Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Jesus' New Command: Why Loving Our Neighbors As We Love Ourselves Is Not Enough (John 13,15)

John 13-17 is John's last lengthy recorded conversation of Jesus talkining to his disciples. Judas has left to betray Jesus; time is short. These chapters give us a condensed focus: “Remember this.” While Jesus highlights a number of different themes from these chapters, my focus is on what he had to say about loving others well.

One of Jesus’ most famous teachings is, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). This was a brilliant distillation of all 600+ Old Testament laws. If you do the first properly, the second should follow naturally. If you don’t do the second, it’s a pretty good indication that you aren’t doing the first well either.[1] This summary of the law raises two immediate questions.
  • “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus’ response is the famous Parable of the Good Samaritan. Everybody is your neighbor, even those you most dislike for religious and cultural reasons.[2]
  • What does it mean to love your neighbor “as yourself”?  Didn’t Jesus just say we have to die to ourselves? How does this work? And there may be an even more haunting question that comes with this: “What if I don’t love myself? Does this mean I can’t love other people?”
So let’s talk about what it means to love ourselves.

We all love ourselves in the sense that we consistently desire and strive for our own self-interested fulfillment or goals. It is the conscious or unconscious motive of all of us. We are the primary focus in our lives. We are the one to whom we are most committed. In people with an inordinate amount of pride, this is obvious. In people who lack a sense of self-esteem or self-worth, this is not so obvious even though it is still present. The one wallowing in self-debasement and self-rejection still has the self as the focus of their attention, time and emotion as much as those who love themselves. For both the self-satisfied and the self-loathing, their focus betrays their deepest level of commitment. In this sense all people love themselves.

Of course, the ‘love of self’ is not necessarily a bad thing - depending on what we understand that to mean.
  • The Bible teaches that God created us in Him image, so there is a value, worth and dignity to all of us. If we don't have some measure of appreciation or recognition of this, and we don't think and act in ways that promote our flourisning and that honor this reality, then we are not seeing ourselves biblically.
  • We see the love of self assumed and accepted in the Old Testament. In Leviticus 19, God gives a list of actions that his people should and should not do: don’t lie, steal or cheat; take care of the poor; don’t show favoritism; pay good wages; don’t mock the deaf and blind; take care of immigrants, etc). Twice God summarizes: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” (verses 18 and 34). In other words, you would want others to do this for you. Why? You think you are important, that you matter, and that you deserve justice and mercy. In this sense you love yourself because you think you ought to be valued. As you would have done to you (because you think you matter), do to others - they matter too.
  • We see this in the New Testament as well. Christ's command to "love your neighbor as yourself" assumes that we clearly already love ourselves, and he doesn't say to stop. Paul argued in Ephesians 5 that each husband should love his wife as himself (5:33), "for no man ever hates his own flesh but nourishes and cherishes it" (5:29).
So, biblically speaking, a love of self is assumed and not condemned. Emotional and spiritual health will include a proper understanding of our value, worth and dignity as image bearers of God; how we view ourselves is important, because how we love others is intertwined with how we love ourselves.
The problem is the degree and the manner in which we love ourselves. Paul warned in 2 Timothy 3:1-2 of "perilous times" when people will love themselves (“preoccupied with their own selfish desires”[3]).  He was not giving new biblical insight into human psyche. He was warning about an inordinate love of self that sacrifices everyone else. [4]

In his condensed version of the Law, Jesus was not commanding us to learn how to love ourselves so we could better love others. Achieving self-love was not the point in God’s Law or in Jesus’ command: it was the assumed default. He was commanding that people who obviously are self-centered and self-interested act in a way that promotes and supports the interests and good of those around them. Greg Laurie provides a great summary:

“When Scripture says, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ it is not saying, ‘First learn to love yourself, and then love your neighbor.’ Rather, it is saying, ‘It is obvious you already love yourself. Love your neighbor in the same way.’”[5]

This raises a new dilemma. Perhaps our idea of what it means to love ourselves is terribly flawed. Matt Chandler likes to say that we don’t lie to anyone more than we lie to ourselves. Similarly, it may well be true that of all the people who love us, we are the worst - not because we hate ourselves but because we don’t actually know how to love ourselves well.
  • Have you ever pampered yourself when you should have been more disciplined, and as a result what felt good and rewarding in the moment bogged you down in the long run?
  • Have you ever followed your heart when you should have followed your head, and what you thought would make you happy blew up and hurt you?
  • Have you ever ignored good advice because it was hard and the boundaries would rob you of freedom – only to find out later that those boundaries were exactly what you needed to keep you from becoming enslaved to sinful habits?
  • Have you ever surround yourself with friends who only told you what you wanted to hear about how to live your life, and that echo chamber was so nice - until the shame and guilt of what they encouraged caught up with you?
In all these cases, we were convinced that we knew the best way to love ourselves and our lives, but our understanding of what it meant to love was terribly flawed. Is it any wonder we have a hard time loving others well if the standard is “as you love yourself”?  

