Loving Your Neighbor

Date Published

October 1, 2016

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Published by Calvin Seminary

I heard someone remark recently that there is an “us versus them” pattern in the Calvinist perspective that makes it difficult for us to really love our neighbors. Loving our “elect” neighbors—yes, that fits a Calvinist theology. But that tends to be where Calvinists draw the line on the subject of neighborly love.

I could see the point the person was making. And it would not surprise me if that person had actually heard a Calvinist put the case in that way. I have had my own encounters with Reformed people who insist that it is only “the Christian poor” whom God calls us to serve. But John Calvin himself would be deeply offended by having such views blamed on his theological influence.

Here is what the Geneva Reformer says on the subject in his Institutes: Because we are by nature “all too much inclined to self-love,” we need to concentrate on loving God in a way that places the love of self in the background, thereby cultivating in our relationships with other people a pattern that “transfers to others the emotion of love that we naturally feel toward ourselves.” Furthermore, he insists, the “neighbor” whom we are commanded to love “includes even the most remote person,” extending beyond “the ties of kinship, or acquaintanceship, or of neighborhood.” It is a love that should “embrace the whole human race without exception in a single feeling of love,” with “no distinction between barbarian and Greek, worthy and unworthy, friend and enemy, since all should be contemplated in God, not in themselves.”

It was in the spirit of John Calvin’s call to an expansive neighborlove that we gathered and sought guidance from each other recently at a marvelous conference at Calvin Seminary. We dealt with some important—and sometimes complex—questions. What does it mean today to genuinely love our Muslim neighbors, our neighbors who have lost the memories of their own past, our neighbors who are victims of racial injustice, our neighbors who are legally “undocumented”?

Christine Pohl has a nice way of capturing the essence of neighbor-love in her book on hospitality. Her title tells the story in a simple phrase: Making Room. To show hospitality, she says, is to create space for the needs of others. We are being hospitable when we give weary ones a place to sleep and when we make room at our tables for people to share our food.

Pohl also observes that the word “hospitality” has been robbed of its original core meaning in recent times. We talk much about the “hospitality industry,” referring thereby to “hotels and restaurants which are open to strangers as long as they have money or credit cards.” True hospitality has to go much deeper than an economic transaction. It is going beyond what is expected of us, and it carries with it an element of vulnerability. When Jesus showed hospitality to people whose lifestyles and ideas He strongly opposed, it got Him into trouble with the religious leaders of His own day: “e Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax-collectors and sinners?’ ” (Luke 5:30). To be sure, those religious leaders were guilty of quite a bit of self-righteousness. But we can at least understand something of their concerns. When we show hospitality we are often taking some serious risks.

In extending hospitality to other people, the notion of making room, of creating space, is often quite a literal thing—making real beds available to them and inviting them to sit and eat at real tables. But it is also helpful to think about the benefits of making room in a metaphorical sense. It can require us to make space in our minds for considering ideas that are quite strange to us. Or to take on burdens of sorrow, awkwardness, or confusion as we allow the deepest hopes and fears of others to enter into our own hearts. e Catholic bishops who gathered in the 1960s at the historic Second Vatican Council in Rome put it eloquently in one of their final pronouncements: “e joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.”

Of course, people can mean different things when they claim to have empathy for all that is “genuinely human.” When Ralph Waldo Emerson declared that “nothing human is alien to me,” he was celebrating what he saw as the capacity of the unfettered human will to enrich and expand its own experience of a shared humanity. Christians see it much differently. We do not look for a power within ourselves; rather, we focus on the person and work of Jesus Christ. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15).

I have personally drawn much inspiration on this subject from the Heidelberg Catechism’s explanation of the suffering that Christ endured in order to accomplish our salvation. He suffered, the Catechism says (Q&A 37), “during His whole life on earth, but especially at the end.” e special emphasis on “the end” of His life is of utmost importance, of course, because of the once-for-all sacrifice that took place at Calvary.

But the Catechism does not ignore what took place “during His whole life on earth.” Nor should we.

It was not enough for the Son of God to show up only for three hours in order to be crucified. e redemptive mission of the One whose stretched out His arms to be nailed to the Cross had to begin with the outstretched arms of the Bethlehem Babe in the manger.

I once ended a sermon on the lifelong sufferings of Christ by saying to the congregation: “There is nothing that any of you here today has experienced during the past week that the Son of God does not understand. He went through it Himself during his earthly life.” As I was greeting people afterward, one woman hung around until the others departed. She was clearly upset with me. “What you said made me angry. Jesus cannot possibly know what it has been like for me during this past week! I have had a miserable time with my teenage daughter. He knows nothing about what it is like to be the parent of my daughter!”

We had a good conversation. I agreed with her that Jesus had never been a mother. But He did experience, I said, rejection and betrayal. He knew what it was like to have people who had claimed to love Him suddenly turn against Him. After a while, the woman agreed that Jesus was no stranger to her experiences with her daughter. (I was glad that I could help her see that—but I would also have liked to tell her daughter that Jesus understood what she had gone through with her mother during the past week!)

The divine command to love our neighbors is not issued by a distant Sovereign who simply enjoys giving us difficult assignments. e God who calls us to love, to use Calvin’s phrase, even “the most remote person,” is the One who drew near to us in Jesus Christ in order to be the great High Priest who knows what it is like to be us. He chose us to be His neighbors, undeserving that we are as rebellious sinners. In so doing, He offers us a new capacity, a new kind of neighbor-love that we could not come up with on our own. at is the kind of Calvinism that is not “us versus them,” but “us reaching out to them.”


by Richard Mouw, President Emeritus, Fuller Theological Seminary


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