What Jesus Meant about Love

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.

Jesus delivering his Sermon on the Mount, depicted by 19th Century artist Carl Heinrich Bloch.

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.”

Different View

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 hdbss@mtaonline.net.   

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14 comments on “What Jesus Meant about Love

  1. jerry gates on said:

    Howard Bess puts self love as commanded by Jesus in it’s proper contexts as regards nation states, the United States his described “self” he sees the nation as fixated on it’s own “image” as infallibly beautiful and as such the narcissists disease festers in American political circles while Jesus sits humbly kicked to the curb of the nation ruled by AIPAC, derelict generals and self absorbed Barbie and Ken Bankers class barons of hedonism.

    Selling the American psyche down this river of mockery, always of supposed lesser “others” ,has been the rote fall back of many if not most public domain publications and TV news outlets post 911 in recent times and post world war two relativly speaking, WW2 iced over the humility of a formerly staid and centrist nation, the influx of Talmudist Zionism continued to erode the Jesus character from US discourse as weapons of mass destruction amassed in the militarists arsenals and push up bras, self indulgent consumerism and delusional grandiosity of megalomaniacs infiltrated the think tanks of the bourgeois while Jesus dearly beloved poor became too expensive for the robber classes tastes. Jesus kicked to the curbs of the mainstream medias yet seethes in righteous indignation in the hearts of underclasses burgeoning ire now directed by histrionic hacks, Walter Cronkite, Jesus. and the colt and palm frond path to Jerusalem are abandoned to a food fight between the crats and the GOP’s media darlings obfuscations: sins of omission,attrition, commission and derision are committed by a modified dunce social order unable to extricate itself from it;s cocoon of grand delusion.

    To illustrate the depth of this devilish selfishness’embeddment in US media and nationalistic cultures one need only watch Fox of read Huffposts headlines to understand that their is scant room at these inns for the poor and Gucci class goodie bags sold to the rich which in contrast show perhaps in the starkest of terms whom is humbling oneself and worthy of elevation and whom elevates oneself and worthy of debasement. The markets of Keynes dreamscape are sucking the life out of America by slow burning vanities of it’s security,plutocracy complex’s war on terror, not noticing that their spectacularly exposed naked aggression is a freak show to most sane human beings in “other” countries and cultures but as yet Israeli toned zionist Talmudism have pushed Jesus far beyond the American borgois’ curbs where solace for the savior is found in Muslims arms more so now than in any US christian nationalist hearts and minds, whom obviously choose money over humility and love. A nation bound by it’s Jewish ruling classes obsessions with self determination has booted Jesus clear of it’s institutions perhaps forever into the arms of those who appreciate Love Thy Neighbor as a commandment, not a suggestion.

    • scribble on said:

      Is this candy-coated Fascist anti-Jewish hooey?

      Really. I can’t tell. But it smells like that.

      Anybody know?

  2. Yet another soft conversion ploy by Consortium’s favorite God person.

    Imaginary hippie Jesus and “teachings” attributed to him are not original.

    Most are logical and obvious but an imaginary Jewish origin and tweaking abound with a concocted connection with a Mommy & Daddy God in the sky.

    Much more pertinent and interesting is what Erich Fromm said about Israel and why it is/was as usual “silenced”.

    Fromm criticizing the Zionist assertion that Palestine is the land of the Jews, noting: “The principle holds that no citizen loses his property or his rights of citizenship and the citizenship right is de facto a right to which (Palestinians in Israel) have much more legitimacy than the Jews…. If all nations would suddenly claim territories in which their forefathers lived two thousands years ago, this world would be a madhouse.” (Jewish Letter, February 9, 1959)

    http://peacepalestine.blogspot.com/2005/08/bertrand-russell-on-palestinian.html

  3. Jesus was not the first prophet who preached; “love your neighbor as yourself”. It was message of all biblical prophets and some of the founders of non-Abrahamic religions, such as Lord Buddha and Guru Nanak. However, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) commanded more than that. He said that a Muslim should make sure that his next-door neighbor had food on his table and the sick members of neighbor’s taken care of.

    Most Christians don’t study Bible – therefore, they’re unaware of the fact that the Bible not only insults prophets and women but also criminalizes Hebrew (so-called modern day Jews) people. Late Dr. Robert Funk, an international authority on the New Testament, had claimed that only 20% of statements attributed to Jesus in the NT, were actually said by Jesus.

