THE LOVE-YOUR-NEIGHBOR-CHALLENGE: Ten Steps to Service Over Self (Matthew 22:39)
In Matthew 22:39 Christ is tested by a Pharisee who is a lawyer. In an attempt to trip him up, the lawyer asks Jesus to say which is the greatest commandment. But Christ turns the tables on the Pharisee by stating what has come to be known as the “Great Commandment” (Matthew 22: 37-39): “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” With these words, Jesus not only made a self-important Pharisee look foolish but He gave you and me our marching orders for how we are supposed to live our lives on a daily basis.
But what does it mean to love our neighbors as ourselves? How do we translate the second part of the Great Commandment into action? These are questions I had been asked many times by counseling clients when a stranger in a restaurant convinced me by his example to develop a plan that answers the questions. That plan is the subject of this article, but first the story of the “good Samaritan” whose example of Christian love became the genesis of the plan.
It was July in Florida when the heat and humidity are intense. One hundred-degree temperature and 90 percent humidity are common. A construction worker walked into a restaurant to order a meal. At some point during the day, this construction worker had taken off his sweaty shirt and laid it aside. At the end of the workday, he left the job site without retrieving it; he just forgot. Now he was being denied service by the restaurant manager because he had no shirt.
Rather than just leave, the construction worker placed a take-out order. The restaurant owner told him he would have to wait outside for it. The man didn’t argue. He humbly apologized for having no shirt and went outside to wait in the hot sun. The exterior of the small restaurant offered no respite. It had neither porch nor awning; not even a shade tree. Observing this scene, another restaurant patron got up from the table where he was eating and went outside. As I and several others in the restaurant watched through the window, this man approached the construction worker and shook his hand. After they exchanged a few words, the restaurant patron took off the dress shirt he was wearing and gave it to the construction worker. This left the restaurant patron I still think of as the “good Samaritan” wearing just his undershirt. But the restaurant wasn’t exactly a five-star establishment. A tee-shirt was sufficient.
The shirt he gave away was nice, but his gesture of kindness was even nicer. When the two men walked back into the restaurant, this time with the construction worker wearing the dress shirt he had just been given, the other patrons broke into applause. Their appreciation wasn’t for the construction worker per se, although they were happy to see he would now be allowed inside. Their applause was for the good Samaritan who gave a person in need the shirt off his back. This generous man then invited the construction worker to join him at his table. When they had finished eating, he paid for the construction worker’s meal.
I suspect the other patrons felt a sort of sympathetic relief that the construction worker was able to come in out of the hot sun and enjoy his meal in air-conditioned comfort. I, too, was relieved that the incident ended well. As the good Samaritan got up to leave, I shook his hand and thanked him for his kindness to a stranger. What he told me in response made an even deeper impression on me than his example of loving his neighbor.
“I have been blessed with a good job and a comfortable life but, in spite of this, for years I felt unfulfilled and unhappy. I looked to hobbies, money, and success for fulfillment and happiness, but to no avail. It wasn’t until I finally learned in a Bible study one day that fulfillment and happiness come from serving others that my life began to turn around. It wasn’t until I stopped looking for fulfillment in me-centered pursuits that I found it in serving others. That construction worker got a free shirt and a meal from me today, but I got much more from him. He gave me an opportunity to live out the second half of the Greatest Commandment. That’s where my fulfillment and happiness come from.”
When that good Christian man left, it felt as though I had been visited by an angel carrying a message from God. Not surprisingly, God had a purpose for allowing me to watch as a restaurant patron demonstrated what loving your neighbor as yourself looks like in practical terms. God wanted me and the other patrons to see Christ’s admonition obeyed in this way so we would understand what loving a neighbor really looks like. But I soon came to understand the Lord wanted more than just this understanding from me. He also wanted me to use my position as a Christian counselor to help other believers find fulfillment and happiness by living out the second part of the Great Commandment.
When the Lord first placed the service-over-self-burden on my heart, finding the right response was a struggle. In the beginning, I thought he was calling me to personally set an example of service over self so others might learn from it. In other words, I thought all he wanted me to do was emulate the example of that good Samaritan who gave the shirt off his back to a construction worker who needed one. But as I prayed about it, I couldn’t get over the feeling that the Lord wanted more from me than just setting a Christ-like example. There had to be more. After all, God expects all of His children to set that kind of example for others.
