Learning to Love Better

Valentine’s Day is right around the corner, which means that love is in the air.

Or is it?

I ask the question because I’m convinced that love is one of the more widely defined–and misunderstood–concepts in our culture. And I’m far from the first person to point out that this time of year doesn’t always lend itself to the clearest thinking on the subject.

So when you get right down to it, what does it mean to love someone in God’s eyes?

We can only begin answering that question here, so I’ll concentrate on one of the Bible’s better known teachings regarding love. When Jesus is asked to identify the greatest commandment, he replies this way:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. (Matthew 22:37-40)

The second of those commands, that we’re to love our neighbor as ourselves, is likely a familiar one for most Christians. But I’m not sure how often we give much attention to what it actually involves. So, in the interest of helping us grow in our ability to love others, here are a few observations.

1. When we take the rest of the Bible’s teaching into account, we find that “neighbor” is meant to be broadly understood. It certainly applies to those we naturally have a normal affinity for, like spouses, family, friends, boyfriends/girlfriends, etc. But Jesus teaches that it includes even those we naturally view as our enemies (as in case of Jews and Samaritans; see Luke 15:25-37).

2. We’re specifically told that we’re to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. And it’s helpful to think for a minute about what this doesn’t involve. For example, we don’t have romantic feelings toward ourselves. However appropriate such feelings may be in certain relationships (and they are), and however much we should cultivate them in the same (and we should), they are not the foundational requirement of what it means to love someone.

Further, I don’t thinking loving ourselves always involves liking or approving of what we do. C.S. Lewis elaborates:

Now that I come to think of it, I have not exactly got a feeling of fondness or affection for myself, and I do not even always enjoy my own society. So apparently “Love your neighbour” does not mean “feel fond of him” or “find him attractive.”… In my most clear-sighted moments not only do I not think myself a nice man, but I know that I am a very nasty one. I can look at some of the things I have done with horror and loathing. So apparently I am allowed to loathe and hate some of the things my enemies do. …

For a long time I used to think this a silly, straw-splitting distinction: how could you hate what a man did and not hate the man? But years later it occurred to me that there was one man to whom I had been doing this all my life— namely myself. However much I might dislike my own cowardice or conceit or greed, I went on loving myself. There had never been the slightest difficulty about it. In fact the very reason why I hated the things was that I loved the man. Just because I loved myself, I was sorry to find that I was the sort of man who did those things. (Mere Christianity)

3. If loving ourselves doesn’t always mean we like or approve of ourselves, what does it mean? Here’s Lewis again:

That is what is meant in the Bible by loving [a neighbor, including an enemy]: wishing his good, not feeling fond of him nor saying he is nice when he is not.

It’s not that we don’t ever make bad choices or engage in some kind of self-destructive behavior. But generally speaking, we want what’s genuinely good for ourselves. And that’s what we’re called to do for others: desire and encourage their good. But notice that this might involve a wide variety of actions and choices. For example, a woman might be no less loving when she disciplines her young children to teach them honesty than when she writes a sweet Valentines Day card to her husband.

Of course there’s more we could add to the picture. We tend to believe the best about ourselves. We’re often very patient with our own faults and limitations. And much of the time at least, we’re willing to forgive ourselves for doing something wrong. I suspect that loving others like ourselves means that we’re willing to do the same for them. (For more on how love is expressed in  concrete actions an attitudes associated, see 1 Corinthians 13.)

I’ll conclude with a practical exercise. Think about two or three people you interact with on a regular basis (it could be a family member, friend, co-worker, etc.). What would it look like for you to love that person more like you love yourself? Ask God for the grace to begin living that out more and more.

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