The surest sign that we are keeping these two commandments is, I think, that we should really be loving our neighbor; for we cannot be sure if we are loving God, although we may have good reasons for believing that we are, but we can know quite well if we are loving our neighbor. […]Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, Part Five Chapter III, Pages 78-79
If you understood the importance of this virtue to us all you would strive after nothing but gaining it.
Hello Readers, hope all’s well. Time for another post.
Today I’m posting another topic inspired by the book I’m reading: Interior Castle by Teresa of Avila. Today’s post is on the topic of love for our neighbor, and the utmost importance of it. Teresa of Avila valued it as one of the most important of all Virtues. And Scripture says she’s right.
The command to love our neighbor as we love ourselves comes straight from Jesus Himself. If He made it a point to highlight love for others as an especially important Virtue, we’d better take note.
Probably the reason this Virtue is so important to God is because loving others can be so difficult. It can be one of the most difficult things we’re called to do, if our neighbor is someone we don’t see eye-to-eye with (to put it mildly).
But Christianity isn’t about taking the easy route through life, and doing the things that come naturally to us. No, Christianity is about doing the things that are tough because they go against the crude instincts of our flesh nature. Our flesh nature tempts us to hate and fear those who aren’t like us or we don’t see eye-to-eye with. Or, if we have a neighbor who wrongs us somehow, our flesh nature tempts us to get revenge on them.
It’s easy to hate and fear others. To love them calls for us to overcome our flesh nature and not listen to it, so to love others is harder. But to love others is to follow Christ’s Way, and shows Gratitude for the gift of God’s love for us. As Christians, we can’t be lacking in love for our neighbor or enemy—no matter who they are or what they’ve done. We must love others, period, the end.
But since this can be difficult, it never hurts to get some advice on it. What does it mean to love our neighbor (and enemy)?? How do we do it?? Read on, and let’s learn what Teresa of Avila has to say about it.
Empathy Empowers Us
Teresa starts out saying that loving our neighbor is the surest sign that we’re following Christ’s two Commandments. Because we can never be 100% sure that we’re loving God. But we always know (if we’re honest with ourselves) if we love our neighbor or not.
So loving our neighbor is our best indicator of how well we’re following Christianity. That’s something worth thinking about. Jesus also said to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44) and that’s even tougher than loving our neighbor, for obvious reasons. So let’s not forget that part, though she doesn’t mention it here. Still, our neighbors are often very different from us (different race, Faith, etc., etc.). So there’s no denying our love for our neighbors is a good test of our commitment to Christ.
The surest sign that we are keeping these two commandments is, I think, that we should really be loving our neighbor; for we cannot be sure if we are loving God, although we may have good reasons for believing that we are, but we can know quite well if we are loving our neighbor. And be certain that, the farther advanced you find you are in this, the greater the love you will have for God; for so dearly does His Majesty love us that He will reward our love for our neighbor by increasing the love which we bear to Himself, and that in a thousand ways: this I cannot doubt. […]Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, Part Five Chapter III, Pages 78-79
If you understood the importance of this virtue [loving our neighbor] to us all you would strive after nothing but gaining it.
She ends by stressing the importance of this Virtue. She says if we understood its true value, we would strive for nothing else. We can see her feelings on the matter. In her mind love for our neighbor (and enemy!) is the best sign of how healthy our Faith is.
Well that’s all great, but how do we show love for our neighbor? What does it look like? Teresa tells us:
But no, sisters, no; what the Lord desires is works. If you see a sick woman to whom you can give some help, never be affected by the fear that your devotion will suffer, but take pity on her: if she is in pain, you should feel pain too; if necessary, fast so that she may have your food, not so much for her sake as because you know it to be your Lord’s will. That is true union with His will.Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, Part Five Chapter III, Page 80
Before any practical advice, she starts out by highlighting the importance of Empathy. Before doing anything, we should feel our neighbor’s pain. That’s Empathy, a Virtue I wrote about in Victory in Virtue Part 21.
Empathy is so important for us as Christians. We do need to try and feel the pain of others, to put ourselves in their shoes and imagine their situation. That, and our love for and desire to serve God, are what motivate us to do anything to help at all. With Empathy we’re aware of the common human condition of all people, which is misery due to our separation from God. Followed by misery caused by all the tragedies and misfortunes that befall us in life here on this fallen world. If we don’t know what it’s like to suffer some specific misfortune, the Virtue of Empathy enables us to imagine it, and try to feel the others’ pain.
When our neighbor (or enemy) is in pain, we should feel pain too. We should feel it on a basic human level, a recognition of our shared sufferings as humans. This is Empathy. And this Empathy is the foundation of our love for our neighbor and our enemy, love that Christ commands us to have. So anything we do as Christians, we should do with this Empathy.
Moving on, Teresa gets a little more practical, while also getting into the self-sacrificing nature of love. This is important.
But, believe me, if you find you are lacking in this virtue [love for our neighbor], you have not yet attained union. So ask Our Lord to grant you this perfect love for your neighbor, and allow His Majesty to work, and, if you use your best endeavors and strive after this in every way that you can, He will give you more even than you can desire. You must do violence to your own will, so that your sister’s will is done in everything, even though this may cause you to forgo our own rights and forget your own good in your concern for theirs, and however much your physical powers may rebel. If the opportunity presents itself, too, try to shoulder some trial in order to relieve your neighbor of it. Do not suppose that it will cost you nothing or that you will find it all done for you. Think what the love which our Spouse had for us cost Him, when, in order to redeem us from death, He died such a grievous death as the death of the Cross.Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, Part Five Chapter III, Page 80
We can’t gloss over or sugarcoat what she’s saying, since it’s true. Love is not easy. Whether it’s love for our neighbor or anyone else, real love takes something out of us. It costs us something. Because when we have real love we think of the needs of others and not only our own. We sacrifice, ignoring our own needs for a moment (can’t do that forever though, of course) so we can care for the needs of others. This is sacrifice, and this is love. Self-sacrifice and real love are inseparable.
