How do we love our neighbors when they don’t really need us? Worse, how do we love our neighbors when those neighbors go out of their way to ignore us? It’s today’s question. “Hello, Pastor John and Tony! This podcast has been a huge blessing to my life. I’m a 25-year-old man. Last year I moved into a new house and a new neighborhood. As a brother in Christ, I choose to be respectful and greet my neighbors first because I don’t want them to view me as arrogant or selfish, or think I’m better than them. In Scripture, Jesus says to ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ (Mark 12:31). Living in this neighborhood for almost a year now, I feel unwelcomed. I wave at my neighbors just to show I care for them. Instead of acknowledging me, they ignore me or, a couple of times, they have mocked me back. I began to ignore them back because I don’t want them to steal my joy. Pastor John, how do I obey Jesus’s command to love my neighbors when my neighbors basically ignore me?”
Let me say a big yes and a big no to a quote from this question. He says, “I wave at my neighbors just to show I care. Instead of acknowledging me, they ignore me or, a couple of times, they mock me back. I began to ignore them back because I don’t want them to steal my joy.” Here is my yes and no. The yes is this: “I don’t want them to steal my joy.” Amen. Yes, absolutely, don’t let them steal your joy. The no is this: “I began to ignore them back.” No, no, no, no, no, no. That is not the strategy to protect and deepen and lengthen your joy.
Let me say a word about the yes and the no from the Bible.
Joy Anchored in Glory
First, the yes: “I don’t want them to steal my joy.” I’m with you all the way because in John 16:22, Jesus said to his disciples, who were sorrowful that he was about to leave them and be crucified, and they didn’t understand what was going on, “You have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” So yes, that’s not going to happen. Don’t let it happen. This is a good desire and a good confidence and a good goal.
A Christian’s joy is rooted in Christ — who he is and what he’s done. And that joy cannot be taken. It has a deeper, stronger anchor than any other joy. “No one will take your joy from you,” Jesus said. In fact, this deep, unshakable joy that’s not dependent on external circumstances (like being waved at or being insulted) but is anchored in the all-satisfying Christ, who is “the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8) — that joy is exactly what we have to offer our neighbors. Their joy rises and falls according to circumstances. Our joy is not like that. Our joy is anchored in unchangeable glory. “We rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:2).
Therefore, even when we are sorrowful — which is real for Christians — for example, at being rejected by our neighbors, Paul says we are “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10). Those unsociable, even hostile neighbors might feel to you like a thorn in your flesh. But here’s what Paul says about thorns in his flesh: When he asked Jesus to take the thorn away (and I’m sure you have asked that), Jesus responded, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Then Paul says in response, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” Then he adds, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content.” He’s got gladness, he’s got contentment, with weaknesses and insults — insults. “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9–10).
You can see that Paul absolutely would not let thorns rob him of his joy. “All the more gladly will I boast in my weaknesses.” “I am content with insults, with neighbors who ignore me or ridicule me.” That’s a miracle. We’ve got to pray for that miracle in our lives. Yes, yes, yes, don’t let anyone rob you of your Christ-exalting joy.
Giving for Joy
Now, a word about the no. The strategy of returning ignoring for ignoring, or insult for insult, is not going to work. Period. No. That’s not the way Jesus designed for you to protect your joy. I know the feeling: I just run away from those things that take my joy. No, that’s not the solution if love is at stake. Just the opposite.
If you join them in their strategies, the reward you will get is the pleasures they get. You’ll hear Jesus say, “You have your reward,” and that’s that. Of course, there is a kind of pleasure — there really is — in returning insult for insult and ignoring for ignoring. There is a sinful pleasure. And it’s a real pleasure in feeling like you’ve had the last word, or feeling like you’re so above the other people’s criticism that you don’t even feel it: “There you go. You insult me, and I don’t feel it. So there.” That’s not a Christian strategy. That’s a stoic strategy for maintaining joy.
“The more your neighbors feel like enemies, the more you should love them the way Jesus said.”
Here’s Paul strategy in 1 Corinthians 4:12–13: “When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat.” Or he might say, “When ignored, we smile and wave.” Now, how can that be a strategy for joy? Because Jesus said in Acts 20:35, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” There is a pleasure in receiving greetings. It’s good. It’s beautiful. We want it. But Jesus says there’s a deeper pleasure in giving greetings.
What Matters to Jesus
I remember 48 years ago, when I was working on my doctoral dissertation on Jesus’s command to love your enemies, I read articles and books on loving your enemies. There was this constant effort to resist individualizing enemy love and the desire to turn it into, not nitty-gritty, practical little daily things, but big social issues of the day. “That’s where enemy love really counts.”
I remember responding in one of those interchanges that I had by simply pointing to Matthew 5:47. I mean, texts are wonderful in debate with other books. I just went to Matthew 5:47, where Jesus illustrates what he means by “love your enemies” with this sentence: “If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” That conversation was over. Greeting your enemy as you pass him on the street, with a smile and a hello, is not exactly your great social issue of the day, right? It just happens to be tremendously important in the mind of Jesus. Why? Because it reveals our hearts.
Keep Doing Good
So, I would say to our 25-year-old friend in his new neighborhood, “Don’t grow weary in well-doing” (see Galatians 6:9). And the more your neighbors feel like enemies, the more you should love them the way Jesus said, and one of those ways is greeting. If you greet only those who greet you, how are you acting like a son of God and not just like everybody else?
Let me add just one more practical suggestion. These greetings and other little kindnesses that you may do thanklessly may feel to you like throwing money down a rat hole. But if you manifest the compassion of Christ and the steadfast goodwill of Christ over time, what might happen is that when crisis or tragedy strikes one of your neighbors, you may be the one they turn to.
So, be alert to the moment when they’re not so cocky because all is going well; instead, they’re hurting because something terrible just happened in their lives. And then they may turn to you because you may seem to them to be somebody who might care. Who knows how many small evidences of grace, like greetings, become the very thing, the door, through which they might welcome you into their lives.