Loving the Neighbor You Can’t Stand

23 Feb

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

—Matthew 22:36-40 NIV


In John’s Gospel, Jesus uses a metaphor that rings true for anyone with a green thumb. “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener,” He says. “He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit He prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” Jesus goes on to explain that we are His branches. If we want a fruit-producing life, we must stay connected to the vine.

In the Bible, the concept of fruitfulness carries the connotation of becoming more like Christ in both our attitudes and actions. If you want grapevines to produce their maximum amount of grapes, they must be drastically cut back and pruned each year. If we are going to grow to be spiritually mature, we, like the grapevine, must also endure seasons of pruning—times of trials and difficulties.

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems as though God’s favorite “pruning shears” are people.

Can I get a witness?

I received an email recently from a young working professional. We’ll call her Shelley. Shelley wants so much to be an influencer for Jesus in her office, but Shelley works with what I like to call a “sandpaper person.” You know the type. They rub you the wrong way every time you bump into them.

Shelley’s sandpaper person undermines her work, cuts her down in front of others, and takes undue credit for her ideas. Shelley shared with me that this person is not a believer.

“I know the Lord tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves. So how am I supposed to love someone that I don’t like?”

This is a great question and one with which many of us struggle. The key lies in understanding the word “love.”

The New Testament was originally written (for the most part) in Greek. When our scholars translate our Bibles, they are (mostly) working from the Greek texts that have survived through the years. There are some nuances in Greek that, if we know them, are helpful for understanding the Bible. For instance, Greek is hyper-specific, and we see this in the word “love.” When we love something, be it a puppy, a pair of shoes, a husband, or a child, we have one word—love. The Greeks had four words encompassing the concept of love: eraó, storgēo, philía, and agápē. They each mean something different.

Eraó is an “intense or passionate love, highly sensual and even intoxicating, and describes strong desires ranging from patriotism to sexual love.”[i] Husbands and wives start out in eraó.

Storgēo is natural love, the love that wells up within us for our children and our families of origin; a love not easily switched off.

Philía is the fond affection that we feel toward our friends and people who are dear to us. Philía is also earned love, contingent love. It is conditional, built on mutually gratifying relationships.

Agápē is the word most often used for God’s love toward His people, Israel, and the Church. This love is rooted in the seat of the mind or will, and it means to “value, esteem, prize, treat as precious; be devoted to.[ii]”  This love means to set your mind and your heart upon someone;  to determine to do what is best for them, regardless of the cost. It is not a feeling, although it may certainly be accompanied by strong feelings of storgēo or philía. It has nothing to do with warmth and affection, and everything to do with setting our hearts and minds toward them and determining to respect and honor them regardless of the cost. It means to put their needs before our own.

I asked Shelley to consider this: what if the very reason the Lord had placed her at her job was to be the love of Christ to the least deserving?

Romans 5:8 reminds us that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” He didn’t wait for us to walk an aisle or clean up our act. He had His heart and mind set on us, Paul tells the Ephesians, “before the creation of the world.”[iii]

God is the embodiment of love. He is eraó—passionate and jealous for His people; philía—genuinely delighted with us. He is storgēo—loving us and gathering us to Himself as a mother hen protectively gathers her chicks under her wings. But His epic, all-consuming, never-failing love for us begins and ends with agápē.

Long ago He set His heart and mind toward His people, no matter how idolatrous or unfaithful they were. This same love that was first directed to the Israelites is now given freely to us in Christ. We did not earn it, so we cannot lose it. It has nothing to do with our loveliness and everything to do with His grace. He made a choice to love us no matter the cost, even at the cost of His Son.

In his first letter, the Apostle John wrote, “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.”[iv]

Our job, as Christians, is to make Christ known to the world. How they respond is not on us or up to us. We will love them well if we draw first from the wellspring of His great love for us. As we walk with Him, God will give us the grace to honor, respect, and serve even the unloveliest of those we encounter. Even the sandpaper people. Especially the sandpaper people.

And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love.

—Romans 5:5 NLT

[i] Warren Patrick Baker, PhD., Hebrew-Greek Keyword Study Bible, (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2013).

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ephesians 1:4

[iv] 1 John 3:1


3 Responses to “Loving the Neighbor You Can’t Stand”

  1. Monica Grider February 26, 2017 at 9:48 pm #

    I LOVE this! The 4 different types of love is something I’ve never heard of before.

    • Rebecca February 28, 2017 at 4:51 pm #

      Thanks for reading it, Monica!! 🙂

  2. Tim Wayment August 12, 2020 at 10:58 am #

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