John Elliott Lein

Writer, Artist, Designer and Theology Nerd


Love Yourself

LoveJ. Elliott LeinComment
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
— Mark 12:31 (NRSV)

One of my favorite restaurants, the Taqueria El Rancho, is just a short stroll from my office. I often walk past the local United Methodist Church when I pick up food there, and they have had Jesus's famous two-part commandment on their two-sided sign out front for the past few months (sure beats the puns!).

I've heard these verses so many times that it seems I've never really thought about the actual words much until the other day. I was on yet another jaunt up the hill to get my usual (two beef enchiladas, add one cheese, with the best rice and beans) when I re-read that sign once more, and started thinking about what it really meant.

"Love God, love others"?

Sure, love is a theme. Simplifying the commandments down to "Love God, and love others" is a short and catchy summary. And I definitely affirm that concept.

However, this time it was the second half of that second commandment that really caught my eye: "you shall love your neighbor as yourself".

What does it mean to love your neighbor as yourself? Is it simply a moral standard that says you should think of how you would like to be treated and use that bar to treat others? Or is there something more there? After all, some people's ideas of being treated well might not really work for me, and vice versa.

Listen to others to know how to treat them well?

Maybe we could extend the idea to say that the standard to which we should treat people should be based on equivalent results. That is, if I want to treat someone with respect, to give them dignity, and make them feel loved, I should endeavor to find out what actions would communicate this to that person.

Certainly this is widely regarded as important in marriages and relationships – don't assume that what you like is what the other person likes. You have to spend time with that person. You have to ask questions, and listen. Listen more than talk, or assume.

I'm reminded also of the training I received in cross-cultural communications when we left to be missionaries in Germany. We learned that respect and love are communicated in radically different ways in different cultures and contexts. Listening, learning, and attempting to understand life from a different perspective are crucial in these situations (whether overseas, or simply with someone raised in a different family!).

Can we apply that understanding to random strangers we meet in person or hear about online? To seek to understand and listen first, instead of assume? We can definitely try, and it would be great! Yet, there's one more level to this seemingly-simple commandment that I started thinking about.

Love Yourself

"Love your neighbor as you love yourself" implies that the love you give out to your neighbor is equal to or based on the love you have for yourself. If you do not love yourself, if you do not understand yourself to be loved/lovable at a deep level apart from any relationship or context or action, how can you love someone else to that same level?

Tonight I saw a tweet from Nathan Hamm that got me thinking about this whole topic again:

People who condemn others for
sexual sin are often
guilty of deep, dark sexual sin.

It's projection, not morality.
Hypocrisy, not holiness.
     — @NathanHamm

Nathan's premise has some concrete accuracy, as we've seen time and again in scandals emerging around some of the most condemning voices. I don't believe everyone is in this boat, knowing that I have made condemning statements without a "deep, dark sexual sin".

I think rephrasing slightly to "People who condemn others for sexual sin often feel guilty of deep, dark sexual sin" encompasses a greater range of people, and gets closer to the core issue. Focus on the word "guilt" as an internal story instead of an external one. If you have been given the narrative that your identity is inherently and completely sinful (one term some people use is "Total Depravity"), and if you've been given very tight limits to what is considered "ok" around sex (especially if merely looking at someone is a sin), then you probably have difficulty believing that you are loved, and that you can love yourself.

If you internally condemn yourself, if your internal narrative is focused more on sin and punishment than on grace and love, then that is naturally the way you may treat others. Consciously or unconsciously, you may not be being a hypocrite, because you are constantly doing the same thing to yourself.

Love Your Neighbor as Yourself

As Jesus said, we must take care of the log in our eyes before turning to the dust mote in our brother's eye. Maybe some people who condemn others frequently have not been able to accept love from others, from God, and their internal monologue is reflected in their outward speech. I believe this to be true for myself, though I'm working on trusting in that love.

So, if you hear people around you doing condemning (of yourself or others), or maybe hear yourself doing it, remember that Jesus tells us we need to accept our status as loved creations of God, and love ourselves, before we can begin to follow his command to love others.