“The greatest commandment is… Thou shalt love the Lord thy God… and the second … is …Thou shalt love thy neighbor as yourself”
First of all, let me say that it is admirable to see someone put someone else’s need above their own and act accordingly. For example, both a young person and an elderly woman need to enter a building. The young person is actually at the door a minute ahead of the woman. But, the young person stops, and holds the door to let the woman in first. Or, when getting a serving of mashed potatoes, you help someone else get one first. These are just small examples, but there are bigger examples. In fact, people make big sacrifices all the time: the wife who works to put her husband through school, the man who takes a cheaper vacation to help the young family down the street with the sick child, the people who give up their time and money to go help the Katrina or Haiti victims. These are admirable examples and models for all of us to follow. There are definitely times when it is appropriate to put others before ourselves.
But what I want to address is the teaching that some give that says that we should put others before ourselves ALL THE TIME. It looks like this, in fact following are examples from the web. I did a quick Google search and picked a couple of examples from the first search results returned: God First, Others Second, I am Third.[i] There is even a Facebook page: God First, Others Second, I’m Third.[ii] Another way that it is expressed is: God first, others second, self last.[iii]
If you look at these articles, you will see logic like this:
“Let’s imagine just for a moment a family in which everyone lives according to (Gale)Sayers’ little motto, “I’m third.” That is to say each would always place God first, then each other second. A husband and father would say to his wife and children, “God is first in all things and you are an immediate second.” A wife and mother would say the same thing to her husband and children. And children would grow learning in all things that God is first and to place the good and well being, the needs of others before their own. Would that introduce some new dynamics in you family if everyone lived with each other in that way?”[iv]
This is hard to argue with. We all know how selfish we all can be and how this can make family life chaotic. What a dream it would be if our whole family acted like the example above.
You will also read logic that itemizes all kinds of biblical arguments about how we are to be meek and humble: Blessed are the meek, Pride goes before destruction, we should all submit to one another, and so forth. All of these admonitions are true.
So it is plain to see that there are places in the bible that teach against selfishness, and to sometimes put others first. But the truth is that there is no biblical verse(s) that says that once and for all time the order of preference in our lives is God first, others second and we are commanded to be third.
I have heard some say that the answer is in the order of the words because in the sentence the first object of love that you see is God, the second is neighbor, the third is yourself. Since neighbor comes before yourself in the sentence then neighbor should come before yourself in life.
That is just not good biblical interpretation. First, anyone that knows anything about Greek knows that in Greek, which is what this text is translated from, and contrary to English, the order of the words in the sentence do not determine its meaning. Rather, it is the endings of the words that determine the flow of the sentence and its meaning.
But more important to the logic here, the key to this setting of priorities is in the word “as”. “As” means “like, in the manner of.” For example, consider the next sentence:
You will get paid as much as the other union members.
Would anyone think that you are supposed to be paid more because you are named before the others in this sentence? Of course not! Everyone understands that your pay will be the same as the others here. Or how about:
Bill is as tall as Frank.
Does anyone think Bill is taller than Frank because he is named first? Again, of course not. They are the same height. So why would anyone say that “love others as yourself” means anything but loving others the same as yourself?! There is no good reason.
The mandate that we are being given here is to bring the love that we have for others up to the level we have for ourselves. That is the challenge. The problem that we have is:
for no man ever hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as Christ also the church; (Ephesians 5:29)
Paul is attesting to the fact that we love ourselves, we take care of ourselves. We tend to think of ourselves first. Paul tells us to put God first, and then to add the concerns of others to our concerns:
doing nothing through faction or through vainglory, but in lowliness of mind each counting other better than himself; not looking each of you to his own things, but each of you also to the things of others. (Philippians 2:3-4)
Notice that “counting other better than himself” does not say “loving other more than himself.” The context is esteem, humbling ourselves to others.
The natural standard of care for each of us is to “look upon our own things.” Paul exhorts us to do the unnatural thing, to look “to the things of others.” He is exhorting us to give the same standard of care to others that we give to ourselves.
Why is this distinction important? Let’s look at a few examples first.
1. Barry loves sports cars. He buys one as soon as he is able and drives it all the time. He meets Meg whom he eventually marries. Soon, little Georgette comes along. Meg wants to stay home with Georgette but it will mean giving up the sports car. Barry reasons he needs to put his family first so he gives up the car, although he misses it.
2. Joe has volunteered to coach a youth basketball team. Bill comes to him and asks him to trade one or two of his best players for some other players that are not so good. Joe reasons that he should follow the mandate of making others second and himself third. He makes the trade. His team suffers; with the original players they would have been better, with the lesser skilled players they have a losing season. The team he traded with beats him badly every time they play, and they rub it in.
3. Mary has some places she wants to go for vacation, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite. Her husband, Frank, never wants to go to those places, he likes golfing vacations. Their budget is limited, thy can only go one place a year. Mary reasons that she should follow the mandate of making others second and herself third. She always goes where Frank says. She gets depressed that she never gets to go the places she wants.
Do you think that any of these examples would be an unrealistic application of “God First, Others Second, I am Third”? After all, the teaching isn’t that you are only supposed to do it when the other person is loving also. The teaching is that you are just supposed to make yourself third.
Who can argue that Barry did the wrong thing, but what about Joe and Mary? I am going to say that Joe should have taken care of himself and kept the better players. And there is no way that Mary should always have to give up where she wants to go. Couples that love each other alternate so that each sometimes gets what they want. That would really be applying the “love others as yourself” rule when each gives to the other as much as they insist on their way for themselves.
When one person is always giving in to the other that makes for an unhealthy, unbalanced relationship. Foolishly believing that you are always supposed to live under the “God First, Others Second, I am Third” rule could keep an abused person under the thumb of an abuser. I have seen both men and women who lived like their way was the only way, and the spouse was supposed to just go along with whatever the dominating spouse wanted.
The healthy relationship is based on give and take, not one person always making themselves third to the other person.
Most importantly, is correctly reading and interpreting what the verse says. It says that we are to love others the same as ourselves. Not more than, not less than, the same as.
If you have to number a priority, instead of “God First, Others Second, I am Third”, it would be:
“God First, Others and I are tied for Second.