Over the month of September, our church has been meditating on 1 Corinthians 13 and what it means to love. In preparation for last week’s sermon, I came across this quote by John Piper. In it he turns the therapeutic counsel of learning how to love yourself on its head. Instead of telling sinners whose greatest penchant is to love themselves, Piper points out how Jesus—who knew what was in a man’s heart (see John 2:23-25)—assumed that we already love ourselves and that we must learn to love others “as yourself.” Speaking of Matthew 22:39, Piper unpacks Jesus’ words,
Jesus says in effect: . . . You love yourselves. This is a given. I don’t command it; I assume it. All of you have a powerful instinct of self-preservation and self-fulfillment. You all want to be happy. You all want to love, and to live with satisfaction. You want food for yourself. You want clothes for yourself. You want a place to live for yourself. You want protection from violence against yourself. You want meaningful or pleasant activity to fill your days. You want some friends to like you and spend some time with you. You want your life to count in some way. All this is self-love. Self-love is the deep longing to diminish pain and to increase happiness.” That’s what Jesus starts with when he says ‘as yourself.'” (John Piper, What Jesus Demands of the World, 257).
Even to those who give testimony of hating themselves, the trouble is not that they don’t love themselves enough. The truth is, they love themselves too much and God too little. Instead of living on the love that God gives in Christ; they have poisoned themselves by living for the love of self. In the mad dash of self-love (a characteristic all children of Adam share), they have seen how unlovely they are. The solution—indeed the salvation—to this woeful predicament is not learning how to love yourself more. Such vain attempts at self-love were the cause of the problem in the first place. The solution is to look away from yourself and trust in the love of God. It is to stop looking in the mirror or the trophy case and to look to the cross and the right hand of God.
Interestingly, I would add that loving others ‘as yourself,’ ultimately fails without the strength that God supplies. Indeed, the call to love others is meant to expose our unlove, so that we can love with his strength. The command to love ‘as yourself’ gives us the ways we are to love—feeding, clothing, comforting, etc.—but it does not give us the strength to love others with endurance.
We must be loved if we are going to love. Praise be to God. This is what the gospel message tells us: While we were sinners, God sent his Son to die for us. This is love, not that we first loved him, but he first loved us.
Tragically, many “Christian” (!) counselors get this backwards and encourage people to love themselves more. Yet, calling self-centered sinner to love himself is like telling an alcoholic to drink himself sober. It won’t work!
We need God’s love to liberate us from self-love, and then we must lay down our lives to love others as ourselves. When we do this—looking away from ourselves to the love of God and then to others who we are called to love—it has a way of deflating our self-love and raising in our hearts a love for God and others.
May we learn to love others as ourselves by means of God’s lovingkindness being poured out into our hearts.
Soli Deo Gloria, dss