“Love yourself before you can love others.”
People love to grab onto this phrase. Especially Christians. It’s almost become the Christian way of saying “treat yourself” or “take care of yourself” or “you need to have confidence in and love for yourself before you can give anything away.” Now, before you get your defenses up and try to fight me on this and say: “the Sabbath is a commandment” and “Jesus went away to pray by himself” and “Love your neighbor as yourself,” I want to remind you that I am not talking about how horribly wrong this line of thought is, I am merely pointing out the insufficiency and possible misleading nature of living this phrase.
First of all, what does it mean to love yourself? I cannot fully answer this question because it is incredibly subjective. Most of us can agree that it means some combination of the following: have confidence in yourself. Appreciate your body and the way you look. Don’t put yourself down or say bad things about yourself. Eat well and do things you enjoy. Rest and don’t overwork yourself. Don’t do too much. Make sure you take care of yourself and don’t give too much of yourself away. Put your needs and your happiness first.
Again, not completely wrong lines of thought. Remember, the phrase here is “Love yourself before you can love others.” But if we are going to look at anyone for how to do this, let’s look at Jesus. Let’s talk about this idea “Jesus loved himself. He went away to be alone and away from people. He went away to pray.” Yes. He did steal away to be alone, but before we spew what we think we know from the Bible, let’s actually read it.
Did Jesus Love Himself First?
“When Jesus heard about it, he withdrew from there by boat to a remote place to be alone. When the crowds heard this, they followed him on foot from the towns.” (Matthew 14:13, CSB). If we read further on in this passage, we see Jesus being met by a crowd. Instead of saying “Hey, guys, I just really need to have some ‘me’ time right now. Could you leave?” He “had compassion on them, and healed their sick.” (V. 14) and he didn’t stop there. His disciples tried to send the people away because they were ready for dinner and they wanted the crowd to leave and go get their own food, but Jesus had the crowd stay and he fed all 5,000 of them. Jesus didn’t love himself before loving other people. Jesus pursued his relationship with the Father and as a result of this, love overflowed automatically. He let people inconvenience him and interrupt him. He held nothing of himself back for himself—instead, he gave away without restraint or question.
“Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he told the disciples, ‘Sit here while I go over there and pray’” (Matthew 26:36, CSB). Here, Jesus goes to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” He prayed this three times to God, as he knew his time to be crucified had come. He went off alone in desperation—in great need of his Father. He wasn’t loving himself, he was loving his father. He wasn’t loving himself because he was praying to the Father and ultimately setting aside his own desires for the will of God. No one came along and said, “Jesus, stop doing things for other people. Just relax and do something for yourself for once. Don’t give too much of yourself away.” If someone had said that (and Jesus listened), we may not have had the cross at all!
Jesus dying on the cross is the perfect example of him emptying himself so that we could be filled. Jesus wasn’t loving himself on the cross, he was pouring himself out so that we could be fully loved. He put us, imperfect, disobedient, undeserving, before himself to show us that he loves us first.
What Can Go Wrong?
The times that Jesus went away were to remain connected to the vine (the Father). Jesus needed time to pray. We could say that Jesus’ prayer time was his way of loving himself, sure, but we have to be careful when we preach to people that they need to love themselves before loving other people. A couple of things can happen:
1. You claim you need to love yourself before you love other people, so you spend a lot of time trying to gain confidence in yourself and do things for yourself, and you think about yourself a lot. When you become too inward-focused, you stop thinking about how to love the people around you. You are waiting for the day when you feel sufficient in your love for yourself, thus, you never step out to love people. This thought tries to tell people they need to try to fix themselves and focus on themselves before they can start loving people.
2. You are protective over your time and possessions because you are making sure to take care of yourself before you love other people. The problem with this mentality is that you start relying on yourself and your resources for everything you need and you stop trusting God. When we don’t trust God, we close ourselves off to people around us and we stop loving people. We become tight-fisted with what we’ve been given and we don’t give away freely.
3. You start making your faith about just you and God and it becomes very personal. You don’t share the love of God with anyone you and don’t join in on a community of believers for encouragement and accountability. Instantly, you forget Jesus’ final command before his ascension into Heaven: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20, CSB). Search the entire Bible. Watch how Jesus lived his life. Jesus never wanted our faith to be a private relationship.
What if we’ve grown up with this pervasive idea that we need to put ourselves first and look out for number 1, but God never intended for us to live or even think that way? What if our interpretation of “love your neighbor as yourself” is incredibly clouded by an American individualistic ideal that seeks to protect our lives and our possessions rather than trust God’s fulfilling love for us?
Isn’t the Sabbath a Form of Loving Ourselves?
But what about the Sabbath? Great question. Let’s look at that commandment. “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy: You are to labor six days and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. You must not do any work-you, your son or daughter, your male or female servant, your livestock, or the resident alien who is within your city gates. For the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything in them in six days; then he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and declared it holy.” (Exodus 20:8-11 CSB)
Entire books have been written on the Sabbath. I highly recommend a study of the Sabbath far beyond the few sentences I have to say. The Sabbath is a day of rest. A reminder that God is holy and in control and we are not. It is a day to rest from our work and trust that God has everything under control. It is not a day to be lazy and ignore all responsibilities and people. It is a day to draw nearer to the Father and be reminded of who he is and what he has done for us. It is a day to enjoy the things he has given us and to grow in a grateful heart. Jesus still did ministry on the Sabbath. He picked grain on the Sabbath to feed his disciples (Matthew 12:1-12) and he healed on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6, Luke 5:9-16, 13:10-17, John 9:13-16). The Pharisees did not understand what Jesus was doing on the Sabbath. Could it be that we have the same reactions as the Pharisees? Could it be that we are just like the Pharisees who don’t understand what it means to obey the Sabbath commandment and love our neighbor as ourself?
God Loves You First
We can develop a healthy rhythm of rest and a strong prayer life without compromising our love and generosity to the people around us. Love takes sacrifice, as we have seen in the life of Jesus. If we were really going to love ourselves first, we wouldn’t be able to sacrifice a thing to love the people around us.
Love yourself second, because God loves you first. It will take time to learn that and grow in it and live in that love, so don’t wait until you feel it or get it to go love people. God loves you first. And that is enough.