What does it mean to love my neighbor?
Jesus said, “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). But what is love? And who is the neighbor?
Though love may seem like some sort of vague emotion, it is really the substance of our lives. God is love—and so are we! Love is what drives everything we think, feel, say, and do. Loving our neighbor is not some pleasant add-on to our lives. It is the essence of our being . . . if we are being truly human. Love is also the attractive force that draws us closer to one another.
What does it mean to love? It means to serve others and give to others from ourselves, and to feel joy in other people’s joy. Love is not just a feeling. Love is also an action! And when we are acting from love, we will find the closeness that we long for with our neighbors.
And the neighbor? The neighbor means the various people around us. But more specifically, it means everything good about the people around us. Loving our neighbor is looking for the good in people and loving, appreciating, and supporting it in them. When we truly love our neighbor we bring out the best in them . . . and in ourselves.
“Love your neighbor as yourself”
On one occasion an expert in the law posed this question to Jesus: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” The “Law” he referred to is the first five books of the Bible, covering almost 200 pages in a modern Bible.
Jesus didn’t bat an eye.
He even gave a two-for-one deal: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:36-40).
These two commandments are indeed quoted out of the five books of the ancient Jewish Law. The first is from Deuteronomy 6:5. The second is from Leviticus 19:18. Jesus further expands the importance of these two commandments, saying that not only the Law but also the Prophets (meaning the whole Bible) depend on them.
Okay, so first we’ve got “Love the Lord.” That doesn’t sound too hard. God is way up there in heaven somewhere. No problem! God doesn’t bother me, I don’t bother God. Deal!
But my neighbor . . . . You mean that guy who’s always revving up his motorcycle at 1:00 AM? You mean that gal who has loud phone conversations on her deck all weekend long? I don’t even like them! And Jesus is telling me to love them as much as I love myself? I don’t think so!
What is love?
But the commandment isn’t “like your neighbor as yourself”; it’s “love your neighbor as yourself.” There’s a difference! Even if we don’t much like someone, we’re still commanded to love them.
What does that mean? What’s love anyway?
We talk about love all the time. “He loves her.” “She loves him.” “I love ice cream.” But do we ever stop to think what love is? According to Emanuel Swedenborg, “love is our life” (Divine Love and Wisdom §1). That isn’t just Swedenborg’s idea. The Apostle John said “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). Not “God loves” (which is also true), but “God is love.” God is made of love. And God created the world. So this leads to the same conclusion Swedenborg came to: underneath it all, the universe and everything in it—including us—is made out of love.
This is especially true of our inner, spiritual self, which includes all our loves and motives, and all our thoughts and beliefs. The stuff that makes us what we are is our love. And the love that is us drives all our thoughts and actions. That’s how basic love is to our life.
What does it mean to love?
Okay, okay, that’s beautiful and everything. But it’s all a bit . . . abstract. Practically speaking, what does it really mean to love someone?
Once again, Swedenborg gives us some great insights. Let’s take a couple of them in order, from Divine Love and Wisdom §47:
The hallmark of love is not loving ourselves but loving others and being united to them through love. The hallmark of love is also being loved by others because this is how we are united. Truly, the essence of all love is to be found in union, in the life of love that we call joy, delight, pleasure, sweetness, blessedness, contentment, and happiness.
So the first insight is that at its core love involves closeness and union with the person or thing we love. Isn’t this a matter of common experience? The people we love are the people we want to be close to. The things we love are the things we want to have around us. Love is spiritual gravity. It is a mutual attraction that draws us together with those we love.
Now the next insight from Swedenborg:
The essence of love is that what is ours should belong to someone else. Feeling the joy of someone else as joy within ourselves—that is loving. Feeling our joy in others, though, and not theirs in ourselves is not loving. That is loving ourselves, while the former is loving our neighbor. These two kinds of love are exact opposites.
Loving our neighbor is wanting our neighbor to have what we have. This may be something material, such as a gift we want to give them, or it may be spiritual, such as wanting them to be happy and to feel loved.
Further, real love isn’t feeling happy when other people like the same things we do. It is feeling happy when others enjoy the things they like—even if that’s very different from what we like. So even if others find pleasure in things that don’t mean much to us, if we love them we will feel happy that they can find joy in those things. That’s assuming, of course, that their joy does not come from things that hurt others or themselves.
In short, real love is a force that pulls us closer to each other. It is a desire to give to others, and a feeling of happiness when we sense that they are happy.
Who is my neighbor?
Okay, then what about this “neighbor” stuff? Do I have to love all my neighbors? What about those neighbors who drive me nuts? Do I have to love them?