Lest you think Jesus messed something up here by giving a bad teaching, see the context. When Jesus condensed the Law into “Love God and love others as you love yourself,” he was honoring the Law as the Law : “This is how you can understand what God has revealed to you so far”.  And as I pointed out, Jesus is calling them out of self-centeredness.

But Jesus was constantly making statements of contrast: “You have heard the Law say this…but I say.”  The Law was good but incomplete; Jesus showed the fulfillment. There was a greater, deeper way of understanding almost everything in the law – and that included love.  In his final teaching to his disciples, Jesus completes His revelation by giving them what he calls a “new law” of what it means to fully love well in the Kingdom of God.


John 13:33-35. “33 My children, My time here is brief. You will be searching for Me; and as I told the Jews, “You cannot go where I am going.” 34 So I give you a new command: Love each other deeply and fully. Remember the ways that I have loved you, and demonstrate your love for others in those same ways. 35 Everyone will know you as My followers if you demonstrate your love to others…” 
John 15:12-13. “12 My commandment to you is this: love others as I have loved you. 13 There is no greater way to love than to give your life for your friends.”

So the Law insisted that you can’t just love yourself; you have to love others. That was step one. Jesus fulfills or completes this teaching by revealing that it is the way Jesus loved us, not the way we love ourselves, that is meant to guide us. So, what does that look like?

1. Christ-like love is sacrificial.

This is, I believe, the most profound aspect of the love of Jesus. After writing this gospel, John wrote several letters to the early church. We read in 1 John:


"Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him." (1 John 4:7-9 NIV)

In Jesus we see the ultimate (and unique) expression of the reality that the one who loves must die either physically or metaphorically.  Jesus did what no one else could in dying to atone for our sin and offer eternal salvation, but if we want to live with others in genuine, loving relationship, we are going to have to lay down our lives for them in some fashion. No one truly loves if they refuse to sacrifice for the one they love. We may not lay down our lives for the sake of the gospel or for others, but we are called to do it all the time in smaller ways. That’s hard enough, but it gets harder:


"But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' lend to 'sinners,' expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. " (Luke 6:27- 36 NIV)

If you are a follower of Jesus, these are non-negotiable. You must love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who persecute you, give of yourself without an expectation of a return, and be merciful and kind to the ungrateful and wicked.

You may have heard that there is a heated presidential race taking place this year in a nation where religious liberties are eroding and many of our cities are on the boiling point of civil unrest. Perhaps more than ever there is a sense of “us vs. them” permeating our culture, and Christians are increasingly perceived or portrayed – fairly or unfairly - as being on the side of anger, injustice and meanness.

Can you imagine how the national conversation might be going right now if Christians were known for their love? If we held each other accountable and said, “Brother/sister, are you loving the ones who you believe are your enemies?  Are you doing good to those who hate you? Are you offering prayers of blessing for those who curse you?”

The early church upended Roman culture by living radically self-sacrificial lives of love and service to each other and to the Romans. [6] They preached the gospel (at great cost), but they also cared for the poor, the sick, the slaves, and the outcasts to such a degree that the Roman anger and contempt shows up in their historian’s writing. They first permeated and then transformed the Roman world with a love that embodied the love of Christ.

Christians have never brought about positive and lasting cultural change through anger and despair. It’s always been through hope, grace and love.[7] When we love others as God loves us, His name is glorified; His reputation is made great; the true beauty of His spiritual Kingdom is shown to a world in need of hope and redemption.

2. Christ-like love is not conditional.

No one had to be good enough to come to Jesus. While they were dead in our sins, Christ died for them as he does for us (Ephesians 2). He took tax collectors who were pawns of the Romans, soldiers who were part of the oppressors, prostitutes, Samaritans who were of Jewish heritage but worshipped idols, fishermen, carpenters, the religiously arrogant, the humble and sincere… he offered the Kingdom of Heaven to them all.

