John Webster on the Givenness of Neighbors

The way we understand the occasion of such a thing as " neighbors" fundamentally changes our actions toward them. Here is one of the most helpful things I've read on the simple idea—we have neighbors.

In his book Holiness, John Webster writes:

Love involves my acknowledgement that I am obliged by my neighbor as a reality given to me by God, a reality which I would often like to evade but which encounters me with a transcendent imperative force.

Why is this 'transcendent' ground for works of human fellowship theologically decisive? Because thereby my neighbour, the one with whom I stand in relation, is given to me, forming part of my destiny in the company of the saints. My neighbour is a summons to fellowship, because in him or her I find a claim on me that is not causal or fortuitous (and thereby dispensable) but rather precedes my will and requires that I act in my neighbour's regard.

Without a sense that fellowship is (God-) given, my neighbour would not present a sufficiently strong claim to disturb me out of complacency and indifference into active, initiative-taking regard. Some basic acts of human fellowship—mercy to strangers, fidelity, patient attentiveness to the unlovely, devotion to long-standing and largely unreciprocated care of the comatose and handicapped—require for their sustenance a perception that the neighbor is one with whom I have been set in fellowship independent of (sometimes against) my will.

My neighbour obliges me because he or she is the presence to me of the appointment and vocation of the holy God. Without givenness, without fellowship as more than a contingent fact, without the neighbour as a divine call, there is only my will. But, if fellowship is a condition and not merely one possibility for my ironic self to entertain, then in building common life—in culture, politics and ethics—I resist the relationlessness of sin into which I may drift, and, sanctified by Christ and Spirit, I realize my nature as one created for holiness (97, paragraphing mine).

Jonathan Parnell (@jonathanparnell) is a writer and content strategist at Desiring God. He lives in the Twin Cities with his wife, Melissa, and their four children, and is the co-author of How to Stay Christian in Seminary .