Most Christians know that God expects us to love our neighbors as ourselves. That expectation is contained in what Jesus said in the second most important commandment. We should all be striving to obey it.
That being said, there is a spectrum of opinion among Christians regarding what loving one’s neighbor as oneself actually looks like in practice. How, specifically, should we be obeying the second greatest commandment in everyday life?
Thankfully, God has not left us in the dark on this. He’s given us an entire Bible, full of helpful insight regarding the specifics of loving our neighbors as ourselves. Beyond that, God Himself became a man who lived without sin His entire earthly life. He always perfectly obeyed the second greatest commandment. We can look at His life for insights regarding what it means to love one’s neighbor as oneself.
Back to the Beginning
Let’s start by considering the context surrounding the original giving of the commandment under consideration. I’m sure you know it was first communicated to the people of Israel via the Law of Moses. But did you know that, at the very time God first gave Israel the commandment, He added some context to help His people understand His specific expectations? Here it is, in Leviticus 19:
You shall not hate your fellow countryman in your heart; you may surely reprove your neighbor, but shall not incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord (Lev. 19:17-18).
Note the contrast that is emphasized. Hating from the heart, taking vengeance, or bearing a grudge against a fellow Israelite are all in opposition to loving one’s neighbor as one’s self. That is quite specific and very helpful.
Leviticus 19:17-18 presupposes Israelites would, at times, have conflicts with one another. Only when one feels wronged is one tempted to take vengeance or bear a grudge. Those two very common reactions to conflict—violence or silence—are forbidden to the people of God. Both are violations of the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself. (Incidentally, bearing a grudge, most often manifested by “the silent treatment,” is just a more passive form of taking vengeance.)
Take note, however, that, according to Leviticus 19:17-18, having conflict with one’s neighbor, or reproving one’s neighbor for an offense, are not violations of loving one’s neighbor as one’s self. Rather, it is the potential reactions to conflict, of either vengeance or grudge-harboring, that are sinful. This is a very important distinction. It is quite possible to be involved in conflict with one’s neighbor while still loving that neighbor as one’s self.
So, let’s be real. Conflict happens. That fact, derived from Leviticus 19:17-18, many other Bible passages, and from everyone’s experience, undermines the myth of the “conflict-free Christian.” Conflict happens among Christians. In fact, conflict is inevitable, because we are human beings who make mistakes in what we do and say.
Our problem is, because we all know that we’re supposed to love one another, we simplistically think that means we should never have any conflict with each other. We wrongly equate conflict with sin. As a result, we often steer clear of anything that might result in conflict with other Christians in order to “walk in love.” We avoid certain topics, pretend we agree when we actually disagree, don’t speak out against unscriptural teachers, spurious doctrines, or false prophecies, and we never confront believers who sin against us, all under the guise of “love.” But such avoidance is actually a manifestation of what I refer to as “Christian Fluffy Love.” Christian Fluffy Love is all fluff and void of genuine love that seeks the best for everyone.
When conflict inevitably does arise, the standard Christian Fluffy Love response is usually not violence, as everyone seems to know that is wrong. Rather, it is most often silence. Once offended, we do whatever it takes to avoid the one who offended us, retreating to our respective corner of the boxing ring. And there we sit, where we harbor our grudge, and all under the guise of “walking in love” and “staying out of conflict.” Again, that is Christian Fluffy Love, because holding a grudge, manifested by the silent treatment, is a violation of the second-greatest commandment, according to what God said when He first gave that commandment.
Back to Leviticus 19:17-18
Let’s return to God’s original giving of the commandment to love one’s neighbor, a commandment which entails not taking vengeance or harboring a grudge. Here’s an interesting question: Did God expect the people of Israel who found themselves in conflict to just “suck it up,” and leave their conflicts unresolved?
You might think so if you just read Leviticus 19:17-18. God, however, gave Israel the entire Law of Moses, and within that Law He established a court system whereby Israelites at odds with each other could resolve their conflicts with the help of impartial judges.
Thus, there was nothing wrong about going to court to stand before an Israelite judge with a fellow Israelite with whom one had significant conflict. In fact, there was everything right about it, as it was a God-ordained means to resolve conflict apart from violence or silence. Going to court could even be considered to be an act of loving one’s neighbor as oneself, because confrontation is the first step towards reconciliation. That was true even when damages were being sought for wrongs committed, because (read slowly) justice punishes wrongs and teaches the unjust, and thus justice helps prevent future injustices, which means that justice promotes loving one’s neighbor as oneself. But these concepts are generally foreign to practitioners of Christian Fluffy Love who, under the guise of “walking in love” never confront other Christians who have sinned against them, or never seek to reconcile with other believers whom they know are holding something against them. Rather, they inflict the silent treatment, even though the commandment to love their neighbor forbids them from holding a grudge.
