An Old Testament proverb from Leviticus repeated by Jesus in three of the Gospels, “love your neighbor as yourself,” is the second great commandment of God. “Love your neighbor as yourself” sounds very simple; in practice, it can be very difficult. Why? From my perspective, the reason is we don’t know how to love ourselves. If you aren’t able to love yourself, how can you love a neighbor as you love yourself?
We mistake arrogance, conceit and superiority as expressions of self-love, when in fact, they are evidence of self-loathing and selfishness. When we are unable to think of anyone but ourselves, we are trying to hold our fragile egos together thinking nobody else values us. We base our value on how much money, education, property, prestige and material possessions we have. Death then becomes the great leveler. Having worked as a hospice chaplain for 10 years of my life, I can tell you from personal experience that no one on their death bed wishes for more money, education, property, prestige or material possessions. They usually express regret over not spending enough time with family and friends, working too hard and putting things above people.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we can spend all our time, energy and resources doing for others, while not taking any time for ourselves. Selflessness appears to be all kindness and philanthropy. However, it too can be evidence of a fragile ego and self-loathing. We only value our own lives based on whether people really need us, because need of us is what makes us feel worthy. Selfless people on their death beds express regret that they didn’t do enough, no matter how much, how long or how hard they worked with and for others.
Balance occurs someplace in the middle, where it is still difficult to determine how to love someone else at least as much as I love myself. I propose the following practice to help all of us learn to love ourselves and others the way Jesus instructed: Make the needs and desires of the people in your lives at least as important to you as your own needs and desires. Forming a habit like this assists with both the selfish, self-esteem problems as well as regulates the selfless with fragile egos.
When we learn to see the needs and desires of all the people in our lives as equal, as God sees us, our focus shifts to making life a win-win situation for as many people as possible. Loving your neighbor as yourself is one of the most difficult tasks we can ever attempt. It is a way of life that never stops being a challenge for us. God longs for us to practice loving our neighbors as ourselves and promises to be with us every step of the way.
The Rev. Brenda Clark is the pastor at St. John’s United Church of Christ in Bellefonte. She can be reached at pastor.bellefonte firstname.lastname@example.org.