This is my response to a question recently posed to me. It came via email: ” I know I have to love my neighbor. But do I have to like them?”
That’s a tough one. The phrase “love your neighbor” is in the Old Testament law, is affirmed by Jesus and later quoted by Paul. It’s all over the Bible.
In the context of Leviticus 19:18, it’s all about provision, honesty, integrity and justice for our “neighbor.” Vengeance or nastiness are off the table.
When that phrase, “love your neighbor” appears in Paul’s letters or James, it supports the commandments which protect life, relationships, property and reputation. The motivation for those laws is the other person, not God.
Jesus mentions it to those who wanted to be righteous and obey the law. His words makes us realize that it’s not just about the rules, but the person.
But the go to passage is probably the parable of the Good Samaritan, which Jesus told to those who wanted to be righteous and wanted to know who their neighbor was (Luke 10:25-37). Here, the neighbor is obviously the one who showed mercy. If one were to imagine the aftermath of this story, I doubt that the Samaritan and the victim became good friends and went out for coffee. Love for the neighbor was the action of having mercy and meeting a need. Feelings are not mentioned. Just the compassion.
That doesn’t let us off the hook, though. Hatred and anger make us murders and fifth-commandment law breakers. I’ve struggled with this. I can barely talk to my neighbors across the street with civility. They are my second-worst neighbors ever! When they tried to sell their home a few years ago, I was, quite frankly, pretty excited. But they didn’t sell. Boo.
First, I believe people like this in our lives are there to remind us of how hard we are to love and how amazing Jesus’ capacity to love is. I mean, think about it. Jesus loves me.
Second, I can beat myself up for not loving my neighbor or I can flee for refuge to his infinite mercy. I know he would have me do the latter. Part of the reason Israel went into exile was because they had turned away from God and their neighbor as the rich became richer and the poor became poorer. But that was to teach them that God’s way was better. I want to learn from them. I’ll turn to him.
Third, there are a lot of people in the bible who don’t get along with each other. The disciples fought among themselves, Paul wasn’t especially fond of Peter, Paul didn’t like Mark either, and Jews and Samaritans generally ignored each other. It’s the rule, not the exception. Two thousand years into the history of the Christian Church, we still can’t get along with each other. This is what we and every generation are like.
So can we just ignore our aggravating neighbors? No. Can we avoid them. No. Can we hate them? No. Can we love them? Yes. But only with a lot of help! We only love because he first loved us.
I believe the answer is to simply be obedient. Most of the time I don’t feel like doing what God wants me to do. I do it because I know that his way is best for me. We walk by the Spirit, not the feelings or desires of our flesh.
Who knows, maybe God will change your feelings toward that person?