BLOG––Encouraged by Faith

Learning to Love Our Unlovable Neighbors

Posted by Crystal Hammon on

There’s this woman I know. For the purpose of this post, let’s call her Sally. Once a month, I’m forced to spend an hour with her as part of a volunteer commitment. Oh, my friends, these hours challenge me in ways I’m ashamed to admit.

Sally is a thorn in my side. We’ve had numerous encounters that made me think we might eventually build a bridge to a harmonious relationship, but none of them seem to lead anywhere. Trust me. The list of complaints I have against Sally is a long one. A few of them may even be legitimate. 

The problem: I do not love Sally. For a long time, I allowed my feelings toward her to masquerade as just one of life’s irksome realities: being thrown together with people you don’t much like. Recently, I was forced to reckon with a more disturbing truth. I was beginning to revile Sally as if she were Satan himself. So deep was my resentment that my blood was still boiling days after our last meeting.

If you are someone who never feels handcuffed by such gall and bitterness, then I really want to talk to you. I desperately need to learn how you think and what habits you use to avoid such negative, insane and energy-zapping passions. Did you work on this or does it come to you naturally?

Reason and instinct tell me that I may not be the only Christian who occasionally struggles to love the unlovable people in my life. Whether it’s because they violate values we hold dear, because they injure us, our family members and/or friends, or simply because they damage our pride, we cannot find it in ourselves to do what we are commanded to do: love them.

What are we to do with our selves?

As you may have guessed, this isn’t my first experience with failure in this area, and because of that, I’ve invested some thought and study designed to help me conquer what ails me. I hope I’m on the right track. If so, perhaps what I’m learning would help you, too. 

Here are six ways to deal with your unloving heart.

Call things by their correct names. In this case, let’s call it sin. The Bible is very clear that revilers—people who hate others when they should be loving them—will not have a home in heaven. Hatred is among the sins mentioned in I Corinthians 6: 9-10 that can keep us from our eternal home. That makes it serious. Let’s not cut ourselves any slack on this one. If you think there’s any possibility that your antipathy toward someone could be classified as hatred, then it’s something to start working on—now.

Turn it around. On some level, we must admit that the very thing that offends us is also true of us. Sally’s haughtiness has been a sore point with me. Why does it bother me so much? Of course, it’s because of my own pride. James 4:6 reminds us that God is opposed to the proud, but he favors humble people. When we confess to God, we can ask him to reveal all those times when we commit the very sins that we object to in others.

Love God more. Sometimes, I can draw a direct line between my lack of love for others and my lack of love for God. I’m not suggesting that I hate God, but if I fully appreciated him for all the things he’s done for me, I might not behave like an insecure child, struggling for survival. Honestly, what can this poor woman do to me?

God is a mighty fortress. He has blessed, comforted, strengthened, forgiven and protected us. He has promised us a spot in his home. What is so obviously missing in these situations is time spent in gratitude for his blessings, his mercy, his grace and his forgiveness. Bathing ourselves in those thoughts prepares us to face the world and all its insults.

Redraw the battle lines. Christians lament the fact that the world has turned its back on God, but our daily attitudes and behaviors may do as much harm to God’s name as anything in the broader culture. Our war is not with our so-called enemies, but with our basest instincts.

Do you think the people who surround Sally and me notice the tension between us? You bet they do. If they do not see me rooted in God’s love and peace while under pressure, then I join the dark side and do much damage to his holy name. 

No one forces us to get a handle on the problems that put us squarely at odds with God’s way. As Christians, we must discipline ourselves even when the world glosses over our shortcomings as “part of human nature.”

Change your thoughts. On some level, Christ’s example makes me aware that Sally is not my enemy; she’s one of God’s children, same as I am. In the past, I’ve tried to wallpaper over our conflicts with little kindnesses and gifts. That’s a start in the right direction, but it’s not the revolution that’s needed.

God doesn’t just ask us to balance hostility with small, easy gestures that do nothing to change underlying issues. He wants something more radical and life-changing.  I don’t have to like Sally’s behavior, but if I want to be in God’s kingdom, I must forgive her each and every time her behavior offends. I must find fewer reasons to be offended and more reasons to love.

Philippians 4:8 exhorts Christians to think about things that are lovely, true, excellent and praiseworthy. In truth, Sally and I hardly know each other. What would happen if I detached from my personal bias and went in search of Sally’s better traits? Perhaps a change of consciousness would improve the relationship! 

When all else fails, I use one final tactic to change my thoughts. In my sternest internal voice, I utter these words to myself: “Alright. That’s enough. Get off of it. Move on.”

Repent. To make things right, we rely on God to help us reform, but even when we really want to change for the better, it often feels quite impossible. Sometimes, we don’t know how to be truly sorry. In the meanwhile, we can ask that he:

  • thwart our worldly impulses to become embroiled in petty power struggles where we are the declared winner;
  • give us experiences that erase our pride;
  • help us want (more fervently) to change;
  • remind us of our many weaknesses and offenses (intentional or not, known or unknown to us);
  • make us impervious to small and large slights by wrapping his loving arms around us so tightly that it hardly matters what other people do or say to us.

We can plead with him to show us how to love even when our neighbors do not love us back or share our values.

Tough as these changes may be, our struggles are nothing compared to the ones Christ endured on the cross. The only way we can thank him is to take up our cross, serve him and be changed in his image. As the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, “It is well to fly toward the light, even where there may be some fluttering and bruising of wings against the windowpanes, is it not?”

Crystal Hammon works as a non-fiction writer and corporate storyteller. She is currently working on two books—a biography about a well-known fashion designer and a guide to caring for aging parents.

Crystal spends free time caring for family, reading, playing golf and appreciating music, theatre and the arts. She also writes a personal blog that started in 2010 as a celebration of vintage clothing/iconic women and became a dumping ground for this-that-and-the-other. Her favorite posts are tributes to people she has loved and lost.

Although she has been a Christian since the mid-1980s, Crystal considers herself a late-bloomer and feels the need to travel at the speed of light to compensate for decades of spiritual immaturity.










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