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Matthew 22:

39 And the second command is like the first: ‘Love your neighbor the same as you love yourself.

Self love, esteem, worth, etc are matters of the spirit and personality - that are foundations for how we live our lives.

What is the description of self-love Christians are expected to have for themselves and their neighbors?

Another issue, what is meant by this in a society where self love is low or rare (and why wasn't that considered when Jesus said this)?

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up vote 5 down vote accepted

Before getting into the details of what I've been taught on the subject, for those that don't know, we should first establish the three types of love in common Christian teaching. They are based on the Greek words used that are commonly translated as love.

  • phileo - properly, to show warm affection in intimate friendship, characterized by tender, heartfelt consideration and kinship.
  • eros - romantic love
  • agape - properly, love which centers in moral preference. So too in secular ancient Greek, 26 (agápē) focuses on preference; likewise the verb form (25 /agapáō) in antiquity meant "to prefer"

Agape love is considered the purest form of love. To prefer another is to put their needs ahead of your own, and to esteem them higher than others. It is the type of love that we are to have for others, but it's the rarest. It's the type of love that motivates us to willingly lose our lives for those that we love. A parent sacrificing their life so save a child, for example, or Christ's love for us.

The word that's translated as "love" here is the agape love.

Given that, the principle is that we are to put our neighbors first - to prefer them the way we normally prefer ourselves.

You mentioned in the question that there is little self-love these days. That depends entirely on how you define love. Of the three forms, eros and phileos deal with how we feel. Agape deals with how we behave toward another. Agape love is a choice and an action, while the other two are simply feelings, which can change. Generally speaking, agape love is unconditional, and the other two are conditional. We feel them because being with someone makes us feel good. When we no longer feel those feelings, we say we fall out of love.

It's this understanding of love that prompts the phrase "Love is a choice, not a feeling".

When you think about it, for the most of us, barring those that are filled with enough self-loathing to resort to self-mutilation or suicide, most of us put our own needs first most of the time, even if we don't particularly feel good about ourselves.

We eat, rather than starve. We fight to survive in life-threatening situations. We value our own opinions over other people's opinions. We'd rather have our own way, even if we let others have theirs. In general, whether we do so outwardly we think more about our own needs than we do about the needs of others. In short, we are selfish. It's human nature.

And we these things because because we value ourselves. Whether we like to admit it or not, we prefer ourselves over others most of the time. Just like we prefer ourselves over God. "I don't feel like going to Church. I have too much to do to waste time in prayer", etc.

This verse speaks to that and says "Don't be like that. Instead of saying I'd love to help you move, but I have to (Fill in the blank) Instead of thinking of what you want to do, think of your neighbor's needs and prefer (agape love) them. Help them at your own sacrifice."

Perhaps put more simply:

The one who says "I'd love to help you but I need to XXXXXXXX" is preferring himself. Putting his own needs above the one who needs help.

The one who says "Can I help you" when they have something else they'd rather be doing, even (or especially) if what they'd rather be doing is a true need is preferring (agape loving) their neighbor as he would love himself.

It's actually just another form of the golden rule. Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

A shorter version can be found in Clarke's Commentary on the Bible

The love of our neighbor springs from the love of God as its source; is found in the love of God as its principle, pattern, and end; and the love of God is found in the love of our neighbor, as its effect, representation, and infallible mark. This love of our neighbor is a love of equity, charity, succor, and benevolence. We owe to our neighbor what we have a right to expect from him - "Do unto all men as ye would they should do unto you," is a positive command of our blessed Savior. By this rule, therefore, we should speak, think, and write, concerning every soul of man: - put the best construction upon all the words and actions of our neighbor that they can possibly bear. By this rule we are taught to bear with, love, and forgive him; to rejoice in his felicity, mourn in his adversity, desire and delight in his prosperity, and promote it to the utmost of our power: instruct his ignorance, help him in his weakness, and risk even our life for his sake, and for the public good. In a word, we must do every thing in our power, through all the possible varieties of circumstances, for our neighbors, which we would wish them to do for us, were our situations reversed.

This is the religion of Jesus! How happy would Society be, were these two plain, rational precepts properly observed! Love Me, and love thy Fellows! Be unutterably happy in me, and be in perfect peace, unanimity, and love, among yourselves. Great fountain and dispenser of love! fill thy creation with this sacred principle, for his sake who died for the salvation of mankind!

