For no one ever hates his own flesh… (Eph. 5:29)
I get very uncomfortable with drastic revisionist readings of Scripture, but this post is an attempt at one. And it is of a very well-known verse of the Bible. I want to argue that the Golden Rule or Royal Law to “love thy neighbour as thyself” is telling us not only that we ought to love others or how much we are to do so, but also how in loving others, we are really also loving ourselves.
Let me explain further. The word “as” here is key, and we can interpret it in a number of ways. The most common and direct way to understand it is that it means something along the lines of “in the manner of”. Thus, we are to love our neighbours in the manner or to the extent that we love ourselves (i.e., very much). And while there is no problem with that, what is also commonly assumed in that interpretation and that I mean to challenge here is the notion that to love our neighbours and to love ourselves are two different tasks and that we are to give up the latter for the former, or at least to even them out so that they are equal.
But if we look more broadly in the Bible, there is enough information to prove otherwise. We are to understand this great commandment not as saying that we are to love others as though they were ourselves, but that we are to love others cognizant of the fact that they are truly a part of ourselves. The command is grounded in the reality.
Paul brings this concept out clearly in two passages of his letters. In Ephesians 5:28, he writes that “men ought to love their wives as their own bodies” (a statement of duty) and gives the reason for it as, “he who loves his wife loves himself” (a statement of fact)—this as a reflection of how the Lord loves the church, not as though we were members of his body, but truly because we are his flesh and bones. Christ most certainly kept the commandment to love his neighbour as himself, but he didn’t love us simply as much as or in the way that he loved his own physical flesh—he gave that up to the worst cruelty known to man—, he loved us as the way he loved himself, joining us to himself and finding his joy in our salvation, so much so that he would give his life for ours. This second great commandment of the Bible is not about equalising our love for others with that for ourselves, but altogether giving up that selfish love that finds joy only in one’s own pleasure and profit for that love which finds it in the good of another.
In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul broadens the scope of such “self-love” beyond the marriage relationship to that among members of the church body, which is one body in Christ, and thus the welfare each part must be the concern of all, since “if one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together” (v.26). Again, the suffering and rejoicing together is not simply something we ought to do as those who ought to think of ourselves as one body. Instead, Paul states it as a matter of fact. You have been eternally bound together by the Spirit into the one body Christ whether you like it or not and, as such, your own well-being is tied to that of every other member of this body. Your love and care for any one part, especially the weaker parts, will serve to the good of the whole and thus also the good of yourself. And conversely, your neglect or, worse, animosity towards another will compromise the health of the whole, also to your own detriment.
There is much more to be explored in this theology of the “body”, but I trust the point has been made clearly that loving your neighbour as yourself is not about measuring your love to others to the standard that you love yourself, but understanding that there is really no competition, that the best way to love yourself is to love your neighbour, that true love seeks not its own and is by its very nature self-giving, and yet by this free and generous giving of itself, does not lose but gains. Agree with the radical interpretation or not, my hope for this article is that you will think more deeply about loving your neighbour as yourself, and then go and do so in a radical, Christlike way.