The First Crucial Step to Love Hard-to-Love People
Jesus instructs us to love everyone. But how is it possible to truly love someone who is so religiously, politically or personally different than you?
I have a confession. For nearly the first 15 years of my Christianity, I loved God, but I didn’t really love people. Perhaps that sounds strange to hear from a preacher. Maybe even a bit troublesome. Someone called to ministry should surely have an almost supernatural reserve of mercy to lavish on people, right? Unfortunately, that’s often not the case.
While sharing my confession at a pastors’ conference, nearly half of the couple hundred in attendance gave an “I’ve-been-there” kind of nod. Everyone has their own reasons, so I won’t put words in the mouths of other ministers. As for me, for too long, I saw God’s Word as a fix-it manual. It was all so matter-of-fact, I thought: “Do this discipline and get this result.” I had little grace for anyone who quit or didn’t seem to try hard enough.
The First Step to Loving Others
Eventually, in the Holy Spirit’s gentle way, He nudged me to realize that I can’t compartmentalize my love for God and my love for others. As Jesus challenged Peter, truly loving Him means also loving His people (see Jn. 13:37; 21:17). And not only those who are easy to love, but the hard-to-love ones, too: the hurting, the hurtful and the different.
But how? Then I saw it in Scripture, so obvious. After Jesus instructs to “love your enemies,” He continues, “You must be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate” (Lk. 6:35–36). And He demonstrated it Himself. Before feeding the 5000, He healed the sick in the crowd. Before He healed them, “He had compassion on them” (Mt. 14:14).
With this I prayed, “Lord, give me compassion.” Now, this is a dangerous prayer. Not because it’s wrong, but because it’s like asking for the virtue of patience. God rarely injects it supernaturally, but He usually provides it through circumstances that develop the virtue. Circumstances that aren’t always comfortable.
How to Develop Compassion
John Calvin, one of the Church reformers, once wrote, “Without knowledge of self, there is no knowledge of God.” What this means is that when you examine yourself, you quickly see all the ways you are imperfect, which brings realization of your need for God. Not to mention a gratefulness for how He loves you despite all that seems unlovable about you.
Shortly after my prayer for compassion, various circumstances brought me to a crisis moment of self-examination and confession. In this moment, I filleted myself before the Lord, finally admitting vices and struggles not so simply resolved with a 12-step plan. God met my vulnerability with a love and grace I had never before felt.
This experience changed me. In particular, it changed how I view and interact with some of the most broken people. Simply put, realizing that not everything is so easily fixed in my life gives me grace for the experiences of others. Now, when someone shares their struggle or their story, even if it’s nothing I directly relate to, I at least relate to the experience of struggle—to being broken, to being human. The compassion that flows from this is far more effective toward healing than my old legalism ever was.
Take a Look at Yourself
Thankfully, you don’t need a crisis experience to develop compassion. Paul instructs that self-examination ought to be a regular part of the Christian life (see Rom. 12:3). So take a look at yourself. What are your flaws, mistakes and struggles? I assure, when you really see all that God loves you in spite of, you’ll begin to grow compassion for others, even in spite of issues that you don’t understand.
It’s as Paul encouraged, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Eph. 4:32, NIV). Indeed, we forgive because we’re forgiven. We give grace because we’re given grace. We love because we’re loved … each despite our own unique set of shortcomings.
(Want more lessons on how to give and receive God’s unconditional love? Check out my four-part teaching series, Loveable: How to Experience & Share the Healing Power of God’s Love.)