Having grown up in a family who are Christians, I’m familiar with some of the more “famous” verses in the Bible. Those almost clichéd phrases that always make it on to fridge magnets, mugs, even cushion covers. Sometimes, however, another person’s interpretation of a verse completely turns my understanding of it on its head. A few days ago a good friend of mine did just that.
This verse is one that you would doubtless come across if you’ve spent enough time around churches. Even if you tend to avoid churches, there’s a good chance you’d have met this particular one: I’ve sat in religious education classes in high school discussing it in great length. I’d read it to other kids in Children’s Church, as I had doubtless had it read to me when I was much younger. It reads simply:
‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ (Mark 12:31, The Message)
In all the years that I’ve repeatedly come across and discussed this verse, the emphasis have always been on the same thing: “love others”. I see where everyone’s coming from. In this current society, many people trample on others to get themselves to the top. It makes perfect sense that we stress the importance of loving other people.
But here is the thing: the verse does not say “love others before yourself” or “love others above yourself”. I am certainly guilty of interpreting this verse as an instruction to put other’s needs before my own. I’m sure there will be others that thought of this verse the same way. I certainly know people who serve their socks off without a single thought to their own wellbeing. Putting other people’s needs above your own all the time might lead to burnout. At worst, people might start to take advantage of you.
What I’ve missed before was the second part of the phrase: “love yourself”.
What if that’s the most important part of the verse? What if, once you’re perfectly comfortable with your identity, loving others follow on naturally from the love for yourself?
Something I’ve learned when I look back at the time where depression was overwhelming me is that it is impossible to maintain effortless, healthy relationships with other people when I’m in that state of mind. When all I feel for my own self is hate and dismissal, there was no reserve for me to draw from to invest on other people. I’d started to isolate myself. I drew myself further away from my friends. God seemed to be distant and uncaring.
Perhaps to put myself in the best place to love others was to love myself. When I take care of myself, it surely follows that there is less of a risk of burnout from serving the needs of other people. When I treat myself with respect, there is less of a chance people would take advantage of the love that I am showing them. When I am at peace with my identity as an extravagantly loved daughter of God, it makes perfect sense that loving and serving other people would come naturally.
So that is my epiphany of the week: “Love others as you love yourself.”