    Historically, the modern-day Christianity has very little to do with Christ’s teachings. It’s built on St. Paul’s teachings. German Christian-turned-Atheist philosopher and author, Friedrich Nietzsche (d. 1900) was a strong critic of religions especially Christianity for destroying other civilizations.

    “One needs but read any of the Christian agitators, for example, St. Augustine, in order to realize, in order to smell, what filthy fellows came to the top …… Christianity destroyed for us the whole harvest of ancient civilization, and later it also destroyed for us the whole harvest of Mohammedan civilization. The wonderful culture of the Moors in Spain, which was fundamentally nearer to us and appealed more to our senses and tastes than that of Rome and Greece, was trampled down…. Let us put aside our prejudices! The crusades were a higher form of piracy, nothing more! The German nobility, which is fundamentally a Viking nobility, was in its element there: the church knew only too well how the German nobility was to be won . . . The German noble, always the “Swiss guard” of the church, always in the service of every bad instinct of the church–but well paid…..“

    http://rehmat1.com/2012/06/25/mumbai-the-miracle-of-the-weeping-cross/

  4. Well you don’t have to be a Christian to know you have to love yourself or know yourself to be able to truly love another or accept them unconditionally. Jesus meant exactly this. He started with the premise that all living beings should know or perceive that they are loved by their Creator then should translate that love into accepting who they are and who they were made to be. Only then are we able to transfer that love to a neighbor. The rich young man asked Jesus “who is my neighbor” because he was hung up on the outer man, i.e. nationality, race, gender, religion and Jesus rightly judged that the man did not have love of self or neighbor. He asked the man to give up something standing in the young man’s path to self-love. That isn’t unusual for Him, but what you give up He will replace with something much more.

    The narcissist is about self grandisement or seeing yourself to be more than what you are. That is selfishness or putting yourself first.

    It’s okay to accept yourself and yes even love yourself AND even love your neighbor. Jesus meant exactly that when he said all things hinge on these three things, love God and love neighbor even as you love self.

    • David Hamilton on said:

      He also said one has to die to self to be one of his followers. One does not “love self”, i.e., ego or “outer man”, in Jesus’s teaching. He did not support any selfishness or narcissism if that is what “love yourself” supposedly means – those who do so perish (decay/decadent)in their soul.

      • Aaron Beauchamp on said:

        Jesus wants us to be good to ourselves, to be happy with who we are,what we are and the gifts He’s given us. There is no bigger enemy to ourselves than our own fallen nature, which is by nature mean, greedy, self-determined and selfish. Jesus has said that His yoke is humble, and He wants us to serve Him and others with joy, love and a genuine heart.

        Too often, we put too much on ourselves or push ourselves too hard, not realizing that we are to essentially “give ourselves a break.” This is part of what Jesus is talking about. We are to love ourselves, not “be in love” with ourselves.

        Thank you Lonzine, for your insight. You just ministered to me today….

  5. clarence swinney on said:

    ROMNEYCARE SHOW CASE
    ANTI CHRIST MORMON
    MITT ROMNEY
    Anti-Poor=Anti Christ
    Pro Rich=Anti Christ
    Swords into nukes=Anti Christ
    Romney:”My first act will be to defund Planned Parenthood.”
    PP prevents more abortions than any unit in America
    So call Mitt “King Of Abortions”
    PP gives preventative health care to millions of poor women
    Romney:”My first act will be to Repeal Obamacare” which Aids millions of the poor get preventative health care. Plus, it is same As Romneycare in Mass!! Hypocrite?

    Mitt is anti Food stamps—Anti Christ
    Mitt is anti Medicaid—Anti Christ

    Mitt is for the Rich and against the poor and middle class

    A vote for Mitt is a Vote against Jesus Christ
    Do you hear me Pastors of America?????

    A few Mormon Leadership quotes:

    “There is no salvation without accepting Joseph Smith” Doctrine of Salvation Vol 1, page 190
    “A more ignorant people never lived than the present so-called Christian world”. Brigham Young. Journal of Discourses 8:199
    “The Christian world, so called, are heathens as to the knowledge of the salvation of God.”
    Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 8:171

  6. Well you don’t have to be a Christian to know you have to love yourself or know yourself to be able to truly love another or accept them unconditionally. Jesus meant exactly this. He started with the premise that all living beings should know or perceive that they are loved by their Creator then should translate that love into accepting who they are and who they were made to be. Only then are we able to transfer that love to a neighbor.