Make no mistake about it—when we do not confront fellow believers who have sinned against us, or when we refuse to dialogue with believers who have confronted us, we disobey both the second-greatest commandment and Christ’s new commandment to love one another. And we send a message: “I don’t care about you, and I don’t care about our relationship, because I’m not willing to invest anything to try to repair the breach in our relationship.”
Again, Israel’s courts were in session to administer justice and provide remedies for Israelites who were being tempted to take vengeance or hold grudges. Unresolved conflict was not supposed to be remain unresolved, but to be resolved, if needed, by means of third-party, impartial help.
And the same is true under the law of Christ. Jesus instructed us to privately confront our brothers and sisters who have offended us (Matt. 18:15), and to seek reconciliation when we know a fellow believer has something against us (Matt. 5:23-34). And if a private meeting doesn’t result in reconciliation, we should solicit the help of one or two others in the church (see Matt. 18:16-18). No silence. No violence. The goal is always reconciliation, and if needed, by means of impartial third parties. Paul also told believers they should solicit the help of wise brethren for unresolved conflict, rather than to sue in secular courts (see 1 Cor. 6:1-6).
Blessed are the Peacemakers
My point is this: Conflict among Christians is inevitable and generally nothing to be ashamed of. Conflict is not an indication of lack of love. (Have you ever had any conflict with your spouse, or children, the people whom you love the most?) However, seeking vengeance or harboring a grudge is certainly a sign of lack of love. Not seeking to resolve conflict by means of dialogue is also a sign of lack of love. And if personal confrontation does not resolve conflict, then not further seeking to resolve conflict by means of third-party mediators is also a sign of lack of love. Lovers work diligently to resolve conflict. They are the peacemakers who shall be called the sons of God (Matt. 5:9). If you make no enduring attempt to resolve personal conflicts with fellow believers, you are not a peacemaker.
Based on these same principles, there is nothing wrong with Christians who are criminally wronged by non-Christians to seek a remedy in secular courts. Love seeks to resolve conflict, because that is what is best for everyone. Letting people get away with their crimes is not an act of love, towards them, or towards others whom they might similarly harm. The “Christian” line, “I’m a Christian, so I won’t press charges,” is actually an expression of Christian Fluffy Love.
Christian Fluffy Love is not really love at all, because it doesn’t seek for what is best for everyone. It is actually fake love, because it is the very opposite of Paul’s famous definition of love found in 1 Corinthians 13. It may profess to be patient, but it actually has no patience to work through the sometimes difficult and lengthy process of genuine reconciliation. It may feign kindness via phony smiles, all while hiding inward, hate-filled grudges. It may pretend not to be jealous, but it cringes when those it is at odds with are blessed. It may claim not to be arrogant, but it catalogs an inward list of justifications and is terrified at the thought of dialogue that might prove those justifications wrong. It does “seek its own,” and not only is it easily provoked, but it maintains a continual state of provocation. It not only “takes into account a wrong suffered,” but it also builds a fortress within the heart to prevent the offense from ever being extracted through honest dialogue and genuine reconciliation. It does not “rejoice with the truth,” but rather, fears the truth, and avoids any conversation that might expose a lie. It certainly does not bear or endure all things, but quickly abandons any friendship that is challenged by conflict. In the end, unlike true love, Christian Fluffy Love always fails.
Turning the Other Cheek?
These facts expose a common misinterpretation and misapplication of Jesus’ words about “turning the other cheek,” which are sometimes used as an excuse for administering the silent treatment. Jesus never said, “If your brother sins against you, turn the other cheek.” Rather, He outlined steps to take to resolve conflict with other believers, steps that include repeated and escalated confrontation, forgiveness predicated on repentance, and severance predicated on impenitence (see Matt. 18:15-17). Jesus was realistic enough to recognize that sometimes, reconciliation would not be possible when hearts are hardened by pride. Still, He always wants us to make a good-faith attempt at conflict resolution and reconciliation.
Jesus’ instructions to “turn the other cheek” are relevant when His followers are mistreated by unbelievers, people whom He identified in His instructions as “evil persons” (Matt. 5:39). True Christians aren’t “evil persons.” And His specific instructions are relevant when His followers suffer petty offenses from unbelievers (as opposed to substantial or criminal wrongs) of which Jesus listed three examples: being slapped on the cheek, being forced by a Roman soldier to carry his gear for a mile, or facing a trivial lawsuit in which your vindictive opponent sues you for your shirt.
