So, here's a portion of the sermon I wound up with this morning. Thank you to those who chimed in on this topic. I cut some stuff out, mostly for length, and added a few links. I started out by addressing some Christian cliches that people quote as if they're in the bible, but they're not, this was the last one...
“To love others you must first love yourself.”
Try and find it in your bible. You won’t. Because it’s not there.
I loaded up some bible search software on my computer and searched for the phrase “love yourself.” Indeed, a whole lot of verses came up as results. And most of those verses had “love” and “yourself” both appearing in the same sentence. They never appeared next to each other, however. There were always a few words between them. And in almost every case, what appeared between “love” and “yourself” was the phrase, “your neighbor as.” Not once in all of the scriptures, and I checked multiple versions, the King James, New King James, New Revised Standard, the Jannotti Standard Edition… in none of those did the phrase “love yourself” appear even once.
The idea that we must love ourselves in order to love others is not in the bible. But it must have come from somewhere. I’ve heard this supposed doctrine so very many times. Even the esteemed Stanford University School of medicine offers a course called, “Love Yourself, For Everyone Else’s Sake,” which promises a “six-week program designed to nourish your whole self so that you increase your capacity to give love and care to others.”
Perhaps something like that sounds attractive to you, or at least it sounds sensible. It is certainly smoothly worded, almost comforting. Increase your capacity to give love and care to others. And what better way to do that than by loving yourself a little, or a lot more. It sounds almost like it must be true.
So, why is there nothing like this in any version of our scriptures? Why is a God who claims to be more interested in love than anything else, in fact, a God who claims to be love, completely silent on this issue of self-love?
Well, we have to be careful about making a theological argument from silence. It’s not usually a good idea. Just because the scriptures are silent about “loving yourself” doesn’t necessarily mean anything. The most likely reason for it never appearing anywhere in the bible is that self-love simply wasn’t on the mind of the biblical writers.
But that right there is significant. The biblical writers never thought to mention “love yourself.” Why not? Or more to the point, why do so many modern day psychologists and preachers and well meaning Christians think the idea of self-love is important?
The apostle Paul has picked up what I think is a bad reputation for some of his more strident pronouncements. He seems to be saying some pretty harsh things at times, particularly as regards the role of women in the church and in marriage. Well, I don’t have time today to combat that impression, and Paul probably doesn’t care whether I defend him or not. What I will say is this: I think when we concentrate on those seemingly hard-line sayings of Paul we are totally missing the main theme that runs throughout all his writings. That main theme is summarized pretty clearly in the early verses of Philippians chapter 2.
How does this statement square with the idea of loving yourself so that you can love others?
Well, it doesn’t.
The reason Paul didn’t give any thought to the idea of “loving yourself so that you can love others,” is that he was too preoccupied with the self-abasing, the self emptying love of Jesus, as he makes clear when he writes…
4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…
He speaks of Jesus giving up on his status, considering it to be nothing. For Paul this was the essence of Christ’s sacrifice. Not to minimize Jesus’ saving death on the cross, but to highlight it as the capstone, the culmination of the laying down of every single day of Jesus’ life.
Here we have the heart of Paul’s theology. Jesus gave himself away, even to the point of emptiness, even to the point of being like a slave. Even to the point of utter humiliation and, of course, death.
That’s good news, apparently. But the ‘bad’ news for us is that even before Paul mentions Jesus’ self-emptying love, he’s urging us to become like minded with Jesus.
Paul would probably not make a good psychologist. In fact, a number of theologians have questioned Paul’s sanity over the years. Even if we admire his wholehearted devotion to Jesus, some of the things his devotion caused him to write certainly seem insane.
Paul’s doctrine of self-emptying just doesn’t suit the modern world.
Self-emptying doesn’t grease the wheels.
Self-emptying leaves you used up, chewed up, and spit out.
Self-emptying allows other people to take advantage of you, to walk all over you.
Self-emptying will not help advance your career.
Self-emptying will destroy your entire future. Look where it got Jesus.
A self emptying life leaves you completely vulnerable; and who is going to look out for you then?
In other words, Paul’s theology flies right in the face of almost every tendency we have as human beings, and therefore must be crazy.
I had a music producer once tell me and my bandmates, “In order to get ahead in the music business, you have to lie.”
I agreed with him, which is why I’m not in the music business today.
What that producer was saying was that in order to make it in the seriously competitive world of popular music, you have to invert Paul’s theology: you must put aside the interests of others, and look primarily to your own interests. You need to do everything to fulfill your ambition, including lie. That’s the way to the top.
Living by Paul’s theology is not going to get you ahead in your career. It’s not going to help you win friends and influence people, though many people might think of you as a saint. That’s not necessarily a compliment, many saints were probably crazy too.
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit but in humility consider others better than yourselves. It’s a strong statement. Do you know the kind of strength it takes to make a habit of considering others better than yourselves? It takes almost superhuman strength, or should I say supernatural strength: a strength that comes from somewhere other than you.
Paul’s theology requires the supernatural strength of Jesus. It makes us completely reliant on God.
When I was struggling with health issues some years ago, I sat down with one of the pastors at my church. He encouraged me to face the overwhelming fear that I had at the time and asked what I felt as I did so. Something was wrong with my central nervous system, I had tingling in my hands and up my right arm; all the time. I worried that it might be MS, and eventually an MRI revealed that indeed, I might have that insidious disease. I remember one day when I told Bob my deepest fear.
“I feel like my life is totally out of my hands, like there’s nothing I can do. There’s no telling whether or when something more might go wrong with me. It’s scary. It’s almost to the point where I have no other choice but to rely on God’s mercy.”
“Did you hear what you just said,” Bob asked.
“Yeah, I guess I did.”
Do you know how scary it is to completely trust God?
When it’s all said and done, I think that’s the reason “consider others better than yourselves” sounds insane and “look not to your own interests but to the interests of others” seems loopy. It puts us completely in the hands of God. And that’s scary.
Nonetheless, it is what Jesus calls us to: “Love your neighbor as yourself…”, “this is my command, love one another.”
And what Paul calls us to: “do nothing out of selfish ambition… consider others better,” “nothing counts except faith working itself out through love,” “above all things, put on love…,” “love never seeks its own way.”
It is not true that we must love ourselves first in order to love others. That’s where I end up. A graduate student named Nicole whose website I read, wrote about this passage in Philippians a couple of days ago. She came to the conclusion that ultimately it’s not loving ourselves that frees us to love others, but being among people who are sure of their standing in Christ. She wrote: “It is not that I must love myself in order to love others. No, it is that I must know that I am loved in order to love others.” When we share life with people who put Philippians 2:3-4 into practice, we do not need to even think about loving ourselves. We know that we are loved. And such community is only possible when we know and share, not the self-love of modern pop psychology, but the self-emptying love modeled for us by Jesus. It’s the only kind of love there is.