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Loving Yourself Truly

There are only two great commandments, not three.

Advice to Preachers and Teachers (4)

Now the purpose of the commandment is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from sincere faith… 1 Timothy 1.5

“Thus man should be instructed concerning the way of loving, that is, concerning the way of loving himself properly. To doubt that he loves himself and desires to improve himself is madness. But he must be instructed in how he should love his body so that he may care for it in an ordinate and prudent way…‘Thou shalt love,’ He said, ‘the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind.,’ and ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments dependeth the whole law and the prophets.’ ‘Now the end of the commandment is charity,’ and this is twofold: a love of God and a love of your neighbor.”

  - Augustine, On Christian Doctrine

Natural-born narcissists
At first glance, Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 22.34-40 may appear to entail three commandments: Love God, love your neighbor, love yourself. We are sometimes encouraged with the idea that loving ourselves is important, and we need to spend as much time doing that as the others. Secular psychology in particular believes loving oneself to be a fundamental human duty.

Do we really need help learning to love ourselves? The rampant narcissism of our day suggests that loving ourselves comes as easily to us as getting out of bed in the morning. Maybe even a little easier than that. We are naturally inclined to think of ourselves first, care for our own needs before those of others, and ponder what’s in our best interests rather than seek out the needs and concerns of others. Naturally, this makes us feel good about ourselves, and, in many churches, feeling good about yourself is a primary motivation for preaching and teaching.

The problem is not that we don’t love ourselves. The problem is that we love ourselves wrong. Paul said that, if we had the mind of Christ working in us, we would deny ourselves, submit to God’s eternal Word and will, look for ways to serve others, and fix our hope on the eternal glory of living always in the Presence of the Lord with gladness (Phil. 2.1-11).

If we are not careful in our preaching and teaching, we can lead those we teach to think more highly of themselves than they ought by pursuing a narrow self-interest in the name of hoping to know more of Jesus’ love. We can so urge them to feel good about themselves “in the Lord” that they carefully guard their delicate egos against anything that might disrupt their comfort or convenience. Such as obeying the Lord’s command to take up our cross and follow Him.

This is not the way to instruct God’s people in the kind of self-love Jesus had in mind.

Three commandments?
Dr. Stan Gale reminds us, “Caution is called for in promoting love among the flock. Our Lord summarizes the Law in terms of two commandments: love God; love neighbor. Humanistic psychology, however, sees three commandments: love God; love neighbor; love self. The reasoning goes that, if we are to love God and love neighbor properly, we must first love self. The upshot is that two commandments become three, and the third is elevated as primary.”

Self-love as a third love is not what Augustine was writing about. Like Jesus, he took it for granted that we love ourselves. He insisted – again, with Jesus – that we could only do that properly by loving God with all our soul and strength, and loving our neighbor with the overflow of that love. We love ourselves truly when loving God and neighbors are the defining loves of our lives.

Stan Gale continues: “Jesus, however, specifically designates two commandments, the second to love neighbor assuming an innate love for self. Paul applies the same principle when he says: ‘[H]usbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it’ (Eph. 5.28-29). Perhaps it is as we train our flock to focus their energies on loving God with the entirety of their being, and loving their neighbors in keeping with the Golden Rule of treating others as they themselves would want to be treated, that Christ will be formed in them.”

And right there, it seems to me, is the key to all true and proper love.

No shortcuts to love
The road to a life of loving God and our neighbors leads through the life, death, resurrection, and reign of King Jesus. Love is not something we prescribe – a formula for a successful marriage, say, or a checklist of daily disciplines. Love is something we become, as God is love, and as Jesus explained in John 7.37-39. Love flows life-giving water out of the innermost depths of the person whose life is filled with all the fullness of God. As we increase in love for God, filling with the joy of our salvation and the power and Presence of His Spirit, we naturally empty ourselves in love for others, and are filled with the satisfaction of seeing Jesus at work within us, willing and doing of His good pleasure (Phil. 2.13).

The wise preacher or teacher will never tire of leading his charges into greater love for God by relentlessly leading them to see Jesus everywhere in His Word and His world. Keeping self-love in check, and harnessing it for loving others, depends on seeing God in all His greatness, majesty, beauty, glory, immensity, kindness, goodness, bounty, and love, and on communing with God through praise and thanksgiving. This is how we lay hold on the promises – which are all “Yes!” and “Amen!” in Jesus – and partake of the essence of God Himself, which is love (2 Pet. 1.4; 2 Cor. 1.20; 1 Jn. 4.8).

There are no shortcuts to a life of love. Coming to Jesus in His Word, meditating on His grandeur and glory, seeking His face, participating in Him by His Spirit, and increasing in the knowledge of God through Him are the keys, not only to true and proper self-love, but to all the love God commands of us, beginning with love for Himself, and overflowing to the love-starved world around us.

Whatever we preach, and whatever we may be teaching, we must never lose sight of this two-fold aim. Preaching and teaching are about declaring Jesus and leading His people to see Him. They are about meeting Jesus and communing with Him in His Word, and being transformed by His Spirit into His very own image (2 Cor. 3.12-18). Then we will increase in love for God and neighbor as the Law commands and Jesus embodies. And then we will love ourselves with the pure, self-denying, God-glorifying love of Jesus.

Preaching and teaching which do not go this far simply do not go far enough. And while we may please people’s ears with concise statements of doctrine, catchy phrases for a better life, or consolations of forgiveness and spiritual comfort, we will not accomplish the end of all Christians instruction, which is to bring people to Jesus, that both they and the Body of Christ may increase in love.

Ascend the mountain and see the end. Christ is the mountain; come to him, and from there you will see the end of all perfection. What is the end? Ask Paul, “Now the purpose of this charge is charity, from a pure heart and a pure conscience and faith unfeigned,” and in another place, “love is the fulfillment of the law.” … Therefore, whatever you do, do it for the love of Christ, and let the intention or end of all your actions look to him. Do nothing for the sake of human praise, but everything for love of God and the desire for eternal life.

  - Caesarius of Arles (470-543), Sermons 137.1

For reflection
1. What is your approach to making sure all your preaching and teaching leads to Jesus?

2. How can you tell when the people you serve are being formed into the very image of Jesus Christ?

3. How can preachers and teachers encourage one another to keep the two-fold aim of instruction in mind in all their preparations and labors?

T. M. Moore

For a cogent review and handbook for preparing to preach and teach, order a copy of our book,
Text to Transformation, by clicking here. Our book, The Joy and Rejoicing of My Heart, provides an overview of the whys, hows, and results of the ministry of the Word (click here). You can find books by Dr. Stan Gale at his online bookstore (click here).

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Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, quotes from Church fathers are from The Ancient Christian Commentary Series (InterVarsity Press).

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
Books by T. M. Moore

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