Something in the back of my mind kept telling me “most of the people you counsel are unfulfilled and unhappy.” That little voice was right. People don’t seek counseling because life is going well for them. They seek counseling because they are struggling. In fact, I am always surprised to learn how many people go through life hiding behind a mask of false contentment. For many people, the public faces others see covers up feelings of quiet desperation and a life devoid of both fulfillment and happiness. In any crowd, including a church congregation, you are surrounded by people who are quietly struggling with emptiness, sadness, and discouragement.
Resolving the issue took time, but it eventually became clear that God wanted me to use my position as a Christian counselor to help others learn how to find fulfillment and happiness by loving their neighbors as themselves. After a lot of prayers and searching through Scripture, what eventually emerged was a ten-step plan for making service over self a way of life. The plan helps people pursue Christ’s admonition to love their neighbors as themselves in practical, everyday terms. Said another way, it helps people learn how to serve their way to fulfillment and happiness.
This ten-step plan helps Christian brothers and sisters apply practical strategies in all aspects of their lives until service over self becomes their new normal. I call this plan my Love-Your-Neighbor-Challenge, and can attest from experience that it works; but first some background. Before recommending the Challenge to others, it needed to be test driven. I took the challenge myself. The change it brought didn’t happen overnight, but in time it did happen. The progress I experienced came in fits and starts. I often took two steps forward and one step back, but the needed change did occur and service before self eventually sunk in as a way of life.
Putting service over self is not easy and never will be. As human beings, we are hardwired to look out for number one. This fact can make the pathway to service over self a bumpy road to travel. It was the forward-and-back, up-and-down trajectory of my own progress that caused me to use the term “challenge” in the title of the plan. As sinful people living in a fallen world putting service over self is, indeed, a challenge. This fact became clear to me when test driving the program. Making service over self your normal way of life may turn out to be one of the hardest things you ever do. When you take the Challenge, it will probably feel like you are swimming upstream against the current of self-interest, at least in the beginning. But with persistence and prayer, you can do it.
The Love-Your-Neighbor-Challenge consists of specific things you can do to demonstrate love for your neighbors. The “challenge” part of the plan is to replace your natural human inclination toward self-centeredness with an attitude of service over self. You do this by repeating the 10 steps in the Challenge over and over until they become your new normal. These steps are as follows:
Step 1: Practice kindness and gentleness toward your neighbors
Step 2: Practice patience and forbearance toward your neighbors
Step 3: Practice contentment and peace with your neighbors
Step 4: Practice humility and modesty with your neighbors
Step 5: Practice faithfulness and consideration toward your neighbors
Step 6: Practice encouragement and goodness toward your neighbors
Step 7: Practice selflessness and charity toward your neighbors
Step 8: Practice self-control and imperturbability with your neighbors
Step 9: Practice graciousness and forgiveness toward your neighbors
Step 10: Practice honesty and integrity with your neighbors
Consistently demonstrating love for your neighbors by putting service before self will never be easy. In fact, it will usually be difficult; ah the challenge becomes even more difficult when trying to show the love of Christ to people who don’t respond in kind. People who are unlovable and unappreciative of your efforts are going to cause you no end of frustration and doubt. Count on it. It’s where I struggled most when test driving the Challenge. Few things are more difficult than loving the unlovable. It’s always easier to treat people well when they are appreciative and agreeable. Unfortunately, people aren’t always appreciative and agreeable. Sometimes they are just the opposite.
You may find it difficult to love neighbors who don’t seem to deserve your love. I certainly do. This was the mountain God gave me to climb when test driving the Challenge. If this happens to you, remember that the Lord loves you and me, even when we don’t deserve it. In fact, it’s been said you have not loved in the Christian sense until you have loved the unlovable because Christ’s unfailing love for us is an example of loving the unlovable. This is one more reason the Love-Your-Neighbor Challenge is aptly named. It will always be a challenge. Walking in the footsteps of Christ and emulating his example will never be easy for sinners living in a fallen world.
With this said, the Love-Your-Neighbor-Challenge is designed to help you replace what comes naturally with a whole new approach to life; an approach that will bring you closer to God in your daily walk. This approach is best described as service over self. The Challenge will help you practice doing what Christ expects of you over and over until the hard work of loving your neighbor becomes your normal way of doing things. When this happens, not only will the recipients of your love benefit, you will too in the form of fulfillment and happiness.
Dr. Goetsch is the author of Christian Women on the Job: Excelling at Work without Compromising Your Faith, Fidelis Books, an imprint of Post Hill Press and Christians on the Job: Winning at Work Without Compromising Your Faith, Salem Books, an imprint of Regnery Publishing, 2019: www.david-goetsch.com