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.

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