Loving Your Neighbor…….and Other Encouragements

This is the Bible Study I did for church this past week.  I took out some personal info but otherwise it is intact.  Let me know what you think!

Today, I am going to talk about two major concepts – LOVE and ENCOURAGMENT.  These are two amazingly powerful words, that become extraordinary items when, as Pastor has recently shared with us, they change from LOVE and ENCOURAGEMENT to LOVING and ENCOURAGING!

But I have to admit, love when we humans get our hands on it, sometimes doesn’t always FEEL good.  We can all share stories where “the love” of others were really heavy yolks around our necks.  We’ve heard, for example, that OUR love is not sacred nor do we really know the love of God.  At times like that I want to shake my fist in the air and scream out these lyrics by U2 (because, after all, aren’t all things from the 80’s perfect in such occasions?):

You say love is a temple, love a higher law
You ask me to enter but then you make me crawl
And I can’t be holding on to what you got
When all you got is hurt!

But can’t we rejoice today that the TRUE meaning of love and all it encompasses is defined not by others around us, but by our Heavenly Father?  Today we are going to focus on one segment of this amazing area of our Lord as He has been teaching me a lesson recently.

If you’ve been a Christian more than 3 months, or even if you’ve attended church more then twice, you’ve probably heard about the whole “love your neighbor as yourself” story.  It’s pretty active in Christian-speak, at least in my circles.  And yet, as I mentioned earlier, it often is overlooked in practice.  There are many reasons for this; our definition of “neighbor”, or busy lives, our human natures that are SO powerful – this list goes on and on.  Yet, the Lord has been working on my heart really, and admittedly this is a topic that is very close to my view of myself and others.  Because of that, I’d like to share my journey with YOU!

Let’s begin with the Word – starting with Matthew 22:34-40 (NIV):

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question:  “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Before I go too far, let’s analyze these verses together.

Jesus replied: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’: Jesus, true to form, didn’t have His own agenda when dealing with the Pharisees – his response quotes Deuteronomy 6:5 and had been read in the Temple for centuries and basically said “booya” to the expert who I believe had hoped to trip Jesus up.  Then Jesus, goes on to add the hierarchy to His response.

This is the first and greatest commandment.
Jesus’ words set this as the greatest commandment, one that the Pharisees could not really argue against at all, although in practice some of the other 600+ laws they liked to follow often seemed to come before this one.  But Jesus didn’t stop there……..

And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ This addition brought a whole new level of rules to the Pharisees, as they had already begun living a very regimented cast system that excluded Samaritans, Tax Collectors, women, or anyone they deemed as unworthy based on the whim of the moment.  This statement meant real trouble to the Pharisees!  It totally shattered the concept of how they really acted towards the majority of those around them.  And yet, Jesus still had another punch coming!

All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.
To me, this is the “nuke statement” Jesus made that day.  How can anyone hear or read these words and not understand the very clear hierarchy that Jesus established?  If you don’t love God and your neighbor, nothing else matters.  NOTHING!  When I realized this piece of information, I realized I had been going about my Christian walk all wrong!  Instead of focusing on acting a certain way or pulling away from the world, I became conscious of the fact that I needed to LOVE!  Love my God and love my neighbor.  JESUS defined the hierarchy and who am I to interject other laws or rules above these?

But I also believe that the love we have here can’t remain only within these doors – and neither do Pastor and I am sure you too.  So, I would be remiss if I didn’t also analyze the Biblical definition of “neighbor”.  Some suggest this means other Christians.  Many say the net includes your friends and family, maybe even your co-workers.  But what does the Bible say?

Matthew 5:43-48 (NIV) says:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Christ clearly states we need to love EVERYONE, even those who we view as enemies or whom we do not agree with. And perhaps I am wrong, but I see loving them is CARING about them, especially their eternal life. That means your physical neighbor who refuses to mow his lawn or take the trash cans in timely.  It means the homeless person begging on the corner.  It means the political person that you didn’t vote for and whose ideology you despise.  It means the person that cut you off on the freeway this morning.  Even those that spew hate at your and those you love!  Basically, it means EVERYONE, but ESPECIALLY those whom you would never ever give the time of day except that Jesus told you to love them.

