Weeks on end I prayed for a cancer-stricken man I’d never met. I wept the night he died—for him, for the wife and children he left behind. I’ve never met them, either.
And then there’s my brother. The last time I talked to him was last year, a few weeks after we buried our mother. He was sober then. My brother doesn’t just fall off the wagon, he hurls himself from it. That’s a new experience for some in our family, because for a number of years he and I lived several states away. I got used to the cycles: the moodiness, followed by the full-on drunk, jail, detox, recovery, reformation that includes church-going and job-hunting, and then a steady stretch of work, long enough to make you think—until you’ve ridden this rollercoaster a few rounds—that this time is different, this time he’s really turned the corner. Then you find him passed out on the floor, or you get a call from a hospital.
I can’t have him around my children. This is what I tell myself. I can’t keep getting dragged into his train wrecks, or loaning him money. This is how I justify staying away.
But do you know how many times I prayed for my brother, all those weeks I was praying for the man I never met? None.
“If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20).
There are so many ways a clever man can shirk this responsibility. I do feel love for my brother, I tell myself. And I want him to be well. Besides, where that verse uses the word “brother,” doesn’t it mean a fellow Christian?
Clever men are always able to wiggle out from under verses that weigh heavily on our consciences. Sometimes I envision the clever man alongside the rich men, all of us desperately trying to whip camels through needle’s eyes (Matt. 19:24).
The fact is, no matter how I might try to reason my way out of it, I am often kinder to strangers than to my own flesh and blood. In the grocery store, a shopper wheels her cart in front of mine. “Excuse me,” she says. She offers an embarrassed smile. “No problem,” I reply, with a smile of my own. Yet how many times have I grumbled at one of my own children, or my wife, when we almost bump into each other in our kitchen?
I used to think the meaning of that verse about loving one’s brother was based on an assumption that it’s easier to love someone you know than someone you’ve never seen. But it’s not always easier, is it? Sometimes knowing them is the very obstacle to loving them. I know how my brother lies. I know how he tells his sad story to get strangers to do him favors, all while running down his family when we refuse to enable him.
I know my brother, which is why it’s so hard to love him sometimes. And harder to forgive him, too. When I get a hateful email from some stranger who didn’t like one of my essays, I can chalk it up to his having a bad day, or maybe misunderstanding me, or maybe just suffering under some burden I don’t see. And I can let it go. But when my own flesh wounds me—that’s a harder burden to bear.
It can be hard work, loving the ones we know, forgiving them. Some of them could probably say the same thing about some of us.
Maybe a way to understand this love-your-brother verse is in terms of the heart’s preparation. We will see God, every one of us. We are all of us becoming, as C.S. Lewis said, “immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” And perhaps what decides which one we’ll be is how well we have opened up our hearts to love. The love that is action, not just feeling. Sacrificial love. The love of Christ.
How can I claim to be ready for that great and awe-filled day, ready to see the face of my God, when I won’t even look at my own brother? How can the stingy and darkened vessel of my heart be ready to be filled up with the perfect love of God? Do I imagine that I, who have ben sparing with my love all these years, will suddenly leap forward into the all-consuming fire that is His perfect love? Or rather, will I shrink away in terror, exposed as having a heart inclined not toward love, but toward selfishness?
It’s no easy thing sometimes, loving my brother. But dare I do anything else, knowing one day I’ll stand before the King, and give an accounting not only for every wrong, but for every kindness withheld? There’s no excuse, not when the world—and our brothers and sisters in all its corners—cries out for love. We could fill up every hour of every day, couldn’t we, pouring ourselves out. And I suppose that’s the point.