Yes, I know. A ridiculous song, and an even worse pick-up line.
That was my work-out music this morning, and then – because, you know, Valentine’s – Susan and I listened to my new Ed Sheeran album.
In one of his songs, he says something like “I can’t love you unless I love me first” or some such thing.
Whatever it was, it was the same sentiment as “learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all” which plagued the airwaves in the late 80’s. I am not sure if it was more offensive philosophically or aesthetically, but that is neither here nor there.
It goes back to 1 John.
I just finished preaching through 1 John. You can’t preach through 1 John without meditating on the nature and definitions of love. I like precision, and as a minister I believe we need to be precise in our words. I strive for precision, not sound-bites. So I think about words.
John tells us that “God is love.” Love is an essential attribute of God. God cannot be divested of love any more than God can be divested of Godhead. God’s attributes and his essence are identical, to put it into theological terms.
If you would like to learn more about this (and I think you should) I would recommend this excellent book by James Dolezal.
This means that there was never a time when God didn’t know what love was, for God is love, and God’s knowledge of himself is perfect.
Which leads to the next question – if God is love, and this is identical to his nature, then whom did God love before he created the heavens and the earth. We, of course, do not believe that creation is eternal. There was a time before creation where there was only God – before time and space and angels and men. God is the eternal I AM.
So whom did he love before he created? Love must involve a lover and a loved. There must be more than on person in order for there to be love. So whom did God love? The answer lies in the Trinity.
Jesus prayed, “For thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world.” (John 17:24)
So here is where my mind is going after Ed Sheeran and Whitney Houston: is self-love possible? By the very nature of love, the subject must reach out to an object outside of itself. To say that one must love oneself is to say that one must somehow divide into knower and known, subject and object, lover and loved, and turn love back on itself. Is love simply dissociation made into a virtue?
I think we must be precise in our language. Love, by it’s very definition, needs a lover and a loved. Two parties, at a minimum. Narcissus staring at himself at the pool is a mental disorder, not love. He has divided himself into subject and reflection, and has become an object of pity rather than a healthy human in God’s image.
In the words of Dylan – “He worships at the altar of a stagnant pool and when he sees his own reflection he’s fulfilled.”
So what should we call it? Dylan’s image certainly wouldn’t make a good valentine’s card. I don’t think “love” is the right word. It is a mental disorder, not love.
I think I know what they are getting at when they say, “love yourself”. But I would ask for more precision. I think that the world has enough narcissism. But at the same time, a person filled with shame and self-loathing is stuck unable to reach out of themselves to fully love another being.
So there is some truth to saying, “Love yourself”, it is just that the language is wrong.
How did Jesus put it:
36 Master, which is the great commandment in the law?
37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
38 This is the first and great commandment.
39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
And there, I think, is the key. The second commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. But, it might be asked, how does one do that without first becoming a narcissist?
The answer, I believe, is in the first commandment. Love God.
If you love God, you also recognize and acknowledge the good gifts that God has given you. You refuse to despise and loathe your body, for God made it. You don’t reject the abilities God has given you, but understand that you have many good gifts given to you by your good Father in heaven.
You also know that Jesus came into the world to bear your sin and shame, so that is taken away and you have been born again. You are no longer the “worst sinner you know” but a child of the king, cleansed, sanctified, and in the process of being conformed to the image of God’s son.
This means that you are in the process of becoming more and more beautiful. You are chosen by God, loved by God, given every good gift by God.
So perhaps instead of saying “love yourself”, you should say, “loved by God.”
We love him because he first loved us, after all.
What this does is nip arrogance in the bud, condemn narcissism, and lifts our head above our own reflection to see that there is a whole other world besides the one in our head. There are people out there who need your kindness and love. There are people who need the glass of cold water from your hand and the meal from your larder. There are empty seats at your table. And you can only fill those seats in your heart when you look up and see the beauty and goodness and bounty of our loving God.
Correct perspective also nips shame in the bud. Forgiveness wipes the record clean and the new garments of Christ’s righteousness are made perfectly for you. A bespoke suit.
You are dressed for reception in the halls of the great king, who loves you and gave himself for you.
Isn’t this far, far better than “learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.”
I apologize for getting Foreigner stuck in your head.