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Health advice from Jesus

19 April 2024

Jessica Martin considers the second commandment as a well-being issue


Young woman photographed in Plateau de l’Ennedi, Chad, in 2019

Young woman photographed in Plateau de l’Ennedi, Chad, in 2019

WHAT does it mean to “love yourself”? For we who are modern selves, the words “love” and “self” may be almost equally difficult to define or understand. They slip away from comprehension as they are interrogated — and that’s before you even start thinking about the relationship between them.

Selfhood is a great modern preoccupation. “Be yourself” is an unquestioned maxim, echoing across just about every Disney movie, explicitly or implicitly. At the same time, as we learn to “be ourselves”, we also learn that the “self” isn’t anything definite at all. It’s a construct, apparently, a series of fragments, protean or just plain incoherent across time and context.

Or, maybe, it’s a malleable space to be wrought and made by the sovereign will into whatever you want it to be — or, at least, into whatever shape you have learnt you ought to want it to be. Its relation to your body is equally ambiguous: sometimes bound in with it, yet sometimes at fierce odds with the material realities of physical finitude, obdurate fleshliness.


AND then there’s love: that weird mix of feeling, will, practice, and habit, impossible to prove and easy to abuse or misconstrue, existing outside the boundaries of measure and price. What has love to do with the self? Is self-love selfish, or a necessary precondition to healthy relationships?

Does anything matter more than the self? Even as self-marriages are on the rise, so is self-murder. How the self relates to the other is analysed and contested across social media, massaged and airbrushed, conceived as “dysfunctional” or “toxic”. All are owed infinite respect; none receives their due.


THE second of Jesus’s two great commandments, to “Love your neighbour as yourself,” quoted from the Levitical law, doesn’t tell you what your “self” is that you might love it. The formulation that Jesus quotes has the self as the space that you already know about, the entity that it will be easiest to love, so that it makes sense as the benchmark against which you measure your other ventures into love.

Jesus has already likened the Levitical command with the most basic one of all: to love God “with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6.5; Matthew 22.36; Mark 12.30; Luke 10.27, with minor variations).

AlamyAngel Di Maria of Argentina celebrates after scoring in a match against Italy in 2022

He emphasises — in Matthew’s formulation, at any rate — that the basic love of God has an equivalence to the Levitical command, but it almost doesn’t need saying. Because the command to love God is also a command about the self and its purpose, speaking as it does of the self’s different kinds of identities and powers. The heart, the soul, the mind, and the strength — all are expressions of what the self does, the nature of its action and being.

The more you ponder the great commandments, the more you find their end in their beginning; for the last clause of the second commandment is intimately bound up in the way the first commandment is imagined. It seems that whatever “love” is, and however the love of God and neighbour matches up with the “self”, it happens by releasing the self into a bigger pattern of other lives, made an element of something larger than just one isolated entity. Dependence and interdependence are what makes “love” and “self” cohere.


THE 17th-century poet and mystic Thomas Traherne found himself caught up in an extended riff on the two great commandments early in his work Centuries of Meditations. They led him into writing a kind of praise-hymn on the nature of the self.

‘You never know yourself,” he writes “until you know more than your body. . . Alas the WORLD is but a little centre in comparison of you.”

His thoughts magnify the self beyond the span of the created universe, “millions and millions above the stars . . . surrounded with infinite and eternal space”.

The power and reach of the “lineaments of the soul”, a kind of spiritual face on which the image of God is inscribed, fill him with joy; for this is no paean to autonomy.

Astonishingly quickly, the powers of the self and the sovereignty of God, bonded by love, melt together in Traherne’s prose, so that human selfhood is rapt into the infinite powers that are its divine birthright.

AlamySenator Xóchitl Gálvez, opposition candidate, Mexico City, 2023

“Your understanding,” he writes of the self, paraphrasing words that the Hebrew scriptures attribute to God, “comprehends the World like the dust of a balance, measures Heaven with a span, and esteems a thousand years but as one day. . . Great, Endless, Eternal Delights are only fit to be its enjoyments.”

Traherne’s vision of the magnified self picks up a preoccupation of his own time (and of ours), about the nature of inner identity. But he is unusual in seeing it so relationally, so devotionally — and, indeed, as so straightforwardly glorious.

Other writers — John Donne, for example — when they speak of the magnified self, associate it with isolation, melancholy, alienation. Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet, imprisoned perhaps by his own mind, perhaps by his situation, finds the space on the inside of his own head terrifying: “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.”

This is why the framing of Jesus’s commandment is so basic, and so vital. The self, by itself, is and does nothing. But the self, loved as others are loved, in a series of bonds stretching from and to the source of love, is quite another matter.

Just as the happiest times that people spend are those times of “flow”, when the consciousness of the self is lost in the pleasure of experience and absorption in some other thing, so the self-love that Jesus speaks of is there as the stable ground for turning the attention outward, for relationship.

AlamyKatrin Dagmar Göring-Eckardt, a Green Party MP, at the final service of the German Evangelical Church Congress in Dresden in 2011

The two great commandments understand that the self’s longing is a good thing, something to be directed, not something to be denied or destroyed. “It is of the nobility of man’s soul that he is insatiable”, Traherne notes, “[f]or he hath a Benefactor so prone to give, that He delighteth in us for asking. Do not your inclinations tell you that the World is yours? Do you not covet all?” This, he says, is nothing to worry about. The desiring self is full of longing that may find both a good source and a good end in its turning towards God, “for because His love is free, so are His treasures.”

Perhaps, then, the second of the great commandments gives us a clarity about where our selfhood lies in the life’s work of making, maintaining, and celebrating our relationships of love. While it is true that we know best who we are through the loves we foster, it is equally true that, to participate in those relationships, we need to be brave enough to reveal “lineaments of our soul” to the others with whom we live.

As Jesus knew, and as his life, death, and rising show, love is a very risky business. But its gifts outstrip anything that we might hug only to ourselves, and its blessing, to finish with Traherne’s words, includeth all this. “You will feed with pleasure upon everything that is His. So that the world shall be a grand Jewel of Delight unto you: a very Paradise and the Gate of Heaven.”

The Revd Dr Jessica Martin is joint interim theological adviser to the House of Bishops and a Residentiary Canon of Ely Cathedral. Her book
The Eucharist in Four Dimensions was published in 2023, and its predecessor, Holiness and Desire, was longlisted for the Michael Ramsey Prize.

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