Much like family, we don’t choose our neighbors. Depending on the situation, this can be delightful or dreadful.
But even when it’s dreadful, Jesus commands us to love our neighbors. Yes, but . . . [enter reason you shouldn’t love your neighbor here]. I fear that, like the ancient school of Hillel, we whip up neighborly divorce papers over just about anything. Without much thought, we tally complaints, inching farther from relationship.
Imagine standing before God with this logic: “Yes Lord, they were made in your image and starved for gospel hope, but their dog’s barking always woke us up at 2 a.m., so we shut them out.”
Imagine standing before God with this logic: ‘Yes Lord, they were made in your image and starved for gospel hope, but their dog’s barking always woke us up at 2 a.m.’
As Christians, evaluating how likable, similar, relatable, or moral our neighbors are is the wrong place to start. Whatever differences we inevitably encounter, the gospel compels us to lean closer, not step back, as Rosaria Butterfield observes:
One option is to build the walls higher, declare more vociferously that our homes are our castles, and, since the world is going to hell in a handbasket, we best get inside, thank God for the moat, and draw up the bridge. Doing so practices war on this world but not the kind of spiritual warfare that drives our darkness and brings in the kindness of the gospel.
Let’s consider five reasons we excuse ourselves from loving our neighbors, begging God to bring conviction that begets obedience (Ps. 139:23–24; James 1:22–25).
1. My neighbors are inconsiderate.
Sometimes we disconnect from neighbors because they are rude. Loud music. Parking in the wrong spot. Smoking around our kids. Using our lawn as their dog’s daily bathroom. Parenting in ways we wouldn’t. Donning a political yard sign or bumper sticker we despise.
Cancel culture insists that if someone bothers you, ditch them. Conversely, the way of Jesus is willing to forgive offense (John 8:1–11), model purity (1 Pet. 2:12), and engage relationally with sinners (John 4:1–42). When we behold Christ’s prayer of forgiveness for his executioners, uttered from the cross, our pettiness vaporizes. As sinners daily pardoned from immense guilt (1 Tim. 1:15), how could we stubbornly withhold forgiveness from others (Eph. 4:32; Matt. 18:21–35)?
2. My neighbors are not my primary ministry.
Maybe you spend a lot of hours each week ministering to others. By the time you get home, you want rest, not more relationships to maintain.
Home should be a haven, but our geography (where we live) is linked with God’s sovereignty (his wise arrangement of people and places). God put you where you are (Acts 17:26). There are people who need to hear the gospel from your lips and experience it through your service.
Let’s not be hermits where God calls us to be heralds.
Proximity is powerful, because God is intentional. Let’s not be hermits where God calls us to be heralds.
3. My neighbors are different from me.
Differences divide. We herd based on religion, background, lifestyle, interests, personality, race, politics, and social status. It helps us feel safe, understood, in control.
Though many justify neighbor-avoidance based on differences, the real issue isn’t some impassable chasm of incompatibility; it’s our own discomfort, pride, and fear. As we huddle within the bounds of familiarity, we’re robbed of serving those who don’t look or think like we do.
Jesus ignored the homogeneous social rules of his day, dining with both religious elites (Luke 14:1) and also scandalous sinners (Mark 2:15). His inner circle of disciples included a zealot (traditionally violent toward Rome), and a tax collector (traitorously allied with Rome). Following Jesus will seat you at tables that make you squirm.
4. My neighbors want to be left alone.
In the modern world, privacy is an inviolable right. Love has been cheapened into little more than leaving people alone, staying out of their way, and respecting their space.
Following Jesus will seat you at tables that make you squirm.
Of course, there are ways of approaching neighbors that are intrusive. Each person or family must be pursued thoughtfully, with both sensitivity and also boldness. We shouldn’t be surprised, or miffed, when we hear nothing back after delivering cookies to a new neighbor, or when a dinner invitation isn’t reciprocated.
Be patient. Seize the small opportunities of interaction God provides. Keep inviting.
5. My neighbors are hostile.
Recently some neighbors lamented the behavior of someone on our street, which admittedly was disturbing, illegal, and mean-spirited. Amid the emotion-fueled ultimatums about what people would do if this neighbor ever came onto their property again, I wondered: How should God’s people respond when neighbors pose a legitimate threat to their safety, whether physically or emotionally?
Jesus’s command to love our enemies is one of his most well-known and, I suspect, oft-ignored imperatives. But what are we to do when personal interaction with an “enemy” is no longer wise?
I’m convinced the answer—not trivially but profoundly—is prayer. If a neighbor threatens us, we may need to call the police, file a report, install a motion light or alarm system, or, worst case, move to a new neighborhood. These are sober realities, yet prayer for a hostile neighbor and self-protection aren’t mutually exclusive.
What should we pray for? Pray that God will intervene and stop their evil behavior. Pray for justice. But also pray for their salvation, that God’s kindness rescues them from darkness (Col. 1:13).
Our neighbors, fraught with differences and frustrating qualities, need us to love them with the selflessness of Christ, as Dallas Willard writes:
Christ brings me to the place where I am able to walk beside my neighbor, whoever he or she may be. I am not above them. I am beside them: their servant, living with them through the events common to all of us. I am not called to judge them, but to serve them as best I can by the light I have, humbly and patiently, with the strength I have and the strength God supplies. If it is true that our ways will at some point part for eternity, I shall love them none the less for it. And the best gift I can give them is always the character and power of Christ in me.
If we refuse to pursue those closest to us (literally), who then will we love? As we risk and wrestle to love difficult neighbors, God goes with us (Matt. 28:20), graciously providing the words and wisdom we need.