Why should you love your neighbor?
Many may reply, “Because God told you to do so. It’s in the Bible.” Although this is a true answer, those of us who are curious and ask questions can often feel misunderstood and neglected when the responses to our questions are always the same: “Because God said so.”
“But why?” We want to know. Why did God say so? Why did the Word of God made flesh proclaim to us that the greatest commandment of fully loving God is akin to loving one’s neighbor?
In her Dialogue, St. Catherine of Siena had revealed to her an awe-inspiring answer to this question, which has helped me to understand the call to love my neighbor in a profoundly fuller way. From the book, as St. Catherine heard God speak to her:
“All the love which you have for Me you owe to Me, so that it is not of grace that you love Me, but because you ought to do so. While I love you of grace, and not because I owe you My love. Therefore to Me, in person, you cannot repay the love which I require of you, and I have placed you in the midst of your fellows, that you may do to them that which you cannot do to Me, that is to say, that you may love your neighbor of free grace, without expecting any return from him, and what you do to him, I count as done to Me.”
It is right and just to love the Lord your God with all of your heart, mind, and soul. After all, your heart, mind, and soul come from God. We are only able to love at all because God loved us first.[ii] Furthermore, God lovingly chose to become one of us in order to take us fully unto Himself, to unite our human suffering to His saving divinity and raise us up from death. If we glimpse even a tiny understanding of how profoundly God first loves us, then it is only natural to love God.
This means, however, that we can only love God reciprocally. We can only love God after He has loved us, as a kind of returning of His love. It is also true that, because God is goodness itself, God is all-deserving of love, so we cannot love God in the same kind of way that God loves us: not only first but also undeservedly.
So how can we truly love God?
By loving our neighbor.
That’s why Jesus told us, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you should also love one another.”[iii] He even told us to love our enemies.
Loving isn’t always easy. God knows.
Who deserves to be loved divinely? No one but God. And yet God loves those who don’t deserve it: us. God pours down His love upon the just and the unjust, desiring the joyful goodness of every human being, even those who do not believe in Him, even those who turn away from His love and do not return it. Even someone who angrily denounces God’s love and speaks every kind of vile insult against God is truly, deeply, intimately loved by God, who is divinely merciful and longs for that person’s healing, salvation, and eternal bliss.
Does your neighbor deserve your love by virtue of his or her character or actions? Probably not. Your neighbor certainly doesn’t deserve God’s love. Neither do you. But you are given it anyway, because that’s the way that God loves: without reservation, without waiting to be loved first, without requiring worthy actions before giving love. In the eyes of God, you and every human being are worthy of love — not because of anything that you or your neighbor may do or say or even believe — but because you and your neighbor are.
God loves us simply because we are.
When you love your neighbor as yourself, as you yourself are loved by God, you love as God loves. When you love your neighbor first, before your neighbor loves you, when you love your neighbor even if your neighbor despises you, you enter into the bliss of receiving and giving love divinely and fulfill the reason for your being, giving glory to God. Those who do not love us at all and those who cannot rightly return our love — these are precisely the people that God wants us to love. Why? Because we receive nothing from them for our love. We love unconditionally and unreservedly, willing the good of the other without expectation of return.
Grateful for Saint Catherine of Siena
There are parts of the Dialogue that are way over my head, and I cannot do the whole of the book justice, but I hope that I may remember this teaching of neighborly love by living it every day.
Oh Lord, my God, I know that You love me even though I don’t deserve it. I love You. I want to love You with all that I have and all that I am, I want to give to You the same love that You give to me. As I cannot — because You are God and all good, and I am not — I pray that You will help me to love my neighbor as You love me. Please help me to mercifully love the undeserving, those who despise me, even those who harm me. In this way only am I able to love as You love. I thank You for this profound and wondrous gift and ask You to help me fulfill it, through Christ our Lord.
© 2021 Christina Chase
[i] The Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena (p. 56), Veritatis Splendor Publications.
[ii] see 1 John 4:19
[iii] John 13:34
Although crippled by disease, I'm fully alive in love. I write about the terrible beauty and sacred wonder of life, while living with physical disability and severe dependency. A revert to the Catholic faith through atheism, I'm not afraid to ask life's big questions. I explore what it means to be fully human through my weekly blog and have written a book: It's Good to Be Here, published by Sophia Institute Press.