Love Your Neighbor As You Love Yourself

I'm just going to admit right here and now that I LOVE Justin Bieber's new song Love Yourself. Yep, those are words I never thought I'd say. I've never liked a Justin song before and it probably won't happen again. But here we are - I love that song. I've dedicated time to learning how to play it on ukulele so that's where we are now. 

That actually has nothing to do with the subject of this post, but I just had to confess that to you due to the title. Moving on.

There's a thought that has occurred to me many times throughout my life, but I've never said anything about it. I grew up going to church, but even if you didn't you've probably heard this line before. Love your neighbor as yourself. It's one of the most well known tidbits of scripture. Here's the full context for you, just in case you're wondering. 

Jesus is speaking to a group and one of the teachers of religious law comes up to Jesus and asks him, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?". Jesus responds that the most important commandment is to love God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength. He adds to his response that the second greatest commandment: to love your neighbor as yourself.

I've heard lessons on this passage a thousand times and usually the take away is that we are to treat people well. Don't think of yourselves more highly than others. Everyone is your neighbor. Treat people like Jesus treated people. Great lessons - I agree.

What always strikes me is that Jesus specifically says, "as yourself". He doesn't just ask us to love our neighbor and call it a day. He doesn't ask us to love our neighbor even more than we love ourselves. He asks us to love our neighbor AS we love ourselves. 

Here's the trouble though. What if you don't love yourself? For most of my adult life I've struggled with deep depression and body image issues. I don't usually treat myself very well at all. I use hateful speech about myself in my own mind. I degrade myself. I do not hold myself in high regard. In the past I've even hurt myself or wanted to not exist at all. When in the midst of that depression this passage was so confusing to me. I only have to show the amount of love to another as I would show my own self. Ok, so I have permission to hate people basically. Because I hate myself. That doesn't seem like what God would want me to do, but that's what I'm hearing. Love my neighbor as myself. I don't love myself. I cannot love my neighbor. 

I've always just written this off as some loophole Jesus didn't realize he was allowing, or just a problem within myself. Maybe others have never seen the problem with this passage - maybe it's just me. I decided a long time ago that I know what the passage SHOULD say, so I'll live like that. I'll live as if Jesus asked me to love my neighbor and then he stopped talking. I'll take the love of myself out of the equation. It's not about me anyway, right? He must have misspoken. 

But lately I think I was wrong about that. Maybe this isn't a loophole, or a misinterpretation. Maybe Jesus realized that in order to see value in others we DO have to see value in ourselves. In order to properly show love to God's creation we have to be willing to love all of it. We usually apply that terminology to people we don't like or identify with. People with different values, different backgrounds - love them anyway we say. But what if I apply the same logic to myself? In order to properly show love to God's creation I have to be willing to love all of it - even myself. 

How can I say I see the image of God in my neighbor if I wish I didn't exist? How can I realize the God-given value in the person next to me while not acknowledging that same value in me? How can I claim to love others without exception, but have a list of exceptions for why I can't love myself?

I think these specific words were intentional, used in order to drive us toward a more perfect realization of the love we are to have for mankind. I think God knew that we would be hardest on ourselves, unwilling to forgive our own trespasses, reluctant to accept grace. These words challenge us to be forgiving and merciful to the person we're least prepared to treat that way. But by treating ourselves with this love we learn better how to heap it on others without hesitation.

Love Your Neighbor Stephanie Benge Photography