How Do I Love My Neighbor?

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

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Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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30 comments on “How Do I Love My Neighbor?
  1. Madrepérola says:

    I am really very happy to meat you my dear neighbours Lee and Annette

  2. Liz Regan says:

    Thank you for this article Lee, it has been very helpful to me, as I have been struggling with Swedenborg’s concept of the neighbour recently. I find Swedenborg’s words sometimes harsh with lots of hard edges – You are able to smooth those corners! Looking for the good in everyone, and supporting it, despite their outward behaviours is so positive and healing.
    Liz UK

    • Lee says:

      Hi Liz,

      You’re welcome. Thanks for your kind words! I’m glad the article is helpful to you.

      Though Swedenborg was a great seer, he did live in an earlier and harsher age–and that is reflected in his writings. Of course, there are still many hard realities of life. I appreciate the fact that Swedenborg “tells it like it is” on many issues where we moderns prefer to sugar-coat things. However, I also like to think that we humans have made some progress in the centuries since Swedenborg’s time, during which, according to Swedenborg, the New Jerusalem predicted in the Book of Revelation has begun its (spiritual) descent onto this earth.

      • valerie cummings says:

        Not real, One can speak off loving aneighbour till one lives in a housing project and your neighbour is drunk and foul mouthed and does not care, One has the right to contact those i charge and report the activity as antisocial behavior, We can pray for them, but loving them does not mean tolerating such behaviour.

  3. valerie cummings says:

    I think Loving your neighbour in the anti social behavior is to Love all the nighbours who are suffering from them, and being intimidated by their total disrespect, and by reporting them according to guide lines implimented , helps everyone.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Valery,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your thoughts. I agree that love does not always mean being “nice” to someone. Sometimes love means locking someone up. We do have to use our thinking brains to consider what is the most loving thing to do in various tough circumstances. Real love involves acting in a way that will bring about the most long-term good for people. Sometimes that means bringing them up short on their bad behavior, in hopes that they will reconsider and turn their lives in a better direction.

  4. Shay says:

    We were studying” loving your neighbors” in bible study, and I came across your site. All I can say is Thank you very much! It was a big help. May God continue to bless you!

  5. valerie says:

    I have had a drunk abusive neighbour in my complex area for six months, He has upset many around here, finally after enough reports and complaints he is on his way to be evicted, He was given many warnings, but never changed his behaviour. As a christian loving my neighbour is considering the neighbours living here who suffer from his anti social behaviour, many with illness etc, who do not need this daily aggravation. And hopefully the discipline will teach him something.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Valerie,

      Thanks for stopping by and telling your story. Yes, sometimes tough love is what has to happen. It may or may not work for the offender. But in your case, at least you and the others at the complex will have some peace.

  6. WOW, I am from India, accidentally (it is how we think) i came to your page when i was doing google the word ‘i-love-my-neighbor’, the content uplifted my spirit to another healthy level.

    ‘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.’ – Wonderful realization of TRUTH. Thanks……

    • Lee says:

      Hi Elango Paul Victor,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment. I am happy that this article has given you new insight and inspiration.

      Godspeed on your spiritual journey!

  7. Thank you so much for posting this subject matter about How to Love and who is my neighbor. It was very helpful. It helped me to see my own heart towards my neighbors. It gave me an opportunity to take a moment to see the good qualities they have. And yes that includes the neighbors that aggravate me with their stomping feet above me, especially when I can feel the spiteful intentions behind it. However, I found this article to help me see past what pierces through me during those times and the opportunity that is presented before me. Yes even though I have been praying I can see now that I’ve been praying the wrong way. This posting has helped me see how to get myself emptied out first, the importance of worshipping and believing God. Most Importanly how to wait upon Him and hold on to the good I do know about my neighbors. Thanks again. Evelyn

  8. K says:

    This may sound like a dumb question, but I assume that enjoying or wanting a pleasure for oneself (or wanting to take care of oneself) doesn’t count as “love of self” or “love of the world” that can lead to hell, if it’s in the right priority — that is, in accordance with the Golden Rule — right?

    • Lee says:

      Hi K,

      It’s not a dumb question at all. In fact, Swedenborg talks specifically about healthy love of self in The New Jerusalem #97–99, which I invite you to look up and read. (The link is to #97 in my modern English translation, titled The Heavenly City: A Spiritual Guidebook. You can read the next two sections by clicking the “next” button.)

      Basically, yes, as long as we keep self-love in the right place on the totem pole—below and subservient to love for God and the neighbor—then it is a good and healthy love. It becomes evil and sinful only when we put our own pleasure, wealth, and power ahead of our love and concern for other people, and for God’s kingdom.

      In those sections from The New Jerusalem Swedenborg refers to the ancient dictum of “a sound mind in a sound body.” Healthful pleasures, both physical and mental, contribute to that ancient human ideal. If we spend all of our time taking care of everyone else, and neglecting our own self-care and development, then we are vitiating our ability to be of service to others, while plunging ourselves into physical and mental distress, sickness, and decline. And that’s not good.

