The Paradox of Loving Our Neighbors… By Staying Away from Them

Does anyone remember what life was like 8 weeks ago? My daily routine would look something like this: get up, take my daughter to preschool, go to work, come home, go to the gym, spend some time with the family and go to bed. I didn’t worry whether there would be toilet paper at the grocery store, or if I could find the right cut of meat for dinner the next day. On top of all that, wearing a mask in public was viewed as something… odd.

What a difference two months makes. In NJ, we are nearing the end of our 7th week engaging in mitigation and social distancing measures. While these measures seem to be effective, there is the compounding challenge of social isolation and anxiety sweeping through our state. Just before the orders went into place, one of my friends made this statement, “The best way to love our neighbors during this time is to stay away from them.” This idea struck an intriguing dissonance in my mind—how does that even make sense?

When tragedy strikes, the first action we want to take as followers of Christ is running to people so we can hug and comfort them. However, to now give someone a hug, or enter their home could prove lethal for some. It creates an odd tension for Christians who want to live out the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” But, you may ask, how can I make disciples if I cannot be in their presence?

While on a mission trip in Senegal several years ago, I spoke with a missionary who argued that getting sick was worth sharing the Gospel. He was willing to risk his health to tell someone about Jesus and, at the time, I thought that was a noble venture. As we get further and further into this pandemic, I wonder if more discernment is needed. While we desire to live out the Great Commission, we must not forget the Great Commandment in Matthew 22. In this context, the Pharisees, the experts in the law, come to Jesus and try to stump him with this question, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” (v. 36). Jesus, of course, was never surprised by these questions and quickly offered a response: “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.’” (v. 37-39).

These verses have been a clarion call for believers throughout the centuries: Love God. Love People. And yet, we find ourselves at a peculiar moment in history… what does it mean to love my neighbor as myself in an era of COVID-19. Speaking from firsthand experience as someone who has had the virus—it would be un-loving of me to pass it on to others… especially those who might be more adversely affected than me. That would not be loving my neighbor as myself, since I seek to avoid sickness.  

So what do we do? How do we love our neighbors as ourselves? Let me briefly mention three action steps to consider.

  1. Be EXTRA Intentional.

When it comes to neighbors, and even family members, we can take those relationships for granted. We live such busy lives assuming we’ll see that neighbor when it gets warmer and we are all outside. Or, we assume we’ll see that family member at the next gathering. But there will not be family gatherings for a while—Thanksgiving dinner may even have to be virtual this year!

All things considered, I would invite you to be extra intentional in your contact with people. A phone call, a letter, a FaceTime exchange all go a long way to letting people know you care. Do these things MORE often. Extra intentionality requires more than a text message. Back when texting first became popular, my sister downloaded a ringtone which played every time she got a message and it said this: “You have a text message, which means someone thinks you are not worth the minute!” Ouch. That stings. Take this time to be extra intentional with your neighbors and your family.

  1. Be Appropriately Cautious.

At the same time that we are extra intentional in our relationships, we should be appropriately cautious. The other week, my wife and daughter made the 50 minute drive down to my mother’s house to say hello. This was our attempt to connect more relationally with her, but we remained in the car. We took this action, not because we don’t love my mother… but because we do. Drive by greetings may be the way to go for the next season.

However, even stopping by in this manner goes a long way to letting people know you care. How might you do this for your family and neighbors?

  1. Pray for Them.

People often ask, “How are you spending your time in quarantine?” Many people are using this crisis to expand their Netflix viewing, or catch up on reading. But I would challenge every reader to use this time to expand your prayer life. Take time to pray for your neighbors and those you love—daily. As you take the time to pray for people, they will burden your heart more often and cause you to take the first two actions I mentioned in this post.

Take time, right now, to write down three people you can pray for over the next month. Pray for them each day. Pray that God would use this season to awaken their heart for Jesus, maybe even for the first time. And then back it up with intentional, caring action.

When I think about it, I want people to do that for me. If I am going to love my neighbor as myself… I should care for them as I would myself. Be extra intentional. Be appropriately cautious. Pray. Pray. Pray.

And when you do, who knows what doors God will open for the spread of the Gospel.

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