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What Really is Love for Our Neighbor? Part I of II

July 1, 2013 by  
Filed under Fr. Bartunek, Love

Dear Father John, I have a question which may seem silly but I would like to ask it… Can you explain, what really is love for our neighbor? We hear you don’t have to like your neighbor but you have to love your neighbor. Take the…Boston bombings. Do we have to love the person who did so much damage, injured people, killed people for absolutely no reason, except that they wanted to commit murder? Then on the other hand, the book club's “33 Days to Morning Glory,” [looked] at the Polish priest, St. Maximilian Kolbe, who suffered so much in the German Camp. What would he have done to show love for his tormentors? Which brings me back to my question, what really is love for our neighbor?

You are asking two related questions here, and we need to take them one at a time.

Christian Love Is Universal

The first question is: As Christians, do we need to love even horrible sinners, like the Boston bombers and the Nazi tyrants? The answer to that is a clear and unambiguous yes. For a follower of Jesus Christ, universal love is not an option, but a responsibility. We must love all people, including those who do terrible things – in other words, sinners. Jesus made this crystal clear:

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48)

Later, during the Last Supper, he reiterated this lesson, commanding his Apostles to “love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12), and his love was universal; it included all sinners, even his betrayer (Jesus actually washed Judas’ feet during the Last Supper) and his torturers (remember how he prayed for them while he hung on the cross: “Father, forgive them; they know not what they do” [Luke 23:34]).

St. Paul brilliantly summed up this universal quality of Christ’s love: “But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). God didn’t wait for us to convert and repent from our sins before he started loving us. Neither are we to wait for other people to become perfectly holy before we start loving them. Mercy, which Blessed Pope John Paul II wisely described as the face of love in a fallen world, consists precisely in lovingly forgiving others when they don’t deserve it. This is Christ-like love. This is the love that must be the sign of the follower of Christ: “This is how all will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

So, yes, we are called to love terrorists and murderers, unfaithful spouses and sociopathic criminals, traitorous friends, and abusive family members. They too are created in God’s image; they too were in Christ’s mind and heart when he offered himself for sinners on the cross; they too are loved infinitely by God, who earnestly desires that they spend eternity with him in heaven. And if we truly love God, we will also love all whom God loves.

In our next post on this topic, we will discuss what love really does look like, a circle of merciful influence, and how to love those we would prefer not to love.

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Art for this post “What Really is Love for Our Neighbor (Part I of II)?”: Fr. Maximilian Kolbe, photographer not identified, 1940, PD-US first published outside the United States (and not published in the U.S. within 30 days), first published before 1 March 1989 without copyright notice or before 1964 without copyright renewal or before the source country established copyright relations with the United States and was in the public domain in its home country (Poland) on the URAA date (), Wikimedia Commons.

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at RCSpirituality.org, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at SpiritualDirection.com.

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  • patricia

    Thank you Father for the honest and direct answer we must love our enemies and those who hurt us. Forgiveness of them helps bring healing to one who forgives right. Thank you for the reminder. St Maximillian Mary Kolbe gave his life for a fellow prisoner at camp auchwitz and he help those condemned to die including himself to prepare for death and meeting God face to face by leading in songs of praise to God and Our Lady. He was the last to go by lethal injection while the others died of hunger and thirst. I have learned a lot from this Holy Saint about forgiveness.

  • LizEst

    God is love. He loved us into existence. Christ loved us to His death. And, the Holy Spirit, the love of the Father and the Son, has been given to us. In love, He created us; in love, He redeemed us; in love, He sanctifies us. There is no greater love. In order to follow after Christ and walk in His way, we must love all…as God has so loved us. We cannot do this on our own. The forgiveness and loving of those who have hurt us is a supernatural gift, a grace that is ours because of the supernatural love that God has first given and shown to us. We must ask for this grace and seek it…and then knock, so that the door to forgiveness and love of neighbor will be opened to us. Blessed be God!

  • Erin Pascal

    Thank you so much for this amazing post Father. God wants us to love our enemies as we love ourselves. It may be very difficult to do but it is needed that we forgive our enemies for the wrong things that they have done to us. This is a very timely reminder Father. Thank you!

    • LizEst

      …and not only does God want us to love our enemies as we love ourselves, he actually takes it a step further. “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another” (John 13:34cd). So, we are really to love our enemies in the way God has loved us. It’s a much greater thing than the way we love ourselves!

      You’re right, it’s not an easy thing for us to do. But, God gives us the grace and the example of Christ, who loved us to His death and freed us from our sins. God bless you, Erin…and keep loving!

  • Camila

    Thanks Father. I’m looking forward to your next post.

  • That you, Father for the insight about the love for enemies. As Liz states below, only God’s Grace can enable one to fulfill this Cardinal Edict of Jesus Himself. And that is to be prayed for earnestly and consistently especially where one has been gravely hurt or injured by another.

  • Tessye

    Thank you father for your guideness, this is hard for me to do all the time. Meditating on 1 Corithians 13 helped me to strengthen charity; especially for when I need to turn the other cheek.

  • nosidam

    Thank you. I think that a definition of love is needed here. There are 4? kinds of love, right? Maybe I am covering future writing, but…
    Love here does not mean we must hang out with the sinner. It does not mean we must stay near an abuser or a mean or nasty person, does it?
    Some people feel that to love is to stay by a sinning person and help them.

    I believe one can love another by praying for their conversion and forgiving as best as possible.
    There are people being harmed by someone right now while reading this.
    I worry that they may miss the next lesson.
    The “hate the sin but love the sinner” is important to emphasize I believe.
    Too many people accept unacceptable behavior and accept the sin and the sinner in one fell swoop. Don’t you think that we must remove ourselves from the sin but at the same time in a cautious manner still know that “there but for the grace of God go I?” in regards to the offending person?
    Sometimes a person is dangerous also. It can get complicated! Hope to hear more good info next time!
    God bless you. Thank you!

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