      So by all means we should set aside regular time in our life to get some physical relaxation, exercise, and enjoyment in whatever way we like most (as long as it’s generally healthful and not immoral), and also to develop our mental and emotional health. That is part of a well-rounded life. It builds a strong foundation from which we can engage in service to God and to our fellow human beings.

  9. Bob Manker says:

    one of my biggest problems is “loving” my neighbor. I don’t know how to go about accomplishing it.

  10. Rod says:

    Hi! I hope you’re doing well. I was wondering, when people knock on our doors asking for money or something else, is it a good idea to give or is it better to simply support a charity that helps people in a more specific way? On one hand, I want to help everyone who asks and I always remember Matthew 25. On the other hand, where I live it is fairly common for people who go around asking stuff to take advantage of people or simply to be aggressive. This week in my street a guy went to a neighbor asking for something to eat and she gave him a sandwich. Soon after (I think it was on the next day) he went there again asking for it and she said that on that day she didn’t have anything to give him. The guy started yelling at her, saying that he was gonna kill her and her family, that he would be watching their house 24/7, things like that. They called the police, but still, people around here are scared.

    So… when people ring my doorbell, I honestly don’t answer because I’m afraid, but then I feel guilty about possibly not helping someone who actually needs help. What should I do? Maybe there’s no one size fits all answer, but I’d appreciate some insights.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Rod,

      It’s a great question. Annette and I now live in an area where there is a lot of poverty, so we face it every day.

      Swedenborg says (and I agree with him) that our primary form of “charity” is to do a good job for people in our paid employment. Helping people in other ways is according to each person’s discretion. It is voluntary, not mandatory. Further, in helping people it is important to pay attention to whether or not they are good people, and what they will do with the help you give them. Giving money to people who are evil and destructive will only help them to do evil and destructive things. Giving money to people who are addicts or alcoholics is only going to buy their next stash or bottle, which is actually helping them to destroy themselves.

      “Charity” has taken on the meaning of giving to the poor, endowing hospitals, and so on, but that is not its original meaning. Its original meaning is active love for one’s fellow human beings. And the primary way we exercise it is in our main employment or calling. That’s what we spend the bulk of our days doing, and that is where we can make our greatest contribution to the well-being of our neighbor.

      What is today called “charity” is a voluntary addition to one’s paid employment or regular calling, at each person’s own will and choice. It is good to do these things, but not mandatory.

      Practically speaking, giving money to people who knock on the door isn’t going to do much good, especially not long-term. It might feed them for that day, but then they will be hungry again the next day. The only real solution is to improve the economy so that anyone who wants a job can get a job. Unfortunately, most programs to “help the poor” don’t do this, and may even make the economy worse. They are part of the problem, not part of the solution. As long as people have a shallow idea about “helping the poor,” they will never do the things that will really help the poor.

      Here in Soweto, people will take hand-outs. But what they really want is a regular job so that they can work, support themselves and their families, and have a sense of personal accomplishment and pride. Giving them money won’t do this. Only changing the political and economic system will change it. And most of the political and economic changes that are being made these days are in the wrong direction, and are only making things worse.

      This isn’t to say we should never give poor people direct help. My wife and I do help our neighbors, and an occasional stranger. But not at our door. If we did that, word would get around, more and more people would come, we would have no peace, and it would not help anyone out of poverty.

      Better to give to organizations that you have vetted, that are doing good and constructive work, and that aren’t swallowing up most of the donations in salaries and overhead. One very helpful type of charity is the ones that give micro-loans to people in poor areas of the world to help them start small businesses. Instead of just feeding them for a day or a week, this helps them feed themselves and their family day after day and year after year.

      If you want to give locally, my suggestion would be to look for organizations that similarly help people learn marketable skills, start small businesses, get an education, and so on, so that they can be in a position to work and support themselves. It’s fine to give to shelters, food kitchens, and so on. But helping people to help themselves will do more good in the long run.

  11. Rod says:

    Thank you!

  12. Caio says:

    Hi Lee,

    The thing about loving and wanting the better to other human beings still happens in a lower degree than with our relatives, friends and specially our family right? Not like we should treated our family or friends in an any superior way like The Godfather or the England’s Royal Family but It’s unrealistic that we could love a random stranger the same way you love your spouse or a close friend from your childhood for example, emotionally speaking.
    Now the way i understand it, like you said, the word love in the commandment may be more interpreted as the action than a feeling itself. Wanting and treating others the same way you want others to treat you, more popularly speaking, the Golden Rule at it’s core.
    I’m not saying those things to sound egoistic or selfish, but makes sense that there are people that are more important to us obviously, that is way we live in communities in Heaven and we have our own house, partner.

