Christ’s ‘great commandment’ instructs Christians to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength’ […and to] ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31 NIV). This summation, of course, recompiles a few Old Testament passages, notably, Leviticus 19:18 (“love your neighbor as yourself.”) A week or so ago I commented on another professor’s blog post that loving our neighbor *as* ourselves means that we must love ourselves equally as others. By way of example, a battered spouse should not remain with an abusive partner because, no matter the love for the partner, the battered spouse must love the self as much as the other. A loving parent does not place a beloved child in harm’s way so neither should a loving self place a beloved self in harm’s way. Today my eyes were opened to another implication of Mark 12:31.
If we must love others as ourselves, is not our esteem of others a reflection of our esteem of self? The oft-quoted passage of 1 John 4 that “God is love” more fully exhorts Christians to
let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
In sum, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). The thing is, love must flow into us in order that it flow out of us. But if we do not first internalize that love within ourselves, how can we ever externalize that love? If this were not so, externalized love would seem hollow, half-hearted, and perhaps hypocritical. Ouch!
Contrary to popular practice, moral judgment does not flow from love. For all the notoriety of John 3:16, the verse which follows is exceedingly potent: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:17 NIV). And how is the world saved through the Son? Through love, because “God is love” and “God so loved the world.” Furthermore, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:9 NIV). Christ’s love for us was (and is) without caveat:
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. (1 John 4: 16b-18).
Scripture also declares that “love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8 NIV) and Paul wrote to the church at Philippi, “this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.” (Phil 1:9-11 NIV)
The message here is that since God is love and since we are capable of love only because God first loved us, then that divine love should operate within us to displace and dispel any and all fear of judgment for our individual and collective unworthiness.
Christians, however, have a poor track record when it comes to loving their neighbors where love manifests as a social acceptance that is conditioned on conduct. Refrains like “love the sinner, hate the sin” exemplify this perfectly. Christians must love the fellow sinner as-is rather than trying to purge the sinful conduct. It is not the job of Christians to accuse or to expose the sin in one another: let he who is without sin cast the first stone (John 8:7), judge not lest ye be judged (Matt 7:1), and take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye (Matt 7:3-5).
Maybe the reason Christians cannot blindly love their neighbors is because they do not first love themselves the way that God loves them. Christians who believe that empiric conduct is proof of righteousness, will constantly judge themselves based on conduct. Christians who spew judgment and hatred and revilement against others are merely externalizing their understanding of love—love that exists in utter fear of judgment—which is not God’s that drives away fear of judgment. So when Christians who are called to love others *as* themselves act judgmentally toward others, the implication is that those very Christians do not love themselves the way that God loves them.
Loving others *as* one’s self actually first requires loving one’s self the way God loves. Christians can love themselves only because God first loved them (and demonstrated that love). When Christians love themselves the way God loves them, then Christians’ love of others will be indistinguishable from God’s love. The inability to recognize a neighbor’s worthiness reveals the inability to recognize one’s own worthiness.