Well . . . yes. But that doesn’t mean you have to love everything they do. Let’s take a closer look at just who—and what—the neighbor is.
Who is my neighbor? This is the exact question a lawyer asked Jesus many centuries ago. In response, Jesus told the well-known Parable of the Good Samaritan. You can read the whole story in Luke 10:25–37. In it, a man who was beaten, robbed, and left practically dead is ignored by two passers-by, while a third goes out of his way to help the unfortunate man. In conclusion, Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The reply: “The one who had mercy on him.”
So here is my question: Did Jesus answer the lawyer’s question? The lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbor?”
In an ordinary sense, Jesus did not answer the question. Instead, he deftly turned it around on the lawyer, telling him how to be the neighbor.
Yet in a deeper sense, in doing so Jesus answered the lawyer’s original question very precisely. The neighbor is “the one who had mercy.” Or in a broader sense, the neighbor is everything good in the people around us, and in ourselves as well. That’s because mercy and goodness come from God, and God is our neighbor in the highest sense of all.
So then, how do I love my neighbor???
The good news is: you don’t have to love the fact that your neighbor revs that motorcycle at 1:00 AM, or has loud phone conversations for the whole neighborhood to hear. Those things are rather inconsiderate!
What we’re meant to love is the good in the people around us. We’re meant to love what comes from God in them. And all of the people around us do have at least something good about them. If it were not so, God would not have created them in the first place. So in the best sense, loving our neighbors means looking for the good in them and loving that about them.
How does it feel to you when someone you know—or a total stranger—compliments you on the way you look, something you say, something you do? That’s a simple example of loving the good in you. Others feel the same way when we notice something good or nice about them, and compliment them on it.
Of course, there’s much more to it than that. Loving the neighbor also involves serving their needs and providing for their good. Every time we do our job or our daily tasks with thoughtfulness and care we are loving our neighbor because we are providing for their needs in one way or another. Everything we do that is of some benefit to another person or that gives another person happiness and joy is loving our neighbor.
In other words, love isn’t just a feeling. Love is an action. And the action of love and service is what makes neighbors out of all people, knitting us together into a human community.
What about the jerks? What about the criminals?
Okay, so you don’t have to love the bad things people do. If your neighbor actually takes pleasure in waking you up in the middle of the night or shattering the peace of your weekends, that is not good—and therefore it is not the part of the neighbor that you have to love. The sometimes difficult task in relating to such people is to look for what is good about them, find something to appreciate about them, and love that in them. God must have some reason for them to be on this earth. See if you can figure it out! Then find a way to support or express appreciation for that part of their character. You might be surprised at the results.
When it comes to people who have devoted their lives to pursuits that harm others, it becomes much more difficult. As long as they are living on earth, there is some hope that they may see the error of their ways, reform, and become thoughtful, contributing members of society. And we should make every effort to move them toward this kind of positive change in their lives.
But let’s face it. Many people simply do not want to change. And there is no way we can force them to change, because they have freedom of choice also. What we can do, and often must do, is control their behavior so that it does not bring harm to innocent people.
This is what fines, punishments, reformatories, and prisons are all about. It may seem as though we are not loving those whose behavior we sanction and control in this way. But as God says in Revelation 3:19, “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline.”
Controlling and chastising destructive behavior is an act of love because such behavior hurts not only the people around the offenders, but also the offenders’ own life and eternal soul. Perhaps they will never change. But perhaps, seeing the results of their wrongful behavior, they will think better of it and decide to turn their lives around. Certainly we must be fair in our punishments, treat offenders as humanely as we can, and offer them a better way of life. Beyond that, we can only hope and pray that they will see the light, and make the choice to change.
This hope that people bent on evil will turn toward the good, together with our active yet respectful efforts to bring about that change in them, is the essence of loving those who are on a destructive path. Why? Because we want them to have a good and happy life both on this earth and to eternity.
Love makes the world go ’round
In a broad sense, loving the neighbor is wanting what is best for others, serving their needs, and thinking of their long-term happiness. We can see why Jesus tells us that among the commandments, loving our neighbor as ourselves is second only to loving the Lord our God. This kind of active love for the good of our neighbor is what drives everything in society. Yes, not everyone is serving others from the best of motives. But even if we start out for our own benefit, God has a way of getting us into the habit of loving and serving others. If we stick with it, in time that service will become its own reward.
And the reward of loving our neighbor is the very fact of being in loving community with our neighbors. When we achieve this, we are experiencing something of heaven right here on earth.
This article is © 2012 by Lee Woofenden
You might also enjoy: