There once was a nymph named Narcissus

Who thought himself very delicious

So he stared like a fool

At his face in a pool

And his folly today is still with us.

According to the spirit of this decade, the ultimate sin is no longer the failure to honor God and thank him but the failure to esteem oneself. Self-abasement, not God-abasement, is the evil. And the cry of deliverance is not, “O wretched man that I am, who will deliver me?,” but, “O worthy man that I am, would that I could only see it better!”

Today the first and greatest commandment is, “Thou shalt love thyself.” And the explanation for almost every interpersonal problem is thought to lie in someone’s low self-esteem. Sermons, articles, and books have pushed this idea deep into the Christian mind. It is a rare congregation, for example, that does not stumble over the “vermicular theology” of Isaac Watts’s “Alas! And Did My Saviour Bleed”: “Would He devote that sacred head/ For such a worm as I?”

For a decade the cult of the self (to use Thomas Howard’s phrase) has been expanding phenomenally fast, and its professional members take every chance they get to put a mirror in front of us and tell us to like what we see.

What distresses me in all this is not only what I regard as an unbiblical shift of focus from God to man as the goal of redemption (see Ezekiel 36:22–32) but also the paucity of opposition to it. This article should be taken as one small vote against the cult of self-esteem.

Perhaps the biblical text most commonly used in spreading the message of self-esteem is, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18; Luke 10:27; Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:14; James 2:8; see, for example Walter Trobisch, “Inferior Interior,” Eternity, April 1976). But this use almost always involves misinterpretation.

Even in Jesus’ day this command was being misunderstood. Might there be a connection between the old misunderstanding and the new one? The ancient error hinged on the term “neighbor” and was exposed by Jesus in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29–37). The modern error hinges on the term “as yourself” and, so far as I know, has not been publicly challenged.

In Luke 10:26 a lawyer has just asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. But according to Luke the question is not sincere. The lawyer is not seeking eternal life; he is trying to test Jesus. Under the guise of a personal question he gives Jesus an academic quiz, hoping to entangle him in some heretical contradiction of the Old Testament. Then Jesus, with a view to exposing the man’s duplicity, turns the question back: “What is written in the Law? What do you read?” The man answers, “Love God with your whole being and your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus simply agrees.

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But now the lawyer is in trouble. It is evident to everybody that he already knew the answer to his question. His motive for asking it was not a sincere desire for information but a desire to trap Jesus in his words. Everyone can see now that he was insincere, hypocritical, guilty of the injustice of deceit. What will he do? Run away shamed like the Apostle Peter and weep bitterly over his sin? Or will he—with ten million other human beings before and after him—seek to save face?

“But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus.…” And then comes the ancient error hinging on the term “neighbor”: “And who is my neighbor?” There is such a serious misunderstanding of God’s demand behind this question that Jesus will not answer it.

Very often our misunderstanding of God’s Word is due not to innocent intellectual slips or lack of information but rather to a deep unwillingness to submit to the demands of God. A person who intends to manage his own affairs, maintain his pride, and secure esteem and glory from his fellow human beings will twist the words of Jesus to support his own self-esteem. The evil of the human heart precedes and gives rise to many of our apparently intellectual misunderstandings of Scripture.

When Jesus told the lawyer that the answer to his own question was right, the lawyer’s duplicity was exposed. At that threat to his reputation and his self-regard, the sin of self-justification sprang up. The lawyer was deceived into thinking that the problem was not his own proud unwillingness to repent and obey but the ambiguity of the word “neighbor.” The question “Who is my neighbor?” was simply a face-saving device.

Another way of asking the lawyer’s question would be, “Teacher, whom do I not have to love? Which groups in our society are excluded from this commandment to love my neighbor? Surely the Romans, the oppressors of God’s chosen people, and their despicable lackeys, the tax collectors, and those half-breed Samaritans—surely these groups are not included in the term ‘neighbor.’ Tell me just who my neighbor is, Teacher, so that, as I examine the various candidates for my love, I will be sure to choose him alone.”

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Jesus will have nothing to do with that kind of question. Instead of answering it outright—which was really impossible—Jesus tells a parable, the Parable of the Good Samaritan. A man, probably a Jew, was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him, beat him, and left him half dead on the side of the road. Along came a priest and then a Levite, and when they saw the man they went by on the other side. Then came a Samaritan, and when he saw the wounded man, he felt compassion for him. He went to him and treated his wounds, using his own oil and wine. Then he set him on his own beast, brought him to an inn, and took care of him till the next day. He gave the innkeeper his own money to take care of the man and said he would stop by on his way back to make up the difference if it wasn’t enough.

Then Jesus puts a question back to the lawyer: “Which of these three does it seem to you became a neighbor to the one who fell among thieves?” The lawyer answers, “The one who showed mercy on him.” Jesus responds, “Go and do likewise.”

The point of Jesus’ parable was to show that the lawyer’s request for a definition of “neighbor” was simply a skirting of the real issue, namely, the kind of person he himself was. The lawyer’s problem was not to define the word “neighbor”: his problem—and the problem of every become human the kind being—was to of person who, because of compassion cannot pass by on the other side. No truly compassionate or merciful heart can stand idly by while the mind examines a suffering candidate to see if he fits the definition of neighbor.

If the lawyer had understood the intention of God’s command, he would have seen how irrelevant his question about his neighbor was. God’s intention is to call into being a loving, compassionate, merciful person whose heart summons him irresistibly into action when there is suffering within his reach, a person who will interrupt his schedule, risk some embarrassment, use up his oil and wine, and part with his money for the sake of a stranger. Be that person, Jesus says, and you will inherit eternal life: blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.

