“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus replies: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets” (Matt 22:35-40).
That the love of God and love of neighbor are profoundly connected is widely acknowledged and often preached. After all, did not the Apostle John declare that anyone who says that he loves God but hates his brother is a liar (1 John 4:20)? But where does the love of self come into this? Save for the word of Jesus, we might be tempted to leave it out altogether. We hardly need to be encouraged to greater personal aggrandizement. Yet here is our Lord exhorting us to love others in the same way that we love ourselves. That would seem to imply that the former rests upon the latter. Can that be right? Fr Herbert McCabe thinks that it is, and he appeals to no less an authority than St Thomas Aquinas.
When we examine Jesus’ words closely, we find two commandments but three objects of love—God, neighbor, self. It is the third, McCabe claims, that is the key to the others. Self is where we start from:
I don’t mean that it is more important to love ourselves than to love God. I just mean that loving yourself is the way you love God. I mean that loving yourself is, in a way, more important than loving your neighbour because, without loving yourself, it is quite impossible to love your neighbour. Aquinas says, we should first love God, then ourselves, then our neighbour, then our bodily life (Summa Theologiae 2a2ae, 25, 12). (“Self-Love,” God, Christ and Us, p. 69)
How do we love God? Most will quickly reply, by obeying the divine commandments. Yet while obedience may be a necessary condition for the loving of God, it is insufficient in itself. We know too well that it’s possible to obey a commandment without any regard for God. Besides, it’s hardly likely Jesus is telling us that the first divine commandment is to obey divine commandments.
McCabe suggests that to understand what it means to love God we should reflect on what it means to love ourselves—and to not love ourselves. We fail to love ourselves, asserts the Dominican theologian, when we base our lives on the false belief that we lack intrinsic dignity and worth:
The root of all sin is fear, a fear which is a disbelief in oneself, the fear that really, in oneself, one does not matter, does not really exist—the fear that if one really looked into the centre of oneself, there would be nothing there: the fear not just that one is playing a false part, wearing a disguise, but that one is nothing but the disguise. It is this fear that gives rise to the desperate attempt to put something there, to make something of ourselves, or the desperate fight to prevent others making nothing of us by taking away the masks. And so we make ourselves somebody through power over others and through possessions, which are a sort of power. Or we sink into some distracting pleasure so that we can forget the emptiness. And, of course, we hate those who threaten our self-flattering images. And all this is rooted in fear, because we cannot believe in ourselves, because we cannot believe that we matter just because we are ourselves. It is rooted in the fact that we cannot love ourselves. (p. 70)
One might think that if self-esteem is our problem, then all we need to do is practice daily affirmations with Stuart Smalley; but McCabe is too much the Thomist to think that self-help therapy can effect the deep-healing that we need. Only the gospel of Christ can teach us how to rejoice in being. We grow in love of self as we come to recognize and believe that we are loved ultimately, absolutely, unconditionally: “When Christians talk of God they are just talking of the fact that we are ultimately loved, that even if all other love should fail us there is a fundamental love through which we are. Christian faith is the belief that we matter because we are loved by God” (p. 71). If fear is the root of sin, then faith is the root of love—faith in the absolute and unconditional love of God. This is the only cure for the anxiety and dread that corrupts the human heart. As we start to trust in this love, we become persons capable of receiving the gift of existence with thanksgiving and joy. This gratitude is the initial expression of our love for God. To receive existence as sheer gift is not only to acknowledge the worth of the gift but simultaneously to acknowledge the worth of the Giver.
Here is the liberating power of the gospel! If I am genuinely affirmed by God, then I am freed from the need to create a meaningful self. I do not have to be the Pharisee of the parable and can thus relax into who and what I am. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” the publican prays (Luke 18:13). C. S. Lewis speaks of Christians as “jolly beggars.” “We are justified by faith alone, without the deeds of the Law,” Martin Luther declares—which is simply the Reformation way of stating that we are unconditionally loved by our Creator.
To see ourselves as gift from God is just to look deeply into ourselves, to see ourselves for what we really are. You cannot love yourself, your real self, … without thanking him, thinking him through yourself. And it is only when you do this, when you thank God for yourself, for the gift of existence, that you are released from the prison of self-seeking to value others for their own sake, which is to value them too as gifts of God. That is why Jesus tells us to love our neighbour as ourselves. He is asking us to love our neighbour in the way we love ourselves—in gratitude to God. (p. 73)
McCabe’s assertion that we cannot love our neighbor if we do not love ourselves begins to make sense. As long as I am driven by my worthlessness, I am incapable of valuing anyone else as possessing intrinsic worth and dignity. I will always be tempted to exploit others for my own pathological and egoistic purposes. But as I become secure in the gospel, and therefore secure in God’s love, I become open to the truth that they too have received their existence from the same good God; they too have their own divinely-given place in the world. “To love God is also to be grateful for the gift of the whole universe, and, above all, for the gift of others” (p. 71). As counter-intuitive as it might first appear, love of self makes possible genuine love of neighbor.
But the miracle of grace is even greater than we imagine. Not only do we discover that our lives matter, but we discover that in Jesus Christ we have been adopted as sons and daughters of the Father and baptized into the life of the Spirit:
For when you do it, when you actually thank God for your being and for others (not just when you think about it but when you do it), you discover a further truth: that the thing you are most grateful for, the greatest gift of God, is the gratitude itself. The greatest gift of God to you is not just that he made you, but that you love him. The greatest gift of God to you is that you can speak with him and say ‘thank you’ to him as to a friend—that you are on intimate speaking terms with God. God has made us not just his creatures but his lovers; he has given us not just our existence, our life, but a share in his life. We converse familiarly with God on equal terms as the Son does with the Father. We love God with the same love that Jesus had for him, the love we call the Holy Spirit. And we love ourselves not only because we came forth from God but because our life is God’s life, the life of the Spirit. And our love for our neighbour is this same Spirit. (pp. 73-74)
Authentic love of self leads to … theosis!
I was not expecting that.