Popular psychology, in discussing self-love, sometimes references Jesus’s edict to “love your neighbor as yourself,” noting that you can’t love others unless you love yourself. But Rev. Howard Bess sees that logic as missing what Jesus meant when he talked about love.
By the Rev. Howard Bess
There is a debate among modern-day Christians about the meaning of yourself in the command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” The disagreement emerges from a perspective of popular psychology from the last half of the 20th Century about the importance of self-love.
The history of that modern perspective is traced to Eric Fromm, a German social psychologist and philosopher who was born and educated in Germany, but fled Nazi Germany and settled in the United States where he taught at Columbia University and other American universities.
Fromm’s influence through his students and colleagues is enormous to this day. Fromm was Jewish and a student of Jewish Scriptures and traditions. Much of his writings were heavily referenced to the mythologies of the Old Testament.
In the mid-1960s, Fromm concluded that a person could not be a healthy, fully functioning person without strong self-esteem and he associated self-esteem with self-love. American psychologists and therapists embraced a theme of “be good to yourself.”
Ministers and pastoral counselors then associated this concept with Jesus’s second great command, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The common pastoral advice became “love your neighbor but you will need first to love yourself.”
I have a distinctively different interpretation since I believe that while understanding the Bible and finding new applications for our own day are important, interpreters need to be very careful to respect the context and intent of the original writer.
The roots of the command to love neighbors come from an era when the tribe/clan was the unit of social thinking and understanding. Tribes were either still nomads or newly settled in lands claimed by the tribe for farming. Clashes between tribes were frequent and bitter.
According to Old Testament tradition, Yahweh, the God of the Israelites, had a better way. If a neighboring tribe would bow down to Yahweh, the neighboring tribe was to be loved as a part of the Israelite clan.
When examining the roots of the command, the unit of understanding was not a single self, but a clan/tribe unit. People of the ancient Near East did not see a single person as a primary social unit. In fact, being absorbed with self-interest was seen as deadly.
This is illustrated by the ancient Greek myth about Narcissus, who was a young, very handsome man and became completely absorbed by his own good looks. One day crossing a bridge, he stopped and looked at the calm waters below, which reflected his image perfectly. He was so captivated by his own image that he could not pull himself away from gazing at how handsome he was. Narcissus died looking at his own image.
Today, narcissism is a psychiatric diagnosis for those who have a fixation on themselves. But the sayings of Jesus warned us about such a preoccupation with self, urging selflessness not selfishness. “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all,” Jesus said. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up a cross.”
Another passage noted: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies it brings forth much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who loses his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
In the 13th Century, Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas considered self-love a capital vice, since self-love is rooted in pride and pride is the beginning of all sin.
What Was Love?
Jesus left the world with a series of commands to love. The first was to love God. The second was to love neighbors. The third was to love one another. The fourth was to love enemies. He made no mention of self-love. When we examine these commands, we also are forced to the conclusion that love is not an emotion.
In the tradition of Jesus and his roots in Judaism, love is a decision, a commitment that is many times contrary to our feelings. Love is shown by behavior, especially in the doing of good to everyone, even our enemies.
Christians need to shake off the impact of the wrong-headed psychology of the last half of the 20th Century if they are to understand what Jesus meant. The Biblical meaning of love is not to be associated with self-esteem. Rather, Christians are called upon to embrace love as a gift that we choose to give to the world but never to self.
In that sense, America’s self-absorption with its own might and power is the seed-bed of national destruction. Not surprisingly, in America the diagnosis of narcissism is on the rise.
Accompanied by well-meaning Christians, America finds itself standing on a bridge alongside Narcissus, looking down in awe of its national reflection and becoming immobilized by its grandeur. We are fixated by our own glorious image, forgetting what happened to Narcissus.
The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.