Lately in our church we have had a series of sermons examining the First Epistle of John. Over and over we hear the apostle whom Jesus loved reiterating the command to love one another. He tells us that this is how we prove that we belong to the Lord: if you love Him, you will love your fellow believers.
This is not difficult to do if you love your church… and I do. At my church (and in most churches) people support and pray for one another. I cannot be with these folks without thinking, “Behold, how they love one another!”
However, lately I have been thinking a lot about how we are called not only to love our friends, but also to love our enemies. This is a lot more difficult. At this point in my life I doubt if I have a lot of active enemies, but I know there are people whom I find difficult to love. It is a challenge when I hate the things they do, but know that I am called on to demonstrate God’s love to them by sharing what God has revealed to me through the Christ and the Word. No matter who they are, I am to care for their eternal souls and to do whatever is necessary to help them understand the love of God.
In order to be objective, I am forced to recognize that if God has saved me, it isn’t because I am better or wiser or more productive. It is because of the pure grace of God that I have heard the message and trusted Christ… I have my own unlovable moments. Judging others only insures that I will also be judged.
In order to love genuinely, I need to see all of humanity through God’s eyes. I am not to be naive; but consciously extend love even toward those who may have hidden agendas. God is love, and has chosen to love me. He has loved me even though I don’t deserve it, and I am to love others although they might not deserve it either. I am not doing them some incredible favor by loving them. I am just being obedient to God’s directive to love others; extending mercy and grace as they have been poured out on me. Unfortunately, I struggle with some people. It brings the discussion down from the lofty heights of “loving the world” to the difficulty of how to go about loving specific individuals who may be challenging.
I fully believe that once we get to the age of reason, each of us is responsible for our own choices, and no matter how badly we feel we have been treated, we still need to accept accountability for those things we do in our own lives and especially the things we allow to be harbored in our hearts. .
Without the healing and purifying love of God, each of us is broken and difficult in our own way. I see clearly that all I have been given is by the grace of God; none of it is because of any superiority or intrinsic worth on my part. I am to have compassion even for those who have responded to their own brokenness with anger and hostility and defensiveness. I am to love as I have been loved by God. Many of these truly difficult people have been sinned against in childhood. Some have been trained from childhood to be demanding and imperious, or to believe that other people are just there to be used. They may have been taught things that are untrue, or subjected to pain that we can never believe ~ and so is it any wonder that their response to life may be one of hostility and anger, or a lust after things with which to fill their empty souls? I am to respond as God responds: to hate and repudiate the sin, but love the sinner and see him/her as a part of God’s creation which needs to become subject to Christ, just as I need to be.
How do we deal with difficult others? One of my favorite scripture passages is Philippians 2. It tells us of the miracle of Christ’s choice to become a servant. In this passage Paul calls on us to have that same mind. He tells us to do nothing out of vain conceit, but “in humility consider others better than ourselves; to look not only to our own interests, but to the interests of others.” While I can sometimes achieve this, the problem is in maintaining it and not yielding to my own instincts ~ that what I want and what I do and how I see things should be the only underlying principle for my life ~ and recognizing that my stuff is definitely not the motivating force for those around me.
I find I must make conscious choices to forgive and to put the needs of others ahead of my own, and it is hard. It is sometimes almost impossible not to ask, “But what about ME?” Of course, the legalists would tell me that I ought to be able to live my life without ever once considering myself; but the realist in me knows that I can only manage it from time to time. I am not condoning this, merely observing. That is part of what learning Christ is all about ~ being obedient and practicing the good things, being in submission to Christ, until these principles become fully integrated into who I am. I have not yet achieved the perfection of Christ. God knows this, and carries me over the bumpy places. We are in it together.
Tangled up in all of this is a major pitfall. The trap is spiritual pride. My pride immediately tells me that I am doing a good thing because I am trying to love difficult people, and sets me up to assume that this must mean that I am a better person or a superior Christian because I understand this. Pride is incredibly insidious, and genuine humility is incredibly hard to find. I can sometimes find it for an instant, but in the very second when I see myself as being humble ~ I have already lost it. Humility is not something which I should ever see in myself; it is something others must find in me.
My great-grandmother had some form of dementia in her last years. She sat in her chair, unaware and non-responsive, except for rare periods when she seemed to come alive and would be lucid for a little while, and would then retreat back into the shadows. Before she died she was taken care of at home by loving family. Her every need was met; she was washed and fed and people tried to talk with her and encourage what was left of her mind to come back to life. Yet, eventually she was unable to respond or even recognize those who ministered to her. She passively accepted all that was given, but had no real knowledge of the effort and love which was being expended on her behalf. Sometimes I think that when God looks at us, He must see us a little like that. He gives us unlimited love and encouragement and provides for our needs, and we are often just as unresponsive as great-grandma was to her family. None of us is truly self-sufficient; we are all broken vessels in the light of His holiness and exceeding great love for His own. How, then, can I set myself up as having more worth or validity before Him than any other human being?
Humility is not weakness and spinelessness. It is recognition of the legitimacy and urgency of the needs of those around me, and having the willingness to share, or even sacrifice for the sake of others who may or may not be grateful. It is not about being a sad soul who feels she deserves nothing because she has no self-esteem. Rather, it is recognition that anything we have or know comes to us by the grace of God. It is in having a genuine humility which enables us to take the lowly place. It is not that we sacrifice self-consciously, believing that we are superior for having done it ~ it is rather sacrificing unconsciously, prompted by the Spirit of God within us, and from a genuine desire to please our Lord.
All of these things come down to the same basic root: Who is really in control of my life? Colossians 1:18 says that “in all things Christ must have the preeminence.”
Paul speaks about his decreasing, and Christ increasing in him. Only as I am prepared to let go of control and let God be in charge, to trust Him and be obedient even if I don’t know where He is taking me, will I learn how to love difficult people. I find my perspective when I look at Christ, and see that grace is the only answer for any of us.