A fascinating scene in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamozov illustrates the challenge of loving others well.
A woman seeking counsel approaches Father Zossima, an elder at a monastery, and explains the difficulty she has “actively loving” other people. Father Zossima calms the woman by explaining that he’s heard a similar confession. He then explains to her how the previous person’s confession went:
“I love mankind,” he said, “but I am amazed at myself: the more I love mankind in general, the less I love people in particular, that is, individually, as separate persons. In my dreams,” he said, “I often went so far as to think passionately of serving mankind, and, it may be, would really have gone to the cross for people if it were somehow suddenly necessary, and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone even for two days, this I know from experience. As soon as someone is there, close to me, his personality oppresses my self-esteem and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I can begin to hate even the best of men: one because he takes too long eating his dinner, another because he has a cold and keeps blowing his nose. I become the enemy of people the moment they touch me,” he said. “On the other hand, it has always happened that the more I hate people individually, the more ardent becomes my love for humanity as a whole.”
Father Zossima finishes with these words:
I am sorry that I cannot say anything more comforting, for active love is a harsh and fearful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams thirsts for immediate action, quickly performed, and with everyone watching. Indeed, it will go as far as the giving of one’s own life, provided it does not take too long but is soon over, as on stage, and everyone is looking on and praising. Whereas active love is labor and perseverance, and for some people, perhaps, a whole science.
Just as forgiveness sounds like a great idea until we have someone to forgive, the same can be said of love. It sounds like a great idea, except for one problem: I kind of love myself more than I love you. And it’s not that I don’t like you, it’s just that I’m busy and you’re in the way. And although I wouldn’t say it, I think I’m more important than you.
The above words just rolled off my tongue, perhaps easier to write than anything I’ve penned in a while. I wish they didn’t describe how I feel sometimes, but they do. I need a heart change. And I find that while the idea of loving others sacrificially is great, living out the truth is much harder in reality. Woe is me.
Although I can’t claim originality for the points I’ll make below, here’s what I’ve learned about love.
We are called to love specific people. As noble as it is to sell all your belongings, move to a far-off country, and give your life to serving the poor and disadvantaged (a matter about which we should pray and seek direction from the Lord), the truth is the people in your house, living in your neighborhood and community, deserve your primary attention. We see this in Jesus’ life. He obeyed his parents (Lk. 2:51), loved his disciples sacrificially (Jn. 13:1-20), and was gracious with them despite their hard heartedness (Mark 6:52; 8:17-21), impetuosity (Lk. 9:54), and resistance to his redemptive mission (Matt. 16:23).
The point is this: Jesus loved specific people—with real names, unflattering pasts, and with actual shortcomings that required patience on his part. Sitting on a bench, overlooking a serene lake while sipping a latte, dreaming of how awesome it would be to pour out your life in sacrificial service doesn’t require loving people with real names whose idiosyncrasies we find oppressively distasteful. Love in our dreams isn’t real. Love in real life is messy. Bumping up against difficult people is designed to implant within us a deep longing, a cry from the heart: “O God, change me in the depth of my being!”
Biblical love is sacrificial. This one’s a particularly hard sell in our current culture where self-denial is seen as neurotic. Nowadays we’re encouraged to look within ourselves, find our “true selves” and then express ourselves. Supposedly this makes one “authentic.” The worst possible thing to do is deny yourself. And yet that’s exactly what our Lord calls us to do (Luke 9:23). As Paul says, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3-4). What does this look like in our everyday lives? “Loving means losing control of our schedule, our money, and our time. When we love we cease to be the master and become a servant,” as Paul Miller writes. But then again, such was the life of our Savior: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28).
Love is not always returned. This is a sad reality of life in a fallen world. Loving others and doing the right thing is not a mechanism for controlling the world, ensuring that our good deeds boomeranging back upon us. Biblical love, as Ethan Richardson notes, “stands in direct contradiction to the common sense of a prudish business model.” Jesus came to set us free (Jn. 8:32). And one of the ways this freedom manifests itself is when we’re no longer controlled by the sins of others. This explains why, without out any hesitation or inauthenticity, Jesus can say, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” This is why, as he hung on the cross, he uttered those most powerful of words: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk. 23:34). How could Jesus say things like this? Because he didn’t need others to love him in order for him to love them. How did he do this? Because Jesus didn’t draw life from others; he drew life totally from his Father.
Years ago one of my mentors (now deceased) taught me an invaluable truth. He said, “You can’t allow your emotional life to be controlled by the sin you see in others. As long as another person’s sins, failures, and shortcomings control you, you will have no power in your own life to love them.” Thankfully, because the gospel’s true I don’t need others to love me in order to love them. I don’t need them to do for me before I do for them.
We are shaped by our habits. Love enfleshes itself in real, tangible ways. We simply cannot get around this. As with any other discipline, loving others sacrificially takes time to cultivate. It requires learning to deny ourselves, placing others’ interests ahead of our own, and training ourselves to cope with inconvenient moments. But as J. R. Vassar helpfully notes, “Our characters are forged by the acts we repeat.” Therefore, as we repeatedly engage in neighbor love and serve others selflessly, along with continually depending on God’s help and strength, our character changes.
To be sure, we must always keep the gospel crystal clear in our minds. We’re not justified because we love our neighbor perfectly, but because Christ’s perfect life is credited to us by grace through faith as we repent of our sins and trust in him for our salvation. His substitutionary death cancels all of our guilt. We are new in him and that will never change. Praise him!
 I won’t develop this point, but see Andrew Potter, The Authenticity Hoax: Why the “Real” Things We Seek Don’t Make Us Happy (NY: Harper Perennial, 2010).
 Paul Miller, Love Walked Among Us: Learning to Love Like Jesus (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 2014), 32.
 Timothy Keller with Kathy Keller, God’s Wisdom for Navigating Life: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Book of Proverbs (New York: Viking, 2017), 75.
 Ethan Richardson, This American Gospel: Public Radio Parables & the Grace of God (Charlottesville: Mockingbird Ministries, 2012), 96.
 J. R. Vassar, “Christ and the Love of Neighbor” Tabletalk 42:3 (March 2018): 31.