What does ‘love thy neighbor’ mean?

“What does ‘love thy neighbor’ mean?” New Era, Feb. 1972, 34–35

“What does ‘love thy neighbor’ mean?”

Answer/Lowell L. Bennion

This is perhaps the most important question one could ask about the gospel of Christ. Jesus made this concept central in the religious life (Matt. 22), and Paul said that without love, everything else profits us nothing (1 Cor. 13).

Only a god knows the full meaning of love. We can but hope to increase in the understanding and living of this central principle of the gospel.

Brotherly love is not easy to define. Let’s begin by saying what it is not, for there are many kinds of love. Brotherly love is not romantic love—that strong, intense emotion a person can feel for someone of the opposite sex. Romantic love is grounded in one’s biological nature, and even though it is experienced as being idealistic and elevating, it is not brotherly love. Unless fortified by other kinds of love, romantic love tends to be unstable, fickle, selfish, possessive, jealous, and envious. By contrast, Paul said of Christian love that it “envieth not” and “seeketh not her own.”

Brotherly love is not synonymous with friendship, although it may be part of it. Friends like each other, delight in each other’s companionship, are confidential, loyal, trusting, and share many mutual interests. Friendship is reciprocal.

Brotherly love is more unselfish than either romantic love or friendship. One possessed of Christian love has a profound concern for the welfare of others. He loses his life in their interest. His life is alter- or other-ego centered. It doesn’t matter whether the other person—the one loved—appreciates or responds to the love shown him, because brotherly love nourishes itself. It resides wholly in the person who loves and doesn’t need response to keep it alive as romantic love and friendship do.

The real test of whether one has brotherly love was given by Jesus when he said and exemplified: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” (Matt. 5:44.)

Brotherly love, unlike the other two types, is impartial and, therefore, universal. One who has brotherly love is concerned for any and every man, whether he be sinner or saint, attractive or unattractive, of the same or of another faith or race. In fact, if one is selective as to whom he loves, the chances are he loves no man in a brotherly way.

Brotherly love is essentially feeling, an emotion, as are all kinds of love. However, it also has an intellectual component. It takes reflection and self-discipline to desire and seek the good of one who is antagonistic or repulsive. So, I believe, brotherly love must be learned and relearned. It does not strike one spontaneously as romantic love is wont to do. For this reason too, it is the most stable and enduring of all forms of love.

People err in thinking that because they love someone, they must always do their bidding. Parents are afraid to say no or to be firm. People, especially youth, give in to colleagues or associates against their better judgment for fear of offending, of not being loving. Brotherly love is consistent with justice, with firmness, even with rebuke when the person is acting in the interest of others. Some of my finest experiences with love have come when I have had the courage to hold firm with a student, helping him to face up to reality honestly.

Brotherly love means, in the language of the philosopher Kant, to treat persons as ends, never as means to our own selfish ends. By this is meant that in business, in dating, in marriage, at school, and at work, we don’t use and abuse people as functions, as being purely instrumental to our own goals, but that we treat them as whole persons and in their interest—that we practice the Golden Rule.

“Love thy neighbor” remains a fundamental law of the gospel and of human existence. As people are drawn closer together by technological advances, it is imperative that men increase in love of neighbor. If they don’t, life on this planet will be increasingly difficult.

  • Associate Dean of Students, University of Utah