The writer Simon May recently stated in Love: A History that love has replaced God in our increasingly secular society. He says we now look to love as a way to solve all the problems in society: “All we need is love,” in the words of the Beatles. May sees this as problematic because humans are fallible, and he feels they are incapable of unconditional love by themselves. Examples of cheating, revenge, gross inequality, and just simple favoritism are all too common.
May also writes that historically, human love was always conditional. In the Jewish and Christian tradition, love has always been dependent on God’s love for us. “We love him, because he first loved us,” (1 John 4:19). If we love God, we will keep his commandment to love one another (John 13:34, 14:15). Although our human love may be imperfect, through God’s power we can love perfectly (Moroni 8:48). Such love is an incredible gift and incomparable tool, but it often seems that to access this kind of love, the scriptures ask us to give up everything we have: “He that loseth his life for my sake shall find it,” (Matthew 10:39).
But what does losing oneself mean? In practice, we find the commandment to love one another is more complicated than we first imagined. In high school while trying to fellowship some young men who were neglected by our youth group, I inadvertently had them fall in love with me, something I did not reciprocate. They wanted something I could not give, and it seemed as if their self-worth and likeliness to go to church were based on whether I liked them. To give them what they wanted would have caused harm to me. What I have learned over time is that really loving people well, especially those most needful of love, actually takes boundaries. Good loving requires a very strong sense of self, of self-love, self-care, and a knowledge that we cannot give away our core feeling of who we are.
Even the scriptures, as soon as they seem to be calling for a surrender of our all, give a counter example of the need for internal autonomy. In the parable of the ten virgins (Matthew 25), ten virgins are waiting for the bridegroom of a Jewish wedding procession. Five take extra oil for their lamps so they will not run out, five do not. When the bridegroom finally comes, the five without extra oil have run out. When they ask their sisters for oil, the woman say they cannot without running out of oil themselves, dousing their lights. There is a part of us that is ours alone to nurture and that we cannot give away, a light that we alone can keep going.
We are all responsible for our own internal care. While relationships support and help the process of finding internal self-love, nothing can make up for the rock that exists when we build a relationship with ourselves. Here God helps us form a unit of self-love, creating something beautiful inside of ourselves that we can share but never completely give away. The more grounded this autonomy is, the more we are able to actually give. I am certain the Savior had an indestructible sense of self, grounded in the love of his Father. He may have given his life and his pain for all of us, but he could never have survived it without that knowledge of self-worth.
For us who are human and thus have many internal scars, we are not going to be able to equate this. However, because of Jesus’s atonement, we can become closer to perfection and closer to being able to have perfect love for self and others. Yet we must watch out for situations where we are called to negate ourselves, or where people want to use us to fill the vacuum of their own deficiencies. As Elder Uchtdorf, one of the apostles of the Church, has said, “Forget not the difference between a good sacrifice and a foolish sacrifice” (“Forget Me Not”). Our love can help them—relationships can be completely healing—but not when the relationship is parasitic. In fact, we may be doing the person the best favor when we show we care but don’t allow them to take our oil. Instead, we should aim to show people how to find and nurture their own inner light, as each person in the world deserves a sense of their own marvelous uniqueness and worth before God.