In summarizing the greatest commandments, Jesus quoted Leviticus 19:18 to affirm the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.” We all know this verse, but do we fully understand it? Given our own society’s frequent stress on the importance of “self-love,” we may read into Jesus’ words something that is not really there.
Sometimes it is said that Jesus’ words show the importance of self-love, and that loving ourselves is a prerequisite for loving other people. But what if we don’t love ourselves very much – or even hate ourselves – are we supposed to love other people to that same degree? This is an unavoidable conclusion if we insist on taking Jesus’ words to mean love of others is somehow based on the degree to which we love ourselves.
But if we go back to the section of Leviticus that Jesus was quoting and read the whole verse, we see something interesting: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.” The point here is that we would not carry out revenge on ourselves or bear a grudge against ourselves, and we should love other people by treating them in the same way. Jesus simply quoted the second part of this principle – out of context – as a scriptural reference to the overall principle of loving others. We should remember that the Old Testament does not always contain verses that perfectly show every principle that is elaborated in the New Testament.
Once we realize that Jesus was simply quoting a verse that came closest to the overall principle of love for others, we can see that this verse does not really have anything to do with “self-love” or that “we can only love others as much as we love ourselves.” These sentiments are not present in what Jesus said and are actually not found anywhere else in the Bible.
Look at three examples of the many instances in which love of others is spoken about without ever referencing love of self:
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34).
“Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8).
“This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another” (1 John 3:11).
Love of others is simply not related to or bound up with love of self in the Bible. The very few seeming exceptions are easy to explain. In his letter to the church at Ephesus, for example, the apostle Paul wrote that each husband “must love his wife as he loves himself” (Ephesians 5:33), but Paul is likely talking here about the husband loving his wife with the biblical understanding that they are one body, one self. The Amplified Bible catches the sense of this in translating the verse: “However, let each man of you [without exception] love his wife as [being in a sense] his very own self.”
There is no proof that any of the few biblical verses that talk about loving others as ourselves are talking about self-love in the modern sense. In fact, Paul tells Timothy: “There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy” (2 Timothy 3:1-2, emphasis added).
This does not mean that we must have a negative self-image or that we should hate ourselves. What it does mean is that for the Christian, self-love as a way of accepting and valuing ourselves is replaced with the understanding of God’s love for us (John 3:16) – and that our self-image is based on that full and truly meaningful outside love, not on some inner love for ourselves that we drum up. The Christian understands that in reality there is much that is not really lovable about all of us (Romans 3:10-12), but God’s love and reconstruction of our lives (Ephesians 4:24) supersedes the undeniable failings of our own inner nature. The Christian comes to realize that “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19) – not because we learned self-love.
God calls us to a sacrificial love of others more than self. We see this in the words of Jesus (John 15:13; etc.) and in the words of Paul – not that we build ourselves up, but that we look on others as more important than ourselves (Philippians 2:3).
We all experience feelings of insecurity at times, but the answer is not to look inward and attempt to love ourselves more. The Scriptures show that the answer is to look upward at the value God places on each one of us individually, and to look outward and concentrate on the value of others. When we understand that right self-love is a recognition and appreciation for the love God has for us and for others, then we can begin to effectively love others as ourselves.