Too Hurt to Love Others?
Christ our Lord taught that we must love our neighbors as ourselves. Many wish to take this command to heart, but find themselves crippled by past hurts. They want to love their husbands; they know they need to show more love to their children; they understand how important it is to love the ones who hurt them. But they feel “wounded” and believe that before they will be able to love others they first need to go through a period of recovery. For them, Christ’s command to love is like telling a crippled person to walk – healing must precede obedience.
The result of receiving a wound, physical or emotional, is that a person becomes preoccupied with the injury. For example, if I cut my leg I instinctively stop whatever I am doing and give attention to the wound. Until that cut is healed, or at least treated and bandaged, I remain incapacitated. If the injury is serious I will favor that leg, and likely exempt myself from normal duties. In fact, if I am laid up until it is healed, I will receive special attention and care from my family.
So also, those who experience the trauma of some kind of abuse may become highly self-focused. The pain of their wounds has caused them to be “self-protective” or “self-preserving.” Instead of entering relationships to love others they tend to enter them with their guard up, subconsciously hoping to survive. They may be so hampered by "low self-esteem" or "self-hatred" that to love others as themselves, they feel, would not be accomplishing much. They are convinced that they first need to “recover” and regain self-love, so that they will have the capacity to love others. Yes, it would seem that before we can love others we must first love ourselves, but we must determine, is that what our Lord meant when he gave us that commandment?
Jesus said “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mat 22:39). That means we are to love those around us in the same way that we love ourselves. The Greek word used here for love is agape which means unconditional commitment. His command therefore means for us to be as committed and devoted to others to the same degree we are to ourselves.
Jesus did not tell us to have affection for others in the same way we have affection for ourselves. The word agape is devoid of emotion or feeling. It describes a commitment based on an act of the will. He told us to choose to be committed to others, not simply to have affection for them. He knew that every human being loves himself, that is, he knew that we all are committed to ourselves, holding ourselves in high regard. Such commitment to self is inherent in human nature, and is what keeps us all alive. It was, in fact, because Christ recognized our tendency to think so much about ourselves that he commanded that we share that commitment equally with others. In other words, it is his intent that the importance and attention we give to ourselves be given to others. That is what it means to love your neighbor as yourself.
With this properly understood it can be easily seen how even self-hatred is simply a manifestation of extreme self-interest. It is actually only because of great self-interest and high expectations that we get mad at ourselves. Consider that whether I stand in front of the mirror and say, "I like what I see" or if I stand there and say, "I hate what I see," the only reason I've made either assessment is because I'm so concerned for me. The first response reflects satisfaction that I have achieved my goal of looking good -- the second reveals frustration that I have not. Both responses are rooted in love for self. Following this metaphor, a truly humble person wouldn't look in a mirror and think either highly or lowly of himself – he is selfless and what he sees is hardly important.
God points out the lack of existence of genuine self-hate in Ephesians 5:29 & 33 when He tells us that there is no man that hates his own flesh, but rather we each love and nurture ourselves. Jesus' command to love our neighbor as ourselves makes perfect sense to that individual who is filled with so-called "self-hatred." Jesus meant that the time, importance, and attention he places on himself, he is to focus on other people. That is precisely what it means to love your neighbor as yourself. Low "self esteem" and a poor "self image" is no excuse for not loving your neighbor, enemy, or spouse. In fact, that self-consumed person is just the one who needs most to get outside himself and focus his attention on others. When it really comes down to it, the biggest hindrance to our loving other people is not self-hatred, but too much self love.
This "self-hating" manifestation of self love is further demonstrated in the effects of disappointment with ourselves. We can even be so interested in our own well-being and success that when we fail ourselves, our anger toward ourselves may lead to an attempt on our part to punish ourselves. To the self-hating person who thinks about himself all day long Jesus commands, "Get outside of yourself and give to others the same time and importance you give to yourself." The self-hating person is not at all exempted from loving and caring for others, but in fact, must repent of his self-concern and start committing himself to other people.
Therein lies the misunderstanding most of us have fallen into with this command. We have assumed Jesus gave this directive with an unspoken clause "...but first you have to learn to love yourself." He did not, however, say that. Let us remember, He was not addressing the issue of affection, but of commitment.
Think about it the other way. If Jesus had meant that we were to have affection for our neighbor in the same way we have affection for ourselves, most of the human race would be exempt from obeying that command. So few of us really even like ourselves. How convenient that would be -- we could put off our responsibility to love others until sometime down the line we develop a "healthy" self love.
This though, is what many of us have done. We exempt from their responsibility to love others -- those who are feeling down and depressed. We tend to excuse them from caring for the one who hurt them, assuming that they need time for healing. In the words of Richard Wurmbrand, the Romanian pastor who was imprisoned and tortured for 14 years in a communist prison, "The length of time it takes to recover from emotional hurt is directly related to the length of time it takes to forgive." The incapacitating effects of our wound only last as long as we hold onto bitterness.
There is no doubt about it. The biggest hindrance to our ability to love and forgive others, including our mates, is the love we have for ourselves. The degree of our anger or resentment is directly related to the degree of our self-importance – the greater the love of self, the harder to forgive – the less of self that exists, the easier it is to forgive. For us to hold onto anger against someone, because of something they have done, is to be consumed with self-love. The resentment we feel towards them will handicap us in our ability to love or serve them, and consequently, in marriage, it will make carrying out our marital roles an impossible and painful task. We will ultimately render ourselves emotionally and spiritually impotent.
If we ever want to be free from the "misery" of obeying God in our duty to others, we must first remove the devil's grip in our life. We must make a choice to forgive -- not holding anything against our offenders. We must cancel their debt to us in the same way that God forgives our debt to Him (Col 3:13; Eph 4:32). This is especially difficult for those who fear that forgiving someone will mean that they won't now change. We can, however, be certain that only blessing awaits those who obey God. To get rid of resentment and bitterness will not only change the way we relate to others, but will remove from our life something like a cancerous cell, which perhaps unknown to us, has been infecting everything we do.
Adapted from “Help for the Struggling Marriage”