If Jesus’ followers, however, face the threat of substantial harm at the hands of an unbeliever, such as one that is life threatening, they should flee (Matt. 10:23; 24:16; Acts 9:19-25). Fleeing obviously precludes “turning the other cheek,” as well as “going the second mile” and “giving your opponent your coat,” which all amount to giving the offender an opportunity to do twice the harm intended.
Jesus gave different instructions for different situations. Clearly there are times when believers are not supposed to “turn the other cheek” in regard to unbelievers.
Moreover, in situations when persecuted believers are not able to flee, there is nothing wrong with exercising citizens’ legal rights or soliciting assistance from government authorities if such options exist, as did Paul as recorded in Acts 16:35-39; 22:23-29; 23:12-18. In none of those instances did Paul “turn the other cheek,” that is, offer the offending party the opportunity to double the harm intended. Exercising one’s legal rights or soliciting police protection preclude “turning the other cheek.” Again, different situations require different reactions.
Although different situations require different reactions, all the reactions I’ve just outlined are acts of obedience to the second greatest commandment. Confronting an offending brother is what love would do. Forgiving a repentant brother is what love would do. Severing from an impenitent brother is what love would do, as it sends the offender a strong message of his need of repentance. “Turning the other cheek” for minor offences committed by unbelievers is what love would do, as it attempts to shame them into repentance, which is the best thing they could do (see Rom. 12:20). Fleeing from substantial harm intended by unbelievers is what love would do, as it is best for all the people who might be negatively affected by one’s being harmed (such as those who are dependent on him), and it is the best for the one who intended the harm, as it prevents him from committing his sin. And the same is true for those situations when one must exercise his legal rights or solicit police protection.
All of this is to say that we could paraphrase Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:15-17, “When your brother sins against you, do not ‘turn the other cheek’ as you should do when unbelievers, who are not submitted to Me, sin against you. Rather, prove your love for your brother by helping him understand his offense against you, with the goal of leading him to humble repentance and spiritual growth.”
What About War?
I’ve heard some Christians claim that the second greatest commandment prohibits any involvement in war. How can shooting at someone be an act of loving one’s neighbor?
Here’s the short answer: No Israelite under the Law of Moses ever entertained the idea that God’s commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself precluded war against foreign armies, simply because the same God who gave the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself to Israel also commanded Israel’s armies to go to war against foreign enemies. The people of Israel believed that the word neighbor contained meaning, and it certainly didn’t mean “everyone” or “anyone.” Neighbors are those who reside close by. And they are the people whom the people of Israel were commanded to love. And when someone who is not a neighbor invades and attacks those who were one’s neighbors, one obeys the second-greatest commandment by shooting at the invaders.
You may have noticed when I earlier quoted Leviticus 19:17-18, that the words fellow countryman, sons of your people, and neighbor are all used synonymously:
You shall not hate your fellow countryman in your heart; you may surely reprove your neighbor, but shall not incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord (Lev. 19:17-18, emphasis added).
The second-greatest commandment is not a commandment to love everyone. It is a commandment to love one’s neighbor. Note that when Jesus answered a legitimate theological question posed by a Jewish expert in the Mosaic Law—“Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29), Jesus did not say, “Everyone!” Rather, He offered an example of some neighbors who were traveling on the same road.
Also keep in mind that there is such a thing as “just war,” when good fights against evil (such as WW II), and there is such a thing as “unjust war,” in which no Christian’s conscience would allow him to participate. But to claim that the second-greatest commandment precludes any Christian from serving in the armed forces is more Christian Fluffy Love, built on a spurious interpretation of the second-greatest commandment. Defending the innocent against evil is love in action.
But what about Jesus’ commandment to love our enemies? Does that not preclude Christian participation even in just war?
We should ask what could possibly be morally wrong with saving innocent lives from evil warmongers. Obviously, nothing could be morally wrong with that. In fact, it would be morally right to defend the innocent, and it would be morally wrong not to defend them. To not defend them would be not to love them. Surely Jesus didn’t mean that Christians should love their enemies to the degree that they don’t love their neighbors. Thus, Jesus’ commandment to His followers to love their enemies could not possibly preclude them from being involved in just war or from using force to protect the innocent from harm.
When we read Jesus’ actual words about loving one’s enemies, it is obvious that He did not have war in mind, but rather, how His followers should treat their local persecutors (see Matt. 5:43). And according to Jesus, God has been setting the example of loving one’s enemies since the beginning of human history by causing the sun to rise even on those who are evil, and by sending rain even on the wicked. But He also set an example (see Jude 7) when He rained fire and brimstone upon Sodom and Gomorrah. So God’s loving of His enemies has limitations, and so it is safe to assume that ours should as well.
