God Gave Us Neighbors for a Reason
Love your neighbor … without any self-interest. I ask you to love me with the same love with which I love you … But you cannot do this for I loved you without being loved … This is why I put you among neighbors … Love them … And whatever you do for them I will consider done for me.” —God’s words to the soul, from The Dialogue by Catherine of Siena
A few years ago, I was the Episcopal chaplain to Johns Hopkins Hospital. One day, I walk onto an oncology ward. I ask the charge nurse, “Who might need a visit?” She sends me to a couple who have received terrible news. I knock on their door and ask if this is a good time for a visit. They invite me in, and I find a touching scene.
Two women are sitting on the bed comforting each other. Tears are in their eyes, and one is in a hospital gown. The other woman looks up at me and her face goes from tears to fury. She says, “Get out. We don’t need your kind here.”
She sees my clerical collar and assumes I am hostile. My heart drops as I apologize and leave. I’m feeling strong emotion, including sorrow for adding to the couple’s pain and anger at the religious demonization, disparagement, and exclusion of lesbians. The cultivation of hatred toward gay persons cultivates a reciprocal hatred toward the church. I recruit my female supervisor to care for them in their suffering.
In order to accept the forgiveness that God grants us, we in return we must forgive our neighbors—and ourselves.
Christianity does not have the same authoritative role it had in the past. One result is: today’s right vs. left divisions ossify. In America, the right cultivates hatred through media and voices like Tucker Carlson, while the left cultivates hatred through media and voices like Stephen Colbert. The evangelicals war with the liberals. The liberal voice of Christianity becomes mute and timid. It’s time to break this fever and accept what God has been asking of us all along: to cultivate love of neighbor.
The defining biblical law is the triple love command. First, love the Lord your God with all your heart, will, soul, and mind. Second, love your neighbor. Third, love your neighbor in the same way you love yourself (Mark 12:30 ff). And how do we cultivate love? By cooperating with the Holy Spirit, who is our counselor and advocate. For me this means something practical: conversing with the Spirit in prayer, partaking of God in communal worship and Eucharist, and, not least, listening to the Spirit through regular spiritual practices.
I look for opportunities each day. My wife and I follow a practice of daily examen, a mode of reflection modified from a Jesuit model. Most every day we stop at 5 p.m. and sit in the living room facing each other (while eating a healthy snack with a glass of wine). For an hour or so we tell each other in turn about how our day went, where we felt the Spirit of God in our life. Were we happy with our response to an incident or a person? Could it have been done differently, more charitably? We try to be very intentional about getting away from the noise of ordinary life, the incessant news cycle, the compulsions of our devices. We focus on the people close to us, mindful of the notion of the “four pillars of happiness”: friends, family, faith, and vocation. We try to keep certain questions before us: “What is the life I want to live? Who is the person I want to become?” “How would a courageous person act? How would a wise person act?” “What is mine to do?” and not “What is mine to worry about?”
The fruit of the Spirit produces love. The virtue of love offers joy, peace, humility, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, and gentleness (Gal 5:22ff). Sounds lovely! From this list other virtues flow: hope, justice, courage, moderation, and practical wisdom.
Laws and rules can show me the boundaries of behavior. But laws alone cannot assure goodness. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can restrain him from lynching me.” Virtues, not laws, form good character, goodwill, and good communities. And the primary Christian virtues are faith hope, and love.
All Alone in a Hospital Room
The Daughters of Charity were great teachers in my path to pastoral care for those who suffer. Decades ago, I was a pathologist on staff at a Daughters’ hospital. In the early days of the AIDS epidemic, I was the hospital’s Infection Control officer and a member of the Ethics Committee. The Daughters, who are the hospital’s chaplains, took me under their wing. They spend their days visiting and supporting patients. They model the virtues of kindness, gentleness, and practical wisdom. Their charism, their spiritual gift, is to see Christ in the person of the poor and sick. I became friends with them, learned from them. We even began to exchange books on spirituality.
One day they ask me to visit a young man who has AIDS. A long way from home, and abandoned by his family, he is alone in the hospital room. He is suffering, sick, poor, lonely, and sad. I am a novice at pastoral care, but I start visiting him and mostly just listen to him. I pray some, encourage some, affirm some, and cry some. He will die a few weeks after I meet him.
