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Matthew 19

Chapter 19:

v. 19: We are commanded to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.  Implicit in this statement is the idea that the love we have for ourselves is always alive and always so strong that it can function as the standard by which we should love others.  The only alternative to this is to believe that Christ is saying that it is OK not to love our neighbors if we do not love ourselves.  That cannot be right.  I believe God has made us in such a way that the love we have for ourselves is unbreakable.  I believe he made us this way to give us a starting point for understanding how we should treat others, hence the proverb: “Just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise” (Luke 6:31).  It is possible to love God or one of his creatures as much as one loves oneself.  It is even possible to love God or one of his creatures more than one loves one’s own physical life, but it is not possible to love anything more than one’s own soul.  And the love one has for another must be nurtured (by both oneself and the other) or it will eventually die,[1] unlike the love one has for oneself.

Some may argue that not everybody loves himself or herself.  Perhaps they will point to suicides as proof of their argument, but I believe they are mistaken.  People who commit suicide because they are depressed may be very disappointed in themselves or in how their lives have turned out,  but the very sadness they feel for themselves is proof of the love they have for themselves.  If I love somebody who is suffering hardship, I will suffer with them to the degree that I love them.  How much more so if I am the sufferer?  On the other hand, I am unmoved by the sufferings of those whom I do not love.  Similarly, if I truly did not love myself, I would not suffer for my own misfortune.  Those who commit suicide are acting on the irrational belief that suicide will improve their situation.  If they truly saw a way to genuine happiness, I feel certain they would take it.  Thus, even when we are so angry with or disappointed in ourselves that we might say we “hate” ourselves, the genuine (even if unrecognized) love we have for ourselves prompts us to seek remedies for our pain.

Notice the sublime paradox at work in God’s methodology.  He has made us in such a way that we love ourselves at all times.  We are constantly seeking our own good, but he has also made us in such a way that our own good is bound up in the good of others.  I cannot be happy unless I love other beings than myself.  First among these other objects of my love must be God.  Next are his creatures.  If I only focus on my own good, I cannot achieve it.  This principle is at the root of Christ’s words when he says, “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25).  In order to have joy, we must be willing to sacrifice certain personal desires to bring joy to others.

I have heard a very cynical and flippant argument against this idea of self-sacrifice.  It goes something like this: Is not such “self-sacrifice” simply another form of selfishness?  The so-called “good” person makes himself or herself happy by helping others, and the so-called “bad” person makes himself or herself happy by indulging in pleasurable things without reference to other people’s concerns.  In the end, both are selfishly seeking their own happiness. In answer to this argument, I would agree that both are seeking their own happiness.  The difference is that the good person seeks his or hers with wisdom and will find it, whereas the bad one will not.  There is a difference in their methods, and the difference is that the good person often seeks his own happiness, paradoxically, by giving it up.  The man who sacrifices an enjoyable afternoon of watching football in order to help his mechanically-impaired neighbor repair his only car, or the drug addict who, for the sake of his family, refuses to get high, or the angry boss who chokes back the pleasure of yelling at an incompetent but well-meaning employee makes a real sacrifice for the happiness of another.  Such acts please God and are more commendable than those which involve no sacrifice of personal pleasure, and they do not deserve the label of “selfish,” with all its negative connotations, in spite of the fact that they do, ultimately, contribute to personal happiness.

Sometimes the pleasure of our love and affection for God or one of his creatures moves us to do good and avoid evil, but this scenario is not the one I describe above.  Whenever pleasure is our primary motive, there is no real sacrifice.  The act that is motivated by pleasure is certainly not spoiled by the pleasure[2] if the act is good in itself, but such an act should not be called self-sacrifice.  This is not to belittle those good acts that are motivated by pleasure but rather to magnify those good acts not motivated by pleasure.  Imagine a boss who does not yell at an incompetent but well-meaning employee because his natural affection for the employee leads him simply to smile and forgive the employee’s mistakes.  Such a boss is motivated by pleasure.  The act itself is good because the employee does not deserve to be yelled at, but the actions of this boss are in a different category than those of the boss who refrains from yelling in spite of the genuine pleasure he believes it would give him.  What motivates this boss not to yell if he believes yelling will bring him pleasure?  His conscience does, his sense of right and wrong.  In the moment that he refrains, he is willfully sacrificing a real pleasure on the altar of God because his conscience advises him to.  It is a mystical act, an act of faith in what is not obvious and evident at the moment.  Perhaps someone will argue with this by saying, “Isn’t this boss also motivated by pleasure, the pleasure of agreeing with his conscience?”  Let such a person remember the moments of genuine temptation just before the last time he truly made such a sacrifice, and I believe he will drop the argument.  Sometimes, mercifully, the pleasure of agreeing with one’s conscience does overwhelm the pleasure of sinning, but this is not the case every time one chooses not to sin.  Sometimes the pleasure of sinning is stronger, but one accepts the advice of one’s conscience in the faith that God (who teaches us about morality through our conscience) knows what is best for us in spite of immediate, forceful, even rational evidence to the contrary.[3] Herein lies the great mystery and beauty of our free will.

[1] Of course this death need not be permanent.  With God’s blessing, it may be resurrected.  Besides, I am only speaking of human love as we experience it in this life.  I believe God’s love for us never dies, and it may be that our love for others will transform itself in heaven so that it is as immortal as our love of self.

[2] After all, God is the author of pleasure.

[3] Faith is distinct from reason in that it goes where reason cannot and makes decisions beyond the capacity of reason.  Faith is also distinct from love (according to Paul in Romans 13) and can operate separately from it, though this is not ideal.  Thus, faith in God could help us even when our love of God is weak.  I may have faith in a good pilot even if I do not love him.


4 Responses to “Matthew 19”

  1. […] [1] See notes on Matthew 19:19. […]

  2. […] [1] See notes on Matthew 19:19. […]

  3. […] love one has for another must be nurtured (by both oneself and the other) or it will eventually die,[1] unlike the love one has for […]

  4. […] love one has for another must be nurtured (by both oneself and the other) or it will eventually die,[1] unlike the love one has for […]

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