Editor's 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.

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