17 “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. 18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.
Leviticus 19:17-18 NASB
“Big L” is the new “little l”
There is a lot of talk in theological circles about “the law.” Paul talks at length about it, saying we are either “under” the law or “under” grace. I like to go to Hebrews 2 for a description:
2 For if the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just penalty, 3 how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? – Hebrews 2:2-3 NASB
The law is that which identifies the boundary of a transgression. It defines exactly what obedience and disobedience are, and it spells out the just penalty or reward. Many people suppose there are two “kinds” of law – which are called “Big L Law” and “little l law”. Big L Law is the written law, spelled out in the pages of scripture. It says, don’t commit adultery, and don’t ask why. Just do it! Little l law is the law of the conscience. It is situational law that we instinctively know without having it spelled out. Little l law is a biblical concept:
14 For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, 15 in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, 16 on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus. – Romans 2:14-16 NASB
But let’s take a look at this famous piece of Big L Law, in Leviticus 19:18. Notice that we are told to love our neighbor as ourselves. The idea that we love ourselves is taken as a given – it is assumed that we love ourselves. Further on we are going to examine this assumption more closely. The salient point now is that we are given an internal, “little l” style reference point, in this biggest of “Big L” commands. In any situation, if we are confused about what to do, this law tells us what we need to know. Our own self-love is the standard. “Big L” Law is “little l” law.
This is also true of the other famous piece of “Big L” Law:
4 “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! 5 “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. – Deuteronomy 6:4-5 NASB
How much shall we love the Lord? We are given internal subjective standards: all of our heart and soul and might. So the two most important “Big L” laws point directly to subjective internal “little l” law.
Furthermore, Jesus teaches us that these two commandments encapsulate the whole of “Big L” Law:
36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And He said to him, ” ‘YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.’ 38 “This is the great and foremost commandment. 39 “The second is like it, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’ 40 “On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” – Matthew 22:36-40 NASB
So I think that on reflection, the entirety of “Big L” Law is really pointing at the supremacy and importance of “little l” law. “Big L” law simply codifies and solidifies something that our internal sense of conscience is already telling us.
But I don’t really want to talk about any of that.
The divided self
“Loving yourself” is a very interesting idea. It implies that somehow within us, there is some kind of division: a core self, and a separate self which loves that self. There must be a division because love is a relational construct. So we’ll call the two selves the core-self, and the judge-self.
Why do I call the second self the judge-self? Love is also a choice, which means that the judge-self, must either love or not love on the basis of a judgment of worthiness. This means that there is a judgement going on within myself – I either am or am not worthy of love. If I feel I don’t love myself enough, it means my core-self must either influence my judge-self to lower its standards so I can be accepted and approved, or that my core self must live up to my judge-self’s expectations. Of course, it is a sign of the complexity of this issue that it is the core-self’s actual unflagging self-love which causes it to seek the approval of the judge-self in the first place.
On reflection, I think it is clear that the judge-self which either gives or withholds self-love is the conscience. I’ve always thought that the conscience is the great clue that we are not purely physical genetic meat-machines. How could the existence of a magical internal voice that is always just and right, which tortures us constantly for our own wrong choices, have arisen as an adaptive survival advantage? It is especially strange that it seems constantly to go against our desires. All of this seems to be no advantage at all! It would be far better to be able to take and kill and mate and such with no such inward constraint.
Biblically we were divided this way at the point of the fall in Genesis 3. There was an exact point of time, “when the woman saw”, that something could be called good in a way that wasn’t morally good. Before that time, everything that was desirable was also morally acceptable, as no one had ever seen the forbidden as being a delight.
6 When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate. – Genesis 3:6 NASB
So this divided self, this self which loves itself conditionally, is the very warp and woof of our flawed humanity. This struggle with the conscience is our main problem, and it is the problem which the gospel solves.
Greater Love than Self-Love
Isn’t it interesting that Jesus directly stated that the greatest love is a love which negates self-love (John 15:13)? In context, what He means is this: God’s sacrificial love for us is much greater than our own self-love. It is impossible that He is encouraging them to love sacrificially, because they are just about to very dramatically not lay down their lives for Him less than an hour from that statement. He is clearly talking about His own sacrifice for them. Isn’t it telling that He washed their feet, but He never asked for them to wash His feet?
The problem with our own self-love is that we are ignorant, sinful, limited, temporal, and entirely conditional. We are not capable of loving ourselves the way God loves us. God is infinite and eternal and extremely brilliant and is so full of love that the apostle John says that He is love (1 John 4:16)! When we let our own view of ourselves rule our own identity, there is no way to go except judgement. That’s what our divided-self conscience does: it judges. It is conditional. It doesn’t constantly sound out mercy, it sounds out a firm commitment to perfect justice. Our idolatry is that we think this is the voice of God.
The gospel declares that while we are yet sinners, at our worst, God demonstrates His own love towards us, His greatest and most sacrificial love (Romans 5:8). It kills the idolatrous faux-God of the judge-self. This is the way in which we are baptized into Christ’s death (Romans 6:3). Where our judge-self sees our worst secrets and proclaims righteous judgement, God declares ultimate and eternal mercy. It completely declaws and dethrones the judge-self, whose worst accusations are swallowed up in a great consuming eternal mercy. All of its accusations are met with the message of the justifying propitiation, the great and enduring mercy of the cross of Christ. In Christ our identity has definitively shifted: no longer are we the judged, we are the beloved. Our identity becomes this: we are the beloved of God. In effect, our conscience is washed clean, and our judge-self dies.
All New Testament gospel imperatives must flow from this dynamic: we are definitively declared to be the beloved. God in Christ has spoken: He would rather die than spend eternity apart from us. Our judge-self has been crucified with Christ, and we have entered back into our unified existence. Our conscience no longer defines us. We are saved, we are set free, we are no longer living under the constant electric scrutiny of our guilt. It has been died for. We do not even need to understand the divisions or nature of our inward selves – there is another who knows all things, and He loves us. We can rest our frantic identity search in Him. It is constantly true that there is therefore now no condemnation (Romans 8:1)!
19 Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. – Hebrews 10:19-22 NASB