How Can We Learn to Love Our Neighbor?

How can we love our neighbor? Who is our neighbor? Can we love our enemies? Bishop Panteleimon (Shatov) of Smolensk and Vyazma, chairman of the Synodal Department for Church Charity and Social Ministry of the Russian Orthodox Church, replies to these questions for our readers. 

How can we love our neighbor?

This question troubles many people, myself included. Before responding to it, we need to understand who our neighbor is. The Lord explains in the Gospel that our neighbor is anyone who stands in need of our help – even if he’s a complete stranger to us, of a different nationality, or a member of another religion. This person might be unpleasant in appearance and we might not feel anything positive towards him, but anyone who needs help is our neighbor. It’s this very person that the Lord commands us to love.

There’s another commandment in the Gospel: to love our enemies. Wise people have said that this commandment is not about the enemies of our country, but about personal enemies. If we are to love our enemies, then shouldn’t it be easier to love our neighbor? But in actual fact, even this is very difficult for us – to say nothing of loving our enemies, which strikes us as impossible.

But if the Lord has given us this commandment, it means that He’s placed the ability to love in us. We probably find it difficult to love not because it’s beyond our strength, but because we’ve been corrupted by sin and because we love ourselves too much. In order to love our neighbor, we need to do something. But before we begin to do anything, we need to understand why we don’t have the love that should be in us.

God placed loved in our nature. But why doesn’t a husband love his wife, or parents love their children? Why don’t children love their parents? Why do infidelity and betrayal take place? Why has natural love for others become unnatural? If it’s difficult for us to love our own families, then what can be said about people who are different from us: the homeless, whom we contemptuously call bums, or guest workers and migrants?

Love has been placed in our nature; we were created by God for love. But for some reason this love isn’t in me! We might say that human nature, having been corrupted by sin, has lost this ability. This is in fact the case. We have been created in God’s likeness. God, in His essence, is Love. We were created by God in His image and likeness, with the ability to love placed in us. This is our nature, too. Just as the divine nature is love, so too is human nature love.

Therefore it isn’t strange that we should love our neighbors, but rather that we don’t love them. How has this happened? It’s because our nature has been corrupted by sin and our love has turned into self-love. We’ve turned in on ourselves, and therefore we’re unable to love.

But this raises another problem. The site “Orthodox and the World” is addressed to Orthodox readers. But Orthodox people, apart from having natural love, also have the gift of supernatural love. Every Orthodox Christian has been baptized in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit – in the name of the Trinity, Which in essence is love. And every baptized person has been anointed with holy myrrh, and the gift of the Holy Spirit – the gift of love, the gift of knowing the will of God, of participating in the sacred rites – has been given to him in this anointing. Why hasn’t this gift been realized in us?

Why do we think it’s difficult to love our neighbor? After all, this should be natural and joyful for us. I think the answer is clear: it’s because we’re sinful and because sin is active in us. Because we’ve trampled on the gifts given to us in Baptism and Chrismation and are unable to stir up this love in ourselves. We don’t live the way we should, instead we live like everyone around us.

Christians are part a certain twenty-first century arrangement in which there’s no room for love. In our lives we have career, money, pleasure, certain contractual relationships, politics, art, psychology (when things get bad, we can go to a psychologist), medicine to live longer, and entertainment – but there’s no room for love. For us, love comes in second place – or third, or fourth, or tenth. There’s no room for God in this arrangement, either.

Therefore, in order to learn to love our neighbor, we need to leave this world. This is what the Lord calls us to do: to leave this downward course that can ultimately carry us to the depths of hell; to get off this track upon which people are moving, people who look more like streetcars than people.

In order to love our neighbor, we need first of all to fulfill the first commandment. We need to love God with our whole heart, with our whole soul, and with all our thoughts and feelings. Without this, we can’t learn to love our neighbor, we can’t fix our nature that’s been corrupted by sin, we can’t be transformed, and we can’t accept God’s gifts in all their fullness.

A small seed of eternal life and heavenly joy has been planted in us, but it hasn’t flowered or grown. But this very seed can become a tree in which the birds of the air can lodge. But our lives get in the way of this.

We need to remember God, to remember Him always. We need to seek God, to seek unity with Christ. Through heartfelt and constant prayer, through reading our prayer rules, but not limiting ourselves to them. We need to seek Him by participating in the Mysteries of the Church, repenting of our sins, and participating in the Mystery of Holy Communion. Without this it’s impossible to learn to love God and neighbor. We need to read the Gospel not just like an ordinary book, but with faith that the Lord, through these words, can reveal His will to us, letting each person know what he should be doing. Because love is joy. If we don’t learn this joy, we’ll go through life for nothing.

After all, we can only fulfill the commandment to love our neighbor here on earth. In the Heavenly Kingdom love will be granted to all. There one won’t have to exert oneself or make an effort to love those whom one finds unpleasant. This can only be done only here on earth. It’s only here that we can deprive ourselves of something in order to show love to another by giving it to him. In the Heavenly Kingdom everybody will have enough of everything. There one won’t need to care for the sick, look after the homeless, or give part of our money to a widow with child – there the Lord will fill everything.

We can love our neighbor only here on earth. If we don’t do this, it means that we’re not alive, because we’re not fulfilling the purpose that God has placed before us; it means that we’ve deviated from the right path. I think that by thinking about all this, we can learn how to love.

Transcribed by Alisa Orlova.

Translated from the Russian

You might also like:

Bishop Mitrophan of Boston, What is the Meaning of Life?

Archimandrite John (Krestiankin), Go, and Do Thou Likewise

Archpriest Andrei Tkachev, Love’s Teacher

Anastasia Pika, Mercy as a Way of Life

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