Dear Dr. B,
I have a family member who I care very much about, but honestly, is a difficult person to love. How do we really do that?
Called to Love
How do we show love to another, especially those who are “difficult to love?”
You’ve asked an important question. I’ve been pondering that a great deal lately and wondering exactly what that looks like. Recent months have brought much discussion about Christians’ reactions to major events like the Charleston massacre, and the new ruling by our government on same-sex marriage.
I’ve seen comments ranging from extreme anger, to hate, to compassion. When Scripture commands, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34 ESV), what does that look like?
What about when the person is difficult to love?
I have reflected on God’s love and His command to us that we love others.
People can be difficult to love for numerous reasons:
-it is difficult for some to receive love
-sometimes it is difficult for me to maintain a loving spirit towards others
To your question HOW do we love a person who is difficult to love? I think there are several points that will help.
-We must recognize that they are loved as much by their creator as we are. God doesn’t play favorites. Each of us have those parts of us that are still unlovely and in need of sanctification, yet God does not withhold His mercy and grace. If that is true for me, how can I deny that of others?
-We must recognize who our battle is really against. It’s important to recognize that we all bring attitudes, behaviors, opinions, and words to the table that are not Godly. When we encounter those in our lives who are difficult to love, we have to remember that their behavior is influenced by one other than God. “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12 NIV). Separating them from their behavior, makes it easier to extend love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness.
-It helps if we take into account that the behavior, words or attitudes that we see outwardly don’t only reflect them in the moment, but inwardly reflect their past hurts, wounds, and brokenness. We develop coping mechanisms during times of pain, hurt, and brokenness. As a result, our current behavior often reflects our tendency to project our past hurts on a current situation, that probably isn’t even warranted.
–Sometimes it is better to not engage in the debate when it wouldn’t serve to foster a loving spirit (avoiding an unloving reaction). Sometimes choosing not to engage is the most loving response we can give. “But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also” (Matthew 9:35 NLT). Not engaging doesn’t mean you agree with another’s opinion; it means you care enough not to engage in debate that could do more harm.
-Sometimes we must choose to offer the best of ourselves, our intentions, our time, and perhaps even our belongings. Jesus constantly modeled for us perfect love. Perfect love is sacrificial. It goes above and beyond. It remembers that in extending love to others, we exemplify our love for God. “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40 NIV).
-Sometimes the most loving thing we can do is walk away rather than expressing anger in the moment. My children would tell you that one thing they hear me say frequently is that “Our words have the power to bring life or death to others; Choose LIFE!” “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit” (Proverbs 18:21 NIV).
-Sometimes loving a person who is difficult to love requires us to consider another’s needs or condition. I think this was what Jesus was trying to convey when He relayed the story of the good Samaritan. “Then a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw the man, he felt compassion for him” (Luke 10:33 NIV). Our responsibility does not lie in another person’s response, but in our behavior toward them. In the King James Version it says, “But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him” suggesting that the Samaritan met the man where he was, he took the time to move beyond what was normal or comfortable to meet the needs of another.
-Often, the most important thing we can do when we encounter one who is more difficult to love, is to offer them forgiveness. By forgiving another, we empty our own heart of the poisonous bitterness that will accumulate otherwise. In my private practice, I often witness that bitterness, resentment, and unforgiveness are big blocks to healing. I don’t want unforgiveness in my heart to negatively impact my relationship with God or others. But scripture clearly says that if we do not forgive others, God cannot forgive us. “But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:15 NIV).
In sum, when we are called to love one another, it’s never qualified. It doesn’t say “love those who are easy to love,” or “love those it is comfortable to love.” Jesus loves each of us, meeting us where we are, accepting our faults, and looks past our sins, our faults, and our weaknesses at the beautiful parts of us.
I’m not minimizing the difficult nature of things, but what Christ did when He died on the cross, for me, one who can be difficult to love, was the hardest thing anyone could ever do.
As I pondered this in my heart, I came across this song by Matthew West that resonated with me. Perhaps you will enjoy it too.
“Forgiveness” by Matthew West
Remember Dear One, Because of Him, #HopePrevails!
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