Perhaps the trickiest part of the command “to love the neighbor as yourself” is that little phrase as yourself. What exactly does it mean? Should we love ourselves at all, or should we sacrifice everything for the neighbor? Who has priority – the neighbor or myself? The as yourself often appears to be a sort of paradox, since self-love and neighbor-love are so often in conflict. It seems that we can only love ourselves at the expense of loving the neighbor, or visa versa. Thus, it’s not surprising that most Christian thinkers have dealt with this paradox by eliminating it, refusing to take the “as” seriously. Luther, for instance, frequently asserted that we should love the neighbor more than ourselves, since any self-love is inherently selfish and sinful. Thomas Aquinas took the other route, arguing that “a man ought in charity to love himself more than his neighbor.” But Kierkegaard refuses to compromise: the Christian loves the neighbor as he loves himself – the two loves are not in competition. But how is this possible?
First, it important to understand that Kierkegaard draws a sharp distinction between selfish self-love and proper self-love. With regards to the former, he is as harsh and uncompromising as Luther. But he also says that “if anyone is unwilling to learn from Christianity to love himself in the right way, he cannot love the neighbor either.” Just as Kierkegaard is not interested in eliminating romantic love or friendship, but seeks to set these preferential loves on their proper foundation, he is determined to preserve proper self-love. So what does it mean to love oneself in the right way? Kierkegaard provides a clue by saying that “to love God is to love oneself truly.” God is the “middle term”, even in self-love. Indeed, Kierkegaard’s statement that “the love relationship requires threeness: the lover, the beloved, and the love – but the love is God” holds true even when the lover and the beloved are the same person. Thus, we can only love ourselves properly when we stand before God, an experience that is both harrowing and blessed, as described in the following passage:
“If you want to be well off and yet easily manage to become something, then forget God, never let yourself really become aware, never let it become really clear to you that it is he who has created you from nothing; proceed on the presupposition that a human being does not have time to waste on keeping in mind the one to whom he infinitely and unconditionally owes everything… So forget it and be noisy along with the crowd, laugh or cry, be busy from morning until night… Above all, be an earnest person by having forgotten the one and only earnestness, to relate yourself to God, to become nothing. Oh, but then keep in mind that this annihilation before God is so blessed that you at every moment would seek to return to this annihilation more intensely, more warmly, more fervently… The world cannot take everything, simply because it cannot give everything. That can be done only by God, who takes everything, everything, everything – in order to give everything.”
This is self-love before God! Here we understand that our very existence is a gift from the loving God, who gives us everything. Here we learn that we do not belong to ourselves; instead, we belong first to God our Creator and secondly to the neighbor, a fellow child of God, whom we are called upon to serve. Here we finally see that “whoever loses his live shall save it.” To love God is to know that one is loved by God, and thus to love oneself.
Early in Works of Love, Kierkegaard remarks that the commandment to love the neighbor as yourself, “as with a pick, wrenches open the lock of self-love and wrests it away from the person.” Notice that self-love is not eliminated, but it is radically de-centered. In faith we live outside ourselves, both in God and in the neighbor, and learn to love ourselves anew.