Saturday, May 12, 2012

Love Thy Neighbor

Proverbs 14:29 ESV
(29)  Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly.

 The other day I went grocery shopping, and I doubt five-minutes passed before I became irritated (which, for me, is par for the course). Why did I become annoyed so quickly? Well, for starters, it irritates me when someone blocks the aisle with their shopping cart. It also irritates me when parents fail to control their children. As far as I'm concerned, they are either being rude or thoughtless -- and there seemed to be an over-abundance of rude and thoughtless people in the store that day.

Not only am I easily irritated by other shoppers, I'm often irritated by the store employees as well. I find that most employees lack the courtesy and speed that I would like. I do not particularly enjoy waiting in long  lines, so I always try to find a fast AND courteous cashier. If I don't get both, it irritates me. Case in point, the checker at one store was actually very courteous, but he was also slow… and that annoyed me.

Do you see where I'm going here? Far too often, I am easily angered and annoyed. Whether I am shopping at a store or driving on the freeway, I find myself getting angry at people. After all, what I need to do is far more important than whatever it is they are doing. This is my world and other people are just in my way.

But what does that attitude say about the condition of my heart? If I'm being honest, it says that I tend to belittle people -- and how can I belittle people without looking down on them? And how can I look down on people without being proud and arrogant? And how can I be proud and arrogant without thinking that I am, in some way, better or more important than others?

When I see someone blocking an aisle, I think to myself, "I would never be that rude and thoughtless". When I see a parent fail to control their children I think, "I would never let my kids behave that way". When a driver does something thoughtless on the road, I think about how I am a much better driver, even though I have been just as thoughtless at times. In other words, I am constantly thinking about how I am, in some way, better than other people.

My heart is full of judgment and condemnation for people I don't know. Even worse, I feel self-righteous and justified in doing so. But it gets even worse. Because I can't think about someone in those demeaning terms without stripping them of their humanity, and that is the first step toward doing someone real harm. That is why Jesus warned against attitudes of the heart.

Matthew 5:21-22 ESV
(21) "You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.'
(22) But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, 'You fool!' will be liable to the hell of fire.

John MacArthur comments:
"Jesus suggested here that the verbal abuse stems from the same sinful motives (anger and hatred) that ultimately lead to murder. The internal attitude is what the law actually prohibits, and therefore an abusive insult carries the same kind of moral guilt as an act of murder." [i]

Why am I to love my neighbor? Because he is created in the image of God. Ultimately, when we belittle people, we strip them of the Imago Dei or the Image of God, and that is no small thing. However, because we are fallen creatures and so accustomed to thinking low thoughts about our neighbor, we've come to believe that it’s not important. But it is. It is a serious sin that betrays a corrupt, unloving, and ungodly heart.

Jas 3:7-10 ESV
(7) For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind,
(8) but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
(9) With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.
(10) From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.

Ultimately, I am confronted with the fact that my lack of patience is actually a lack of love:

1 Corinthians 13:4-5 ESV
(4)  Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant
(5)  or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;

As I thought about my lack of patience that day, I felt convicted. I realized that this kind of behavior is unbecoming to Christ and I dishonor Him by acting and thinking like a self-righteous Pharisee, especially over such trivial matters. Furthermore, it is a horrible witness. I carry the high honor of being an ambassador for Christ. As a result, I should carry the fragrant aroma of His grace and love with me, not rude condescension.

2 Corinthians 5:17-20 ESV
(17) Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.
(18) All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation;
(19) that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.
(20) Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

As I drove away from the store that day, I prayed and asked God to do a work in my heart. I can't just will a change of heart and I don't want to be phony, pretending to be something that I'm not. The Gospel runs far deeper than that, it changes the heart and transforms the affections.

As I continued to pray, God graciously opened the eyes of my understanding, and I realized something.
Over the years, by the grace of God, I have always understood my obligations to my employer. As a result, I put forth my best effort and treated customers and clients with respect. Why? Because I was thankful for a job. I recognized that, as long as I received a paycheck, courtesy was my reasonable service. I was on my employer’s time and I was the company’s representative. Understanding my position and being thankful made me want to provide good service.

