A common issue?
In a Bible study recently, a friend of mine made a comment about how hard it is to "Love your neighbor" all the time. Instead of assuring him that he should sacrifice his feelings and throw himself on his sword for even his enemies, I just responded, "Yeah, I know. Me too." However, that conversation started me thinking about why it is so hard to do what both the Father and the Son have commanded. We have all had those neighbors who make it hard to even be nice, much less love them. Are we supposed to do something that is against our nature? Well, yes. But, how far should we go?
"Love your neighbor? Why?"
"My neighbor is not the kind of person you can love. They have only been here a month, but the place is a wreck. Their yard is full of weeds, and they never water it. The weeds jump into my yard and make me work longer to get them out. They party loudly and late on work nights and his friends, drinking, cussing and swearing loudly at 3:00 in the morning, use up all the parking on the street, while sleeping it off, to the point where I have no room for my buckets on trash day. Besides all that, they're Democrats and want all the stupid social things that I don't. How can you love someone like that? They seem friendly enough, but they're making my life miserable."
(This is hypothetical. No, we did not really just describe your real neighbor.)
Besides being a little extreme, does any of that sound familiar? It may not always be that bad. Maybe his house just needs painting and it's pulling down property values. Maybe he always has trash and old lumber in his front yard with tall weeds and grass growing around it. The complainer finds just enough fault with the neighbor to keep him irritated all the time.
Take a look at the scenario again. Only one of the two is miserable - the complainer. Why is that? He has expectations that are not being met. Evidently, he expects the neighbor to have a manicured lawn and respect some understood protocol regarding social activities. Since the neighbor is not meeting his expectations, he cannot love the neighbor. The problem is that he feels no love for the neighbor because the neighbor does not seem to "love" him. He expects the other guy to love first, before he can respond.
Behind the scenes
What he may not know is anything about why the guy acts as he does. Let's say that just before moving in next door, the guy discovered that he had an inoperable brain tumor leaving him only six months to live. Since his wife had always wanted to own a house, he bought the one next door and was determined to live out his life doing whatever he wants until he can't do it any more, and to heck with the yard. Would that change your mind about him?
Perhaps it's not the man, but his wife who has the problem and he is doing everything for her so she can enjoy what's left of her life. It really doesn't matter what caused the situation. Until the truth is known, the judgment is premature. If there is a reason for the behavior, it might create an understanding that would allow a more meaningful relationship between the neighbors. Get to know your neighbor before judging.
"Yep, just as I thought."
Now, let's say that the guy is just a "jerk" and there is no justification for his behavior. Is it OK to not love him? Not according to the words of God (Mark 12:31
31The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these."
). And not just in the New Testament (Leviticus 19:17-18
18Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.
But, what happens if he is not one of "your people"? Well, God spoke of that also in Matthew 5:43-45
43"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 44But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
We are no different from those we "can't love"
So, how do you put this into perspective when you can't see how to love a neighbor, but know that God expects you do just that? Well, my wife said something a while back that got me to thinking about this very issue.
Because of my nature, I am not considered a socially inter-active person. I don't like being around people in general. As you can tell by the approaches on this site, I tend to be direct in expressing myself, and expect the other person to at least think about the evidence I present for each issue. When people respond negatively without even the appearance of considering my argument, I have trouble responding nicely. Some people would call that not "loving your neighbor". When I asked my wife how we are supposed to love someone who is obtuse, belligerent, and deliberately antagonistic, she replied, "That's what you were when Jesus died for you."
O.K. That sounds corny to some people, but it stopped me dead in my tracks. Remember the discussion at the opening of this page about the neighbors who had the messy yard and the loud parties? Now remember the neighbor who had a problem with them? His problem was that he had expectations that were not being met, but he had never gone to see if there was something he could do to let his neighbor know how he felt. In the paragraph immediately above this one, that was my problem as well. I failed to search for a reason for the difference in understandings. To some extent, it still is my problem, but now I'm working on it.
Dig a little deeper
I began to see that when people could not see things as I presented them, there was likely a reason. Rather than get frustrated, I now try to see the issue from their point of view, and see if that makes sense. If I still see an issue, I try to bring the discussion around to some original cause for the difference in beliefs. Usually, there is a single basic cause, and I try point it out or even change my viewpoint. If that is rejected, we discuss the reason for the rejection. If it is based on "Well, I think...", "My pastor says..." or something else that causes contradiction with the Bible, basic logic, or is just plain stubbornness when the facts are right there, then it results in what Paul called a foolish argument in 2 Timothy 2:23
23Don't have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels.
. That is when there is a visible reason for the conflict, but I can walk away knowing the reason for the disagreement rather than just think the the other person is a "jerk". I can still love them. I am still contrary when the situation demands it, but now look for reasons to understand the other view.
What do you mean, "Love..."?
Another small point. What does it mean to "Love your neighbor as yourself"? Do we have to attempt to become best buddies, even though we can't stand to be around them? Do we have to find a way to be "affectionate" toward them? It's time to use Jesus' own examples as a guideline. Jesus loved mankind - everyone. He died for them, but, He didn't just die and leave it at that. Because He was God, He gave men a chance to repent and make a choice to come to Him. Did that make Him treat everyone like a best friend? Nope.
