In short, according to Jesus we are to love our neighbor in the same way we already love ourselves. That is, I believe, the meaning of the word as in the crucial phrase
"love your neighbor as yourself."
Self-love comes naturally--perhaps too naturally--to all of us. We feed, clothe, and house ourselves, shrinking from pain and moving toward pleasure. Even people who take asceticism to an extreme are doing so to be benefited in some way; hence, they are loving themselves by mortifying the flesh.
If Jesus wanted to make loving yourself a command, He could have said,
"Love yourself, and also love your neighbor,"
which of course He did not say.
Perhaps a legitimate paraphrase of Jesus' command to love neighbor as self could be,
"Make loving your neighbor as natural to you as loving yourself."
Isn't that what the "good Samaritan" did? He saw a man in desperate need; he gave him first aid; and he made sure he was well cared for until he recovered. While Jesus did not say it, if the Samaritan were in the same condition as the man he helped, he would certainly want to be treated in the same way as he himself treated the man who had been robbed, beaten, and left for dead by thieves.
A good question to ask ourselves before we demonstrate love to our neighbor is,
"How would I want to be treated if our roles were reversed?"
This question is particularly good when we might be tempted to "love" our neighbor in a way that will only enable him or her to live irresponsibly. For example, suppose a neighbor (in the sense Jesus used the word) comes to you asking for a thousand dollars. You know for a fact he has a gambling problem. Is giving him a thousand bucks the loving thing to do? Would you, if you were in his shoes, want someone to feed your gambling habit? (Well, if you were a gambling addict, you probably would!)
The loving thing to do, however, would be to explain to your neighbor why you simply cannot give him the thousand dollars, and then lovingly refer him to people who can give him the help he really needs; namely, to break free of his addiction. Perhaps referring him to a local chapter of Gamblers Anonymous would fill the bill.
Quite often, when a needy person (uncharitably, a "panhandler") approaches me on the street and asks for money, more often than not, I'll say,
"I'm sorry, but I'm not comfortable doing that. I will, however, take you to get a bite to eat at the McDonalds down the street if you'd like."
First, in handling the situation in this way, I am recognizing him as a human being by engaging him in conversation and not simply avoiding him (which is what the priest and the Levite did in the good Samaritan story) or ignoring him altogether, as if he were a non-person.
Second, I am being honest with him, which is something I appreciate from people who interact with me. And third, I am offering to give him not only some food and fellowship, but I may also have an opportunity to share with him my faith in Jesus, which is really the greatest gift I can impart to him.
What I've said thus far may seem far and afield from answering your question. I am convinced, however, we need to dig a little deeper into what it means to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Just as mother love can become smother love, so too can a "loving" deed become quite the opposite if we are not careful. Jesus did in fact say,
"'Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you'" (Matthew 5:42 NAS).
"'Give to everyone who asks of you. And from him who takes away your goods do not ask them back'" (Luke 6:30 NKJV).
Jesus did not say, however, to give a person the very thing he asks of you or wants to borrow from you; rather, we are to give something to each person who asks of us. The starting point, of course, is treating the supplicant as a human being who has inherent dignity and worth, and the right to be given a straight answer. Even God very often says "No" to a person who asks of Him.
The late evangelist, Paul Little, told the story of a college student who had come to faith in Christ during a weekend Christian retreat. Shortly before returning to a class in which he was to have an exam for which he had not studied, a buddy slipped him in advance a copy of that very test. Excited in his newfound faith, he said, "Praise the Lord! Now I'm sure to pass the test!"
Had this student taken the time to ask the Lord to provide him with a cheat sheet, the Lord's answer would obviously have been no! God does not encourage His children to cheat. He will, however, let us fail an exam, if by doing so we learn to be responsible and honest in the way we approach our studies. In other words, God sometimes gives us what we truly need, and not what we simply want. Needs are not the same as "greeds"!
Getting back to loving God and loving neighbor as self, loving God supremely (with heart, soul, mind, and strength) is the primary responsibility of every child of God. How are we to love God? Under the Old Covenant, Israel had the 613 commandments of the Law of Moses to obey, and all 613 could be "boiled down" to loving God supremely and loving neighbor as self.
Under the New Covenant, we love God by obeying Jesus. As we obey Him, we demonstrate both our love for God and love for our neighbor (see John 14:23 ff.). While all 613 commandments in the Law of Moses served their purpose well in the role of guardian (see Galatians 3:25), Paul tells us in Romans 8 that the just requirements of the Law are fulfilled in us when we as Christians walk according to the Spirit (v.4 ff.). The Holy Spirit enables us to walk in love when we are fully yielded to Him and do not give in to the flesh.
In conclusion, as we mature in our faith, loving our neighbor may never come as naturally to us as loving ourselves, but God is pleased, I believe, when we progress in being others-centered rather than self-centered. As Paul encourages us in Philippians, chapter 2:
"Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests [which we do naturally!], but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus . . ." (vv.3-6).
My paraphrase of Paul:
"Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; look out for the interests of others as you [already] look out for your own personal interests. Have Jesus' attitude in this regard . . .."