Do you ever find yourself in a situation or relationship where you know that you need to love someone, but you just don’t seem to have the strength–or perhaps even the desire?
Ask yourself these questions. (What follows is hardly a panacea for our struggle to love others, but I’ve found them helpful for myself and for numerous persons to whom I’ve ministered.)
1. Is this really about me?
I’m a proud person, which means that most everything–well, okay, everything–is about me. So in a relationship, when things are difficult, it’s all about me. Especially when the other person(s) has failed me or hurt me, etc., etc.
As Jesus was dying on the cross, Luke records that he prayed for those who had crucified him: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
Incredibly, Jesus saw his adversaries’ sin as not primarily against him but against his Father: they needed forgiveness, first and foremost, from his Father. Yes, their sin was surely against him, but, in Jesus’ perspective, it wasn’t about him.
But when others sin against me and I think it’s about me, I take it way too personally: How dare they offend me! But when I realize that though their sin may well be against me, it’s quite probable that I’m an interchangeable part: insert another person in my place, and the same thing would probably have happened. This is actually quite freeing, and it leads me to pray as Jesus prayed….
2. Is this really “them vs. me”?
I am so quick to draw battle lines and to draw them between me and another person. I wonder: is this person for me or against me? Are they here to help or hinder? If it’s the latter, my immediate prayer is, “God, deliver me from this evil person!”
But that’s not what Jesus calls us to pray. He calls us to pray, “Deliver us from the Evil One.”
[A total side note: Some English translations will translate, “deliver us from evil.” But in light of Mt. 5.37; 13.19, 38 and the previous petition–namely, “Lead us not into temptation” (Jesus was tempted not by evil but by the Evil One), it seems that Jesus is calling us to pray for deliverance from an adversary, not an abstraction.]
Why does Jesus call us to pray this? Because the Evil One is all about creating conflict and chaos: his modus operandi is to do bring about four things–in this order: deception, division, despair, and (finally) destruction.
Here’s my point: where I tend to draw the battle lines into “them vs. me,” Jesus still calls us to draw the battle lines (yes, there is a conflict here), but to draw them in a radically different way. As the Apostle Paul reminds the Ephesians, “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood” but against the powers of darkness.
In short, whomever I’m struggling to love is actually on the same side. If I don’t see that, I may just end up being a pawn of the Evil One.
3. Why isn’t this me?
People can be extremely difficult, to say the least. In fact, at one point, Jesus, almost in passing, describes his own disciples as “evil”! (Mt. 7.11). But, given that, let’s just assume that in your present situation or relationship you are not being the more difficult person.
If we keep this (questionable) assumption in view, let’s consider another way that Jesus humbles his disciples. When the disciples ask about his parables, he frankly tells them: “the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you” (Mt. 13.11).
And later when Peter correctly answers Jesus’ question, “Who do you say I am?”, Jesus responds, “…this [i.e., Jesus’ messianic identity] was not revealed to you by flesh and blood but by my Father in heaven” (Mt. 16.17).
Jesus’ underscores the complete “givenness” of our knowledge of the kingdom and of our faith in him. All is grace–period. In a similar way, Paul asks the Corinthians, “What do you have that you did not first receive?”
So, assuming that we are in fact the less difficult person in the relationship, we must ask: why is that the case? As we consider this person in all that s/he has done wrong (against us or others), we should ask, “Why isn’t this me?”
In short, this person–apart from the Spirit of God–is absolutely no different from me.
4. Who has gone before me?
When struggling to love someone, I feel alone–like no one else has had to love “a person like that.” I can wallow in self-pity (playing the victim card is so convenient, at least at first). And not only do I often feel alone, I can also feel demeaned. Loving others can be both alienating and humiliating.
But, of course, not only have millions of Christians gone before me in loving persons far more difficult–indeed, even truly “evil” persons, but Jesus also has gone before me. When we love difficult persons–whether they profess to be Christians or not, this is what the New Testament means by “sharing in Christ’s sufferings” (see, e.g., Rom. 8.17; 2 Cor. 1.5; Phil. 3.10; 1 Pet. 4.13).
And so, when we love difficult persons, we are anything but alone: we share in Jesus’ rejection. The letter to the Hebrews shares this in a beautiful way, borrowing imagery from the Old Testament Levitical cult: In the same way that the bodies of some sacrificed animals were taken outside–i.e., excluded from–the Israelite camp,…
“So Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.”
The author summons us to be willing to be rejected along with Jesus as we love. We are not alone; we are joining him in his exclusion.
That doesn’t sound so bad.
When trying to love others and we feel both alienated and humiliated, when we ask, “Who has gone before me?”, the answer is both inviting and ennobling. It’s inviting, because we are called to join Jesus in his rejection. It’s ennobling, because we–little old me and you!–are being called to join Jesus in his rejection.
But, of course, it’s not only true that Jesus went before me. He went for me. He was not only rejected by unjust men but by a just Father who undeservedly forsook him, who sent him away, that we might always stay. And when sent outside the camp, Jesus joined no one. He suffered alone. For me. And for you. Once and for all.
This is love.
May this love compel us to love when we are struggling.