To Love God We Must First Love Ourselves

“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.

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14 Responses to To Love God We Must First Love Ourselves

  1. Truth man!
    It’s all about knowing and believing how much we are loved.
    This has to be what we concentrate on most.
    Blessings.

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  2. David Kontur says:

    Father Aidan –
    While I fundamentally agree with what you are saying here, I think that it can very easily be misunderstood\, especially given the Western understanding of “person” as self-contained individual. I have seen this within my own tradition, Roman Catholic, in which this turns into a message of pandering to the ego. Could you continue to develop this theme a little further to address this in further postings?
    Thank you!!
    Dave

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      David, I understand your concern. It’s easy not to fall into pop-psychology. I encourage you to read Fr McCabe’s sermons. I think you’ll find that he avoids superficial reflection.

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  3. David Kontur says:

    PS – I want to clarify my comment about seeing this in my own tradition – I am specifically referring to “pop theology” and not to the Tradition itself.
    Dave

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  4. David says:

    Thanks Father Aidan –
    I will read the whole essay.
    Thanks!!
    Dave

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  5. Just an interesting comment that I’ll let you interpret however you would like. I heard Fr. Thomas Hopko comment on this verse “Love your neighbor as your self”. His comment was that your neighbor IS your self. Therefore he interpreted it as the way to love your self was to love your neighbor because he/she was your true self. Did you see his nuance? I certainly don’t think that he didn’t think that your should take care of yourself as one beloved of God but he felt like love us self was not a prerequisite of that particular verse. What do you think of his interpretation?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Good morning, Brian. Thank you for bringing Fr Tom’s interpretation into the conversation. I agree with him. That my neighbor is, in some sense, my true self is the heart of the matter. Does Fr Tom’s interpretation exclude Fr Herbert’s? I have my own opinion on this, but let me throw the ball back to you. 🙂

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  6. I believe this is what Soren Kierkegaard also addresses in The Works of Love which I just ordered. Love thy neighbor as thyself. To love one’s neighbor we need first start with self-love. Not selfish love or love of self which leads to pride but acceptance of our brokenness and an embrace of it.

    When I get my new computer, I’m hoping to write on St Angela of Foligno’s steps but in these, we see the steps of the penitent. The penitent does not feel love at first but comes gradually to accept who they are in God as God begins to prepare them for the ultimate divine love.

    Very well addressed–people go to Church on Sundays. They obey the divine commandment to rest every seventh day. Do they actually love God? There may be dryness in their obeying the commandment. The Pharisees had quite a bit of dryness.

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  7. Brian Stephen says:

    As far as Fr. Thomas’s quote that “your neighbor is your self” …

    Fr. Thomas also seemed be be an advocate for AA and any type of mental health or therapeutic or pharmacological help that a person may need to become emotional healthy. So I think for some who have no true sense of self as being loved and cherished by God the Father, this could be difficult advise and he would probably qualify it as such.

    As I heard another priest that I greatly respect say, “You cannot be spiritually healthy without good emotional health.

    So I think that Fr. Tom really nails the essence of that verse and for an emotionally healthy christian or a saint, this is the goal. I can’t imagine St. Paisios talking about how we need to love ourselves before we can love anyone else. That just doesn’t come through in the writing of the saints as I read them. They were writing to Christians who had reached a certain level of perfection. (I believe) We are to die to self love and find our true self in our neighbor. But to say that to an unhealthy person could cause all kinds of co-dependency and other issues.

    And of course, I don’t think that advice precludes a healthy view of ones ability or worth as a person, but simply to see that the real goal is to see that loving our neighbor is really goal and perhaps a love of self isn’t necessary for that to happen. In other words if you are a good carpenter, i don’t think that requires you to say “I’m a terrible carpenter”. That is not humility but foolishness. However, a good carpenter, would do well to forget his great talent (or simply thank God for it) and use it to his neighbors good (and his income.)

    As a personal example, when I first read the pre-communion prayers (and was going through some depression at the time) I couldn’t read them. They seemed self deprecating and completely demoralizing. My spiritual father instead recommended that I read an Akathist or Paraclesis to the mother of God instead. Now, years later, after gaining my grounding in Christ, I see how the pre-communion prayers are extremely helpful in producing true humility. As an “unhealthy” person, I don’t think I could have heeded Fr. Tom’s advice until I found spiritual health.

    I don’t know if my answer makes sense. I’m not sure how my comments tie into the original post. Maybe you can bring it full circle!

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thank you, Brian. I’ve been wondering how Fr McCabe would respond to your good comment and observation, but I do not feel terribly confident in doing so. From what I can tell, he was a very practical man and priest. I can see him perhaps agreeing with what you have written. Clearly the spiritual goal is to be transformed in Christ by the Spirit and to become a person constituted in love of God and neighbor.

