In a previous job, I hated to be in the same room with Jeff (not his real name). He was boorish, hot-headed, unreasonable… well, he just rubbed everyone the wrong way.
It didn’t help that, in occasional Bible studies and Sunday sermons, I am told to love my neighbor. What, me? I’d rather migrate to another country.
Perhaps you have a Jeff in your office, family, church, wherever you are. You have three basic responses: avoid him like the proverbial plague, put up with him when you can’t, or butt heads with him. The first is the classic flight syndrome, the second will stress you out, and the third can get pretty ugly.
I have come to learn that loving the unlovable is not easy, but doable. It is more than gritting your teeth and say “God tells me to love Jeff, so I just gotta.” It comes after some self-reflection. It is a mistake to live the Christian life without some understanding of human psychology.
So how can you love the unlovable? Here are four principles that I have learned.
Scrap the labels. Have you tried putting out a fire by dousing gasoline on it? Similarly, when you label someone as a buffoon or an idiot, it only rankles you more. It is worse when you see only a part of that person and generalize the fault. You see a worker turning in his report late and you immediately conclude him to be lazy. Beware of that behavior.
Perhaps when we refuse to love someone, it reveals some idol in our hearts. If I were to snap at that worker, it shows that I worship efficiency. There are times I show that I am good in strategy but not in empathy. I realize I can be so task-oriented that I need to balance it with being people-oriented.
Identify the unlovable traits. It is part of reality to be turned off by certain people, but usually we have a vague notion why. It helps to name the traits that turn you off. A subtle effect is that you will be separating the person whom you are to love from the behavior that you hate. In Jeff’s case, one of his upsetting habits was to interrupt people while they were talking. Imagine the chaos if you were to involve Jeff in a brainstorming session.
Question your standards. No, I don’t mean you condone abusive behavior. I mean that when you find it hard to love someone, usually it’s because he or she violates your standards somehow. The question is: is it fair to impose those standards on them?
I was complaining about Jeff to my wife, Lucy. “Why can’t he just shut up and listen?” I ranted, “I do that to my teammates, why can’t he?” To which Lucy wisely replied, “He’s not you.”
A little self-reflection showed her point. Unwittingly, I was saying “You would think that with Jeff’s educational attainment / age / position (take your pick), he should have known better.” But that is the point. He doesn’t.
Worse, I have to test myself with my own standards, too. How many times I have been impatient with Lucy and I cut her off, too? There is a little-known but sobering piece of wisdom in Ecclesiastes 7:21-22:
Do not pay attention to every word people say,
or you may hear your servant cursing you—
for you know in your heart
that many times you yourself have cursed others.
Sometimes a reality check helps me be more patient of other people’s shortcomings. Since it is meaningless and even counterproductive to hold someone against your own standards, you may want to lower your expectations. In my case, I stopped expecting Jeff to act professionally, but accepted reality as it is. It is easier to craft responsive strategies based on what is than what should be.
See through eyes of compassion. The Gospels record of Jesus reaching out to the masses. If you were to understand the crowd, you may find them unlovable: clingy, me-centered, fickle. It may have been the same crowd who would shout “crucify him!”.
But Jesus reached out anyway. Why? I am touched by this detail: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36, italics added). The secret to loving the unlovable is to see them through eyes of compassion, not compliance.
In one sense, Jeff was to be pitied. He was sabotaging his career and his relationships. Perhaps his behavior was to mask some deep-seated pain. Perhaps that was how he was raised by his parents or mentored by a former boss. Perhaps he was really insecure with himself and needed to show his worth in the only way he knew how.
This technique is called reframing, where we see people from a brand new set of assumptions that calms, not agitates, our emotions.
When you think about it, how would God see us? Based on our merits alone, we would be unlovable by His perfect standards. We have our share of filth. We have our monsters deep inside us. But this is the astounding news: “We love because He first loved us” (I John 4:19).
If this fills us with guilt, we are missing the point. The wonder is that He sees the worst in us and loves us anyway. He has proven this love by having His Son die on the cross for precisely that filth, that monster. What would spring within our hearts is gratitude, from which we can relate with others through grace. After all, have your noticed how gratitude and grace seem to have the same root word?
Sadly, Jeff was let go. As you would imagine, his performance appraisal did not speak well of him. I lost touch of him since then. But while I wonder where he is right now, I wonder more if I can embrace him as a brother should I see him again.
But I can start with someone else today. The choice to love the unlovable is ours.