Pop-spirituality is infatuated with the biblical statement, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev 19:18, Matt. 22:38, Mark 12:31, etc). I have heard people teach that it means we should pamper ourselves; others don’t know what to make of it. The fathers of the Church say little about this latter section of the verse in their commentaries, and I think it is because it was quite simple and common sense to nearly all generations of humans before us.
I recently discussed this with someone and shared the following:
M-, my understanding of loving yourself, in a Christian way, is quite simple. When I am hungry, I eat; when I am thirsty, I drink; when I am tired, I sleep; etc. Loving my neighbor as myself means that when my neighbor is hungry or thirsty, I take care of his needs. When he is tired, I ensure he has a place to sleep; when he is cold, I get him a blanket or jacket.
When our Lord mentioned loving our neighbors as ourselves, the context of that teaching was a recollection and re-teaching of Leviticus 19:9-18. This passage provides some extremely practical tips regarding this kind of love. Understood in the context of the Levitical passage, the meaning of “loving yourself” is quite clear. I highly recommend reading it.
When humanity fell, our natural inclinations went askew. Little more remained than self-love (a desire to take care of one’s self), but even this became perverted. For not only do we eat enough to get by, but we gorge ourselves; we get drunk; we sleep more than is necessary; we hoard; we pamper ourselves. All of these are examples of self-love that are taken to one extreme. The opposite end of the spectrum includes complete loathing for ourselves, neglecting our bodily needs for bad reasons, and damaging our body through sinful or careless actions.
We Christians are called to the middle road: we honor the temple of the Holy Spirit that is our body by taking care of ourselves, but we do so with moderation, not pampering ourselves, and while always considering the needs of others, even before our own needs.
You are right that this love is something that is not taught, but it is not tricky. God is love, and we cannot be “taught” into God; we must experience Him, move in Him, abide in Him. Then these things make more sense. As we travel the road of repentance, our hearts are purified and we can commune with Him and be illumined by Him. Then understanding these things becomes more natural and easy, at least that is what the saints teach.
I have been questioned about the statement I made of, “always considering the needs of others, even before our own needs.” The fathers of the church teach that virtue is the middle road, and that to either side is sinful imbalance.
I think 1st Corinthians 13 says it all: in summary, whatever we do must be done with a spirit of love or else it profits us nothing. When we do good out of compulsion, guilt, pride, or some kind of pressure (internal or external), then we are not acting in love and we will be left with “nothing to give” to others.
While the above mentioned pressures can be a good spark to initiate internal change, they are not good permanent motives. A non-spiritual example would be an unhealthy person having a heart attack and being motivated by fear afterward to get their diet and health in order. The fear acts as a good spark in a healthy direction, but living a life of fear is not healthy.
For an unloving person, such as myself, I may only be able to sacrifice a little bit before I have to stop and take care of my own needs. Otherwise I will end up burned out, angry, and frustrated. For a person with more love, more philotimo, the ability to sacrifice is even greater. Always putting the needs of others before our own is the goal; practically speaking, where we are now is usually far short of that. So, we work toward it, a little at a time, every day.
Recently in the Orthodox Church we celebrated St. Maria of Paris who rescued Jewish children from the Nazis. She put the safety and needs of others before her own and died a hero at the hands of the Nazis. Couldn’t she have claimed her rights to meet her needs before others? Sure, but it would not have been anything special or godly. However, being filled with godly compassion, she joyfully put herself at risk and was ultimately murdered. But she acted in love, and not due to compulsion. We should emulate that by making little sacrifices, when we can, with a heart filled with love.