This week on the blog I'll be responding to questions I've received from readers on a variety of topics. We'll discuss how to deal with family members who don't share or appreciate our faith. We'll talk about how to stay connected (and even grow closer) to God as a parent of toddlers. We'll try to figure out what people mean when they say "God spoke to me" and whether or not He really did. And, if I muster the time and stamina, we'll walk through some practical steps for reaching out to friends who've made choices we can't embrace.
First though, we'll tackle this:
"How should I deal with unkind, unloving people--specifically, those within the church, ones who should be your 'brothers and sisters' but feel more like 3rd cousins twice removed."
When I was in elementary school I had this friend who was really mean to me. Looking back I guess we weren't actually friends, but I thought we were then. I wanted so badly for her to like me. But time and time again she mistreated me. She invited me to a fake party, said she'd pick me up and, of course, never did. She told our whole class my new perm looked liked troll hair. She passed around a rumor about me during the special, girls-only health class. Etc. Ad nauseam...
I told my parents about all of it. About how I really wanted to be her friend but she really didn't want to be friends with me, about how mean she'd been and how I hadn't done anything to provoke her. I'm sure I cried. My dad scooped me up, all compassion, and said, "You know, God has some good advice for just this sort of predicament."
That's when he read me Proverbs 25:
"If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat;
if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head,
and the Lord will reward you."
He said, "Kill her with kindness, Jennifer. The nicer you are, the more coals you heap on her head."
That is not the exact advice I'd give you, but it's a start...
Not everyone is easy to love. Some people, in fact, are downright difficult. They say snippy, offensive things. They're selfish, rude, and the opposite of gentle. It can seem like their whole life's goal is to hurt your feelings and put up blockades along the path to your getting good things done.
These people are exhausting.
And some of them go to church with you. Grrrr.
Here's the thing, you know you need to love them. How to love them though, that's the hard part. Our knee jerk reaction is to avoid them, to get out of the way, lay low, and be inoffensive. But that's the worst thing you could do because it doesn't work. They will find you. And you will be more exasperated than ever because of all the fruitless effort you put into hiding. Too, it doesn't help them grow. They need your intervention.
Instead of leaning away, I suggest you lean in, making concerted efforts to get close and be kind. That's what love does. At the start, maybe your goal will be like mine in third grade--to heap coals on an unkind head. But hopefully, in time, you'll see your efforts as genuine attempts to love, authentic overtures.
Here are three examples of ways I've done this in the past:
1. A while back, this one person in Bible class always seemed to contradict what I was saying. Every. Single. Time. She'd cut me off and make me feel stupid and never seemed to actually listen to what I said. So, not so naturally, I chose her to be my partner when we'd break up into groups for discussion. I wanted her to know I valued her voice. When she offered insights I purposefully affirmed every wise or true thing she said. Eventually, she started doing the same for me. Modeling the behavior you want in close proximity to another person often leads him or her to follow suit.
2. Jesus says "Where your treasure is, there your heart is also." Because this is true, Justin and I often give money to people who we want to feel closer to, particularly people who sometimes get on our nerves (if we've given you money, don't worry; we give money to people we like too). The idea is that in giving something of value to someone, we feel more connected to that someone. Too, we've found they feel more connected to us and are more likely to believe the best about our hearts.
3. Several years back I had a person in my life who wasn't the easiest to spend time with. He was bossy. He whined a lot. He said things about other people that weren't true. And he always expected much more from me than I could possibly deliver. In other words, he was always disappointed with me. But here's the thing, he was person--a sad, lonely person. And because I chose to spend regular, on-purpose time with him, even though I knew it would be unpleasant, I discovered that all his cranky meanness just stemmed from an empty house and no friends. I decided to be his friend despite the mistreatment, though I wasn't shy about telling him to treat me better.
Other ways to love the unlovable include asking them for help in their areas of strength (we all love to be needed and appreciated), inviting them to important gatherings (Easter lunch or an annual Christmas party), offering to take care of their kids or pets, surprising them with a thoughtful gift, or choosing to sit beside them during church or at a meal even though you know it could be awkward.
Before you accuse me of Polyanna-ish thinking, a little real talk: when we decide to love people who don't love us we're signing up for hurt. That's true. They don't always come around. We don't always become friends. Sometimes we find our attempts at love trampled and rejected.
Oh well. That's the mission Christ calls us to.
But much of the time, we can make inroads with difficult people. Love has a way of softening even the toughest hearts, leading them into a place of humility and grace. Let God use you to do that good work.