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That then is the way the command “Love your neighbor as yourself” was misunderstood in Jesus’ day and how Jesus responded to it.

While the old error hinged on the word “neighbor,” the modern one hinges on the words “as yourself.” The modern interpretation of “Love your neighbor as yourself” makes two assumptions about “as yourself.” First, the words are assumed to be a command rather than a statement. That is, it is assumed that Jesus is calling people to love themselves so that they can then love others as they love themselves. Second, this self-love that Jesus is demanding is assumed to be equivalent to self-esteem, self-acceptance, a positive self-image, or the like. (See for example R. L. Pavelsky, “The Commandment of Love and the Clinical Psychologist,” Studies Biblica et Theologica, March, 1973.) The proponents of this interpretation put the two assumptions together like this: a person’s first task in obedience to Jesus is to develop a high self-esteem so that he can fulfill the second half of the command, to love others as he now loves himself.

Is this what Jesus meant? I think not. These two assumptions depend on each other, so let us look at them together to see if the text bears them out.

Grammatically it is impossible to construe the words “as yourself” as a command. When you supply the verb, the commandment reads simply, “You shall love your neighbor as you in fact already love yourself.” Jesus is not calling for self-love; he assumes that it already exists. As far as we know, Jesus never entertained the thought that there could be someone who didn’t love himself. To use the words of Paul in Ephesians 5:29, “No man ever hates his own flesh but nourishes and cherishes it.”

Now if this is so, the self-love that Jesus is talking about is quite different from the self-esteem that is so often assumed to be his meaning. To show what Jesus means by self-love we can pose the following question: Is it not reasonable to assume that the two uses of “love” in the command “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” will have the same meaning? Jesus makes it very plain what he means by the verb “love” in the first half. It means to interrupt your schedule and use up your oil, wine, and money to achieve what you think is best for your neighbor. It means to have a heart that is disposed to seek another person’s good.

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Giving “love” the same meaning in the second part of the command, we get this: “You shall seek the good of your neighbor, just as you naturally seek your own good, and nourish and cherish your needy neighbor just as you by nature nourish and cherish yourself.”

Another way in which Jesus said essentially the same things was, “Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.” “Do so to them” corresponds to “Love your neighbor.” “Whatever you wish that men would do to you” corresponds to “as you love yourself.” Self-love is thus defined in the Golden Rule by the desire that we have for others to do us good.

In sum, then, “Love your neighbor as yourself” does not command but rather presupposes self-love. All human beings love themselves. Furthermore, this self-love of which Jesus speaks has nothing to do with the common notion of self-esteem. It does not mean having a good self-image or feeling especially happy with oneself. It means simply desiring and seeking one’s own good.

And we should note that Jesus’ point is not affected by the fact that most people have a distorted notion of what is good for them. A man may attempt to find his good in a bottle of bourbon or in illicit sex or in a fast motorcycle; still, all human beings desire and seek what they think, at least in the moment of choosing, is best for them. Thus Gunther Bornkamm is right when he says, “We are most skilled in the love of ourselves; whether in selfish passion or in cool reflection, whether prompted by blind instinct or by some ideal, we desire our own self” (Jesus of Nazareth).

Only when one sees “self-love” in this light will the tremendous force of the command “Love your neighbor as yourself” be apparent. Jesus is saying to the lawyer: Take note how much you love yourself, how you try to get the best place in the synagogues, how you seek to be seen praying on the streets, how you exercise all rigor to maintain purity. Now my command to you is: Take all that zeal, all that ingenuity, all that perseverence, and with it seek your neighbor’s well-being.

And with that, Jesus cuts the nerve of every merely selfish life-style. All our inborn self-seeking is made the measure of our self-giving. Do we seek to satisfy our hunger? Then we must with a similar urgency feed our hungry neighbor. Do we long for advancement in the company? Then we must seek out ways to give others as much opportunity and to stir up their will to achieve. Do we love to make A’s on tests? Then we must tutor the poor student who would love it no less. Do we hate to be laughed at and mocked? Then let there never be found on our lips a mocking word.

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To sum up, the ancient misunderstanding of the command, “Love your neighbor as yourself” was the lawyer’s attempt to restrict the meaning of “neighbor” to a certain group and thus to raise a question that he hoped would conceal the real problem—namely, his failure to be the person that the commandment was calling him to be, one whose compassionate heart would not ever allow him to pass by on the other side of the road.

The modern misunderstanding of this commandment, most prevalent within the cult of the self, is the remarkably common notion that Jesus is not presupposing but commanding self-love and that self-love is equivalent to self-esteem, positive self-regard, and the like. Jesus stated it as a fact that people love themselves, and the meaning of this self-love, as is seen from the context, the Golden Rule, and Ephesians 5:28 f., is that all people desire and seek what they think is best for them. This universal human trait then becomes the rule to which all loving self-sacrifice must measure up.

It seems to me that there is but a hair’s difference between the self-justification that gave rise to the lawyer’s error and the craving for self-esteem that nourishes the more modern error. Just how intimately the two errors are related I will leave for the reader to ponder.

As I see it, the meaning of the command “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” is this: Our Lord is aiming to call into being loving, compassionate, merciful men and women whose hearts summon them irresistibly into action when there is suffering within their reach. And to that end, he demands that they again and again ask themselves this question: Am I desiring and seeking the temporal and eternal good of my neighbor with the same zeal, ingenuity, and perseverance with which I seek my own?

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