Many of us can testify that dealing with people is difficult, often the most exacting thing we do. Whether it’s within the context of a one-on-one relationship or an organisation, dealing with others usually challenges our paradigms and patience. That said, if our interactions with others are to be fruitful, we must accept that we aren’t perfect either. Consequently, while we may be right about the deficiencies of others, we shouldn’t forget that we’re also flawed, and they have to accommodate our flaws when dealing with us. In essence, we’re imperfect people surrounded by other deficient people in a broken world. Yet, God designed humankind to be relational, which means we cannot thrive without others. The dilemma is evident: Something essential to our flourishing is also difficult to live with.
The moment God chose to make humankind the crowning glory of His creation, endowing us with His image and likeness, He also gave human beings significance that even heaven can’t ignore [Psalm 8:4-8]. Consequently, God doesn’t just care about us individually; He cares about how we treat each other. For instance, the Bible says it’s impossible to genuinely follow Jesus and not love people [1 John 4:8]. That doesn’t mean simply tolerating others. It implies desiring their highest good [1 Corinthians 10:24]. Elsewhere, Paul explains that love does no wrong to a neighbour because love fulfils the law [Romans 13:10, John 14:15]. Then Jesus unequivocally instructs us to love fellow believers and those who hate us because, in doing so, we imitate our heavenly Father [Luke 6:32-35]. Our obedience to these foundational instructions confirms or refutes the authenticity of our walk with God [1 John 3:14-15]. Jesus lived them out and then said to us: “Follow Me” [John 10:11, Matthew 16:24].
I often forget as I read these passages that Jesus and the Apostles initially gave these instructions to a marginalised group of people who had every excuse we have today and more to disregard them. Think of the first disciples who heard Jesus say: “Love your enemy…” [Matthew 5:43-48]. Some probably had scars from a Roman whip still healing as they listened. How about the early Church persecuted by the religious and political authorities of the day? Many were imprisoned and even martyred for their faith because their neighbours told the authorities about their house fellowships. Yet, they were to love those neighbours and desire their highest good. I believe those who could love those mistreating them understood that even their enemies bore God’s image, and more importantly, God loved their enemies just as much as He loved them [John 3:16, 1 John 3:16].
As I deal with people I consider difficult, these truths are impossible to dismiss. In the past, if I couldn’t avoid someone I struggled to deal with, I’d tell myself:” You must love them and ignore the things they do that irritate you”, and then proceed to do that in my strength as though it were something I could accomplish through willpower. Often, as soon as I resolved to love them, their flaws became impossible to ignore. So, I’d hold out for a while, but eventually, I’d lose it and do something unmistakably unloving. Sometimes, I’d try to excuse my reaction and other times, I’d struggle with guilt and condemnation because I knew I was wrong. On some occasions, I’d even try to change the person so that they could be easier for me to love. I suspect many can relate to these experiences. But we know these tactics don’t work because our capacity to love others genuinely is ultimately limited by our imperfections, not our strategies. That would also be true even if others were perfect.
Have you noticed that Jesus and the New Testament authors only gave the command to love to born-again believers? That’s because something happens to an individual re-created in Christ [Ephesians 2:10]. They receive the life of God and become partakers of His divine nature, and that nature is love [John 17:3, 2 Peter 1:4]. So, as Scripture tells us, those who receive God’s life can now love because their love for others flows from the overflow of the love of God they are experiencing, not willpower. I found this analogy helpful: Equate your capacity to love with a cup of water. Without God, the cup is all you have. Irrespective of the size of the cup, you’ll eventually run out of water. However, if you can access a tap connected to the water supply, the capacity of the cup doesn’t matter because you’re now dependent on the water reservoir, not the size of your cup. When you partake of God’s love nature, you plug into His endless love, so your capacity to love becomes limitless.
I’ve realised that loving others requires self-awareness. We’re to treat others as we’d have them treat us, not in response to how they treat us because our way of life is about who we are, not others [Luke 6:31]. With so much fear and self-interest in the world, authentic, selfless love is scarce, especially for those who irritate or offend us. So, Jesus commands us to emulate His example and love others as He would love them [John 13:34-35, 1 Corinthians 13:4-7], and we’re only genuine disciples if we obey Him.
It may initially seem impossible to love those who irritate or offend you. But I’ve realised that rather than trying to love through willpower, I need to spend more time with God to experience His love and learn from Him how to use His capacity instead of mine to deal with people [Colossians 3:10]. I’ve found that as He’s making me more like Jesus in experience [Romans 8:29], love is becoming my default response to others. Life is less taxing that way.