I think you probably get that.  I really do!

But for me, it turned a corner when I thought of the ones that have so much power over me – power that I’ve given them.  I have a family member  who I know loves me but whom to this day refuses to even mention Deana’s name or ask how Zack and Sophia are.  To my former Christian employer, who fired me when they found out I am a lesbian.  In the past, I would want to pull out Matthew 22 and scream to them, “GOD TOLD YOU TO LOVE ME!  YOU HYPOCRITES!  YOU HATERS!  YOU CAN WEAR YOUR “WHAT WOULD JESUS DO” BRACELETS BUT YOU HAVE NO LOVE!”  And I would feel so righteous, knowing I was right!  But I hope you realize, as I have, that Matthew 22 AND 5 applies to me, too.  And while I don’t view my family member as my enemy per se, no matter how they react to me, I need to love them.  ESPECIALLY since they have judged me,  I need to love them!  I even need to love my old work, at least try to.  Because, love that is unfathomable is very Christian, don’t you think?  Because if someone DESERVES or EARNS your love, is it really so hard to love them?  So, let’s agree that “loving your neighbor” means “everyone – especially those who don’t deserve it”.

What about the definition of LOVE? Paul is very eloquent in describing what this is about in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Jump down to verse 13:
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

I love that the Bible sets the hierarchy so clearly.  Jesus established the two most important commandments for us to follow in Matthew, and He further directed Paul here to tell us that LOVE is the greatest attribute we should manifest in our lives.    And He loves us so much that he clearly describes what love IS and IS NOT.  And, while I fully admit that I have failed in both loving my neighbor and putting love above all else, I can also testify that Jesus – through His Holy Spirit – is daily giving me a bigger dose of His love so that I can grow in these areas!  And so can you!

So, we now know the Biblical definition of NEIGHBOR and LOVE – what are we going to DO about it?  That has been the biggest area where I struggle – head or heart knowledge versus acting it out in my mind, heart, and actions.  So walk with me as I break out some of the “IS” statements we just read.

Love is patient
.  First of all, I hope you all know not to pray for patience!  Take it from me, God is faithful and will give you opportunity after opportunity to grow your patience!  But I have learned over the last year that God knows me, he sees where laws and churches and people have worked to tell me that I am wrong.  And I may want to change every single mind I encounter today, it probably won’t happen.  But my focus has always been to point out how stupid people are, and let me tell you, that’s not very loving.  My impatience has skewed my ability to LOVE.  I have to love and no amount of shaking my fist in the face of my opposition will make things go faster.

Love keeps no record of wrongs.  Ouch!  You know, I appreciate and accept the give of Grace I received from Christ and I thank Him daily for loving me and saving me.  But even so, I had a long list of those who have wronged me, especially as their actions relate to my sexuality.  While I want them to accept me as I am, I sit with resentment, hurt, anger, and think these people need to get right with God.  But truly, MY heart needs the Holy Spirit to erase the list I hold onto!  And, as we’ve already discussed, this premise needs to extend to everyone I encounter everyday.

Love always protects. What does this mean to me?  To you?  A more obvious answer would be that we don’t hurt the ones we love, or even go so far as to defend them from hurts/danger/pain, etc.  I believe that view is true and noble.  But I also believe I am being called to take this a step further!  How about adding that, as a Christ follower, I will protect EVERYONE I encounter!  How about, if I come across someone that doesn’t align with my point of view or even believes something that is an affront to my religion, I PROTECT THEIR DIGNITY, THEIR VIEWS, AND THEIR LIFE?

Here is what I mean by that – so often I am focused on BEING RIGHT or GETTING MY VIEWS OUT THERE, that I lose track of love altogether!  This realization of my actions came crashing to the forefront on Facebook, of all places!  I took part in a glaring debating – although the details really don’t need to be shared today.  During the course of this debate, which had compelling points on both sides, some of us (and I do mean us) stepped it up a notch and began to add blood arrows.  By blood arrows, I mean insulting strings of words that basically attacked something, be it the other person’s intelligence, way of arguing, whether or not they were even a Christian…….instead of even focusing on the original debate!  With each arrow I became more arrogant, more zealous in my view, and began to FEED on the arrow’s line of attack rather than sharing why I held my views.  It only got worse as alliances were built on both sides of the debate and pretty soon we had nothing more than a blood bath!

