3 - Love of Neighbor
After covering the true self and different temperaments in the previous two parts, we will now discuss how to apply this understanding in specific circumstances. The framework for this series is based somewhat on a framework used in priestly formation: self-knowledge, self-acceptance, self-gift. This process is meant to guide people through human and spiritual development. In order to grow and develop we must get outside our own ego. Here “gift of self” is another way of saying “love of neighbor”. For Christians this is the essence of being free, whereby we choose to will the good of others. We see the greatest expression of this in Jesus’ passion and crucifixion.
Unfortunately, we live in a fallen world and will never fully experience harmony with others this side of Heaven. Like Christ, we are called to lay down our lives for the good of others, whether they appreciate it or not. It is a heroic calling which is only possible by God’s grace. In order to do this we must have a proper understanding of love. It is not simply what feels nice or only what we prefer. As we have discussed, our preferences can at times be selfish and motivated by comfort. Love means discerning and choosing the good of another. Sometimes this is easy because we see things exactly the same as other people. But other times we see things totally different. In those situations love costs us time and emotional energy. We can be wrong, and if so, must humbly admit it.
Love is expressed through unity, however, it doesn’t always mean everyone agrees. That would be uniformity, and although it’s closely related to unity, they are distinct. Unity is often expressed through diversity, which is consistent with who God is. No matter how much effort we put into trying to know and understand others, we don’t become them and vice versa. We all remain unique and essential. This is why unity is not simply everyone becoming the same. We need everyone’s perspectives and convictions, which often means disagreement. As writer and social scientist Arthur Brooks says, “Counterintuitive as it may be, the key to greater unity and more progress isn’t actually to agree more or disagree less. It’s to disagree better.” Pope Francis also captures this idea with his use of the phrase “reconciled diversity”.
Perhaps before the Fall we naturally respected each other's differences and didn’t experience emotional frustration while creating unity. But those days are long gone and we live in the world we do, which means we must accept conflict as part of life. If we tend to be a peacekeeper, we must grow in stubbornness; and if we are stubborn, we must grow in patience & kindness. This is the way of virtue, where charity reigns above all. Also, this is also simply a cold, stoic path. We need the warmth of Christ for ourselves and others. Countless saints remind us that without a deep prayer life we will be able to do nothing. Only after experiencing God’s love can we love our neighbor well.
A wise author I came across pointed out that only God’s love is truly unconditional, meaning a complete gift in advance. After the initial act of creation, God wills for us to love through conditions. Not in the sense that we withhold love for others, but rather we always apply love in specific circumstances. We are finite creatures and must accept the world as it is, rather than just as an ideal in our mind. Although we share in God’s creative plan, we only really control our own actions.
If we are living the Christian life well, we will encounter neighbors who are totally opposed to the Gospel message as we understand it. These moments will test our commitment to love. We should not toss aside our convictions about the truth, but instead should live these convictions with humility and the other’s good in mind. God will sort everything out in the end. We should do our best, and by grace continue to be better. If we are mocked, persecuted, and/or misunderstood we should remain steadfast in the commandment to love others. If we do this, we will be co-creating a diverse and layered story which God is continuing to write. Our hearts desire this kind of gift of self from others. Therefore, we need to love like we want to be loved. This will ultimately lead us closer to God, our true selves, and those all around us.
“Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.” -Thomas Merton
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” -John Watson
“As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know you are my disciples.” -Jn. 13:34-35