Sometimes It’s Challenging to Love Your Neighbor
Love your neighbor. The Bible says it word-for-word nine times, and in different words many more times in both the Old and New Testaments. You’d be hard-pressed to convince anyone it’s not a direct command for Christians.
But… what about the neighbor who said hurtful things about you? And what about the neighbor who cut you off in traffic? Or doesn’t share your work ethic? What about the neighbor with vastly different political views, who loves to push your buttons?! If we’re honest, some neighbors are just plain hard to love.
Yet…love your neighbor. The command still stands. So how can you love your neighbor when they’re not acting very lovable?
To be honest with you, I’ve studied, worked, volunteered, and even lived with a few tough cases. Here’s what I’ve learned works best when…well…humans are human.
How to Love Your Neighbor When They Don’t Love You Back
- First of all, consider how God views them. Let’s start with the most impactful truth – Jesus Christ died for that person. He came to Earth to take their sin upon himself on the cross, in order to make reconciliation possible. The Lord is patient with them, “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). So before you shout obscenities at the person who cut you off in traffic, or before you dwell on how much you dislike someone, consider that they are a child of God. If Jesus saw fit to die for them, who are we to view them differently?
- Don’t lose sight of their strengths in the thick of their weaknesses. There’s a joke that says when you don’t like someone, everything they do is offensive. “Look at her, eating those crackers like she owns the place!” Our faith aside, that’s not a healthy way to live, focusing on the negative. But especially as Christians, we’re called to higher living and higher thinking. Philippians 4:8 (ESV) advises us, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Is there any excellence to be found in that person? Is there anything worthy of praise? We are to focus on and think about those things.
- Consider what they may be going through. Maybe they just lost someone they loved. Maybe they’re stressed about money, or their child is being bullied at school, or their marriage is on the rocks. These certainly aren’t legitimate excuses to treat others poorly, but do we always act our Sunday best when we’re in the middle of a trial? A little understanding and grace can go a looooong way in connecting with others. And who knows? You might be the only person that shows them grace during this time. Your life and actions might just bring them to Christ.
- Remember how much you’ve been forgiven. You guys. I’m embarrassed to think about some of the things I’ve said and done in the past. That’s not just my far-away past, but even just a few days ago. Thank goodness for forgiving friends and family members, fuzzy memories, and the mercy of God. The Lord has not only pardoned our sins and shortcomings, but he has also commanded us to do the same for others (Matthew 18:21-35, Matthew 6:12, Colossians 3:13, Ephesians 4:32).
- Pray for God to change your heart. The Lord promises his people in Ezekiel 36:26 (NIV), “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” So pray that God would change your heart, removing any bitterness or unforgiveness you may hold against that person. Ask him to allow you to see them through His eyes, to think His thoughts and feel His heart toward them.
- Pray for your unlovable neighbor. It is really hard to dislike someone if you’re consistently praying for them. I know from experience! Years ago, a well-intended friend was beginning to interfere in my marriage. She meant well, but was stepping far past the appropriate boundaries. I remember just seething over the whole thing for several hours every day. Until one day, I felt prompted by God to pray for her, adding her to my regular morning prayers. And not to pray that she would butt out, although that’s what I wanted, but to pray for her marriage, for her family, for her job and friendships and personal fulfillment and relationship with God. And for the first several days, my prayers felt extremely insincere. Probably because they were. But over time, God softened my heart and opened my eyes to consider her actions in a different light. When you’re regularly praying for someone’s very best, you begin to view them differently.
- And finally, remember that you’re not personally responsible for the outcome. The fact is that you might live an exemplary life, always acting in love toward your neighbor, and still find that they hate you. And that’s okay. In the Bible, God sends a message to the Israelites through the prophet Ezekiel. He knows the Israelites are “rebels” with rebellious hearts, so all throughout the book, God assures Ezekiel that his job is to remain holy (not to stoop to their level) and deliver the message, and whether the Israelites receive it or not is on them. When it comes down to it, your neighbor has to decide whether they’ll accept your love. You can’t do it for them. You can only take the stance of Joshua and say, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).
Wrap It Up
Love your neighbor is a direct command for believers, whether our neighbors act lovable or not. But we can show love to the tough cases, through prayer and choosing to view both them and ourselves through the lens of God’s grace.
Which of your neighbors hasn’t been acting very lovable lately? What could you do to show them love? Do it today!
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