Getting Love Right (2)
Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And thesecond is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 22.37-40
The foci of love
We love as God intends when our desire is to realize His presence for beauty, goodness, and truth. God is beauty, and to love Him is to enter His beauty, for immeasurable delight, fullness of joy, and every holy pleasure (Ps. 27.4; Ps. 16.11). God is good, and to love Him is be immersed in His goodness, clothed in it, equipped with it, and made ready for every good work (Matt. 19.17; 2 Tim. 3.16, 17; Tit. 2.11-14). God is truth (Jn. 14.6), and truth sets us free from the fears, follies, and failures of sin (Jn. 8.32), so that we may walk in the light of truth as Jesus is true (1 Jn. 2.1-6).
To love our neighbors in this way is to bring the reality of the living God into their situation, whatever may be their situation, so that they are impinged upon by a power not of this world, which woos and beckons them to seek its provenance and presence. When we love our neighbors with the love we learn in God’s presence, we want them to experience what we experience of God and His love. And loving them this way confirms us in the love of God, making us more ready and willing to love at the next opportunity.
Thus we love ourselves when we love our neighbors with the love of God, for by loving thus we grow in that love, and in all the blessing and bounty God in His presence and power can bring into and through our lives, even beyond anything we may ever previously have known (Eph. 3.20).
Love God with the love you learn in His presence, then proffer that love to your neighbors, so that you may increase in it yourself. These are the proper foci of this greatest affection.
Love of self
The danger, of course, is that love of self, while entirely proper when understood and pursued as I have outlined, can too easily assert itself as the ultimate and defining focus of love. We are called to love God first, with all our soul and strength, and next to love our neighbor. But we only truly love our neighbor when our desire is for our neighbor to know the beauty, goodness, and truth of God. We do not love our neighbor when we see him as a means for satisfying some personal longing, when, that is, we use our neighbor as a way of loving ourselves first, and God and our neighbor second, if at all.
It is not always easy to notice when self-love has burst its legitimate restraints and is beginning to trample or pervert all other affections in the name of mere self-interest. We must exercise continuous vigilance against this happening, or we will not be getting love right even as we protest love for our God and our neighbors.
The tendency for loving self first is fueled by the law of sin, which is at work in everyone (Rom. 7.21-23), coaxed by spiritual powers of wickedness in high places (Matt. 4.1-11), and encouraged by the narcissistic and self-serving spirit of our times. We live in a day in which, as one writer put it, “narcissism is the new herpes. It’s not like you got it on purpose, you were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and now everyone’s pointing fingers and trying to pretend they don’t have it, too. Hence the blame game. You’re so self-involved. Can you think of anything but your self? What’s that horrible smell? It’s you” (Laura Kipnis, “Narcissism: A Reflection,” Spiked, January, 2017). In such an environment, when it can seem that self-love – “looking out for number 1” as Robert Ringer put it – is just the way things are, believers in Jesus can be turned from a right understanding and proper use of love to manifest a form of self-love run amok that can deceive even them into thinking that all is well with their souls.
Keeping self-love in check
We need to be on guard against all manifestations of self-love that go beyond the proper bounds of such love as God has assigned them. We love ourselves as we should when we are seeking only to increase in love for God and our neighbors. All other love of self is mere narcissism. Worse, unbridled self-love is a form of idolatry, in that it seeks to gain for self the attention, admiration, adulation, and honor that are proper to God alone.
So how can we guard our hearts with all diligence against unbridled self-love? First, by immersing ourselves in the Word of God. All the Law and Prophets, and all the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament, teach us the proper manifestations of love, and guide us into the power of God for loving God, our neighbors, and ourselves. Reading, meditating in, and study of the Bible is the sine qua non for loving as God intends. If we will not give ourselves to this discipline, we will be vulnerable to the law of sin, the enemy of our souls, and the winds of wrong thinking, and unbridled self-love will rear its ugly head and take command of our hearts.
But we also need to linger before the Lord in prayer, waiting on Him to search our hearts (Ps. 139.23, 24), settle His Word within our souls, and illuminate the path before us each day, so that we may increase in the experience of God’s love and prepare ourselves in advance for such opportunities of loving others as may present in the day ahead (cf. Ps. 90.12, 167).
Finally, we must practice the presence of God with us, by His Spirit, so that the words and deeds that come from us will express the love He has for us and those around us, and can keep self-love in its proper place and for its proper uses.
Keeping our hearts diligently for love is thus a continuous challenge, and we must master those disciplines that will allow us to keep self-love in check, so that true love may flourish in us at all times.
1. How do you experience each day the love God has for you? What difference does that make in how you regard others?
2. How can you keep more consistently in mind the ends of beauty, goodness, and truth when faced with opportunities to love others?
3. How would you describe the state of your disciplines in working to keep self-love in check?
Next steps – Conversation: How can we know when self-love is bursting its proper restraints? Talk with another Christian about this question.
T. M. Moore
This is part 3 of a multi-part series on Keeping the Heart. To download this week’s study as a free PDF, click here.
The Lord uses your prayers and gifts to help us in this ministry. Add us to your regular prayer list, and seek the Lord concerning whether He would have you share with us. You can contribute to The Fellowship of Ailbe by using the contribute buttonat the website, or send your gift to The Fellowship of Ailbe, 19 Tyler Drive, Essex Junction, VT 05452.
Where does the heart, and all the soul, fit in our Christian worldview? Our free online course, One in Twelve: Introduction to Christian Worldview, shows you how to understand the workings of your soul in relation to all other aspects of your life in Christ. For more information and to register, click here.
For a deeper study of the spiritual life, register for our course, Introduction to Spiritual Theology, and discover more of the presence, promise, and power of God’s Kingdom for your life, your church, and the times in which we live. The course is free, and you can learn more or register by clicking here.
Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.