I have heard, and I may yet again hear, sermons on the biblical command to love myself. Don’t look for it. It’s not in the Bible. It is extrapolated from the command that is clearly there “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 22:39). And there it is only an assumption: you do love yourself, you do take care of yourself. Now do the same for your neighbor. That’s the only reason this self-love is mentioned. It is like the “golden rule,” the one that says “do for others as you would have them do for you,” (e.g., Matthew 7:12), which assumes that you’re not looking for someone to knock you down and stomp on you.
“As yourself,” it seems, is no longer such a safe assumption. Now we think we have to explain it or justify it, and we might go so far as to make it a separate command, as in those sermons. But even that is likely not to make us take better care of ourselves, though it might make us more narcissistic. (I should mention along the way that this post will not return to “love your neighbor…,” but it will perhaps demonstrate how “as yourself” suffers in our analytical age.)
Is the problem that we take care of ourselves less than people at the time of Moses or Jesus did? Or is it that we talk more about our failures to take care of ourselves? Back then, obesity was a sign of prosperity, since few people could afford to overeat, and few needed to sit at desks all day. Now we have science telling us that obesity kills, statistics telling us that in many places obesity accompanies poverty more often than wealth and that we are as a people just too fat, and advertising and popular culture telling us that obesity is ugly and that it signifies that I am lazy, disgusting, and evil. In other words, and this applies to far more than obesity, we get it rubbed in our faces that we don’t care for ourselves well enough. I’m not sure which is worse, being convinced that I hate myself because I don’t get on the treadmill every day or being convinced that I hate myself because I think that about that failure (by whose standards?) too much. No wonder preachers occasionally think that self-love needs preaching, despite the Bible’s leaving the topic aside and even assuming that we do love ourselves.
We shouldn’t supply the Bible’s lack. It is easy to say that the problem with loving our neighbors as ourselves is that we love ourselves too little, but that’s not how it is. Eating too much and a lot of those other self-destructive activities are not signs that we don’t love ourselves. They are, rather, signs that we don’t know how to love ourselves. Okay, I do know that I should eat less, even if I don’t follow through on that knowledge. I overeat not because of lack of self-love but because of misguided or short-sighted self-love. The long-term benefits of celery are simply no match for the short-term benefits of chocolate-covered cream puffs. I do love myself. That’s why I go for the cream puff. In Woody Allen’s Sleeper, two twenty-second-century scientists have this exchange regarding a twentieth-century man they have charge of:
– This morning for breakfast he requested something called “wheat germ, organic honey and tiger’s milk.”
– Oh, yes. Those are the charmed substances that some years ago were thought to contain life-preserving properties.
– You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or hot fudge?
– Those were thought to be unhealthy — precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.
We are hard to convince because we know the cream puff brings such wonderful (though short-term) benefits and therefore is such a great demonstration of the love and care I have for myself.
Even if I hate myself (or if you hate yourself, for that matter), I (or you) will do it in a self-loving way. It is not that I don’t love myself. It is, rather, that my self-love is twisted into weird shapes by its need to coexist with knowledge that I really am an incomplete and downright wicked person. In other words, even while I am loving myself and taking care of myself, I am sometimes doing so in ways I know to be inadequate (the cream puff again), and I am at the same time avoiding looking at myself out of fear of acknowledging my unworthiness of anyone’s love, including my own. So we get odd contradictions like selfish self-loathing, self-centered humility or remorse, and the like.
Love never ends. Prophecies will go away, tongues will stop, and knowledge will go away. We know incompletely and prophesy incompletely, but when the perfect comes, the incomplete will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, thought as a child, figured things out as a child does. When I became an adult, I set aside the ways of a child.
Now I see dimly, in a mirror, but then I will see face to face. Now I know incompletely, but then I will know completely, just as I am already known completely. (1 Corinthians 13:8-12)
When love has been perfected and so has eliminated any need for the best that we can achieve in worship now (verses 8-11), then self-knowledge will also be completed, from my present looking in an ancient polished-brass mirror (not a much clearer modern silvered-glass mirror) to seeing myself as God already does see me (verse 12).
For now, it is a good thing not to see myself as God sees me. There must be something else that will happen that will make that tolerable, and perhaps it is that perfecting of my love for my neighbors, including my enemies. But for now I still tie on fig leaves before I go out (Genesis 3:7), I give only a glance at a distorted mirror, and I remember old dreams and regrettable deeds selectively and creatively rather than exactly. I shrink away from resolving my contradictions. I don’t want to see myself, and I am like most people in that way. A preacher told me recently that he always watches the video recordings of his preaching. “That way, if I repeatedly touch my left ear, I know it as well as an attentive listener/watcher in the first row. And if I betray uneasiness at my interpretation of a particular verse, I know it.” That must be painful (“You bet it is,” he said), but worse yet to have a camera on my love for my neighbor or enemy. I have heard that final judgment will involve just that sort of thing: watching the recording of every moment of my life (for example). I doubt that it will, but the thought does clarify just what God’s grace in accepting me involves.