Introductory Note:

The commandment to love your neighbor might become your undoing. Many Christians have made it into a soul-crushing burden. They become the sour-faced saints we are warned about. There are probably many reasons for this. One of the major reasons is the total ignorance about what love is. We are not to love the whole world, that is God’s job. The three-fold commandment of Jesus to his students is to love our neighbor as ourselves, lay down our lives for our friends, and love God above all else.

The thoughts that follow are excerpted from some raw Dallas Willard workshop notes that have been preserved over the years. In them, we see Dallas working out four key steps involved in determining who our neighbors are, and in becoming the sort of people capable of loving those neighbors as we love ourselves.

Ville Kavilo

The first major step in becom­ing one of those who love their neigh­bors as them­selves is to decide to live com­pas­sion. Now let us be clear: This is a deci­sion to receive the abun­dance of the King­dom of the Heav­ens as the basis for your life. Matthew 6:33 is what we do. We must under­stand it prac­ti­cal­ly in order to turn loose of the self con­cern, the self-king­dom. This explains why neigh­bor-love is not the first, but the sec­ond, com­mand­ment. They are not two sep­a­rate com­mand­ments, but one with two aspects. (Com­pare the close­ly asso­ci­at­ed teach­ing about for­giv­ing oth­ers and hav­ing God’s for­give­ness in Mark 11:25 – 26 and oth­er pas­sages. They are not sep­a­rate things.)

Now, sup­pose, you are a per­son who has received com­pas­sion and can, there­fore, afford to be com­pas­sion­ate. Your next major step is to decide on who your neigh­bors are. This is a seri­ous ques­tion, though it can be used to jus­ti­fy not lov­ing. The word neigh­bor” comes out of old­er Eng­lish where it referred to the boor that is nigh thee.” (“Boor” is still in use in South Africa.) Here I want you to think of your neigh­bor as sim­ply those you are inti­mate­ly engaged with in life. The Samar­i­tan found him­self in inti­mate engage­ment with a vic­tim of vio­lence, and he respond­ed accord­ing­ly. The priest and the Levite reject­ed the engage­ment. They did not love their neigh­bor and did not prove to be a neigh­bor to the man.” (Luke 10:36)

A com­mon usage of the word neigh­bor” today locates the neigh­bor as one who lives next-door” or close by. A next-door” neigh­bor is one with a spe­cial degree of inti­ma­cy, on this under­stand­ing, and there is some­thing to that. But on this under­stand­ing my most impor­tant neigh­bor is over­looked: the one who lives with me, my fam­i­ly or oth­ers tak­en in by us. They are the ones most inti­mate­ly engaged with in my life. They are the ones who first and fore­most I am to love as I love myself. If sim­ply this were done, near­ly every prob­lem in fam­i­lies would be resolved, and the love would spread to others. 

But our clos­est inti­mates fre­quent­ly are also the ones we have most hurt and been hurt by. Here is where the fel­low­ship of dis­ci­ples comes in. Here is where the high­er stan­dard of as I have loved you” can/​should/​would cre­ate a con­text of restora­tion of com­pas­sion and love for those near us in life. The local assem­bly would, real­is­ti­cal­ly, be like a hos­pi­tal, with var­i­ous peo­ple at var­i­ous states of treat­ment and recov­ery. Then we move in love to those around us in the nat­ur­al con­nec­tions of life. 

So the sec­ond step is actu­al­ly rather com­pli­cat­ed, but it can be described as the deci­sion to have com­pas­sion upon those clos­est to us wher­ev­er we are, at home, work, school, and neighborhood.

Now it is very impor­tant to under­stand that the com­mand is not to love every­one. God does. You can’t even begin to. Love can only be spe­cif­ic, and love can­not exceed our resources. Sup­pose the next day the Samar­i­tan came upon a sim­i­lar case. And the next day. And the next. At what point does the as your­self” come into effect? There is no gen­er­al rule. We must respect our lim­i­ta­tions and prayer­ful­ly seek the pres­ence of God in action with us. You have the respon­si­bil­i­ty to care for your­self under God, though in the rare case that may mean rad­i­cal sac­ri­fice or even death. But that is not the nor­mal case. You have to make judg­ments in faith. 

So now, third step, do a lit­tle exer­cise. List the few peo­ple you are most inti­mate­ly engaged with in life. This should be a pret­ty small num­ber — though obvi­ous­ly not in the case of a large fam­i­ly. Now list a next cir­cle of degree of engage­ment (no more than 8 or 10). And, final­ly, a third cir­cle. In begin­ning to love your neigh­bor as your­self, do think small. Humil­i­ty is cru­cial to love, always. The range can grow as you grow. But if you find your­self want­i­ng to start this exer­cise with the AIDS orphans in Africa, for exam­ple, you are prob­a­bly suf­fer­ing from sen­ti­men­tal abstrac­tion. If your cir­cum­stances and call­ing are such that you can, in the con­text of all your neigh­bors, real­ly do some­thing for the AIDS orphans, that is a dif­fer­ent mat­ter. But few peo­ple can start there, and it is easy to lose your way there. 

So, now, fourth step, begin with that inner cir­cle as best you can, and devote seri­ous atten­tion, thought, prayer and ser­vice to two or three peo­ple. Allow time for this to devel­op (prob­a­bly a few months, at least) until it becomes a grace-sus­tained habit, and then you can bring more peo­ple into the range of your effec­tive neighbor-love. 

You will find it nec­es­sary to prac­tice a range of stan­dard dis­ci­plines for the spir­i­tu­al life in order to receive the com­pas­sion, grace, and growth required to live a life of neigh­bor love. You will nev­er feel ade­quate to such a life, in view of the needs around you. But that is right and good. You aren’t ade­quate! You are to stand with oth­ers in the fel­low­ship of dis­ci­ples and under the pres­ence of the King­dom of God 

So here are the steps in effec­tu­al lov­ing of our neigh­bor as our­selves: Decide to receive com­pas­sion as a way of life, decide to be com­pas­sion­ate to the par­tic­u­lar peo­ple around you, list those peo­ple in terms of degree of close­ness, begin to pay atten­tion etc. to them, engage in the spir­i­tu­al dis­ci­plines that enable you to oper­ate from a con­stant full­ness of grace.

We grate­ful­ly acknowl­edge Dal­las Willard’s web­site for their per­mis­sion to repub­lish his article.

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