Invariably in friendships are imbalances of give-and-take. Perhaps a practical outworking of “laying your life down for your friends” is not allowing this calculus to dictate how we love our friends but to give out of charity, to love as we have been loved. In other words, to love rightly is to love in reference to something greater than ourselves or our own finite lovers.
St. Augustine in his On Christian Teaching differentiates between loving for the sake of enjoyment and for the sake of use. What he means is that our loves towards things are either towards their own ends or for the sake of a greater end, respectively. We should not think of “use” here as a negative thing unless we so “use” ourselves or others for something less than the ultimate enjoyment and ultimate Good.
The proper end of our love is the Triune God who is unchangeable and eternal, and directing our loves towards this ultimate end should be the reference point of all our loves—whether that be the love of ourselves or the love of our friends or spouses. When we make ourselves or another finite thing the final end of our loves, we settle for something ‘changeable’ instead of the ‘unchangeable good.’ Our loves need something more than a temporary end, and perhaps this is no greater misery than committing one’s life to an improper end of love—however right that may feel in the moment. This is not to say we are to see others or ourselves as less than good but rather that in delighting in ourselves and others we must keep sight of the Good behind that good. Or as Augustine says: “any other object of love that enters the mind should be swept towards the same destination as that to which the whole flood of our love is directed.”
To love ourselves and our friends rightly is in one respect to love them in light of God. Jesus told us that the greatest commandment in the law is “to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and the second greatest is to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:37-39). He also told us that, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Each love has its own place, but to love rightly is to keep our loves in order: neither should we place our love of friends over God or place our love of self over our friends. There is a new calculus to gospel love, and Jesus demonstrates this by calling us his friends, laying his life down for us, all so that we might enjoy the Triune God forever. And he invites us into this new pattern of love.