Note how Teresa says “You must do violence to your own will.” When we put aside or ignore our needs and wants, we’re denying ourselves, committing violence against ourselves in a way. But we do this all the time anyway when we deny our flesh and its base urges. This is what the Christian Walk is largely about—overcoming our flesh and its lower urges and impulses so we can walk in the Spirit and rise above ourselves. When we deny ourselves for the sake of others, we are really showing them love (whether they know it or not).**
**Of course, there’s a limit to how much and how often we can do violence to our own will. If we never see to our own needs, or have others care for our needs, we will burn out and have a breakdown. Our needs must be met sometime too. If we’re too self-sacrificing all the time, every day, soon enough we’ll be all used up and burnt out, with nothing left to give.
Does this talk of self-sacrifice sound familiar? You may be reminded of Philippians 2:3-4 , which teaches us to put others’ needs before our own.
(3) Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. (4) Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others.Philippians 2:3-4 (CEB)
Or you may be thinking of 1 Corinthians 13:5, which also states the self-sacrificing nature of love.
(5) [Love] isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints,1 Corinthians 13:5 (CEB)
I admit the idea of self-sacrifice is better conveyed in other Bible translations.
Without Love, It’s all Pointless
As long as we’re on 1 Corinthians 13, that’s a chapter with much to say about love. It connects perfectly with what Teresa has to say. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul tells all Christians that no matter what good deeds we do or how strong our Faith is, if we don’t have love it’s all meaningless.
God doesn’t care how many people we help or how much we give away (verse 3) if we don’t have love and Empathy for those we serve. Charity with no love behind it is pointless, and not accepted by God as a pleasing sacrifice. God doesn’t care how much we give away if we don’t do it out of love. Think about it: If love for others is not our motivation for giving stuff away, we might as well sell it instead.
The motive behind our actions is of the utmost importance to God. And we can’t please Him with our works if we don’t do them out of love for others—our neighbors and our enemies. The right thing done for the wrong reasons doesn’t count, and isn’t good enough.
(1) If I speak in tongues of human beings and of angels but I don’t have love, I’m a clanging gong or a clashing cymbal. (2) If I have the gift of prophecy and I know all the mysteries and everything else, and if I have such complete faith that I can move mountains but I don’t have love, I’m nothing. (3) If I give away everything that I have and hand over my own body to feel good about what I’ve done but I don’t have love, I receive no benefit whatsoever.1 Corinthians 13:1-3 (CEB)
Besides that, our ministry or good works will fall apart eventually if there’s no love behind them. Without love, we won’t be able to keep up these labors. Love is what will keep us motivated and energized to serve our fellow humans, and make sacrifices to care for the needs of others. Love is our “fuel” for doing all these things. If we don’t have love, we’ll run out of fuel soon enough. We’ll become demotivated and uninterested in serving others. Especially when it involves self-sacrifice on our part.
Could this be part of why Teresa prizes love for others so highly as a Virtue? Because of 1 Corinthians 13, as well as the fact that love is what fuels us to do the good works God wants to see from us? It could be. But in any case, all we need to understand is the utmost importance of love in the Christian life. Love for others, our neighbors and our enemies, is what God wants to see in our hearts. If we don’t have it, our good works are worthless.
The right thing done for the wrong reason isn’t good enough. And there’s one right reason that must be the foundation for all other motivations in our good works. We must have Empathy and Sympathy for others, we must be able to love them enough to hurt with them. Without this we don’t have a foundation for our Christian acts of mercy. And we don’t have fuel to keep these going either.
There’s a Loving Way, and a Wrong Way
So everything we do, we must do with love, or there’s no point to it. And true love is self-sacrificing, concerned more with the needs of others than with our own. Both Teresa and Paul single out love as an essential and crucial Virtue for a true Christian life.
The importance of love extends to everything we do in our Christian lives. Serving the poor—Charity and the acts of mercy. Evangelizing. And rebuking the sinner. All these things must be motivated by love, and done with love. Otherwise, they will not be pleasing to God no matter how pious we think they are.
But I want to take special note of that last item I mentioned—rebuking the sinner. To lovingly rebuke the sinner for their sins is an act of love (though we must always be on the lookout for the log in our own eye too). But again, there’s a loving way to rebuke the sinner, and a wrong way.
We can’t be aggressive, condescending, and judgmental when we rebuke the sins of others, never forgetting we are all sinners (Romans 3:23).
Now there is something specific I’m thinking about here, but it’s the topic for next time, not today. But to sum it up, it would be the topic of evangelizing to those in religious error. Rebuking the sins of those who are lost in bad doctrine and theology. People like Mormons, Catholics, New Agers, and so on. It is good and correct to rebuke their error of their doctrine. But we must always do it with love, or we’re better off not doing it at all.
It’s a good thing to teach those in religious error—like Mormons, New Agers, etc.—the error of their doctrine. But this must be done with love, or else it will never lead to anything but the sin of strife. God wants us to evangelize to all who are lost or in error, but He does not want us to stir up strife. The LORD hates conflict and strife. If we insult, yell at, judge, and talk down to those we evangelize to, God is not on our side. He does not approve of what we do. If we aren’t going to evangelize and rebuke the sinner with love, we’re better off doing nothing. Because if we aren’t acting with love, what we do is worthless and meaningless. See 1 Corinthians 13.
But I will continue with that topic next time. Be sure to Subscribe to my blog using the link below so you won’t miss it!!
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Until next time, be strong and do good!
Your new best friend in Christ,
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