If we are to love others like Christ loves us, we must offer the kind of love that does not require someone to be good enough before we love them.  This is not a naïve love that overlooks the reality of people’s lives. We all have baggage, and wisdom requires that the love we offer is guided by boundaries for their sake and ours. This is not a love that compromises on truth and holiness; love doesn’t enable sin.

When we offer unconditional love, we cannot merely commit to the good of other people only when they reach a condition we deem acceptable.  It must be offered while they are, in some sense, still deeply unacceptable.  If you have ever been the recipient of this kind of love, you know how beautiful it is.  There is a freedom in being able to say, “I’m not good enough,” and having someone say in return, “I know. And yet I love you.“ There is peace; there is safety; there is hope.

3. Christ-like love is tangible.

I like this quote from Teresa of Avila that captures a biblical principle of the role of Christians as “the body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12):


“Christ has no body on earth but yours. no hands but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion for the world is to look out. Yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good; and yours are the hands with which He is to bless us now.”

Words of love are often necessary, but they are not sufficient. Love must be shown.  Jesus did not spend his time talking about how compassionate he was. Jesus embodied it.  You can post articles and change your Facebook profile picture or march in solidarity for a cause, but if that’s all you do, what’s the point? Nobody benefits. Nobody’s life is changed. I’m not saying you should stop doing that, but it’s what you do in the ordinary moments of every day life that matter the most.

I can tell my son Vincent that I care about him until I’m blue in the face, but if I don’t play Munchkins with him or take him the Boardman or watch a movie with him, my words will be hollow. It’ s that tangible investment in his life that lights him up. That’s a reality that translates everywhere. We must be faithfully present, living out the principles to which we claim to adhere. It will be costly; it will be hard. It is also a crucial way in which God brings about transformation in and through you.

4. Christ-like love desires both justice and mercy.

Recently there has been a lot of coverage of shooting by and of police, as well as the shootings at the nightclub in Orlando and now Munich this past week. Those who love rightly desire that justice be done. If there is evil embedded in individual hearts, groups or systems, those who love cannot be silent or complacent.

And those who love are full of a hope that the presence and power of Jesus is strong enough to root out evil and injustice from the hearts and minds of everybody. The hope of the transformative power of the gospel includes the belief that victims can find justice, healing and peace - and that the perpetrators can be brought to repentance, forgiveness and holiness.

As Jesus was dying on a cross, he prayed for his killers: "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34) Jesus didn’t mean they were unintelligent. He said they didn’t understand. And this did not make Jesus rage – it made him grieve.

When is the last time you watched the news and prayed, “Oh, dear God, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing”? When is the last time the news made us grieve instead of rage?
We cannot isolate justice and mercy. If the only thing for which we pray and fight is justice, we will become heartless and vindictive. If the only thing for which we pray and strive is mercy, we will enable the very thing that breaks this world and our hearts.  We must pray for God’s righteous justice to roll down lest the world be overtaken by evil; we must simultaneously pray for Christ’s sweet mercy to rise in and through us for the same reason.[8]

And as we love like Christ, we begin to see the answer to the prayer Jesus told us to pray: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” There is hope that even on this side of heaven the reality of the Kingdom of God can impact the world. The more we appreciate and understand the love Jesus has for us, the more our ability to love is transformed, and the more we love other like Christ loved us. And in all this we will see how God has ordered His Kingdom for our good and His glory.
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[1] “If you say you love God and hate your brother, you are a liar.” (1 John 4:20)
[2] For more info on why the Jews and Samaritans hated each other, see “Faith, Like Water, Flows Downhill.” http://clgonline.org/grace-like-water-flows-downhill/
[3] http://biblehub.com/greek/5367.htm
[4] Remember: when we love, somebody dies. (“Dying To Live.” http://clgonline.org/dying-live-john-12/)
[5] http://www.christianpost.com/news/the-problem-with-self-esteem-130595/
[6] Read “A Love Without Condition.” http://www.earlychurch.com/unconditional-love.php
[7] “Lessons for Today’s Church from the Life of the Early Church.” http://coldcasechristianity.com/2014/lessons-for-todays-church-from-the-life-of-the-early-church/
[8] Check out a two-part series from Matt Chandler, “Justice and Racial Reconciliation” and “Justice and Law Enforcement.” You can listen to and read them at http://www.thevillagechurch.net/resources/sermons/.

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