      But we must begin where we are in our brokenness. If McCabe is right in his analysis of the human situation, we are enslaved to fear and insecurity, thus producing a self-protective egotism; hence we are incapable of truly loving either God or neighbor. How then are we delivered from this deep fear? Is it not precisely at this point that we need to hear, in the name of the risen Christ, the good news of God’s absolute and unconditional love for us?

      (Perhaps the other Brian can help us out a bit here.)

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    • Karen says:

      You make great sense to me, Brian Stephen. “We love because He first loved us.” We must receive grace from God for the healing of a proper sense of self (as valued/loved by Him) in order to have something from which to draw to love others. Good deeds directed toward others out of a sense of deficit as an obligation and as a performance to earn God’s love and approval is counter-productive to our salvation and healing in Christ. I would say you have a wonderful and wise spiritual father.

      Though it is not Orthodox, years ago as an Evangelical I did a study in the book The Search for Significance by Robert S. McGee at the encouragement of my then therapist. It covers this very subject and I believe could be very profitably read by any who struggle in this area of being able to appropriate and live out of a sense of being loved and forgiven by Christ.

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  8. brian says:

    I think it is a mistake to equate the need for love of self as a symptom of pathology and to therefore see a “selfless” outward directed love where “perhaps a love of self isn’t necessary for that to happen” as the optimum state of being. Here, I would warn against reading patristic texts through an unreconstructed modern lens. For example, there are typical warnings in early Christian teaching against carnality and the passions. If one reads these counsels as a kind of moralism, one will inevitably interpret them as positing a divide between the spirit and the body. A poet like Hawthorne was struck by the tension and despair built into Puritan spirituality, where the artist, nature, and erotic love were placed under suspicion and ultimately censured from sanctified living. When one follows out this logic, one implicitly accepts a theology in which fallen nature is not wounded, but corrupt beyond repair, and in which grace is plastered over a perduring cesspool like Luther’s snow-covered dunghills. The self then becomes the repository of intractable egotism, something that cannot be loved, but must be repudiated or “declared innocent” whilst remaining metaphysically ruinous. I think this is an inherently destructive mode of understanding. The person is constituted as a desire for the Good. One cannot annul desire without annihilating the self. This is much closer in the West to Schopenhaur’s compassionate despair, which many others have rightly compared to some forms of Buddhist spirituality.

    However, all this is wrongly discerned. To go back to a distinction of William Desmond’s that I often make, one should distinguish between the passio essendi (our being as fundamentally gifted prior to our choices, actions, and determinations) and the conatus essendi (the result of all our striving efforts.) There is no doubt, as the insightful work of James E Loder has emphasized in The Logic of the Spirit that the normal formation of identity is fraught with a sense of life’s precarious uncertainty. The nothing from which we are called is experienced as a threat to our being, the solicitude of parental beings is understood to be perhaps capricious and certainly subject to vicissitudes and dangerous fate. Hence, the ego is a frail, vulnerable construction liable to find itself more or less delusional, more or less a mask for forces both powerful and often monstrous, always incomplete, imperfect, vain, weak, and dying. Yet that is far from the last word on the self.

    Another distinction that has become common is to recognize a difference between the modern individual and the person. The individual is posited by modern political philosophers from Hobbes to Locke. The state of nature is said to be a war of all against all. The social contract is understood to be a “mythic” founding in which human society accepts a limitation on individual liberty for the sake of safety and general benefit. In this case, the relation to the other is always secondary and a matter of prudential expediency. There are epistemological commitments that usually accompany individualism. Empiricism, nominalism, and voluntarism often sympathetically coexist. The “truth” of the other becomes one of representation where an isolated idea that is sustained by the isolated individual is said to correspond more or less to an extrinsic reality that is “out there.” Cause is understood as extrinsic force; relations are mediated forms of force, otherness is alien to the self and something one must protect oneself against since it is “always already” a potential threat. The highest good is conceived as radical self-sufficiency in which one no longer “needs” the other, where the freedom of the other is neutralized, or the other is absorbed into the self so that otherness is rendered nugatory. All this is to recapitulate the modern thing and those forms of Christianity that think of the self and of relations in these terms (even if a different language is used that veils an implicit metaphysics) is incompatible with the authentic witness of the Gospel.

    Here is a different narrative. The person is not a static thing. The person is always an event. The person is open to infinite dramatic possibilities. Insofar as the person becomes utterly repetitious, predictable, shallow, closed-off, unloving, and riven by fear, one is confronted with a distorted, wounded condition that is the opposite of genuine personhood. The person is both a gift and a calling. Personhood is from the beginning, but the flourishing of personhood requires eternity, requires a resurrected body no longer narrowed by the restrictions of fallen time. Yet human personhood must begin in time. The human person is first called into personal being by the loving smile of the mother – indeed, all of nature requires the nurturing sympathy and initial call of maternal love. Persons do not begin in striving, but in wondrous receptivity. Whatever accidents or cruelties of perverse malice that later come and put in question the goodness of existence, primal development will not happen without the womb, without a nesting and a love that welcomes the newborn into existence. A feral child, bereft of human community, will not acquire proper language, will not be capable of initiating or sustaining truly human relations. The person, in short, is intrinsically and fundamentally a relational being. Relations are not “added on” to an initially separate “atomized self.” The whole modern conception is built on a failure of understanding or upon a lie.

