Spring is a great season. It cries out, “Get up and get out!” The tulips lead by example with their undaunted determination to press through the cold earth to embrace the warm sun. Soon enough, we will bravely follow suit by packing up our wintroverted1 ways and dusting off all that takes us outdoors. But before you start thinking of all that you want to do this spring, use this time for spring training in how to love your neighbor.
Not everything in this life is great. The word great should be reserved for great things. In Matthew 22 a lawyer asks Jesus a great law question: “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” His answer came in two parts: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Far from the lawyer being curious, he was quizzing Jesus. The text says, “Then one of them, a lawyer, asked [Jesus] a question, testing Him.” It would be a bit like an elder randomly asking a young person from our church, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” It’s a quiz. Jesus passed. He got it right. Not only did Jesus perfectly answer the great question, but also He perfectly lived out the great answer.
Of all the commandments, Jesus says, next to loving God, loving your neighbor as yourself is the greatest expression of obedient gratitude. He even calls it great! The whole of the Old Testament is summarized in this and its companion commandment.
Most of us have been around long enough to know that the word neighbor, biblically understood, leaves us with little wiggle room. We say with New Covenant panache, “Clearly, it’s not just the people next door.” Indeed. Very true. Quiz passed. But before we get all big and broad, think about how you are doing with the narrow definition of the word. If you are like me, there is enough conviction right here, thank you very much. But this has to be more than a tug on a moral heartstring or a poke at false guilt. We need to see the second great commandment as the doorway through which we cheerfully introduce our neighbors to the first great commandment. Put another way, we need to see the second great commandment as the key to the church’s Great Commission. Put yet another way, we need to give up on moanology, the practice of moaning against our neighbors for fill-in-the-blank kinds of reasons, and we need to embrace a missiology that seeks to befriend, come along side of, encourage, and foster neighbor love.
Today, we are tempted to move out of our congested neighborhoods so that we don’t have to deal with people. The isolation that is produced by our modern technology is perhaps only the natural outworking of a more primitive attitude that hates being bothered by incarnated inconveniences, that is, people. But the second great commandment assumes contact with our neighbor. It assumes activity and connectivity. It assumes messy interaction where love is hard and needs to be invoked lest you become a sermon illustration (see Matt. 5:46ff.). It assumes that the church is going to take the fruit of the gospel and live it from narthex to neighborhood.
So let me get you thinking about this with some tips for your spring training regimen in neighbor love. So that we’re clear, I write this as a man who is woefully out of shape myself and in desperate need of training.
First: Pray. We have not because we ask not. It is that simple. Go for a walk and pray your way through your neighborhood. Pray for the households as you pass by. Confess your sin of disinterest among those God has placed you next to. With every step, acknowledge that you are treading on the mission field where God has placed you to shine for His glory. Repent of the tunnel vision that enables you to think that your street is merely the pathway to your home. Cry out for strength that you’ll quickly realize you do not have of yourself. Pray to be used.
Second: Live. Be seen. Get off your back deck, with the back fence protecting your back yard where no one can see you. Make your driveway the launch pad from which you live out the second great commandment. Throw a football with your kids. In the midst of a world that is suffering from the breakdown of the family, be a family that honors Christ before the eyes of all men. Show the practical benefits of a life hidden in Christ by not being hidden from the world. The world desperately needs to see what Christ lived out looks like! And when there is an opportunity to talk with someone passing your home, don’t be so busy loving your blessings that you cannot love that person and be a blessing.
Third: Cut strings. We don’t love with ulterior motives. We do not only love our neighbors so that they will be converted. We love them because we are converted.2 In other words, we love our neighbor expecting nothing in return. Of course our desire in showing the love of Christ is to be winsome. Our desire should be that everyone we meet would know the love of Christ through faith and repentance. But our love for our neighbors is not contingent on their embrace of Christ. We don’t give our neighbors the first thirty days of our love for free, but after the trial period ends, the deal expires if they haven’t signed up for membership. Our love is of the no-strings-attached variety. We love because we have been loved. This is the kind of love that mystifies. It’s a love unlike anything in this world, where everything is something-for-something. This love fosters trust. It is faithful. We are not fair-weather people who divorce ourselves from everyone who doesn’t believe what we believe. While we were enemies, we were loved. With this lesson ever before us, this is the love that we show. This is the love that conquers. We know this, because this is the love that conquered us.
Fourth: Fear not. Get in the mess of your mission field without fear. First John 4:4 says, “He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.” This is important for us to remember. It is easy to pretty up our fears, make them sound sanctimonious, and never interact with the world. “It has a corrupting influence, you know.” Of course it does, but “He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.” When we forget this, we quickly become introverted and fail to meet our neighbors where they need to experience our Christian love the most. Perhaps this explains why many of our churches have seemingly grown only through controversies. Don’t you long for growth through conversions? Don’t you long for an increasing number of adult baptisms? That requires all of us to get into the messy business of loving our messy neighbors in our manicured subdivisions. And who better to do this than us—messy sinners saved by extravagant grace! In His greatness, without fear, we seek to fulfill the Great Commission by living out the great commandments.
He who is in you is greater than He who is in the world! Let the greatness of this thought prepare you for the season that springs you out of your home and into the great outdoors. In the midst of being set free after a long winter, let us remember why it is that God makes us visible in His world. We are His witnesses, His workers, and windows of His love. “And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Are you ready to live with the implications of this great commandment?
1. An indoor life necessitated by cold West Michigan winters.
2. For more on this, read The Art of Neighboring: Building Genuine Relationships Right Outside Your Door by Jay Pathak, Dave Runyon, and Randy Frazee (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2012).
Rev. Jason Tuinstra is the pastor of Bethel URC in Jenison, MI, where he has served for the past six years. He previously served congregations in Indiana and California.