Matthew 23 is full of examples where Jesus is finding fault with the Pharisees, for whom He died along with the rest of us, and pointing out the error of their ways. He still loved them, but as with unruly children, they required discipline. And, lest you think that the Pharisees were the only ones rebuked by Jesus, in Luke 9:51-56
51As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. 52And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; 53but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. 54When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, "Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?" 55But Jesus turned and rebuked them. 56Then he and his disciples went to another village.
Jesus rebuked even His disciples for over-reacting.
"Aren't you listening?"
As does every loving parent, Jesus disciplined His children so that they would learn the lessons they needed to perform the work they were to accomplish in life. The goal was not to punish, but to teach. There is a subtle but distinct difference between the two. You can learn from punishment, but its primary purpose is a kind of repayment for neglecting responsibility. Teaching is to educate for understanding and accepting that responsibility in the first place. So, punishment in this life is actually "re-education".
In the cases of the Pharisees and the disciples above, the Pharisees should have known better because of their knowledge of the law and the will of God. The disciples were learning the correct way to act, but reacting with their human nature, which is understandable, but the wrong way to go in this case.
Jesus was teaching them the real meaning of loving your neighbor - the Samaritans had a reason for not welcoming them, but the disciples did not undertand it the way Jesus did. He rebuked the disciples, then followed the same advice He gave to the Apostles (Matthew 10:14
14If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet.
) by going to another town that might listen. Destroying them would have removed the possibility that some of them would eventually learn the true nature of Christ and His teachings.
So, what does this mean?
"Love your neighbor as yourself" is not a command to make sure everyone is in perfect harmony with "peace, love, and the current pacifier of the times". It is more like, when you have a problem with your neighbor, treat them with the same care you would want if the situation was reversed. Respect them as a person who matters.
When there are disagreements, find the cause for that disagreement and analyze that before accusing and destroying any chance for mutual understanding. If the matter is disputable, as in not specifically commanded by God, then don't get involved in arguments that are in fact matters of opinion. In the same way you would acknowledge a stranger on the street with a respectful nod, treat everyone you meet with the same respect until they give you a reason to act otherwise. Then, if possible, just walk away.
Do not "agree" just to "quiet the storm"
Loving someone does not mean placating them by agreeing with something you know to be false, but neither does it mean to call them an idiot and walk away. When you can show demonstrable proof that they are in error, you are obligated to show them (James 5:19-20
19My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, 20remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.
). And, make no mistake, when someone - anyone - wanders outside the will of God, they are committing sin and are in need of "being brought back". Whether you are on the receiving end or the giving end of such proof, act responsibly. This is loving your neighbor.
What about those "other" times?
If you are walking down the sidewalk and see someone standing in the street while a car is bearing down on them at high speed, what is the first thing you would probably do? Shout a warning? What if they don't respond? If you have time, you might try to knock them out of the way of the speeding car. Why would you do that? Many people would answer, "To save them from certain death." Ordinarily knocking someone down is not considered a loving gesture, but that is exactly what is going on here. But what if the situation is more subtle than that?
But, the Bible says not to do that...
What if you see someone who claims to be "Christian" doing something that is clearly forbidden in the Bible? The stated consequences for that person's future salvation are very severe, and you know, since they claim to be "Christian", that they are concerned about that future. Would you say or do anything to help? If you love them, yes. If you are more concerned about being embarrassed or hurting their feelings than about their future, you might not do anything. There was someone who once said something about this long ago (John 15:13
13Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends.
). Many people think this means to take a bullet for a friend, but it is more than that. You are willing to sacrifice your comfort and risk the relationship for their eternal security.
"That's none of your business..."
When some respond to this idea by saying, "You are the only one to see the danger, and that is only from your point of view.", how do you address that? Do you reply, "OK. Fine. Sorry to bother you. Just trying to help keep you from going to Hell."? If you love them, how do you speak to them about something they don't want to hear? The only pertinent advice I can quickly find from the Bible regarding listening to God is Matthew 18:17 and Hebrews 12:25:
If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. (Matthew 18:17)
See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven? (Hebrews 12:25)
Here, the problem is that even the church is not listening, well, at least the organizations that call themselves churches. And, they are not only not listening to those trying to warn them, but they are not listening to God as He speaks through His word. If they were the real ecclesia who followed the real Jesus, they would not even need the warning.
Once you make the point, hands off
So, going to the advice of Matthew 18:17
17If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
, they are not listening to the God they claim to follow, so I should no longer associate with them (Mark 6:11
11And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.
). While I see that as respecting their wishes, it does not seem very loving. However, neither is hounding them to the point of harrassment. So, here we sit, shouting into the wind about a dangerous situation that seems to concern no one enough to even investigate - that's the very definition of complacency.
Back to square one, but seeing more clearly
Interestingly enough, with one exception, this is where we started this article. The exception is that we have seen a problem, looked for a reason, and then attempted to address the real issue directly, sometimes without effect. In keeping with my friend's frustration, we seem to have no successful way of dealing with the "Love your neighbor as yourself" command in cases when that love is rejected. I guess we just stand down. We can still love the neighbor, we just can't help him at the moment. There's always the next time. Jesus was patient with me, so I can be patient with others, up to a point, I guess. When Jesus returns, then it's too late for us to help. After that, it's up to Him.
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