God has created all people to exist within three relationships: (1) relationship with Him; (2) relationship with others; and (3) relationship with ourselves. All three are important and each, in significant ways, can impact the others. Only one, however, can serve as the foundation of all our relating. Unless God is the foundation for all our relationships, we will not be able to love rightly.
I sometimes use a triangle diagram in counseling to illustrate this point. The image demonstrates the bottom portion of our triangle as the largest and most foundational piece. All the other relationships are built off of it and so we must be sure that it is firm, steady, and durable. The top layer is the smallest and will require the least amount of focus. The focus, then, should be on that bottom relationship.
People often construct a relationship model by placing self on the bottom. Popular psychological thought, even among Christians, says that in order to love others and even God I must first love myself. So, self is often placed at the bottom of the triangle, making it the largest and most foundation relationship.
The logic here is hard to grasp but the self-help movement has made this such a commonly held belief that it feels logical without actually being proven. In reality, of course, the self-help movement has not generated relationally healthy people. Research reveals that those steeped in this self-love focus are often more narcissistic and self-indulgent, not more loving (see for example The Harvard Mental Health Letter, 2004). When we make the foundation of our relating this piece of self-love we will inevitably become consumed with self. Self doesn’t just stand as the foundation of our relationships, then, it becomes the entire triangle. We don’t learn to love others, only ourselves.
Needless to say, then, self-love cannot work as the foundation of our relationships. The Bible knows this when it speaks about conflict and relational discord as arising from passions at war within us. James tells us that we “want and do not have so we murder” (James 4:1-2). Our own desires will drive us to conflict and even murder. When we love ourselves first and foremost we will be willing to go to war with one another to get what we want. Self-love will fail as a relational foundation.
What about love for others, then? There are some who are deeply committed to loving and serving others at their own expense. In fact, they love others so much they become utterly devoted and dependent upon them. This has sometimes been labelled as codependency: excessive emotional/psychological reliance upon another. When we make others the foundation of our relationships, however, we will find a great deal of instability.
We cannot control or predict others, and therefore we cannot control or predict our relationships with them. We cannot anticipate their expectations, nor even meet all their expectations perfectly. Increasingly, we will find that we fear other people. We fear their opinions, their disapproval, or their rejection. As a result we will struggle with constant insecurity and instability. More pointedly, if others serve as the foundation of our triangle we will inevitably find that we love them less and use them more. We will desperately need them to keep our triangle stable and upright, and we will find that we are willing to jump through hoops, say and do anything in order to keep them in relationship with us. We won’t, then, say hard things, offer correction, challenge their behavior, or promote their genuine growth. After all, such things can be poorly received, hard to hear, and create tension. Our desperate need of their approval, however, will keep us from risking such responses and we will fail to love them.
In this dynamic, then, we don’t genuinely love others, we love what they can do for us. Our triangle then, with others at the bottom, will slowly shift to having self at the bottom once again. It looks like others are on the bottom because of how we live, but in truth it will be a hidden self-love that consumes us.
In contrast to this the Bible encourages us to see the love of God as the foundation of our relationships. 1 John 4:19 tells us plainly, “we love because He first loved us.” It is his love for us that drives our ability to love. He loves and pours His love into our hearts which inevitably overflows into love for others. The Apostle Paul explains that it is the “love of Christ” which “compels us” to live for God and to draw others into this loving relationship (2 Cor. 5:14-20). When God is the foundation of our relationships it empowers us to love others rightly, fully and freely.
Particularly, on the foundation of God’s love I can consider others more significant than myself (Phil. 2:3-4). I can do this because that is the example of Christ, that is how He has loved me (Phil. 2:5-11). His love empowers me to imitate Him. God’s love also frees me from the concern of others’ opinions. After all, if God loves me what can man do to me (Rom. 8:31). I can say with Paul, “It is a very small thing if you should judge me” (1 Cor. 4:3a). God is my judge and He loves me, therefore I am free from the opinions of others and can truly love them.
When God is the foundation of our relationships then we can truly love others. His love empowers me to love others as they need. I can love because He first loved me!