So then it follows, if I understood my responsibility to my employer, how much more should I understand my responsibility before Christ? After all, I am on His time, not my own. I have been bought with a price. Christ has purchased me from sin and death with His very own blood. He has forgiven me, adopted me, and made me a joint heir in His kingdom (talk about being well paid!). In light of all that, can't I joyfully offer my service to Christ by loving my neighbor? Can't I forgive as Christ has forgiven me? Can't I give grace because I am swimming in an ocean of grace? Can't I joyfully do whatever honors and glorifies Christ?

At this point I am reminded of a Chick-fil-A training video that circulated around the web. Chick-fil-A is a Christian owned chain of restaurants that has managed to create a culture of hospitality in an industry that is not exactly known for that virtue. In this video, employees are reminded about the humanity of their customers; that they are real people who are also facing their own struggles in life. That is a simple truth that I would do well to keep in view. 

People are not merely obstacles in my path, they are men and women created in the image of God, dealing with struggles and heartaches that we all have in common.

Furthermore, have I forgotten that I am commanded to love even my enemies. I am actually told to love people who are actively trying to do serious harm to me. In light of that, can't I demonstrate grace when someone is merely thoughtless or rude?

Luke 6:35-37 ESV
(35) But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.
(36) Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.
(37) "Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven;

As I already stated, how I treat my neighbor is a big deal. It is clear from Scripture that poor treatment and ill will toward my neighbor is displeasing in God's sight. And from a Scriptural standpoint, my neighbor is not just someone who lives next door to me; it is anyone who crosses my path. Here are just a few Scriptures to chew on:

Proverbs 11:12 ESV
(12) Whoever belittles his neighbor lacks sense, but a man of understanding remains silent.

Proverbs 14:21 ESV
(21) Whoever despises his neighbor is a sinner, but blessed is he who is generous to the poor.

Romans 13:8 ESV
(8) Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.

Romans 15:1 ESV
(2) Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.

1 Corinthians 10:24 ESV
(24) Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.

Philippians 4:4-5 ESV
(4) Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
(5) Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand;

James 2:8 ESV
(8) If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," you are doing well.

1 Thessalonians 5:15 ESV
(15) See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.

James 4:12 ESV
(12) There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?

People are not stupid. They intuitively understand body language, facial expressions and tone of voice, and they know condescension when they see it. I do a disservice to Christ when I walk around in a state of perpetual irritation toward others.

Individuals fall into one of two categories: Either they are my brother or sister in Christ, or they are lost and in need of God's saving grace. Either way, I owe them a debt of love; and by showing love and hospitality, I honor Christ. In light of what Christ has done for me, it is my reasonable service to joyfully honor Him from a heart of gratitude by loving my neighbor.

And lest we forget, this debt of love extends far beyond the random stranger that crosses our path. It is to include our family and friends as well. It would be far too easy to get caught-up in some lofty notion of loving our "neighbor" even as we neglect those in our own home. This cuts to the heart of how we treat our spouses, our children and our parents. How are we doing with that? Aren't we often guilty of rude indifference toward our families? Isn't it often easier to be more kind to strangers than we are to members of our own household? The Bible is clear on how we are to treat our families: Husbands are to love their wives, wives are to respect their husbands, and children are to honor their parents. When we treat anyone poorly, including our family, it dishonors Christ, and that should cut us to the heart.

Lastly, I need to know that there is grace and mercy when I fail. Even when I sin and fail to love my neighbor and my family as I should, the grace and mercy of Christ abounds to me still. Nevertheless, I will not seek to minimize my sin and lack of love. I will seek to recognize it for the evil that it is, and I will go to Christ for the mercy and forgiveness that He freely offers. How much more should that cause me to overflow with grace toward others? When I truly understand the depth of my own sin, and the amazing grace of Christ to forgive my sin, only then will I be able extend grace to others. After all, “my cup runneth over", so I should have more than enough grace to give to others. If I cannot find it in my heart to give grace, it is doubtful that I have received grace. How can we claim to truly understand the grace of Christ if we have no grace for others?

I will end with a quote from C.S. Lewis. It is a powerful reminder of what and who our neighbor is.

“The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.”

[i] MacArthur, John: The MacArthur Study Bible. Electronic ed. Nashville, TN : Word Pub., 1997, c1997, S. Mt 5:22

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