Jesus declares that there are two great commands -- love God with your whole being and love your neighbor as you love yourself. It is said that if we keep these two commands, we will keep all the law and the prophets. Of course this is not as easy as it sounds. There is a reason why laws have there "whereas" clauses and "Therefore Be It Resolved" clauses. These statements need interpretation and a recognition of the complexity of the issue.
The question of what the Christian faith has to say about loving one's self was raised by a member of my church. Too often we hear messages that denigrate the self. Consider the doctrine of total depravity. As developed in Calvinism, the human being is considered so broken that nothing good can come of that person. In other words there is nothing to love. We see this expressed in a beloved hymn:
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, by now am found; was blind, but now I see.
Am I truly a wretch? In writing this hymn, John Newton was wrestling with his own involvement in the slave trade, and suggesting regret. At the same time, I had drunk deeply from the Calvinist well.
So how do I love my neighbor as I love myself? In much Christian preaching, mine included, we put the emphasis on loving others, on offering ourselves sacrificially for others. To follow Jesus means dying to the self, putting others ahead of ourselves. But, what about the self?
Perhaps our inability to explore this question stems from a fear that too often we have a tendency toward narcissism. So, in our preaching and in our teaching, we focus our attention on moving people away from narcissism to living sacrificially for others. Finding the right balance, so that we can truly appreciate the message of Jesus, that we love our neighbor as we love ourselves, seems rather difficult. And as Tom Oord points out -- Scripture itself is not consistent in its message on this topic. We hear statements calling into question self-love and lifting it up. Of course, context is needed in order to full understand the message. Ultimately, as Tom writes: "If God calls Christians to love all the world's inhabitants, Christians who fail to love themselves would fail to love some" (Tom Oord, The Nature of Love: A Theology, p. 13).
Perhaps what we need is a definition of love. When we look at Scripture we discover there are a number of words that get translated as love. Agape, eros, and philia. Each of these words are expressive of what we understand to be love, but they have different emphases, and these need to be taken into consideration. So, what is love?
I have come to appreciate Tom Oord's definition of love.
To love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic/empathetic response to God and others, to promote overall well-being. (Oord, p. 17).
In laying out this definition, Tom begins with the premise stated in 1 John 4:19: We love, because God first loved us. Our ability to love God, neighbor, and ourselves is rooted in God's grace, God's decision to pursue our overall well-being. Our love of God, neighbor, and self is a response to God's initiative. I can't go into all the dimensions of this -- for that read Tom's book -- but it's important to recognize that for this definition to make sense, we must affirm the premise that God is love, that love defines the nature of God.
So, the question of the day concerns love of self. I think we can begin with affirming that God has deemed us worthy of being loved. Even in my sinfulness. Even in my lostness. God loves me and seeks my well-being. And while the call to love involves the call to self-sacrifice (John 15:12-13), it is important to remember the call to love ourselves. Unfortunately, theologians, such as Martin Luther, tended to equate self-love with sin -- that is, self-love is the foundation of sin. Thus, it must be eliminated. Such theologies, however, are deficient and misunderstand the call to love.
Perhaps the key is embracing a full-orbed definition of love, one that includes agape, which Oord defines as "in spite of love," and eros, which he defines as "because of love," and philia, which he defines as "alongside of love." While I'd love Tom to flesh this out for me, I think we need to look to this definition of philia love, which involves cooperative friendship. The command to love neighbor as self, is a recognition that we need one another (pp. 115-116). It is in this call to be in cooperative relationship with God and with neighbor that we find the needed accountability -- and grace -- to love in such away that we promote the overall well-being of all -- including ourselves.
This isn't a sufficient response to the question -- but hopefully it's a starting point. It is important, however, the affirm the premise that love of neighbor requires love of self.