Isn’t it interesting that in the summing up of our faith, in the summing up of the “rules” that ought to govern every believer, we are ordered to love?
God doesn’t act out of loathing or hatred, but love. So too must we be a people of love.
But how does God love?
To see that, we turn to Jesus, for those who have seen him have seen God (John 14:9).
We see his sacrifice, we see his miracles, we see his life centered on others and their good – our good.
This life centered on others reflects a different love, a defining love. This love, this all-consuming love that Christ has for God is the source for the love he has for us. Likewise, our love for God fuels our love for others.
Until recently, when I read Mark 12:29-31 the only aspects I really paid attention to were the commands to love God and love people. This was a mistake.
Without meaning to, I had been interpreting, “Love your neighbor as yourself” as, “Love your neighbor better than yourself” or even, “Love your neighbor at the expense of yourself.”
I had heard many great preachers deplore selfishness and had taken it to mean that thinking of myself in any way was selfish.
So determined was I to “love my neighbor” that I began to hate myself for needing anything, especially if my need “cost” me the opportunity to help someone.
But this too is an expression of sin, as I failed to fulfill the command to love myself.
Thankfully, a wise mentor asked me to consider this passage in a new way, to ponder the twofold nature of “love your neighbor as yourself.”
What if, she posited, this was a command about my relationship with myself and with other people?
As in all things, a look at Jesus offers the best example:
- He retreated from the crowds when he needed rest.
- He slept when he needed sleep (even in the middle of world-ending storms).
- He ate with his disciples, just as they ate.
- He took time to grieve.
- He took time to celebrate.
- He tended his relationship with God through prayer and fasting.
These acts weren’t selfish; they modeled love of self.
Jesus did not minister in a way that denied his personhood or needs. He did not do ministry to the detriment of himself.
Rather, Jesus shows us that to love our neighbors well, we must first love ourselves.
Jesus gave generously of his time to serve others, but he also protected time for rest, solitude and personal needs.
If we are asked to follow him, to do as he does, then don’t we also need to tend our own needs – spiritual, physical and emotional?
How heartbreaking must it be for God to see us living lives of undiagnosed self-hatred? To see beloved children pouring themselves into service without taking time for rest and renewal?
Amid our current pandemic, it has been more important than ever to set up healthy boundaries that help me balance love of self and others.
It is now easier than ever to stray too far to the right or left of the narrow road of a God-honoring life.
Without the natural divisions of my workday, I can literally work without end, spending days without eating or opening the Bible under the false narrative of the Lord’s ministry.
On the other hand, some days it is the easiest thing in the world to surrender the day over to the spirit of defeat, to indulge in my sloth and selfishness, to choose to believe that ministry done from a home office is less valuable than ministry done in person.
To help me stay balanced, I have been starting my day with a time of Bible study and worship, as well as setting hard time limits for myself and my ministry schedule.
I’m using my phone timer, as well as my family and phone calls from trusted friends, to hold me accountable.
Before we are commanded to love our neighbor, we are commanded to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”
It is only from this beginning place we can properly learn to love at all. For it is in loving God and knowing God’s love for us that we truly begin to know others and ourselves. It is only from God’s love for us that we can begin to love properly at all.
When we find ourselves caught in a cycle of exhaustion, we must remember that service and ministry can be an idol that can cloud our vision.
God gave us the example of Jesus to show us we cannot do God’s will if we are completely empty. We must rest before we can work. We must be filled before we can pour out.
Only then can we truly love our neighbor as ourselves.
Jackie Murphy is a rising Senior at Baylor University studying anthropology, poverty studies and social justice, and religion.