We’re all familiar with the famous biblical command, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” It’s well-known because Jesus said it. In Matthew 22, a lawyer wanted to test Jesus, so he asked him, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” He said the first and greatest commandment is to love God with everything in your being. Then Christ added that a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” He wasn’t inventing this commandment, but simply quoting it from Leviticus 19:18 and putting it in its proper place. Following his example, we find Paul and James quoting Leviticus 19:18 elsewhere in the New Testament. New Testament Christians have long recognized that loving your neighbour as yourself is a permanent demand of God’s moral law.
But what does it mean to love your neighbour as yourself? In this command, the focus is on your neighbour. However, today many flip it around and turn the focus on you. Some even go so far as to say this is a command for us to love ourselves. However, that’s not the case. Rather, the commandment here assumes you do love yourself. It assumes that as being normal or typical. But then we need to ask: what does “loving yourself” mean here?
Let’s start with what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean having warm, fuzzy feelings of affection for yourself. It doesn’t mean you’re feeling like you need to send a Valentine to yourself each year on the 14th of February. If all that were the case, we’d have to say Paul was wrong in Romans 7:24 when he said, “Wretched man that I am!” Scripture encourages us to have an accurate view of ourselves. We’re to be humble and recognize that we are poor, miserable sinners.
When the Holy Spirit says, “Love your neighbour as yourself,” he is assuming we already love ourselves in a sense that’s different from affectionate feelings for ourselves. What he means is that we normally do what we can to avoid being hurt. If you step on a nail, you’re going to pull that nail out of your foot. We normally do what we can to avoid being uncomfortable. If you’re cold at night, you’re going to pull a blanket over you. If you’re dehydrated and your lips are parched, you’re going to look for water to drink. The love for self assumed here as being normal is really what we call self-preservation. Normally, people take care of themselves. You want to avoid pain and discomfort. That’s normal – we can grant that there are abnormal situations where people pursue pain or discomfort, self-harm, even suicide. But self-preservation is the normal, typical human behaviour.
So just as we take care of ourselves, we’re to take care for those around us as well. Just as we try to keep ourselves from pain and hurt, so we ought to do the same for others. We ought to be looking not only to our own needs, but also to the needs of those whom God has placed in our lives. That’s the basic meaning of the commandment to love others as you love yourself. The so-called Golden Rule captures the essence of it. Jesus said in Luke 6:31, “And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.” That’s what it means to love your neighbour as yourself. Treat others as you want to be treated and as you treat yourself. That’s God will for our lives. It’s not something we do to earn our standing with God. Instead, it’s a thankful response to the standing we already have with God by grace and only through what Christ has done. It’s also not something we can do in our own power. Loving others in God’s way can only be done with God’s Spirit. So, if you’re like me and see that there’s a lot of ways you could improve in loving others as you love yourself, that’s something for which to pray. I can assure you that’s a prayer that God loves to hear and one which he’ll answer.