It’s easier to follow the second great commandment “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” when you like your neighbor. But Jesus didn’t say “love the people you like” or that this great command only applies to people who are easy to be around.
For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not the tax collectors also do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing that is remarkable? Do not the Gentiles also do the same? Therefore you be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt 5:46-48, LEB)
God is perfect in every way. In this case, however, Jesus is specifically talking about His perfect impartiality. Leading up to these verses, He said,
But I tell you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who mistreat you and persecute you, that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust. (Matt. 5:44-45, WEB)
If we want to be like God, we have to love the way He loves. God is love. It “is the sum and harmony of all His attributes, His essence” (Expositor’s Dictionary of Texts on 1 John 4:8-9). Love isn’t just something God does. It’s His nature; the motivation driving every choice He makes. The chief example of this is that while “we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8, LEB).
Clearing Up What Love Is
But things get complicated when dealing with humans. We run into questions, not because we’re trying to wiggle out of the command to love others but because we’re not sure what it means. Consider these scenarios:
- Does love that “bears all things” mean I let my abusive parents/spouse/etc. keep hurting me?
- Does love that “covers a multitude of sins” mean I always have to trust people again after forgiving them?
- Does love that “does not behave rudely” stay friends with people who creep you out?
Part of this confusion gets cleared up when we look at the words translated “love.” When we’re commanded to love our enemies and neighbors, the word is agape (G26). This sort of love means you direct your will toward seeking good for others. It’s the love defined in 1 Corinthians 13.
Agape is the kind of love that is God’s nature. It’s an incredible, selfless love but it doesn’t necessarily mean you make the object of that love your friend. Friendly, affectionate love is expressed by phileo (G5368). We’re commanded to have this friendship love for Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 16:22) and we’re also supposed to have unfeigned brotherly love (philadelphia, G5360, from phileo) for others in the church (1 Thes. 4:9; 1 Pet. 1:22). But as a general rule, God doesn’t make loving other people in a phileo way a command.
Love Never Enables Sin
You don’t have to be friends with people who hurt you. Healthy boundaries and Christian love are not incompatible. I’m talking to myself here as much as anyone else. Though my personality type is known for door slamming bad relationships, it’s tempting for me to avoid conflict by letting people get away with inappropriate behavior. But that’s not an attitude of love.
Agape seeks the other person’s good. It is patient, ever ready to help, and willing to suffer for its good deeds. It also “does not rejoice at unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth” (1 Cor. 13:6, LEB). Loving someone doesn’t mean encouraging them to do whatever they want. You’re under no obligation to enable bad behavior. In fact, it’s rather the opposite.
And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them. (Eph. 5:11, KJV)
Within the church, Paul even talks about there being times to cut off contact with a church member who isn’t keeping God’s laws. You’re not even to eat a meal with someone who’s professing to follow Christ yet “is a sexual sinner, or covetous, or an idolater, or a slanderer, or a drunkard, or an extortionist” (1 Cor 5:11, WEB). We’re to withdraw ourselves from those who don’t obey (2 Thes. 3:6, 14). We’re to reject heretics after first tying to admonish them (Tit. 3:10). You don’t consider these people your enemies, but agape has a commitment to adhere to the truth.
Active Compassion and Mercy
Godly love doesn’t demand you befriend everyone you meet and it never enables another person’s sin. But we also have to be careful not to stretch those truths too far. By that I mean we should be vary wary about falling into the trap of deciding things like “He’s not my brother because I don’t like him” or “They hurt me so I don’t have to be friendly.”
Where would we be if God had decided the people who were rude and disobedient to Him weren’t worth loving? We’re to pattern our love after His, and that means active compassion and mercy for people who don’t deserve good things from us. It also means leaving space for those who’ve hurt us to repent and be welcomed back (as Paul said to do for the man in 2 Cor. 2:6-7 who’d repented of the sins he’d previously been shunned for).
That said, also keep in mind that even though God loves everyone He’s not in relationship with everyone. The people He counts as friends are the ones who love Him back and demonstrate that love by changing the way they live. Following His example, you can maintain healthy boundaries and actively, selflessly love others at the same time. When in doubt, be kind and never write anyone off completely. God holds out hope, redemption, and radical love to all people. And we should, too.
Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.” ― C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity