to love our neighbor as ourselves.
I've heard this biblical command used over and over to teach that we need to learn to love ourselves more. How can we love our neighbor as ourselves if we don't love ourselves? Because, you know, we are SO filled with self-hate. We don't like who we are; we just don't accept ourselves for how we are made.
Good heavens. Satan must be particularly proud of himself for that one: turning the second greatest command of God into an invitation to indulge the most basic and greatest of all sins -- pride. Yep, that was pretty brilliant. And what suckers we are to fall for it.
I can't think of a single place in the Word where we are instructed to grow in love for ourselves, to try to love ourselves, or to love ourselves at all. Rather, we are constantly being told to die to ourselves, to put God and others above ourselves. In Jesus' command here, he assumes that we love ourselves from the start – which seems like a reasonable assumption to me, having observed myself and a good number of human beings for several years now. Our problem is never that we think of ourselves more lowly than we ought. Quite the contrary.
I've been reading and re-reading C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity during my nighttime devotions these days. (There's another brilliant one, C.S. Lewis. Not to compare him to Satan -- but yeah, brilliant.) He talks about this self-love idea:
Do I think well of myself, think myself a nice chap? Well, I am afraid I sometimes do (and those are, no doubt, my worst moments) but that is not why I love myself. In fact it is the other way round: my self-love makes me think myself nice, but thinking myself nice is not why I love myself. . . . In my most clear-sighted moments not only do I not think myself a nice man, but I know that I am a very nasty one. I can look at some of the things I have done with horror and loathing.
So, the Self-Love contingency would say, "See? He can't like himself when he thinks he does horrible loathsome things. How could he?" But Lewis continues:
I remember Christian teachers telling me long ago that I must hate a bad man's actions, but not hate the bad man: or, as they would say, hate the sin but not the sinner. For a long time I used to think this a silly, straw-splitting distinction: how could you hate what a man did and not hate the man? But years later it occurred to me that there was one man to whom I had been doing this all my life--namely myself. However much I might dislike my own cowardice or conceit or greed, I went on loving myself. There had never been the slightest difficulty about it. In fact the very reason I loved myself, I was sorry to find that I was the sort of man who did those things.
Part of this has to do with our definition of love. If you think love has to do with fondness or affection, you might have trouble loving loathsome people. But love is not a feeling; it is an action. Love is acting in another's best interests. (Which, Lewis notes, is easier to do when we are fond of the person, so it still behooves us to try to develop some fondness for folks . . . but it's not a requirement to obey the command.) Even when I hate the things I do, I still act in my own best interests.
And even when I hate the actions and behaviors of my neighbor, I can still act in their best interests. I can love them. I can even have some affection for most of them, if I give it some effort.
This love command of Jesus' -- it really requires more attention than we give it.