That, my friends, was the first time I realized that I was a failure, for I had not loved ANYONE in the interchange.  I didn’t PROTECT my neighbor, but sacrificed them to my ideology and to my very pride in wanting to be right!  I didn’t even love my FRIEDS, because my angry and hurtful actions gave my enemies fodder to condemn us!  And I believe many of us repeat these actions over and over again and never even realize that – even if our ideology is a noble one – we are breaking the second most important commandment Jesus Himself taught us!  And it showed me very clearly that my raised fists against those that I know hate me or want to limit my rights has been wrong as well.

But realizing my weakness doesn’t make it easy to love those that, well let’s face it, that I don’t especially LIKE.  Logically, I can find reasons to not extend real love to them.  Even now I feel the need to tell you that I don’t believe what they believe, that I believe they aren’t right – but it’s more important that I tell you my actions have been totally wrong!

So what should I do?  What should WE do?

Maybe, instead of feeling paralyzed by our inability to love our enemies or at least those that we don’t like, we can start somewhere a bit more palatable.  Pastor has been talking for weeks about reaching out to our community, and what a great way to begin flexing our spiritual love muscles is there?  We can and should reach out to those that have bought the lie that God doesn’t love them.  Through our love we represent Jesus through Love instead of through anger – but maybe it’s less intimidating to start.  We no longer need to convince those that insist on fighting us that Love is the main goal, and instead throw out our nets of love to those who never, ever expect to receive it.
But you may be thinking – okay Gina, you’ve talked a lot about Loving, but what about encouraging others?  We know love needs to be an action, and what better way to manifest love than to ENCOURAGE other!

When you’re shown loved by someone, doesn’t that encourage you?  Maybe you are blessed to have family members who love you even though you’re flawed.  There are TONS of verses in the Bible that speak about encouraging others.  And there are many manifestations of encouragement; let’s go over just a few.

John 15:26
But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.

You know what?  I often limit God.  I define what I can and can’t do and live my life through that paradigm.  Yet, the Lord has been faithful despite how I act.  I need to tell you something – the Lord placed on my heart on July 13th that I needed to write this Bible study.  He placed on my heart the need to review my view of love and encouragement on that day so heavily that I began to sit down and pray, research, and meditate on the Word.  Deana asked what I was doing and I told her – she asked if I was asked to teach or something.  I said no.  And that was the truth.  So, to hear on Sunday the 18th Deana was asked if I was interested in doing Sunday School, I was blown away.  If you asked me two weeks ago, I would give you about 25 instant reasons why not only I was not QUALIFIED to be here, but I would tell you I would not know what to say.  But I am standing before you today because God loves me enough to use me, and as His ambassador I pray that He speaks to you today.

Is that encouragement?  Maybe it was meant just for me, for I am standing here feeling abundantly blessed and honored by my Lord!

Hebrews 3:13
But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.

I mentioned earlier, the love you share with everyone who walks into this church is very encouraging.  That is a very important manifestation of love and encouragement that each one of us can do easily each week.  Walk up to someone you don’t know.  Smile to those across to room.  That’s encouragement.  And you will even begin to realize that your actions will encourage those that may not even been the recipient on the encouragement!  When Marvin Matthews was here a couple weeks ago, Jessica noticed a woman across the room who didn’t have a praise sheet; she worked that piece of paper across dozens of people so that the woman could sing along!  In doing so, I was encouraged that Jessica saw the need and met the need!

2 Corinthians 9:7
Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.

Sometimes encouragement is financial in nature.  When you tithe or offer money to this church, it encourages this body and the work it does in this community.  Although your tithes or offerings may be smaller or larger than those being given next to you, it encourages Pastor and this body!

Matthew 5:4
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Sometimes just being there for someone is more encouraging than you know.  Seven years ago my 20-year-old nephew was killed in a car accident.  When I finally arrived at my brother’s side, I really didn’t know what to say.  For over 10 hours he and I just sat next to each other as I prayed for him silently.  I felt so very inadequate during those hours, but do you know what?  To this day he said nothing encouraged him more than the fact that I was willing to sit next to him during the darkest hours of his life.  So, sometimes it feels like we aren’t helping, but God directs us and blesses others just by being near.  And it’s important to remember that we carry the Holy Spirit in us people!  And He can and does comfort those in pain better than we ever could.

