In Matthew 22:35-40 (NKJV) we find the story of a lawyer (an expert in Moses’ law) who asked the Messiah a challenging question:
“Teacher, which is the great commandment of the law?”
Coming up with an answer was a great challenge. Jesus had to choose from 613 commandments in the Torah. Yet in a moment, He pinpointed the most powerful, most excellent, most important commandment of all:
“You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.”
Strangely, He did not end with that statement. There was another commandment, so related, so important, so essential to our spiritual development that He added:
“This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
At one point in my spiritual journey, I stumbled over the last two words of this mandate, because they seemed to be a complete contradiction of another passage of Scripture, Paul’s warning to Timothy concerning the age in which we live:
But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come:
For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good,
traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God,
having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away! (2 Timothy 3:1-5 NKJV)
In this passage, one of the most evident signs that human beings have strayed from the truth is the observation that they become “lovers of themselves.”
This will indicate that the world is teetering on the edge of utter chaos and final judgments from God. Yet Jesus gave the mandate to His followers, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” upholding that self-love is a necessary part of a balanced and healthy spiritual life. How can this be? How can something be the epitome of evil and the epitome of good simultaneously?
When I was praying about this paradox, the Holy Spirit awakened the answer within my heart. Two things—first, it is necessary to see the context in which the statements are made, and second, it is necessary to see the order in which self-love is mentioned.
In Paul’s exhortation, love of self comes first, then love of money, then love of pleasure, while it is disconnected completely from the love of God. This kind of self-love is self-willed, self-serving, self-indulging, prideful, and corrupt. Notice that the person consumed with this kind of egotism is also described as being “unloving.”
In Jesus’ teaching, love for God comes first; love for others is second, then love of self comes last. In this context, self-love means self-acceptance (resulting from a realization of God’s forgiveness and acceptance toward His offspring) instead of self-condemnation and self-loathing (that stem from a sense of guilt and unworthiness). When we can view ourselves under the canopy of God’s love, we tend to look at others the same way. So, it is only in this order and grouped in this way that self-love becomes balanced, clean, pure, right and praiseworthy.
The mystery is solved.
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