Loving Those Who Are Unlovable

From the man who cuts you off in traffic to the former friend who spreads slanderous words about you, you are often hurt by the thoughtless or deliberate wounds of others.

How do you typically react? Honestly? It's no fun to be hurt. The old sandbox saying of "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me" simply isn't true. Physical injuries heal over time for the most part, but the bruises from emotional conflicts do not disappear over time without specific, spiritual remedies.

From a worldly perspective, it is considered normal to react in kind--the "don't get mad, get even" philosophy.

That is part of the reason why Jesus tells us that our behavior, as those who belong to Him, must be radically different in order to get the attention of a hurting world.

Jesus says: "But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. . . And just as you want people to treat you, treat them in the same way. And if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them . . .

"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 Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful . . .

"Give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, they will pour into your lap. For by your standard of measure it will be measured to you in return" (Luke 6:27-38).

The content of this passage is astoundingly rich; the Golden Rule alone is the subject of profound study.

But one thing is abundantly clear: the believer is called to a response of unconditional love. Loving both the unlovely and the unloving is not easy. Jesus did not say that this response would come naturally. If it did, He would not spend so much time explaining these principles and the importance of following His example in your dealings with those around you.

Let's say, for example, that a coworker who is not a believer approaches you about a project he believes would be a wonderful fit for you. The two of you would work together for a few weeks and then present your ideas to the entire committee. He has verbally promised that the assignment will be given to you, and you are thrilled for the opportunity.

The next day you see him in the hall, and he is surprisingly cool. Not only does he avoid mentioning the project, he barely speaks at all. Later that day in the break room, you have a chance conversation with another coworker, who tells you excitedly that he has just been appointed to the very project promised to you.

You turn red in the face, stammer out a weak congratulations, and excuse yourself as quickly as possible. You're confused, angry, hurt, frustrated, and at a loss for words. The first thing you want to do is confront the man who made you the offer with some heated questions. But what should you do?

This is the precise moment when you should ask the Lord to help you put His principles into action. This is also the time when you should put some very understandable emotions "on hold," not in denial, but in recognition that Jesus wants to deal with your feelings in a way that will not bring hurt to others. Here are some basic steps to help move you toward a Christ-centered response.

Forgive the offender.

Hurt turns into bitterness and an unforgiving spirit when it isn't dealt with properly. Think of it this way--through the grace of Jesus Christ, you have the spiritual resource to truly forgive others. (Matthew 18:21-35; Psalm 32:1; Ephesians 4:32) When you release someone from the debt he or she owes you, you are free to see that person as Christ does, and anger and bitterness no longer have the power to rule your decisions.

Seek first to understand before you seek to be understood.

Practice the skill of being a good listener and try to imagine the perspective of the offender. What might his motivations have been? What is going on in his life right now? Many times, a person who hurts you is the victim of hurt himself. He feels that the only way to release that anger and "get back at the world" is to do the same thing to someone else.

The process of loving someone enough to ask questions and hear the other side does not mean excusing the behavior. You must still recognize the person's action as wrong and hurtful and then forgive, but understanding the offender's private pains could be a key step towards reconciliation or preventing further conflicts in the future.

In keeping with a spirit of Christlike love, speak with noncombative yet truthful words.

A perfect verse to keep in mind at such times is Ephesians 4:29: "Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, that it may give grace to those who hear."

Speaking in love does not mean that your words will not be sharp and pointed; sometimes truth is very unsettling, and the individual who has come against you may need to grapple with some tough issues.

If you think the conversation may be difficult, or if you are unsure of the right approach, consult with some wise and godly friends or a Christian counselor first. It is always helpful to keep the overall goal in mind. In confrontations with nonbelievers, your role is to point them to Christ. With believers, your function is basically the same, except that God may be using you to help bring your brother or sister to maturity.

In the earlier example, if you approach your coworker with flaring anger and accusations, as just as they may be, that coworker might turn away forever; an opportunity for witnessing would be lost.

But imagine how the coworker would feel if he received love when he expected to be "blasted." He would then be much more receptive to the Gospel of grace.

As you practice loving the unlovely and refusing to enter the retaliation game, you will develop a lifestyle of love, keeping in mind Christ's limitless mercy. 1 Timothy 1:15-16 says: "It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all.

"And yet for this reason I found mercy, in order that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience, as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life." In any conflict, you need to realize that the outcome is not in your hands. No matter how hard you may try, you ultimately cannot force someone to listen or change.

Only the Lord can work with that person's heart, as you continue to extend patience and love. Who knows, maybe someday your "worst enemy" could become your best friend in Christ. Whatever the result, you can be sure of God's blessing as you seek His way of dealing with those who hurt you.