Messy: Expanding Our Capacity to Love

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But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. — Matthew 22:34-39, ESV

This passage outlines three most important relationships in our lives:

  1. Our relationship with the Father.
  2. Our relationship with ourselves.
  3. Our relationships with others.

How to Love More

If you want to get better at anything, you practice. You gradually start doing more. If you want a greater capacity to run, you have to start running more. If you want a greater capacity to lift heavy things, you need to start lifting weights. If you want a greater capacity to eat, you start eating more.

If we want to love more, if we want a greater capacity to love—even difficult people, we practice. We gradually start loving more, and we start loving more and more difficult people.

And God answers the capacity prayers the same. If you pray for physical strength, you will not wake up with bulging muscles … but you might get a deal at the local gym or a discount on a pair of weights. If you pray for a greater capacity for love, you won’t wake up the next morning bursting with love … but you might meet some increasingly difficult people.

5 Characteristics of Difficult People

How to identify a difficult person in your life (who might be an answer to your prayer to love more):

  1. When he calls, you get a sinking feeling and want to send it to voicemail.
  2. After you leave this person, you feel like all the energy has been sucked out of you.
  3. When you talk to her, you feel awkward, uncomfortable, and you can’t wait for it to be over.
  4. You feel guilty about how you behave around them: telling white lies, making excuses, etc. You act like you don’t see them, even though you do.
  5. You have imaginary conversations with him, wherein you finally say what you’ve been wanting to say.

(If you can’t think of anyone like this … it might be you.)

Why Love the Difficult People?

Jesus chased you down, and you were probably one of the difficult people once.

Sometimes the person we most want God to remove from our lives is the person we need the most. Maybe God didn’t just allow that person in your life, maybe He put that person in your life so you could practice patience, grace, and love.

Why would God put a difficult person in your life?

  1. Because the way we treat difficult people reveals the true condition of our hearts.
  2. Because difficult people cause us to grow in ways that we can’t on our own.
  3. Because the distinguishing mark of Jesus followers is their love for those they would not, and could not, love on their own.

“If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” — Luke 6:32-36, ESV

Loving difficult people is evidence of God’s Spirit and power in your life and in the world.

How to Love Difficult People: 3 Key Attitudes

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. — Ephesians 4:1-3, ESV

Bearing with one another literally means holding yourself back. Hold back from what you really want to say or what you really want to do. We put up with difficult people, who just rub us the wrong way.

This how passage from Ephesians points out three key characteristics to loving difficult people:

1. Humility

Humility, here, means lowliness. It’s about having an accurate view of yourself: not too low, but not too high. It’s just not thinking about yourself at all.

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. — Philippians 2:3-4, ESV

One secret that makes it difficult to love difficult people is something that we’d never admit, or maybe even recognize: We think that difficult person is somehow inferior to us.

Because difficult people are often difficult because they lack some social skill or they have different opinions/viewpoints as you, etc. We think we are right and, over time, the differences and the annoyances pile up and the gap between where we think we are and where we think the difficult people are grows wider.

Humility is about seeing and treating people as equals or superiors. “Bear with them” – how? Not grudingly, but with humility.

2. Gentleness

Gentleness is about extending undeserved acts of kindness and acceptance that are foreign to you, and to the difficult person. The greatest acts of love are often done when we really don’t feel like it. 

“No greater love has any man” than when Jesus went to the cross, but there was no warm, fuzzy feeling involved. He prayed that it would go way. His humanity didn’t want to do it.

3. Patience

Patience is about choosing to go at someone else’s pace.

Greek work is macrothumos, from “big” (macro) and “heat (thumos). It’s the idea of having a very long fuse. Burn for a long time before you explode.

Bearing with someone with patience means refusing to allow your irritation and frustration to erupt into negative thoughts, feelings, and comments to or about them.

What’s really happening when we lose our patience? When we get mad at the slow driver, or the guy taking too long in the drive-thru, or the clerk at the store who wants to chat? We think that what we are doing is more important than what other drivers on the road are doing. We think we are more important than them. It’s arrogance. 

You might be an impatient person by nature, but you are a new creation in Christ. “That’s just how I am,” is not an excuse to be impatient with people and unloving.

Start Loving More This Week

There are appropriate boundaries for relationships with difficult people, but we also need to start reframing how we think about difficult people. We need to see the people they could become, and – more importantly – we need to see them for what we can become.

Pastor Scott’s Practical Tips, Episode 37: How to Love Difficult People — Love him for 30 seconds. Then love him for 30 more seconds. Then 30 more seconds …



Photo credit to Renee Fisher

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