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Do you have a reference or two for your definition of agape? I've heard and read from a good number of sources that it refers to a selfless sort of love, phrased a variety of ways; haven't heard or read that it amounts to preference. And although that makes interpreting this passage somewhat easier, I'm hesitant to give my +1 on account of that uncertainty. – svidgen Jan 18 '13 at 3:01
I'm also looking right now and struggling to find a reference that doesn't define agape as one of: divine love, love between God and man, charity, etc.. – svidgen Jan 18 '13 at 3:04
@svidgen - I added links to each of the three words of love, and the one for agape is the exact definition I copied. However, your understanding of selfless, divine love also deals with preference in the way I meant it. Selfless love would be preferring the subject of that love over or more than yourself, would it not? – David Jan 18 '13 at 3:57
The links are helpful. (+1) Dealing with agape as a form of preference or an act of preferring is helpful in interpreting the passage, even though something still bugs me about this answer -- can't really put my finger on what though. – svidgen Jan 18 '13 at 4:16
I might steal a bit of your answer for my own answer, which I feel like I need to write -- if only to clarify in my mind what's bugging me about your answer! – svidgen Jan 18 '13 at 4:21

Providing a Catholic-ish answer and taking some inspiration from David's answer, let's cover the basics:

The type of love referred to in Matthew 22:39 is agape. Agape is a relatively simple concept which I often find incredibly difficult to properly comprehend, let alone explain. Peter Kreeft does a pretty good job going into some detail in his article on Love.

Starting here with a fairly raw, well-accepted definition, which you can find reiterated most anywhere agape is written about, it's a type of "appreciation" that embodies a few qualities the other forms of "appreciation" lack:

  • It's active rather than passive. Agape is something we do; it's not involuntary, and it's not a feeling, though it may occur in conjunction with feelings.
  • Agape is not necessarily metered by the subject. Ideally, we say that agape is unconditional. More accurately, I think, agape can be unconditional. We can scarcely choose to feel eros for a detestable person, but we can choose to express agape for someone regardless of their detestability.
  • It is strictly good. Unlike eros and phileo, which may be centered on bad things, agape is always the expression of a desire for good things for its subject. In Christianity, that means agape always seeks God for its subject on a fundamental level, even if imperfectly through finite good (God-related) things.
  • It's subject is always a person. Again, unlike feelings of eros or phileo that can occur in arguably perverse relationships between people and animals, machines, and concepts, agape is always in relation to a person. (The person can be God.)

So, the general sense of agape is the active seeking of good, Godly things for some person. We can choose to perform this love regardless of the subject's detestability. And ultimate, the very nature of agape is to seek the ultimate good, relationship with God (I am who am, The Act of Being Itself, the Trinity of Love, etc.) for the subject, a person.

In this sense, I find that self-love (self-agape) is not only quite good, but it's a necessary step to loving others. For, if we do not know God, and if we do not have the desire for relationship with God for ourselves, we cannot properly desire it for others.

Possibly extending beyond the question a little, if we are not already filled with love (agape), we cannot love at all. That is, our ability to love is constrained by our relationship with God and the love for God that God gives us. The ultimate good we seek for others in agape is precisely a love for God. All other goods are just stepping stones to this.

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It may be notable to mention, agape is perfected in the realization of ultimate good in the subject. I.e., our love for God (and in Catholicism, the saints) is in appreciation and enjoying the perfect relationship they have with God. Specifically for God, the perfect relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. – svidgen Jan 18 '13 at 5:00
Your four bullet points were spot-on. You expressed some things that were just vague ideas in my head, in a clear, accurate way. +1 and I wish I could +more. – David Jan 18 '13 at 5:09
@DavidStratton Thanks. And thanks for the inspiration! – svidgen Jan 18 '13 at 5:21
@svidgen: thanks for describing the qualities of these loves, this really helps. – Greg McNulty Jan 18 '13 at 7:50

My answer is based on a definition of love that is implied in Scripture, but not necessarily spelled out in chapter and verse. I learned it from Les Feldick's "Through The Bible" program. Any child can grasp the definition of Biblical love. It's simply seeking the other's highest good. (and only God is good).

When Jesus commands us to love our neighbor as our selves. We simply seek eternal life for them as we desire it for ourselves. Jesus further commands his apostles "love one another as I have loved you" Jesus loved us by doing His Father's will. Believers love one another likewise, by doing our Father's will. For some, this love manifests itself in working toward getting God's Word out, the Gospel of grace, so that every man and woman, boy and girl can come to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.

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Welcome to the site! Excellent good first answer! – David Jan 18 '13 at 20:00
@barney: "It's simply seeking the other's highest good. (and only God is good)." very good point, I hope to do that more often myself... – Greg McNulty Jan 19 '13 at 21:24

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