Soon a physician partner of mine comes to me and asks, “Why do you waste your time with that abomination?”
My response is quick and angry, “That man is every bit as worthy of God’s love and respect as you are.”
Agape in the Gap
The experience started me on a long journey to my true vocation. Eventually, I became a priest, chaplain, and pastoral associate in a parish. Professional chaplains train intensively in compassionate, respectful care. Visiting the sick, they provide emotional and spiritual support. I flourished in the role: happier, more fulfilled, than I had ever hoped.
Compassion is a love that seeks nothing in return. It is agape: it creates an emotional connection, a “suffering with” that avoids condescension or inappropriate intimacy. It fuels an empathy that “rejoices with those who rejoice and mourns with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15).
Aspects of positive psychology coincide with these Christian virtues. Yale professor Laurie Santos, a cognitive scientist, is nationally known as a happiness guru. It’s worth six minutes of your time to listen to her message about our “hustle culture” here. The happiness she promotes is not mere sentiment, but deep happiness that springs from human flourishing and well-being. In this way it dovetails with the Life Worth Living program of the Yale Center of Faith and Culture, located at YDS.
Central to these projects is a pushback against the spirit of meritocracy, the single-minded drive for individualistic success, achievement, even perfection. Being alone at the top doesn’t make anyone happy. When I stop taking orders from my inner drill sergeant and reach out to a neighbor with lovingkindness, I increase the well-being of both my neighbor and myself. This is crucial: the compassionate friendship, the forgiveness or affirmation I offer to others, I must also offer to myself. Flourishing flows from the virtues of neighbor-love and self-love.
Between Meekness and Hubris
When I seek the counsel of the Holy Spirit, it encourages good character, goodwill, and good communities. Families, schools, and churches are communities that may model virtue, but virtues require practice in order to form the habits of a virtuous character. And what is virtue? Virtue is not the opposite of vice; it is the golden mean. It is a steadfast life of seeking and maintaining the sweet spot between vices. Humility is not the opposite of pride; it is the proper pride situated between meekness and hubris. In the same way, courage is the healthy midpoint between cowardice and foolhardiness.
In the endeavor to acquire virtue, it helps to follow the path of virtuous persons. In one sense, virtue is simply the action of a virtuous person. Ultimately, Jesus is the model for Christians. Even though we cannot do what Jesus can do, we can strive to do what Jesus would want us to do.
Early in his ministry, Jesus revealed his mission statement in his hometown synagogue: “The Spirit of the Lord has sent me, to proclaim good news, lift up the poor, liberate captives, and give sight to the blind” (Luke 4:18ff). Jesus came to set free the oppressed and proclaim the coming age of God’s grace. How? He taught people the nature of God and of goodness. He healed people, forgave them, and loved them. Most of his ministry was to the poor, the sick, and the discouraged. But the neighbor-love Jesus embodied extends to all persons. He befriended enemies, lepers, Pharisees, Romans, notorious sinners. A neighbor is anyone who gives Jesus—and who gives us—the opportunity to extend lovingkindness.
We cannot love God in the way God loves us. God loves us gratuitously; our mission is to love in response to this gift. That is the reason God puts us among neighbors. Our love for the neighbor must be without concern for thanks or profit, but in imitation of God’s love for us. Our love for neighbor is our response, as free agents, to God’s love for us.
There’s one more decisive step to take. In order to accept the forgiveness that God grants us, we in return must forgive our neighbors—and ourselves. God’s forgiving love for ourselves is the beginning of true self-love. This gift of God’s love empowers self-love and neighbor-love.
What is good and what does God require from us? Love is the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13:8-10). Do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).
The Rev. William Bell ’07 M.Div., a retired pathologist and hospital medical director, was an Assistant Priest for Pastoral Care and Health Ministries at St. Anne’s Church in Annapolis, MD, from 2011-2017 and served as the Episcopal chaplain at Johns Hopkins Hospital from 2009-2011. He is a member of the Dean’s Advisory Council at YDS.
1. The Dialogue (Paulist, 1980), p. 121. In this spiritual classic, Catherine of Sienna (1347-1380) conveys a series of mystic conversations between God and the soul.
2. See Arthur C. Brooks, From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Meaning in the Second Half of Life (Portfolio, 2022) and his other writings.
3. From Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1966 Ware Lecture at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly, Hollywood, Fla.