You Should Like Your Neighbor

Charity is the greatest of the theological virtues (1 Corinthians 13:13).  This is because it is the only theological virtue that remains in heaven.  Once we see God face to face, we no longer need faith or hope.  But our friendship with God remains.  Charity is even better than is often realized; it is a participation in God’s very love for Himself. 

In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you” (John 15:9).  God loves us in the very way that God loves God.  Christ told us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves (Mark 12:31).  But Christ, being a good teacher, does not ask us to do things which He has not first done Himself.  God loves us as He loves Himself and so can tell us to love others as we love ourselves. 

But Christ demands even greater things from us than merely loving others with the same natural love that we have for ourselves.  In the Gospel of John, Christ continues, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12).  Not only must we love others as ourselves, but we must love them as God loves them.  And, as we just saw, God loves others as He loves Himself.  So, the Gospel requires that we love other people in the same way that God loves Himself. 

The love that we are discussing is charity.  St. Thomas Aquinas explains that the good we wish to others with the love of charity is that they get to heaven—we want others to be in eternal intimate union with God.  So, the love we must have for others requires that we want them to be in heaven with us forever.  The good of heaven is not merely an extrinsic good that we can wish for others, like a pizza.  Instead, it is essentially a union.  First, a union of the person and God.  But also, since we too want to be in heaven (we must love ourselves with charity), it is a union of the other person and ourselves together in Christ.  God is so intimately united with Himself that He is three Persons in the same divine Nature.  With charity we must desire a union with the other person based on joint unity with God. 

So, the common saying that “we don’t have to like our neighbors but just love them,” is very weak.  It is contradictory to say that we want an intimate and eternal union with another person, that we want to spend eternity with them praising God, if we do not like them.  Viewed from another angle, God wants to spend eternity with that person, and we must desire the same thing.  How then can we possibly say, “I don’t need to like you?”

Charity requires that we love the other as God loves them, which is how God loves Himself.  Such a strong love doesn’t refuse to “like” another person.  At very least, if the person is not “likeable” because they are evil, then like God, we want the other person to turn from their sin in order to become good, to become more “likeable.”  But, like God’s love, we cannot wait until the person is totally likeable before we begin loving them with charity, before we want a union with them: “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).  Charity should drive us to like the other person since we are trying to spend eternity with them in heaven. 

Photo by Randy Fath on Unsplash

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Matthew McKenna is a Ph.D candidate in Theology at Ave Maria University. He studies and teaches on the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, G.K. Chesterton, and J.R.R. Tolkien. His dissertation-in-progress explains the link between the masculine genius and the priesthood.

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