Greatest Love of All?
Valentine’s Day is four days away. Red and pink merchandises are everywhere: the day is right around the corner. For some, it’s a day to celebrate love found; for others, it’s to keep it going; still for others, it’s a day of longing for love. Love is on everyone’s mind.
I’m sure you have all listened to Whitney Houston’s unforgettable song, “Greatest Love of All.” In it, she sings, “I found the greatest love of all inside of me. / The greatest love of all is easy to achieve. / Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.”
This song unapologetically declares that the greatest love of all is to love oneself. Why? She never found anyone who fulfilled her deepest longing. She had to depend on herself. She had to learn to love herself. And she realized that this is the greatest love of all—learning to love oneself.
This reflects what has become the ethos of her generation: “I must learn to love myself before I can love anyone else.” Some attribute such thinking to the biblical command known as the second greatest commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” To love others as oneself, one must learn to love oneself first, the logic goes. Is that what the commandment means?
Not really. What is presupposed in the commandment is the fact that we love ourselves more than anyone else. Our self-love is instinctive: it’s as natural as our desire to live. We don’t need to be taught to love ourselves.
But that is not to say that we know how best to love ourselves and others.
Both hedonism and stoicism stem from self-love, as do masochism and sadism. A lot of what we do out of self-love is harmful to us, especially when our self-love is oriented toward immediate gratification. What we need to learn is how best to love ourselves and others.
But who decides that? To distinguish what is good from what is bad, we must have certain criteria. When a mom doesn’t allow her preteen daughter to wear certain revealing clothes and another mom does, who is to say that one mom’s love is greater or better than the other’s?
Is the Golden Rule—“Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you”—the guide? But what if a perfectionist dad treats his children with his exacting, unforgiving demands because that’s what he expects of himself? We must also understand that the Golden Rule, when it was given in the Bible, was not given in a vacuum; it was given within the system of God’s Law, which prescribed how to love others (especially the Ten Commandments).
Is learning to love ourselves the greatest love? Self-love may be the greatest love of all because it is the strongest love we have. But the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves is given as a corrective to the danger of our self-love, which can draw us to narcissism. How would you like to be married to someone who is constantly trying to love himself/herself more?
How different is Jesus’ teaching of the greatest love: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13)! This is the greatest love because it transcends even our most basic, visceral need for self-preservation! Do you have a friend who is willing to give you this greatest love of all? And are you that kind of friend to anyone?
In speaking of the greatest love, Jesus was not simply theorizing; he was talking about what He was about to do for His disciples, whom He honored by calling them His friends. Paul describes the true magnitude of Jesus’ love this way: “one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:7-8). Seeing this, how can we say that learning to love oneself is the greatest love of all?
Why did Jesus give sinners the greatest love of all? It’s not because we deserved it; rather, it’s because we desperately needed it—just as a person with a worse injury requires greater medical care. So great was our need that the only adequate treatment was the Son of God sacrificing His life.
This kind of love may not be what you’re thinking about for Valentine’s Day. But even a beautiful, talented celebrity like Whitney Houston realized that no one could fulfill her need. She chose to turn inward. But can a person with a need that nobody can fill find fulfillment in herself? Our longing for companionship is legitimate and good. But it’s only an inkling of our deep longing for union with our Maker. This greatest love of all can be yours even now if you admit your desperate need for it as a sinner and believe in Jesus!