“And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” – Mark 12:30-31
As I’ve reflected on this very familiar, very popular saying of Jesus, I have been struck with a provocative question. Why are we to love our neighbor as ourselves and not love God as ourselves?
The second half of this verse, an alternate framing of the “Golden Rule” (Luke 6:31), sums up the whole of God’s law for interpersonal relationships with the words, “Love your neighbor as yourself”. If Jesus had meant to say, “Love God as yourself”, he could have easily grouped these two commandments together. Yet, he chooses two very distinct qualifications of what love towards God and love towards neighbor will look like.
So, the question is, why shouldn’t we love God as ourselves? Conversely, we could ask the question, why shouldn’t we love our neighbor with all our heart, soul, mind and strength? The mere asking of the second question may shed some light on the answer to the first. It’s an odd juxtaposition to place neighbor in the seat of God as receiving the same sort of love. Our love for God must of nature and necessity be distinct from our love for anything or anyone else.
The supremacy of God demands a supreme love. It is the sort of love that must be foundational to all other loves. In fact, without a superseding love towards God, there is no possibility of interpersonal love. Jesus explains it this way, “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple.” (Luke 14:26). Jesus, as God, is saying every expression of love towards others must be sourced in a supreme affection for God. Indeed, your interpersonal love is not yours at all, but God’s love toward others.
We have no capacity to love apart from God. There is no true, self-sacrificing love without God awakening that sin-deadened portion of our being. All other affections that appear to be true love are mere imitations. Every other form of love finds it’s end in self-satisfaction, not self-sacrifice. If then, all true love is sourced in God and must be awakened in the heart of mankind, our capacity for love is completely dependent on God working in us. Only a truly regenerated heart, fully devoted to God is capable of real love. It is God working in you, “to will and to do of his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).
The second commandment is impossible, even illogical, without the first. However, functionally speaking, there is still a difference in the way these two types of love manifest themselves in the life of a child of God. Interpersonal love stems from loving God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, yet also includes loving others as oneself. Love of God is the source while loving as oneself is the practical outworking.
How do you love yourself? I believe, primarily, the type of love Jesus is referencing here is a serving love. He is equating love with meeting needs. There is a primal instinct in every human for self-preservation, for the seeking out of our own best interests. Some might say they don’t love themselves, by which they mean they don’t approve of what they’ve done or who they’ve become. I believe Jesus is talking about something more basic than the emotional feeling we have towards ourselves. If He intended to include this sort of love in the qualifications for loving others, His statements on the topic lose much of their universal quality.
The type of love for oneself Jesus is speaking of here is universal, basic and inextricably linked to the human condition. When we are hungry we eat, when are thirsty we drink, when we are hurt we seek aid, when we are exposed we seek shelter. In the absence of any of these necessities we go to extreme lengths to satisfy our own needs. This, Jesus calls love. This is the love we are called to extend to others.
Philippians 2:4-8 says it this way, “Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.”
Basically, Paul is saying we should be focused on loving others through service because that is precisely how Christ loved us. He took the form of a servant and was obedient to the cross. This is self-sacrificing love in it’s greatest form and fullest display. Our love for others is to model this love. That is, our love for others is displayed in service and sacrifice.
Why then should we not love God as ourselves? Are we not to serve Him and sacrifice for Him?
“For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has become His counselor? Or who has first given to Him and it shall be repaid to him?” Romans 11:34-36
What can we give to God? He already owns everything. If the love we have for others is sourced in Him, how can we assume that our love for Him is sourced in us? That is a massive contradiction. We have no capacity to love apart from Him and that truth is paramountly evident in our relationship with Himself. God cannot properly be loved except He Himself, the origin, source and perfection of all love, is doing the loving.
We see a picture of this in Jesus’ relationship with His Father. Jesus was the, “beloved son”, in whom the Father was, “well-pleased”. God the Father has to overcome no obstacles to love God the Son. He must overcome massive obstacles to love us; so massive they demand the death of His beloved. So, how can we, still laden down by these obstacles ever be loved by God, much less offer Him our love?
We can’t. Christ alone is sufficient for the task. God the Father loves us on behalf of His Son and through His sacrifice the obstacles to loving us are overcome. We, likewise, love God through the power of the regenerating work of the cross in our lives and by the power of God the Holy Spirit working in us.
This is why we must never love God as we love ourselves. He has no needs to be met. We cannot serve Him as though our service would enhance His person. This attitude is no love at all, it is ungratefulness.
As Pastor John Piper puts it, “When the psalmist cried out, “What shall I render to the Lord for all of his benefits to me?” the reply was, “I will lift the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord” (Psalm 116:12-13)…Jesus gives us the gift of himself and we ask, “Now what can I render to Jesus for all the benefits of his fellowship?” Answer: Ask him for his help. That’s the gift he wants.
The love that God demands of us, all our heart, should mind and strength, is to fully and completely trust on His salvation. Not to try to repay Him, but to rest in the glorious promise that we cannot and we will never be held in account for that lack. Christ has paid it all.
To love God is not an action toward God. It is simply being in love with God. It is treasuring God, holding Him in the highest esteem, being consumed with Him in every part of your being. This is the love that God demands. This is the love Christ deserves.
The greatest evidence that this love is present in your life? Love your neighbor as yourself.
Only when your heart is truly consumed by the enrapturing love of God, can that love spill over on yourself and others.