    Yet this is only an analogy of being. Analogy points towards a reality that outdistances our conceptual comprehension and our imaginative reach. Nonetheless, we are creatures “made for revelation.” We are the face of nature given lips to kiss the divine. Before the conatus essendi, there is the passio essendi. Before the call of the mother, there is the call of the Father. The call of the Father is for the Son – and all of creation participates in the Logos. The logoi of creation find their root in this eternal event. This is why the true name of everything is Christological. This is also why the person transcends the limits of egological construction. The uniqueness of the person, the singularity of an irreplaceable being – and I personally extend this to all being, the beasts, the plants, the granules of sand, though the realization of singularity finds its optimal expression in spiritual being – this “self” is simply the loving will of the Father that the other should be. To refuse to love this self is an act of arrogant ingratitude. It is only in acceptance of the gift of personhood that one is metaphysically capable of love.

    And here many other conceptions open up. I can only touch on them in a cursory fashion now. What one finds, to return to our initial allusion to patristic warnings against the flesh and the passions, is a very subtle irony. In reality, it is Christianity which has the highest respect for nature and for incarnation. It is Christianity that recognizes that the zenith of spiritual life is enfleshed. The warning is not out of hatred or contempt for nature or the body. The warning is out of reverence and delight, out of radical wonder before a good so precious and mysterious, that utmost care produces zealous “anxiety.” For it is only by attending to the spiritual root, the invisible source of gift, that the meaning of the sensible world is made transparent. The modern, empirical mode – the subjectification of secondary qualities after Galileo and the scientific penchant for mathesis – superficially attends to nature, but this nature is unreal. The world as we know it is a shadow realm without inherent dignity, worth, or meaning. We then desperately attempt to project meaning upon a neutral thing that cannot be loved, that has no beauty to surprise us, no deep otherness to enrich us with wondrous, dramatic gift. In short, the warnings make sense if one sees them as directed against false selvings, but only in that context.

    Finally, one should always recollect that the archetype for personhood is Trinitarian. The mysterious God who is love shows us what love is and what it means to be a person. We are offered a mirror for contemplation where the Father’s love for his Son inspires the Son’s limitless desire that the Father’s loving intent be realized for the cosmos in its entirety. Note: God is not satisfied unless every last sheep is made part of the loving joy of the kingdom. In light of the Gospel, the nothing is revealed not as ultimate threat and presage of doom, but as the “enabling condition” that allows for creaturely being. Nothing is transformed from threat as the ego almost inevitably must feel it into a realization that it is ingredient, “sign” of Love’s freedom from necessity, of the creature’s being beloved not for any merit, but purely out of radical, unconditional, faithful, everlasting giving. But even further, Love paradoxically gives to the nothing an irreplaceable, unique goodness. It is this goodnes that is each singular participation in the Divine Name. When we are struck by beauty, this is what brings forth the wound of love. There is an “eros” of “agape” that passionately desires the creatures who, participating in their being, knowingly or by instinct, in the life of the Son, desire the Source, seek the face of the Father. And the Father, as we know from the greatest parable, longingly searches for the lost ones. It is the Spirit’s kenosis to be hiddenly present, even now, as the world appears wounded by tragedy, violence, loneliness, malice, and vulgar imbecility. It is the Spirit that is working, in whimsy and boldness, secretly, and sometimes in glimpses of radiant light, to bring us all into the victory of Christ’s resurrected flesh.

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  9. Brian,

    I’ll have to admit that I didn’t understand much of your response. Not a criticism, just a fact. As they say, you are a pay grade ahead of me. I think you were saying that a healthy love of self is appropriate and honoring to God who made us persons. That sounds good to me. I never quite understood Fr. Hopko’s interpretation completely but something in it reads true to me. Not that i ignore or deny that I have a self but as desert father who I can’t name said, “my life is in my neighbor”. I don’t think that that saying precludes acknowledging and appropriately loving my self that God also made but I think that it does mean that if I try to find life in loving myself before or instead of my neighbor, I haven’t understood the Gospel.

    I’m going to St. Gregory Palamas monastery this weekend and I’ll try to get an opinion from Abbot Joseph Morris about Fr. Hopko’s interpretation. Fr. Joseph always has a balanced approach.

    Stay tuned…

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    • brian says:

      Brian,

      A key distinction to make is that between the temporal ego that is defensive and wounded by sin and the person as gifted by God. The former must indeed die that Christ may live; the latter is our unique participation in divine life. If one recognizes that a person is constituted both as a “center” and by relations, one will see that it is not a question of an “either/or,” but more of a “both/and.”

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