Loving thy neighbor as yourself
I'm always a little saddened when I hear a Christian say, "Since Jesus said to love your neighbor as yourself, it logically follows that you must love yourself first."
This is what it means to mingle scripture with the doctrines of men in order to deceive people. Yet many Christians utter this platitude without the slightest consciousness that they are saying the exact opposite of Jesus' clear meaning.
Someone asked him, "Which is the great commandment in the law?"
He replied that the first and great commandment was to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and mind.
"And the second is like unto it," he continued. "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets" (Matt. 22:36-39).
Jesus could easily have said, "Love the Lord, then look out for yourself, and only when your own needs are fully met should you spare whatever time is left to help your neighbor." But he didn't.
He could have said, "How can you give anything to other people until you've filled yourself up?"
Didn't say that, either. Could've. Didn't.
To parse his words until they mean the opposite is like the tricks that his opponents always tried to play on him.
Now, because worldly excuses for self-gratification have fogged our sight, let's put Jesus' plain and simple words under the lens of understanding.
Jesus was the teacher who constantly drew a contrast between what people "naturally" do and what the gospel now required them to do.
In the Sermon on the Mount, he taught, "You've heard it said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say, 'Love your enemies'" (Matt. 5:43-44). Even the worst people love those who love them, he explained. But I hold you to a higher standard.
He repeated this trope again and again. Does the law say not to kill? I tell you not to be angry. Does the law say not to commit adultery? I say don't even allow yourself to lust after a woman (Matt. 5:21-28).
Here is the natural man, says the Savior. Now here's what I expect of you.
Let's put that "love your neighbor as yourself" business in the same context.
The body always seeks to take care of its physical needs. When our body needs water, we feel thirst until we get a drink. When our body needs to take in nourishment or get rid of waste, we feel ever greater urgency until we meet that need. When we cannot get enough breath, we panic.
In the dark, we become afraid and seek for light. When it's cold, we try to get warm. When we stand too near a precipice, fear warns us to step back. When we are damaging our body, pain urges us to stop. We are reminded by our bodies that reproduction of the species is an ever-pleasant prospect.
This is the natural man; the body loves itself and demands that its needs be met.
Jesus did not imply that anyone had to command you to love yourself; every living creature takes care of itself, and we partake of that aspect of nature.
Instead, Jesus said: Respond to your neighbor's needs as urgently as you take care of your own.
Not only that, but he said that loving your neighbor was "like unto" the commandment to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and mind.
How is loving the Lord like loving our neighbor? To love our neighbor, we must do as the good Samaritan did: See what our neighbor needs that he cannot do for himself, and provide whatever is in our power.
What does God need from us? His work and his glory are to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man (Moses 1:9). The Savior's resurrection already took care of the immortality part; as for eternal life, we cannot save anyone -- that is also the Savior's work, for all who repent.
What is within our power to do? We can accept the grace of Christ by repenting of our sins, accepting baptism, and obeying his commandments all the rest of our lives; by making covenants and keeping them; and by treating other people as Christ showed us and taught us.
Well, will you look at that. Here's where we look after our own needs -- not in the "love your neighbor" part, but in the "love the Lord" part!
But it's our spiritual needs that God wants us to attend to, not mere self-gratification or self-aggrandizement, as the world would have us believe.
Once we have transformed ourselves by turning to God with our hearts, souls, and minds, what happens? Having a godly spirit, we turn outward as God turns outward, seeking to help others receive the same blessings.
We see our neighbor with the compassion that Christ has shown to us. As Christ did, we take what we have and feed the hungry, heal the sick, share with the poor. And we teach them how to find the treasures of heaven, which are so much greater than what passes for treasure in the world.
This is the plain and simple meaning of the words of Christ. There is no hidden message of selfishness in "love your neighbor as yourself."
Copyright © 2011 by Orson Scott Card
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