To attempt to force the scope of loving one’s enemies to the point of precluding just war is biblically unwarranted. The Old Testament contains instructions for Israelites to love their enemies, but those instructions certainly did not preclude just war since God instructed the Israelites to go to war against foreign enemies. Take a look at these two passages:
If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey wandering away, you shall surely return it to him. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying helpless under its load, you shall refrain from leaving it to him, you shall surely release it with him (Ex. 23:4-5).
If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink;
For you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you (Prov. 25:21-22).
Note that in both of these passages about loving one’s enemies, local, singular enemies are what God had in mind, not hordes of invading armies. Loving one’s local enemies is an expression of loving one’s neighbors, that is, those who reside close by. And according to the apostle Paul, Proverbs 25:21-22, which he quotes in Romans 12:20, expresses not only an Old Covenant standard, but also a New Covenant standard. It is therefore reasonable to think that the application has not changed as well.
All of this is to say that the commandment to love one’s enemies does not preclude Christians from participating in just war or from using force to protect themselves or others from evildoers. Sometimes, love goes to war. Those who claim otherwise have embraced a love that you don’t find in the Bible…Christian Fluffy Love.
I should mention that Jesus did give a new commandment to His followers that they should love one another (John 13:34). Like His commandment to love one’s neighbors, the new commandment specifies a particular group of people to love. Who would ever claim that Jesus’ new commandment was a command to love everyone in the world, including unbelievers? Similarly, it would be just as foolish to claim that God’s commandment to love one’s neighbor is a commandment to love everyone.
Incidentally, Jesus’ new commandment implies a love that reaches beyond one’s neighbors. Believers should care even for fellow Christians who are far away. The early church did that.
There is certainly more that could be said on this subject, but I hope I’ve provoked you to think about what love really is. Jesus is our perfect example of someone who always loved His neighbor as Himself, including His enemy neighbors, but He certainly didn’t resemble the “Mr. Milquetoast Nice Guy” whom many of us imagine the perfect Christian to be.
Jesus called some people fools, hypocrites, children of hell, whitewashed tombs, blind guides, wolves, dogs, serpents, broods of vipers, foxes, and pigs. If His ministry had occurred in 21st-century America, He would certainly have been accused of hate speech. Had Jesus demonstrated the kind of “love” that is advocated by many, He would have avoided such pejoratives and instead said, “Now you scribes and Pharisees are basically good folks, but could I recommend that you prayerfully consider some minor adjustments?” Had he said that, it would have only solidified their self-deception. And, it would not have been true. Love, true love, “rejoices in the truth” (1 Cor. 13:6).
When Jesus denounced the scribes and Pharisees, He was also thinking of all of the people who were under their corrupt influence, people who were either already being misled by them or who potentially could be misled. Everyone who heard Jesus knew exactly what He thought of their religious leaders and was thus duly warned of their deadly venom. Genuine love warns people of potential harm by evil people. Christian Fluffy Love never does. In fact, if you warn some Christians about certain false teachers, they will accuse you of being “unloving.”
The fact is, the scribes and Pharisees whom Jesus called serpents and vipers were akin to serpents and vipers. In the end, they killed their Messiah, the Son of God. When you think about it from that standpoint, “serpents” and “vipers” were actually understatements. There are no words in any language that could fully describe the depth of their evil.
And let us not think that Jesus took some perverse joy in calling them serpents and vipers, or that it was an act of petty name-calling or malice on His part. He wanted them to face up to the truth about themselves in hopes they would repent so He could forgive them. He loved them. So, He “spoke the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15).
Think about Joseph, of Old Testament fame—and a wonderful type of Christ— who was sold into slavery by his own jealous brothers. He loved those malicious men when they arrived in Egypt, but certainly not with Christian Fluffy Love. He truly loved them, and he knew that the best thing for them was that they would be brought to a place of repentance. So he arranged some suffering that would likely lead to their contrition. It was only after they acknowledged their evil that he revealed himself to them and treated them so graciously.
If Joseph had listened to much of modern teaching about “forgiveness” and “walking in love,” he would have tried to convince himself that he had forgiven his brothers…even while he struggled with the guilt of holding a grudge. And when they showed up in Egypt, he would have immediately blurted out, “I forgave you years ago!” even while thinking about how nice it would be to put them permanently in a dungeon. His brothers may have said, “We’re really sorry about what we did to you!,” but they would have remained the incorrigible scoundrels that they were, and for the rest of their lives they and Joseph would have lived with the underlying tension of unresolved conflict. Joseph would have always remained on guard, and rightfully so, as they, given the chance, may have mistreated him again, having never learned their lesson.
Thank goodness Joseph arranged some justice that led to their repentance, which ultimately led to their being more obedient to the second-greatest commandment!
May the Lord help all of us to repent of Christian Fluffy Love! — David