Hebrews 10:24-25
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.  Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

Sometimes encouragement means doing nothing!  Yes, I said nothing!  Recently I was at a client site, a lovely Christian woman, and an owner of a neighbor business stopped by to shoot the breeze.  This man was very nice, but he used the most filthy language we no thought to me or the woman I was working with!
I went from being shocked to internally becoming angry and offended inside – I mean SERIOUSLY, how disrespectful!  After he left, I shared that I could not believe his language and couldn’t believe she had to deal with that several times a week.  She replied, with no judgment towards me I might add, that she didn’t like the language either but that it was more important for her to show love to him by accepting his as he was and maybe someday he would be receptive to the Word of the Lord.  Let me tell you, her actions not only showed me what encouragement looks like, but encouraged me to love others with my actions in real, if difficult ways!  And her actions are BIBLICAL – check out Can you imagine how the neighbor would have reacted if Melissa had said “hey man, your language is HORRIBLE!  If you’re going to cuss like that, you best not come here.”  I believe it wouldn’t change his language, but it sure would close the door of love!  Instead, she is leading his THROUGH LOVE to being loving.  Maybe a foul mouthed lover, but one that can love……..

But to me, the most amazing story is not one that you will find when doing the usual search in the Bible for the term “encouragement”.  In fact, the story really starts with a sad note.  It relates to the Apostle Peter, whom I personally related to a lot!  I mean, I can totally see myself jumping out on the water but taking my eyes of the Lord and falling into water.  I can see myself jumping to cut off the soldier’s ear, only to be chastised by the Lord.

Peter loved the Lord very much, but even though Jesus warned him ahead of time that Peter would deny Him, he incredulously denied the possibility.  We know, as Matthew 26 tells us, that Peter did, in fact, deny Christ three times.  I’ve always been blown away by this – I mean Peter lived with Jesus for THREE YEARS, spending time with Him, being taught by Him, see Jesus perform miracles over and over.  In Matthew 16, Peter is recorded as being the first to acknowledge that Jesus was the Christ!  And yet, even after being warned of his failings, Peter denied Christ three times, emphatically!

Can you imagine how Peter felt when that happened?  Matthew 26:75 tells us that Peter remembered Jesus’ words and wept bitterly.  I know I’ve had situations where I’ve failed the Lord and once I was done crying, I put on the clothes of my failure and limited my ability to be used by God.  I held onto those failures and defined myself through them.  And I suppose Peter probably did that to some extent too.  But I am encouraged by what Jesus did with Peter.

Now Jesus could have very easily said, “Peter, dude, I warned you and you still denied me.  After all we’ve been through!  How can I trust you?”  Yet, let’s go over what Jesus did:

John 21:15-17
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.

In the NIV Bible, the section header states “Jesus reinstates Peter”.  I have been so blessed by the fact that Jesus PHYSICALLY asks Peter three times “do you love me” – to specifically cover the three times Peter denied him.  Jesus LOVED Peter, and he ENCOURAGED him.  But, true to form, Jesus didn’t stop there!  He EMPOWERED Peter to LOVE and ENCOURAGE the world – “the sheep” – and I believe that is the most important message Jesus wants you to hear today.  He will create ways and empower YOU to reach others in His name.  Don’t limit yourselves by your own view of yourself – as Pastor taught us, don’t look back and listen to the echo of who we were.  Romans chapter 3 tells us we are the righteousness of God through our faith in Jesus Christ, and we need to start living that way, not to boast but to LOVE and ENCOURAGE one another.  So if you ever start focusing on your failures and want to limit how you can be used by God, think of Peter and how Jesus himself took that bull by the horns.

So, in the coming days, think of small and big ways you can begin to see all situations and people – your neighbors – with love.  Think of small and big ways to encourage those around you, even yourselves!  And by doing so, be prepared to feel the blessings flow!

Love your God
Love your Neighbor
Find ways to encourage others, even yourself

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