Loving Difficult People

This weekend I am giving a seminar called ‘Loving Difficult People’ (part of the Activate conference in London, but it’s fully booked, so you can’t come, sorry!) 
I could have called it ‘how to love people who drive you bonkers’ or ‘getting along with people you don’t like’ or ‘staying connected and staying sane’. But I think this title will have to do – after all, we do ALL know difficult people.

They range from the hugely difficult – very close to us and very hurtful, to those a bit further away  who still leave us exhausted, confused, exasperated or disappointed. And then more on the fringes of our relationships are those who are rude, self-obsessed, arrogant, odd, or simply insufferably boring. Either they have no capacity to bring anything of benefit into our lives or they have huge capacity to drain out of us energy, effort and vitality.  (I’m aware that this paragraph sounds incredibly judgemental and unchristian, after isn’t everyone ‘made in the image of God’ and of infinite value? Yes of course they are, but I’m just trying to be realistic about what I think is normal human experience).

How do you love ‘those’ people? And ‘why would you WANT to???’ might not be an unreasonable question at this point.

Why love difficult people? Why not just ignore them? Avoid them? That’s what most other people do.  Or maybe in the interests of common humanity, why not simply tolerate them? (Tolerance being the virtue of our age). Why go to all the effort of actually loving them? Isn’t that just a waste of time and energy? If a difficult person screws my head up badly enough, why would I want to spend even more time thinking about them and then attempt the impossible task of loving them?

Well, because ‘Love your enemies’ is one of the very few direct instructions from Jesus.  And most of us slide out from under the weight of this commandment by saying ‘well, they are not ‘my enemy’ – they are just a pain in the neck!

And let’s face it if you are a first world Christian and you are not living in one the world’s persecution hot spots you unlikely to have handfuls of ‘enemies’ ie people who would actually  like to kill you. So does not having enemies let us off the hook? No, because if Jesus’ instruction ‘Love your enemies’ embraced one extreme end of the spectrum of difficult people then his other instruction ‘love your neighbour as you love yourself’ pretty much covers everyone else!

Let me illustrate it this way: it’s easy, in a time of peace, to have idle fantasies about  our capacity for courage. We read about Christians being martyred for their faith and we flatter ourselves that if some fanatic came into our church service and asked us to deny our faith at gunpoint we would boldly stand up for our convictions. And who knows, maybe we might. But the point is most of us have a hard enough time rising to the daily smaller challenges of being a witness for Christ in an unfriendly work place or inviting our neighbour to church or a Christian event. We become extraordinarily self-conscious and insecure about our convictions. None of which bodes well for our idle belief about our courage.

So it is with loving, we all like to think that given the big challenge of loving an actual enemy we’d nobly rise to the opportunity. But given the daily challenge of being kind to that irritating person who talks non-stop, never completes tasks, makes our life difficult or simply makes dreadful coffee, we’d rather not make the effort.

But love is a command. Love is in fact the whole point of everything: life, the universe, faith, God etc ( see 1 Corinthians 13).  It’s all about love. We are loved, therefore  we are called to love.

Three other reasons why we should love:

1)      God’s plan is to recreate the world through love and he asks us to be part of that plan

2)      Because when we love we are changed, we become more like God. Here are words from Jesus:

“You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.

 “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.

Matthew 5:43-48 (From The Message)

3)      Because when other people are loved they are far more likely to flourish, blossom, change even (but changing them must never be our agenda – that is God’s job, our only agenda is to love. This is the most releasing thing of all. I do not have to control the outcome or the other person, I only have to love as best I can).  John Ortberg in his excellent book The Me I want to be says ‘I can intimidate, lecture, flatter, manipulate, reason, cajole, reward or withdraw to get the behaviour I want out of another person but I cannot touch the deepest part of another person. Only God can.’

So there are a few reasons why we should love, but you  might be tempted to say to God sometimes ‘why are there are all these difficult people in my life?’ and God could legitimately reply ‘What other kind are there?’

Because the chances are that if you have difficult people in your life and they are clueless about how difficult they are for you, then you are the difficult person in someone else’s life and you are also clueless about just how difficult you are for them. Maybe you don’t notice them, maybe you wind them up the wrong way, maybe your style of getting things done conflicts with their style of getting things done. Maybe they hear your ‘confidence’ as you putting down their opinions.

So there is great need for grace and humility in approaching this subject.  We do ALL know difficult people but in fact we ARE all difficult people too.  I’ve been working on this material for about two years and have delivered a three session course twice to different groups of people. Each time I need to remind myself that for every person I find difficult, there are probably equal numbers who find me difficult. It’s a very scary subject to talk about!

What amazing beauty, balance and simplicity there is in one short phrase from the Lord’s Prayer:

‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us’ 

Perfect Love casts out fear?

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