I’m convinced the most difficult part of boldly engaging in life is learning how to love difficult people—people you disagree with, or are flat-out meanies. How do we do it?
We love them.
Thanks, Mark…but easier said than done. Please, O Wise One, tell us more... (Maybe too much embellishment?)
Loving people used to be a lot more complicated for me than it is now. Let me start by confessing that for most of my life, my attempts to love people have been rooted in a desire to control and change them into the people I thought they should be, which does nothing for building relationships. It actually pushes people away.
Behind my attempts to love others I always had an agenda, usually of the religious nature. It was all part of my Master’s-level education on how to be a controlling person. Be nice to people ... so that they will come to our church ... so that you can tell them about Jesus ... so that you can make sure they get to spend eternity in heaven with you. What about just being nice to people because it’s a really good thing to do and a great way to live? Not enough.
We Were On a Mission
I learned at a very young age how to determine whether someone was in or out, good or bad, Christian or non-Christian. Most of the signs were pretty easy to discern: do they drink, swear, or have sex before marriage? Do they go to church, read their Bible, or talk about Jesus? A little more difficult to identify would be character traits like anger, lying, gossip, gluttony, jealousy, or an inflated ego.
We were to hang out with other Christians, a special club for those of us who got it right, having been found, rescued, saved. At the same time, we were to protect ourselves from “the world” as its influence could pull us away from God. Those on the outside were lost and, sorry to say, going to hell. It was our job to help get them saved from eternal damnation and into heaven. “You may be the only Jesus some people ever see,” was a bold challenge to us to act like Jesus, but this didn’t mean feeding the homeless, tending to the sick, visiting prisoners, or looking after widows. It meant getting them to come to our church. Our “love” for other people seemed to be rooted in a need to keep our club going, which meant growing our numbers and increasing our influence (and the offering tallies). Needless to say, I grew up with a very confusing concept of what it meant to love people.
In a word, it was transactional. Let me “love” you, and in turn, you do what I think is best. It was the same with God: let me “love” You, and in turn, would You please do what I think is best? This isn’t love, this is ego-driven control.
Where Am I At Now?
My journey over the past couple of years has led me to move toward increasing surrender of my desire to control people and my circumstances, letting go of the false pretense that I know best how life should go. I’ve discovered how faith is what allows me to surrender and accept not having all the answers, trusting God for the good in store. I have learned that I’ve been rigidly holding onto my plans because of the fear that the quietness and empty hands would feel like death, at the same time acknowledging that Jesus is asking me to learn how to die to my ego and agenda.
So how can we apply these principles into our life as Christians, one that (for many of us) has been marked by rigid dogma, ego-driven control, and dualistic thinking? By loving people without an agenda. Just love. But it’s not going to be easy. Because neither you nor anyone else on the planet is able to love perfectly. Which stinks. But we do have Jesus as a great example—the perfect human and the best teacher we have to instruct us how to love. And if we are calling ourselves Christ-followers, why would we settle for anything less than his example? Probably because it’s impossible. But maybe we can do better than we have done.
Let’s start with John 13:34 where Jesus said, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” He repeats that again in 15:12 saying to his disciples in a sort of “farewell discourse”: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Then he tells them exactly what he meant in verse 13: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” That’s setting the bar pretty high, wouldn’t you say?
We’ve read the rest of the story and we know that Jesus was laying down some serious clues for what was ahead. He wanted people to know that he wasn’t just dying in vain, but that he was dying for them so they’d know how loved they were. So we could know how loved we are.
Jesus demonstrated love, not only through his dying, but also through his compassion for the outcast, the sick, the broken. He seemed to love healing people.
What keeps us from loving like Jesus? I believe the biggest hindrance to our loving like Jesus is an overexaggerated focus on our own sin, which in turn keep us focused on the sin of others. As we continually choose to take our focus off of ourselves and our sin and more clearly see the people around us, we become awakened to the massive opportunities we have to demonstrate love and create unity like Jesus did.
When we refuse to let our sin define us, we are able to love people without letting their sin define how we look at them.
What Power Does Sin Have In Our Lives?
All throughout time people have thought that sin and its power of shame were supposed to hold great power over us. In turn, we focused on it—counting, managing, judging— and compensated for our sin by being extra good, extra religious, following the laws that were created by those in charge. In turn, we would look at other people and expect them to be counting their sins just as we were doing. And if they weren’t, we would always be willing to jump in and do it for them. But all the effort, counting, and judging is exhausting and distracting from the work we actually need to be doing, like loving God and our neighbors.
Jesus’s life says, “This is what I came to set you free from.” He continually labored to tell people to quit trying to be religious, and also to stop letting sin and shame rule their lives. “Instead, let’s take care of each other, and work to create unity, so we can all be one, like me and my Father.” (John 17:21 paraphrase mine)
Paul wrote most of the book of Romans trying to release believers from the shackles of sin management, explaining how the power of sin doesn’t have to control us any longer: “For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.” (6:14 NIV)
This is the first part of salvation from sin—us realizing that our sin and our focus on it don’t have to be what control us, even though our sin will always be with us as long as we walk this Earth. The second part of salvation will come in eternity, when the controlling power of sin, shame, fear, worry, and ego will be eradicated for good.
When we seek to love people, the best example we can look to is God. How do we know that God loves us? Jesus. Why does Jesus love us? So we can live free of the entanglement of sin. So we can be free to engage with and love other people without agendas. So we can experience unity with one another.
This doesn’t sound too radical. But why is it so difficult? Because we hold onto our agendas. We want to change people. We want to get them to think the way we think. We want to get them to clean up their messes so our lives won’t be inconvenienced. We want them to join our gang.
Wanting to change people might be the ultimate area of control that we need to surrender (at least, it has been for me). But remember, our surrender is not passive and disengaged, but rather, a movement toward people with more love, more grace, more forgiveness, more creativity, and more authenticity. And with zero agenda for what should happen as a result of our efforts.
When we don’t have an agenda for others, we can better identify their needs and do what we can to help meet them. We’re loving people because we finally recognize them not as our projects, but as our brothers and sisters, desiring them to see their true identity like we’ve discovered for ourselves.
We can love people unconditionally, believing that love is what changes a person. Love is what has changed me over the years. Why would it not work with other people? I also have to remind myself that the ways in which my love should change someone is none of my business—that’s God’s business. I need to continually surrender that one.
Loving people used to be complicated, but now it’s so much easier. We just love them.
This is (for the most part) an excerpt from my book Losing Control: Finding Freedom By Letting Go available on Amazon or from my web store. If you’d like an Audible credit to listen to the whole book for FREE just let me know in the comment section.
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I nodded my head and said "uh huh" multiple times while reading this, Mark. So many of us were "programmed" to do this and it's taking a while to "de-program". It's so freeing to know that I'm not responsible for anyone else but me!
Amen! Love your honesty and direction here. And as E R says below it is a great burden lifted knowing all we have to do is simply love others, not be responsible for their destiny.