Do you know someone who is difficult to love? The nosy neighbor. The grouchy grocery store clerk. Your child’s teacher who never cracks a smile. The hot-tempered boss. The church curmudgeon. Here are some things to keep in mind as you try to share the love with them.
PRAY. PRAY. AND THEN PRAY SOME MORE.
Any encounter with a difficult-to-love person must start off with prayer. Pray for them. Ask God to soften their heart to receive His love through you. Pray for yourself, asking God to show you the best approach for reaching out. Pray that he would allow you to hear any heart drops, spoken or unspoken. Perhaps just observing their behavior will give you clues into how you might touch their lives. And most of all, pray that you will not chicken out! Hugging porcupines and squeezing skunks is not for the faint of heart! You will be tempted to back out and visit your sweet grandmother instead for an easy good deed. Ask God to give you both creativity and boldness as you reach out to those who are challenging.
Don’t make the mistake of going too quickly. Many challenging people are cautious in their relationships. They are not going to be your best friend right off the bat. Why, they may not even want to open the door when you knock! Pace yourself.
A number of years ago, we moved into a neighborhood next door to an elderly gentleman who was simply known as “The Man.” He wasn’t just grumpy, he was combative. He yelled at the neighborhood children playing innocently in the street. He chased dogs with a shovel, trying to take a swipe at them. Everyone from the mail carrier to the cable guy knew about the disposition of this belligerent gentleman. We instructed our kids to be kind to him, no matter how he acted. When he hollered at them as they rode their bikes down the street, they answered back respectfully, calling him “Sir.” My husband and I consistently smiled and waved at him every time we passed. It took more than three months, but finally one day he raised his hand as if to wave back. No smile. No eye contact. But he did acknowledge our existence, which we chalked up as a major victory. He even grunted at me one Easter weekend when I baked banana bread and took it over to him. (He didn’t chase me out of his yard since his wife answered the door with him that day. Boy, was I relieved to see her face!) Slow and steady wins the race to touch the heart of the cantankerous.
Don’t write off those who are hard to love. Be curious. Investigate. There must be some reason why they behave the way they do. In the case of our neighbor, “The Man,” we learned he was struggling with the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Having been a military man and successful in business, he probably was terrified of his impending decline and loss of control.
Other people we have known who were prickly like a porcupine and resisted our gestures of love had issues from their past. One mother had lost two sons in two different car accidents, blamed God, and wanted nothing to do with Him. With her I had to be very careful not to talk about God in a way that seemed flippant or that trivialized her pain. I mostly just attempted to get to know her and be kind to her. Eventually, she came to the women’s Bible study I was teaching at our church. Toward the end of the study, she opened up about her anger at God for letting both of her sons be killed. Often there is more to the story than meets the eye, so be prayerfully curious as you decide how best to reach out.
Sometimes the best strategy is to keep your mouth shut and your hands open. Look for ways to serve. Does that grouchy neighbor need his yard raked? Does he need you to pick up something at the grocery store the week that the roads are icy and he is home with a bad cold? Could the church curmudgeon’s garage use a good cleaning out and your family happens to have Saturday morning free? Is there a group of people in your city who are considered “less than” by society? The homeless. Those in prison or in trouble. Remember them as well. Often, organizations designed to help others are short on volunteers.
With all of these folks, look for ways to serve rather than speak. Sometimes the best sermons are lives well lived. Remember the old saying, “Preach the gospel always. When necessary, use words.”
When your benevolent gestures are ignored or met with ungratefulness, it is tempting to throw in the towel. But keep showing up. Keep being the hands and feet of Jesus. Don’t get discouraged if the person you are trying to love doesn’t seem to notice at all. They do. Often they just do not want to show it. So keep showing up. Consistently. Lovingly. You will learn to read signals from others alerting you when to back off, but you can always keep showing up in prayer. Loving difficult people takes tenacity. Especially when they never show signs of thankfulness. Which leads us to our next point…
EXPECT NOTHING IN RETURN. ZERO. ZIP. NADA.
Don’t expect to make the local paper when you give grace to the grumpy. Don’t expect that the hard-to-love one will thank you or even acknowledge what you do. The only way to go about loving the difficult is to expect nothing in return. If we do good in order to gain accolades or to receive praise, or expect to convert someone and have a great redemptive story to tell, we will quickly give up.
We love others out of obedience to God. Then we leave the results to Him.
When your expectation bar is lowered all the way down, you will not have to fear being disappointed by their lack of response. So expect nothing in return. Zero. And then finally…
GLANCE AT THEM, BUT FIX YOUR GAZE ON JESUS.
It is Christ himself you are serving. When you look at others, choose to see Him. Remember that whatever you do for them, you are actually doing for the Lord. When we keep this perspective in mind, it will help us to keep on keeping on. Jesus is the ultimate object of our service, love, and affection.
Choosing to see through others to Him is crucial to maintaining our momentum.
So what about the people in your life today? Is there someone you find difficult to like — let alone love? Have you ever stopped to consider that this person (or maybe persons!) are on-purpose people in your life? God has placed them there for a reason. Is He calling you to reach beyond your four walls, breaking through your comfort zone, in order to show the love of Christ to someone who is either hard to love or socially marginalized? Remember, as you reach out to them you are honoring and serving the Lord.
Take some time in prayer today, asking God to show you whose heart needs softening by a kind gesture from you sent their way. Remember,
The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of Mine, you did for Me’. — Matthew 25:40
Father, when I encounter a person with a less-than-lovely disposition, may it not derail me from sharing Your love with them. Help me see beyond their harsh or difficult exterior. May I love with no strings attached, expecting nothing in return. I want to do it as though I am doing it for you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Excerpted with permission from Listen, Love, Repeat by Karen Ehman, copyright Karen Ehman.
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Let’s allow getting through and loving on difficult people drive us to prayer! We can’t love without connecting with the God of love first. Come share your stories on reaching out to a grouchy person on our blog. We want to hear from you!