Getting “As You Love Yourself” Wrong
Or, Why Jesus wasn't talking about the "self"
Last week I asked “Is self-esteem a prerequisite of discipleship—of following Jesus?”
A commenter mentioned that the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39) seems to assume a healthy sense of self, in the sense of “I love you in the way that I love myself.”
But, this is getting it wrong.
Because of a trick of the English language. And a trick of our therapeutic culture.
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Tricks of English: -self
Too often we fall for a certain trick of the English language, coupled with our modern, individualistic, and inward focused “self”.
What is this trick of language? It is that English uses “-self” as the end of reflexive pronouns: myself, yourself, himself, herself, themselves. Reading the Bible in English and coming across reflexive pronouns encourages us to think of some individual and inward “self” that is mine, and yours, and hers, and his—the “self” that reflects back on itself, looking at the one who looks, thinking about the one who thinks, feeling the one who feels.
The danger when hearing Jesus’ command is that we emphasize this reflective self: “Love your neighbor your self”—this little, individual, inward part of you, that only you have special access to.
Tricks of Therapeutic Culture: self-
On top of this individual and inward self is the idea that you need you need to tend to, cultivate, express, and actualize your self. That you need to love your self. The terms have shifted—from self-concept, self-esteem, and self-actualization to self-regard, self-compassion, and self-expression—but the basic idea is the same: self-love leads to an individual’s better life (however defined), and this will lead to a better society.
In our modern culture, the self is simultaneously (1) a project we dedicate ourselves to, and (2) an entity we are supposed to discover (under the distorting layers of cultural expectation and social engagement).
Different people emphasize differently either the “construction of the self” expressed outward or the “discovery of the self” found inward. “You are NOT what you do” is paradoxically paired with “You do you.”
The danger when hearing Jesus’ command is that we emphasize this therapeutic self as “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” (notice how I added “you love”).
What Jesus Meant by “Love your neighbor as yourself”
The trouble is that Jesus wasn’t even thinking about the reflective or therapeutic self in this command (which is a summary of Old Testament thinking). He wasn’t thinking about the self at all. In this verse Jesus use the common Greek reflexive pronoun—which doesn’t have “self” connected to it. It just refers the action or object back to the subject (it reflects back).
But just because the pronoun reflects back to the subject doesn’t mean Jesus (or Greek for that matter, or Hebrew) is assuming a reflective “self” who is looking at the action or object and reflecting on it from a distance. This would be to assume an inward observing self of modernity (assisted by the English language) onto the outward participating self assumed by Jesus (and most ancient writers). Rather than the emphasis being “what is happening inside me”, the cultural emphasis is on “what is happening in the world.”
The French and Spanish translations of this same passage (and their languages in general) are closer to the Greek when they use “ti mismo” (Spanish) and “toi-même” (French), which mean something like to "you-the-same" without suggesting some inner self.
So, Jesus meant something closer to
“Love your neighbor as your total being.”
“Love your neighbor as your life.”
“Love your neighbor as you do your existence.”
Or as another commenter said, Jesus seems to be making a “practical statement, as in feed/clothe/take care of your neighbor as you feed/clothe/take care of yourself.”
I think this is exactly right.
So just maybe, as we tend to the total being of our neighbors, it is then that we find our “true” selves.
For another time…
Is the question of how certain ways of teaching about Christian self-denial and self-renunciation can continue trauma or abuse (which certainly happens).
But maybe practices of self-renunciation also have proper therapeutic value.
More on that coming soon…