Wednesday, August 25, 2021

What Does Your Proof Text Prove? (16)

Learning to love yourself is not the greatest love of all, but you wouldn’t know that if you ask non-trivial numbers of evangelical Christians:

“[God] has given us permission to love ourselves.”
— Alonda Tanner

“We can’t fully love God or anyone else unless we love ourselves.”
— InTouch Ministries Daily Devotion

“It’s impossible to love your neighbor as you love yourself if you don’t know how to love yourself.”
— Kristine Bolt

Each of these assertions depends on a linguistically-indefensible interpretation of a familiar statement made by the Lord Jesus.

Parsing Syntax

Matthew 22:39 reads as follows:

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

From this, some Christians conclude self-love is not only desirable and pleasing to God, but also a prerequisite to loving others and even to loving God. If they are right, followers of Christ may have to rethink our priorities.

But is that what the passage is teaching? I would argue that it is not. The statement “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” indeed contains two components: love of neighbor and love of self. But the first is an instruction to behave a certain way, while the second is simply a statement about normal human behavior, for which God expresses neither approval nor disapproval. Put another way, while the love of neighbor is commanded, the love of self is taken for granted. Self-love happens naturally, without divine assistance or human effort.

Is this distinction merely an artefact of English translation? Daniel Wallace, who has taught Greek on a graduate school level since 1979, says no. He examines the syntax of Matthew 22:39 in the original language and concludes, “Self-love is assumed in this text, not commanded.”

A Losing Battle

In fact, Christians who insist learning to loving ourselves is a necessary prerequisite to other forms of love are engaging in a losing battle with the apostle Paul, who strongly suggests we are already far too good at loving ourselves:

No one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it.”

That’s a pretty clear and universal statement about human nature throughout history. Secular psychologists, psychiatrists, the media and even Christians may vigorously disagree with Paul’s assertion, but it poses a fatal problem for Christians who believe our real problem is that we do not love ourselves enough. According to the apostle, the default mode of human operation is the furthest thing from self-loathing. We may misunderstand our own desires, misdiagnose our own problems, and misattribute our miseries to too much self-sacrifice when the real problem is that we have sacrificed too little or done so in an unproductive way, but ultimately, the flesh is all about me, me and me. With a little me slathered on top.

Nobody needs to tell us to love ourselves or show us how to do it. We are very good at putting ourselves first in every possible situation. Self-love is not commanded by Christ because such a command is completely unnecessary and may even be unhelpful. Self-love may manifest in the world in ways that are both anti-God and anti-human.

What of the suicide? There is a reasonable argument to be made that far from being full of self-loathing, those who take their own lives are nourishing and cherishing their flesh as best they know how. Having erroneously — though maybe understandably — come to the conclusion that life is not worth living, they have taken the least painful option they know of, heedless of the opinions of loved ones and of God himself.

Thinking Too Highly

So then, how do I love my neighbor or love God until I have learned to love myself? Paul’s answer is that you already understand that just fine. Simply take what you have learned about the needs of your own body, mind and spirit, and apply these things in your service to others and in the priority you assign to your own preferences and desires in contrast to the clearly-expressed will of the divine mind. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”

Paul again warns of the spiritual danger of fixating on self:

“For through the authority graciously given to me I warn every individual among you not to value himself unduly, but to cultivate sobriety of judgment in accordance with the amount of faith which God has allotted to each one.”

I won’t repeat myself here, but in this 2014 blog post I made the case that in this passage in Romans, the apostle is less concerned about pride than about self-occupation generally. “I’m so awful” is as unproductive a state of mind as “I’m so wonderful”, and likely equally true.

Ordinate Self-Love

Ordinate self-love starts with the recognition that we are fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God himself, but it does not stay there. To bask indefinitely in the rays of God’s lavish love toward humankind is to risk deceiving ourselves that we are intrinsically worthy of it, rather than recognizing that God’s love for us proceeds from his own essential nature.

The writers of the gospels and epistles urge us on from self-occupation to better things: “In humility count others more significant than yourselves.” “Owe no one anything, except to love each other.” “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love” ... not “yourselves” but “one another”. “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.” “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.”

If nothing else, the secular world’s current emphasis on self-esteem should serve as a warning of spiritual danger rather than an invitation to greater examination of my feelings about myself. Certainly there is nothing in scripture to prompt the exercise.

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