    The rich young man asked Jesus “who is my neighbor” because he was hung up on the outer man, i.e. nationality, race, gender, religion and Jesus rightly judged that the man did not have love of self or neighbor. He asked the man to give up something standing in the young man’s path to self-love. That isn’t unusual for Jesus to ask, but what you give up He will replace with something much more.

    The narcissist is about self grandisement or seeing yourself to be more than what you are. That is selfishness or always putting yourself first.

    It’s okay and possible to accept yourself and yes even love yourself AND even love your neighbor(someone of a different religion, race, clan, etc.). Jesus meant exactly that when he said all things hinge on these three things, love God and love neighbor even as you love yourself.

  7. Morton Kurzweil on said:

    Love thy neighbor as thyself is nonsense. Knowledge through love is fundamental flaw of faith. Knowing because it feels right is not knowledge. It is the sense of certainty through the feeling of certainty.
    Any reasoning person would question such a source of knowing. The possibility of certainty is questionable at best.
    If Christ knew what he was talking about he would have revolutionized history by commanding to “Love thy God and respect thy neighbor as thyself. Were is the humility in knowing God’s purpose or God’s will? It is through this arrogance of knowing God that every religious and political leader has kept people in submission and slavery.

  8. Rev. Bess’ interpretation is, alas, not helpful at all. It is an intellectualized understanding, not a spiritual insight.

    The command to love one’s neighbor as oneself is better understood as a teaching to seek to see oneself as part of a whole of which one’s neighbor is a part. This explains the church teaching that we are in Jesus, part of His body.

    As cells within the larger body, what harms any of our neighbor directly harms us and whatever benefits our neighbor benefits us.

    So, this teaching is a mystical one: to seek the experience of oneness. Love flows directly and naturally from this experience. It is not our choice, but our essence.

    By love, Jesus meant love.

  9. gregorylkruse on said:

    Thank you Charles. You removed 90% of my need to comment. I’m afraid that Mr. Bess has begun to love himself too much, and overestimates his authority to correct Jesus. As you say, Charles, by love, Jesus meant love, not narcissism. I wonder if in his next article he might try to prove that Jesus was not gay.

  10. I think that modern psychology has the right understanding that in order to love others, one must first have a basic sense of self-love. If one does not basically love or respect oneself, then one cannot love or respect others, certainly not in any real or true way.

    I used to be a Christian but am not any more. I took seriously that Christianity was supposed to be about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ (who is supposedly living now), and that such a personal relationship is supposed to make a transforming difference in a person’s life.

    I found, after taking the Christian faith seriously for a period of about 15 years in my life, that my supposed personal relationship with Jesus Christ had been of no help to me in enabling me to better deal with any difficult or painful personal issue or circumstance in my life, or with anything that was a source of pain frustration, or unhappiness for me. That being the case, I have since parted company with the Christian faith, and specifically have absolved myself of any duties or obligations specifically imposed by the Christian faith (as opposed to those incumbent on any good or moral person), and I am as certain as I am of anything that this was the right and healthy thing for me to do (and I say this with due respect to anybody else who feels that being a Christian is the right thing for them).

    For me I felt that Christianity had imposed on me “should’s”, “supposed to’s”, “ought to’s”, duties, and obligations, but had never been of any help to me in enabling me to deal with any difficult issue or circumstance.

    That being the case I find myself not really caring much about what Jesus said or meant, or what he supposedly said or meant. The Bible was written by fallible human beings, and from what I can tell the Bible at its very best exhibits human fallibility and human prejudice just like anything else that has ever been written. And I do not regard the words, teachings, or actions of Jesus Christ to necessarily be the ultimate standard in wisdom, truth, or goodness. (There is some question as to whether Jesus really existed as a historical person; I don’t have anything to say about that as I have no more than a general knowledge of ancient or biblical history.)

    All that being said, there actually is some truth about the matter of giving of oneself for the benefit of others, which is not inconsistent with self-love in a healthy sense. Love, whether for oneself or for others, would mean wanting what is good or right or best either for oneself or for others. And part of what is really best for ourselves is transcending or going beyond focusing exclusively on ourselves and our own interests and desires. There is the example of the Red Sea and the Dead Sea.

    So I think it could be said that self-love, self-respect, and self-esteem, are things that are necessary but not sufficient.

  11. I’m glad I don’t believe in any of this.