The double commandment of love, meaning ‘Love God with all you have and love your neighbor as yourself,’ seems simple and easy to do. Nothing could be further from the truth! People often forget that there is an order to the two. The most important is the first: “Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with your whole heart, and with your whole being, and with your whole strength” (Deut. 6:5). What makes it difficult is the word “whole”. There can be no compromise. We must put God first (before family and country) and love Him WITH EVERYTHING WE’VE GOT!
No excuses! No short cuts! No ifs, ands, or buts! Even if this means going to our death!
Tell me, who thinks this is easy?
The second part is actually two and they are interlocking: ‘We must love our neighbor as we love ourselves.’ Simple, right? Again, not quite.
At the basis of this part is the assumption that we have a healthy love for ourselves since this is the measure with which we are called to love our neighbor. But if we barely tolerate ourselves, and, if even worse, we can’t stand ourselves, guess what? That is what we will do with the other persons in our lives!
Having a healthy self-love must never be confused with egotism, pleasure-seeking, self-righteousness, self-indulgence, etc. These things destroy the true self of the person.
But, if we are truly honest, we have to admit that we often go around with a mask on. We present to others a ‘role’ that we have been taught at home, e.g. black sheep, savior child, the different one, etc. Or we join a way of life that tells us how we should act and invites us to put on the role we think we should be playing as a “politician,” “doctor,” and, yes, “priest.”
I have met too many priests that are not comfortable being themselves, so when they put on a collar they take on a role to play and not a life to live. But this is certainly not a “clergy only” fault. There are many roles that families and working environments ask all of us to play.
The only problem is that we can begin to believe that we are that role. We then construct (always unconsciously) a false self that we present to others as who we really are. The only problem is that it is not who we really are.
Because of social pressure or confusion, we abandon our true selves, which then often languish in the darkness. Then, on a deeper level, we unconsciously reject this made-up self. But who then is the real me?
This is the age-old quest regarding self-knowledge. In Christianity, we are called to reject this false self (that often is conflated with the prior sinful self before conversion), and in discovering who we truly are we discover something amazing. The Trappist spiritual writer Thomas Merton put it best: “The first step toward finding God, Who is Truth, is to discover the truth about myself.”
Many people (most? all?) instinctively hate the masked person that we think we are. But to hate the true self is to hate Christ.
Therefore, our spiritual journey (with the help of confessors and spiritual directors) is to discover who we really are, embrace it, and, by doing that, also embrace the Christ within us. Self-hatred or self-rejection at this level can only be seen as sinful because it is so self-destructive. But the journey needs a radical honesty with oneself.
For most people, this self-hatred is very muted and hardly noticeable. It comes out almost instinctively and even innocently in the corners of expressions we use about ourselves.
How can we possibly follow that second great command to love our neighbor as ourselves if we do not love ourselves? Many people in this situation often project their self-hatred onto the other and thereby twist Jesus’ command to something like: “Reject your neighbor just like you have rejected yourself!” This was never what Christ meant! Love means love. We are commanded to first love ourselves, then to extend to others the love we have cultivated in us.
This healthy self-love is not an excuse to continue bad behavior. To truly love ourselves is to stop destructive and self-defeating behavior.
It is in prayer with Jesus where He leads us to that self-acceptance that helps us to love each other and, ultimately, to love God. We can think we are doing it correctly when, in fact, we can be all wrong.
Every adult Christian in prayer must bring this to God and ask God to shine the light of Grace into our hearts so that we can end destructive patterns of action and put on the ‘new self’ which is made in the image and likeness of Christ.