What does it mean to live in community in small groups? Or as a part of a church? Or in missional communities? Or with others who are holding us accountable, i.e., groups of two or three? When we think of community, too many times we think of it in terms of preferential love, which means that we will relate to others as long as they are pleasing to us.
I’ve been reading and rereading Soren Kierkegaard’s Works of Love recently. He has some challenging insights and reflections on what it means to love our neighbor.
“Thus the neighbor is the person who is nearer to you than anyone else, yet not in the sense of preferential love, since to love someone who in the sense of preferential love is nearer than anyone else is self-love—’do not the pagans also do the same?'” The neighbor, then, is nearer to you than anyone else. … ‘the neighbor’ is what thinkers call ‘the other.’ That by which the selfishness in self-love is to be tested.” (21)
This quote is found in the midst of a discussion about the nature of love and who we are called to love. Specifically, he is challenging the romantic notions of spontaneous and preferential love as spoken about by the poets. This applies both to erotic love and to friendship love because poetic love is preferential.
We have eros out of preference. We are friends because we prefer one friend over the other. “But erotic love and friendship are the very peak of self-esteem, the I intoxicated with the other I.” (56) These are spontaneous loves that can ebb and flow with the whims of our nature. “Spontaneous love can be changed from itself, it can be changed over the years, as is frequently enough seen.” (36) In other words, we love as long as it is pleasing to do so. But is that love?
But when we love our neighbor, this is not because we love out of preference. We don’t prefer our neighbors. They just are. Our neighbors could be enemies that repulse us. They could be nobodies that we might easily ignore. They could be hard work because we share nothing in common. But they are those who are near us. And by loving a neighbor, we love the entire world. “If a person loves the neighbor in one single other human being, he then loves all people.” (58)
The Apostle Paul instructed us to “put on love” or “clothe ourselves with love.” This falls in line with the first and second great commandments. This is not poetic love that feels good because we find others we prefer to love and thereby we serve them out of commonality. The emphasis is on the command, “You shall love.”
When we are talking about community, small groups, missional communities and things like accountability triads, we don’t always feel good about those we allow into our lives to speak to into our lives. Living in community is not about finding a small group of people who look just like “me.” Love in community is not about loving because we feel like it.
This is not preferential or spontaneous love. We need people who are going to challenge us to see differently than we see. This will mean that we don’t prefer these people. There will be conflict. But the command, “You shall love your neighbor,” does not allow us to run and find others because we prefer someone else.