February is the month for love, so I want to discuss a biblical text on love that I have heard abused times without number. It is this: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Matthew 22:39).
The typical abuse of the passage goes something like this. In order to love others, you must first love yourself. Loving yourself means having a good self-image. Positive self-esteem is the secret to happiness and fulfillment in life. Therefore, the first order of business is to learn to feel good about yourself.
There are several problems with this approach, not the least of which is the fact that pursuing self-esteem is as foreign to the Bible as camels are to Alaska. What on earth would the modern psycho-babblers do with a verse like Philippians 2:3, "Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves"?
Now don't get me wrong. Those who obey God's word have plenty of reasons to feel good about themselves. First, they receive the forgiveness of sin through faith in Christ, so they have no cause to wallow in the pigpen of their guilt feelings. Second, they become the children of God. What status could be higher than being the King's kid? Third, the Bible's prescriptions for life are a blueprint for fulfillment and happiness.
Take, for example, the command to love your neighbor as yourself. There is, of course, a bad kind of self-love. Selfish self-love seeks happiness by grabbing whatever it can get without regard for the needs and feelings of others. The Bible, however, also recognizes a proper self-love, a kind of self-love that every human being necessarily has.
This inescapable self-love is the desire to be happy. It is impossible for anyone consciously to desire his own misery. Even when people punish themselves for their own misdeeds, their motive is to ease their sense of guilt, and thus to decrease their misery.
The Bible recognizes that we inevitably want to be happy, and we therefore want the things we believe will make us happy. Our problem is that we are normally confused about how to find happiness. The greedy child thinks more toys will make him happy. The work-a-holic thinks that piling up achievements will make him happy. The flirtatious woman thinks that the attention of men will make her happy.
The Bible has a different prescription for happiness. It tells us to love God above of all, and then to love our neighbors as ourselves. To love God above all means to fall in love with the One whose nature is beauty, truth, goodness and love all wrapped up together. To love your neighbor as yourself means to desire his happiness as you desire your own.
When you desire your neighbor's happiness, your occasions for happiness are automatically doubled. If God blesses you, you rejoice. If God blesses your neighbor, you rejoice. Therefore, it makes sense to work for your neighbor's good in the same way that you work for your own.
People who love their neighbors as themselves are not out frantically searching for more self-esteem. They don't have time for that kind of nonsense.