“Love your neighbour as yourself” (Mark 12:31).
To grow up as a woman in the church is to grow up with this verse woven into our feminine identity. Good girls and good women love others, serve others and are there for others no matter what. I grew up watching women organize mission fundraisers, clean up after potlucks, run Vacation Bible Schools, create prayer circles, show up in times of crisis, take the strangers in and get their families into the pew with spectacular regularity. By watching these women I learned what it meant to love my neighbour. What was less obvious to me was what it meant to love my neigbhour as I loved myself.
Growing up I felt the call to “love my neighbour” deep in my bones. I got a degree that enabled me to do relief and development work amongst the poor and eventually I landed in seminary and became a pastor. Whether I was working with widowed farmers in Uganda or preaching for professionals in Canada I was loving my neighbour with all that I had. In truth, I was loving my neighbour with more than I had, and after a decade, I was exhausted.
Jesus loved with confidence…
It took a very dark night of the soul to realize that I was not loving my neighbour as myself. I was loving my neighbour as I loved a false version of myself. This version of myself had no limits, no needs and superhuman abilities. She got a lot of affirmation. I believed she was the only version of myself that was worthy of love. But what she demanded of me, and secretly demanded of others, was more than I could hold up.
Throughout Christian history there have been two main ways of interpreting the second half of this verse. The first is based on reciprocity. We should love others as we want to be loved ourselves. The second is based on practice. We ought to love others as we show love to ourselves. Either way, loving our neighbour is deeply connected to the way we desire to be, and experience, being loved – which, if you happen to be human, is complicated.
The apostle John tells us that we can love others because God first loved us. Perhaps then, in order to love others well we need to also ask what it means to be loved – not because we are selfish, but because we are called to give out of a deeper well. Not a well of duty, need for affirmation or a vision of the “good Christian woman,” but from a deep sense of our own belovedness in Jesus’ eyes.
I have been watching Jesus closely over the last few years as I hold this question. He certainly loved others with a powerful self-sacrificial love. But what stands out to me over and over again was that Jesus loved with confidence in his own belovedness. He loved within human limits. He said no. He slept. He carved out time for solitude. He celebrated. He chose a few close friends. He experienced the crush of need and yet He knew how to pause amidst the urgency. He didn’t do it all. And yet He accomplished all that He was called to do. He loved us as He knew He was loved – human limits and all – so that we can love with the same grace.
It has taken me a long time to unlearn the decades that taught me to love others as I loved a false version of myself. But as I slowly and awkwardly relearn to love my neighbour as my human self I have noticed a change in the kind of love that I offer. It is gentler, more patient, more kind. It delights in authenticity. It has so much more grace. It is so much stronger and so much more hopeful. For this love does not depend entirely on me, but on the one who sees me for who I am and still calls me the Beloved.
Julia Bowering serves with Canadian Baptist Ministries as their team lead for international programs. This article, originally titled "A deeper well: Love re-defines" is reprinted with permission from live: a baptist resource for women on a mission (Jan-Feb 2021). Photo of woman gazing out a window by Jez Timms from Unsplash.