What are some effective ways to love our neighbors? Most of us would say things like taking a meal to someone who is ill or helping repair a broken faucet. Thinking further, we might point to less tangible actions like praying for people, apologizing quickly for an offense, or offering a word of encouragement.
In each case, we think of a positive behavior directed toward someone else. These are the “one another” actions, conforming to the many New Testament instructions on how to treat those God places around us.
Each “one another” is an expression of the Great Commandment to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Outdo one another in showing honor, forgive one another as Christ forgave you, bear with one another, submit to one another in love. These expansive expressions of the principles of the Old Testament Law prescribe how we can live in community and offer indispensable instructions for maintaining the common good. Finding meaningful ways to love one another is not simply “a good idea” or “a nice suggestion”; it is the hard work necessary for the well-being of the group.
But to truly love one another, we must direct our efforts at godliness not just toward others, but inward. The call to love our neighbor is given in reference to how we love ourselves. It explicitly links the spiritual health of the individual to the health of community.
Yet we instinctively divide our sins into two categories: those that affect our neighbor and those that affect only us. The ancient god of individualism whispers that some sins are just between God and me. If there are consequences, they will impact only me. And this is simply not true. The consistent message of the Bible is this: Personal sin yields collateral suffering, without fail.
Consider Achan, who believed he could take the spoils of war for himself and conceal them in his tent (Josh. 7). God’s punishment of not only Achan but his entire household drives home the lesson that personal sin is sin against our neighbor. Communal well-being is harmed by individual rebellion.
We are not so different from Achan. We tell ourselves a similar lie as we bow to the god of individualism: “As long as my selfishness is concealed, as long as I don’t act openly on my impulse to belittle, as long as no one knows I am addicted to this behavior, or this substance, or my own bitterness, no one is harmed but me.” But personal sin yields collateral suffering.
Why? Because what we do in the secret place is the most accurate representation of who we truly are. It reveals the motives of our hearts, the overflow of which invariably splashes onto our neighbor. Personal sin yields collateral suffering. But here is good news: Personal holiness yields collateral blessing.
Just as the sin done in secret will be dragged into the light, so also the good work of righteousness done in secret will be rewarded by the Lord (Matt. 6:1–18). When love, joy, peace, and patience are our daily meditation; when kindness, goodness, and faithfulness are our mindset; when gentleness and self-control are our mainstay, these virtues overflow our hearts and become a source of blessing to our neighbors.
We cannot help but interact with one another in life-giving ways when these are the content of our character. Uncommon personal holiness, hard sought, serves the common good.
Thus, perhaps the most basic way to “love your neighbor as you love yourself” is to “make every effort … to be holy” (Heb. 12:14). What if a personal fast from social media made you more eager for face-to-face friendship? What if a quiet decision to delay a purchase made you more generous? What if resting from work made you kinder to your family? An uncommon approach, to say the least—a road less traveled, a narrow path—and the very path of our great high priest, who was tempted in every way we are yet was without sin. Uncommon personal holiness, hard sought, poured out for the common good.
Taking a meal to someone is certainly loving our neighbor. But repenting and turning from our “personal” sins is as well. It is choosing to walk the narrow path of our Savior, that we might love our neighbor out of the overflow.
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