And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Matthew 22:37-39 NASB (emphasis mine)
First John’s posts on loving yourself and now Martha’s are piercing my heart! (So much so that I’m writing again. I missed you guys!) And in the midst of that heart piercing, the Holy Spirit highlighted the second commandment for me: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Why didn’t Jesus just say ‘people’ in general? Why did He specify ‘neighbor’ instead? I believe that it is much easier to love (or hate!) a stranger than it is to love someone you actually know.
Strong’s defines ‘neighbor’ as one “with whom we live or whom we chance to meet,” one who is “near.” These are the people that God puts in our lives, whether for a few minutes or a few decades. On the one hand, our ‘neighbors’ look out for us, help us, pray for us, care for us, stand with us, give to us, grieve with us, and laugh with us. But these same people can also test our patience, disrupt our peace, hurt our hearts, and challenge our faith – depending on the day. And that’s when choosing to love is hard.
Love Your Neighbor Who Is Not a Stranger
Unlike people close to us, dealing with a stranger is simple. If a stranger does or says something we don’t like, we can loathe them or dismiss them. There’s no investment and our heart isn’t connected, so dehumanizing strangers by making them an object of pure evil is all too easy to do. This is on display in politics all the time. It’s not enough to say, “We see things differently,” and go on about your day. No, that person is the devil’s own servant on leave from the bowels of hell and it is only right to hate them.
By the same token, we can drape a stranger with all manner of illusions to make it easier to love them. It isn’t hard to assign godly character traits – even nobility – to a person you don’t actually know but want to like. We dehumanize just as often by idealizing people, perhaps nowhere so rampant as with modern celebrity. I think that we want to believe the lies are true, that maybe some people are just better than common humanity. And so we raise the pedestal and prop up the delusion. We love from afar, with no heart or relationship, until the lie is exposed and it all falls down. And then we do it again. Maybe that’s why Jesus opted to be specific and said neighbor instead of just all humanity.
Let Jesus Love Your Neighbor AND YOU
The connection between loving yourself and loving your neighbor cannot be denied. A lovely woman I’ve known for almost a decade has had a VERY hard year. Every aspect of her life has been hit with pain and loss. And in the midst of this suffering, she was stabbed in the heart by lovelessness. A seeming-friend had grown weary of hearing about the need born of this suffering and demanded an end to it. No more asking for prayer on this ground. Time to move on! Just hearing about the need – not even being asked to meet it! – was too much to bear. Now that’s love grown cold.
Yet as cruel as this woman was to my friend, I have no doubt that she is as loveless to herself. No patience, no compassion, no longsuffering—when we receive no grace for ourselves, we have none for our ‘neighbor’ when it’s needed. A tragedy on every level.
It is costly to love my neighbor, because people are messy. We lose our tempers, speak thoughtlessly, forget birthdays, fail to show up, and need more than anyone can give. And human love just can’t cut it under those conditions. Human love will bail out with all the subtlety of a carnival barker. So being called to love your neighbor as yourself will drive you to Jesus if you’re even remotely honest. I’ve been crying out to the Lord for years because my deficit of love is so frightening. My whole relationship with Jesus Christ turns on this terrible need of mine and His utter faithfulness to fulfill it.
Only God loves fully and without condition or judgment. And that unfathomable love holds the power to change someone’s life completely. I am a walking testament to the power of God’s love. My ‘neighbors’ loved me into being, and my world changed. “‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Yes, Lord, because You first loved me!