    Now speaking about “Love” itself, i would take this order:
    1 – Love for God
    2 – Love for our Family (Spouse, Husband, Sons) / Yourself (not the narcissistic way of course) / (Mother, Father, Brother, Sister)
    3 – Close Friends / Relatives
    4 – Other people / Neighborhood

    A hypothetical example, similar to one i saw in one of your articles:
    If i see some bully (the neighborhood in this case) attacking my son or daughter (my family), i will not even think for one second if the bully will suffer for my action (because he will) or his parents will be sad that their son came home crying because some grown man gave throw him away two meters from his kid.


    • Lee says:

      Hi Caio,

      Yes, most people are naturally going to love their family and close friends more than they love casual acquaintances and strangers.

      However, when it comes to family members in particular, there is no special virtue in loving them because we see them as extensions of ourselves. They are “our people.” If we love only our family and not anyone outside our family in the manner of “The Godfather,” then we are engaged in an extended love of self, not in love of the neighbor.

      Love for family members does become more spiritual, though, when we love them as God’s children rather than only as our own children or family members, meaning when we raise our children to be citizens of God’s kingdom, and relate to other family members with the intention and desire to help them move toward God’s kingdom as well. This changes our love for them from merely earthly and natural and as extensions of ourselves into a love that is spiritual and heavenly.

      On the other side of the coin, the word “neighbor” is a translation of a Greek word whose basic meaning is, “People near to you.” The Hebrew equivalent has the idea of “people who flock together with you.” It does not say, “love everyone else as you love yourself.” It says, “Love the people near you as you love yourself.”

      We humans, being finite, do not have the ability to love everyone in the world. Only God has that ability. We can generally love only the relatively few people that we come in contact with. And the closer we are to them, and the more contact we have with them, the more we are able to love them.

      In a general sense, we are meant to love all the people who “come near” to us, meaning anyone we have contact with. But in a more specific sense, we are meant to love the people that we have something in common with, who are the ones who are “near” to us. We aren’t required to love people who are physically or emotionally distant from us in the same way—though I hasten to add that we are indeed to love them as well, given that Christ taught us to love even our enemies.

      Going to an even higher level, the spiritual meaning of “neighbor” is the good in other people. That is the higher meaning of the neighbor we are to love. So in the example of the bully, we are not required to love the bully nature, or the bullying, of the bully. Any time people are engaged in evil, we are not required to love that evil in them, or to love the evil that they do. We are required to love only the good in them, which may involve punishing them or treating them harshly in an effort to separate them from the evil that has gotten them in its grip.

      The greater meaning of loving the neighbor, then, is to look for the good in other people, to love that in them, and to seek to increase that in them, while seeking to decrease the evil that destroys the good in them.

      Of course, we cannot violate people’s free will and force them to be good. But we can and should do what we can to encourage the good and discourage the evil in other people. This is truly loving them because it is helping them to move toward experiencing the eternal goodness and joy of heaven.

      • Caio says:

        Hi Lee

        Thank you! It’s great to understand better those concepts better specially when it comes to the commandments, since i used to see them as rigid obligations instead of direct “tips and hints” from the Creator itself to have a better and happily life for yourself and everybody around you. I like how free wills casually works here, you can try to understand the commandments and try to live according to them or try can try your own way of living, generally as you grow, you discover that the other way works better… But you can still decline them, after all you are free to live the way you want. ☺️
        It’s cool how Heaven reflects it too with it’s many layers, so many people living on their own way, but a the same time with goodness in the core of their heart. It’s not like everybody lives 100% according to what Jesus taught, it’s humanly impossible, like you said. But at least the people who achieve the Heavens, even the lower ones, were people that are disposable to live the closest way they possible can of what God taught them.


  13. Caio says:

    Hi Lee,

    Also, be free to edit my comments if you see any orthographic / typing error. 😊
    You can delete this comment later, it’s just to inform you about it! Thanks!

    • Lee says:

      Hi Caio,
      Thanks for that. But with rare exceptions, I don’t edit people’s words in the comments here unless they specifically ask me to. I do get rid of annoying tagine ads for iPhones and such.

      • Caio says:

        Hi Lee,
        In that case, if you notice something typed wrongly or some really bad orthographic error that somehow made my commentary hard to understand for you and other people that might be reading it, please inform me so i can ask you to change it! 😉 I’m saying it because English is not my main language and there are some cases that i notice some errors that i didn’t saw at the first revision before posting.

        • Lee says:

          Hi Caio,

          I think most people will realize when English is not the first language of a reader here. People come to this blog from all over the world. If there’s something in a comment that I just don’t understand, and it’s important to the substance and meaning of the comment, I ask for clarification. But usually I can understand what people mean in their comments. No need to get tangled up in words when the meaning is clear enough.

  14. Caio says:

    Hi Lee,

    No prob, thanks for the clarification! 😊🙏🏻
    Maybe I’m a little paranoid about those small things sometimes!


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