I grew up hearing that I should love my neighbor as I love myself, and, later, that I couldn’t truly love someone else unless I loved myself. These ideas threw me off kilter for a long time. Especially as I grew into teenage-hood and my depression hit me harder, I could not understand this concept because, frankly, I didn’t feel like I loved myself. In fact, sometimes, or maybe most of the time, I hated myself! But I loved others… didn’t I?
Agape is a Greek word used frequently in the New Testament for “love.” It is a sacrificial, unconditional love. It is the love with which the Father loves us and with which we are to love Him in return. It is also the type of love we are to have for each other. And, in my opinion, it is a very misunderstood concept.
In the New Testament, there are three main Greek words which are all translated to our word love. One is a passionate, sexual, romantic love (eros). Another is a brotherly love; it describes the kind of feeling we have in a friendship with someone we really like (phileo). The last is the deepest kind of love, but it is not based on feelings but rather on doing good towards someone (agape).
I’ll say it again: agape is based on actions rather than feelings. This is why I, as a simple English-speaker, misunderstood it. Love usually means a feeling, not an action. And despite growing up with “Luv is a Verb” by DC Talk, I did not really grasp the concept of applying this action-based love to myself and others.
Love Thyself, Love Thy Neighbor
Depression aside (because I know sometimes in that pit it is hard to even take care of oneself), I think it’s fair to say that most people have this “agape love” toward themselves. We do good to ourselves. We give ourselves good things – food, things, shelter. We take care of our bodies and minds. We do what we can to relieve pain and keep out of harm’s way. We generally treat ourselves pretty well! This is what I believe is meant by loving others as we love ourselves.
As Christians, we’re called to treat everyone with this kind of unconditional love. We are to take care of each other, look after each other, love on each other. Not necessarily because we feel affectionate! Even when I think that I hate myself or hate a part of myself, I still tend to treat myself well. And even if we don’t like everyone that we come in contact with, we’re to do the same – treat them well. They are made in God’s image and loved by Him, and we are to do good to them, not harm.
I questioned myself before I got married. I wasn’t sure whether I would really be capable of loving my husband after being told for so long that I could not love someone else unless I loved myself first. And did I really love myself? Sometimes I sure didn’t feel very pleased with who I was or how I behaved or looked. I think it would be more accurate to say that you can’t act lovingly towards your spouse if you don’t know how to act lovingly toward yourself. If you abuse yourself, you’re likely to abuse your spouse. But understanding unconditional love, or agape, means understanding how to be kind and loving in spite of what you may or may not feel.
And, of course, it’s often easy in marriage to treat your spouse with agape, since there’s usually eros and phileo to motivate you.
I hope I’ve explained my thoughts well enough to be understood!