By Jan Johnson
A confession: I have not always loved my neighbor—especially the one next door.
At first, I was annoyed by how the husband parked cars on his lawn—oops, there was no lawn, just dirt and weeds. How would this affect the resale value of my home? Add the wild parties and loud fights.
We tried to be friendly, but our encounters were always awkward. Take, for instance, one day when my husband was frustrated as he changed the oil in our car. The wife next door observed his frustration and prodded: “Go ahead and cuss like the rest of us.”
Forget loving my neighbors; I wanted to avoid my neighbors.
But was that really an option? I’m asked to love my neighbor of all sorts, but in reality I avoided opinionated people, people who belittled what I thought was important, or people who never let me finish a sentence without interrupting. I criticized such people, even if only in my thoughts. I lacked love for those I labeled “difficult.”
At least by avoiding these people I’m not hurting them, I told myself. But the Holy Spirit kept nudging me with this question: What would it look like to love the person in front of you—even if only for the next 10 minutes, even if this person annoys you?
The kind of love God was calling me to required a heart transformation. The first step was to understand what my present attitude toward the hard-to-love people around me was doing to my heart. I discovered what you might have noticed. Dealing with people who mildly annoy us—the coworker who constantly puts people down, the teenager who leaves a mess in the bathroom—can create bitterness and low-level hostility that becomes the routine focus of our mind and habit of our heart.
Such bitterness sneaks up on us. We nurture memories of being mistreated, snubbed, or insulted—how certain people barely speak to us or try to push our buttons. We let the sun go down on our mild wrath, so to speak, which flourishes into body language, words, and deeds such as generalizing (he always . . .), name-calling, sarcasm (which literally means “to tear the flesh”), grumbling, cynicism, and gossip. Perfectionism (“I’ll show my dad!”) and rejecting authority (“What do cops know?”) often have at their root bitterness toward someone or many someones. All are signs we have allowed ourselves not to value people as ones whom God so loves.
These spur-of-the-moment responses wake us up to what’s going on in our hearts. For years, I struggled with being irritated with telemarketers. After all, they were interrupting my concentration! I lost sight of them as innocent people trying to make a living.
For children of the light called to light the world, a rhythm of everyday hostility is a serious problem. Such minor hostility may seem normal in today’s culture of talk-radio attacks and reality TV conflict, but we are not called to live that way.
We are called to love our neighbors. Not to ignore them, avoid them, or lash out at them, but to love them.
What could I do? I was tempted to try really hard to love my difficult neighbors, but trying harder is not the solution. It begins by cultivating a right heart—a heart of goodwill—toward that person. That cultivation takes place through certain spiritual practices that help us connect with God, and through that vital connection, build a right heart from which loving actions are more likely to flow.
Here are some practices I’ve found particularly helpful in cultivating a heart of love for difficult people.
Prayer—One day as I was hiking, my thoughts turned to a church friend who was being unkind and spiteful toward another friend. How could my friend act with such venom while wearing the name of Jesus? Yet I felt guilty about my inability to love her.
As I plopped down on the side of the trail under a willow tree, the phrase “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” came to mind (Matthew 5:44). Alice wasn’t my enemy, but I certainly didn’t love her. I tried to pray for Alice but didn’t know what to say. So I borrowed ideas from Philippians 1:9-11: that her love would abound more and more; that her knowledge and discernment would increase.
After a few months of praying that (and learning to mean it), I began to be able to speak kindly toward her again and to genuinely care about what was happening in her life. Prayer had cultivated a more loving heart.
Confession—As I prayed for Alice, I found myself doing some soul-searching: What is in my heart toward her? Did I see myself as her victim? What did I need to do to trust God more?
I find that coming clean to God about the resentment within me—how I’ve avoided people or used weapons of generalization—is important. Confessing is not a time to beat myself up, but to allow God to surround me with empowering grace. It’s one more way to get my heart right.
Sometimes God leads us to confess to the other person to deepen the rightness of our heart. A friend of mine made an appointment with a youth pastor who had said some hurtful things to her teenage son. She wanted this youth pastor to understand how and why her son was hurt so the injury wouldn’t be repeated.
As they talked, she quickly sensed the youth pastor felt like quitting. His despair helped her see that her heart had not been as loving as she thought. So she confessed to him, “When I came here, I wanted to get back at you, but that was wrong. I believe God has called you here and you’re very important to our family. Please forgive me.”
As you can imagine, this was a transforming moment for both of them. The youth pastor no longer felt accused and inept, but empowered to move forward in ministry. My friend felt the goodness and humility of a cleansed heart.
Silence—There are many ways to practice silence, but a way that particularly helps me keep my heart right is giving up the need to have the last word. Especially when someone tries to get a reaction from me or offers a final zinger, it helps my inner peace to say nothing.
I saw the power of this practice once when a family member smarted off to my sister. I immediately became irritated. My sister, however, said nothing, but simply grinned at the offender. The look on that young person’s face changed. She realized she’d been unkind to my sister, who was always kind to her.
And I, standing off to the side, felt my irritation vanish as I felt God’s grace (in my sister’s face) also pour over me. It was a love-drenched silence.
Service—Sometimes God leads us to serve in order to develop a right heart in us. Many years ago I knew an older woman who found the minister annoying—so much so that she couldn’t stand to listen to his sermons. She wanted to change, so, led by God, she started to attend the minister’s weekly Bible study and offered to fix the coffee.
I noticed she seemed to sleep through most of the study and asked if she was tired. As we talked, she told me her problem and the Spirit-suggested solution, saying, “I find myself praying for the pastor during the study. This has helped me see him differently. It was the best thing I could have done.”
She has inspired me to do some odd things. After a meeting at church, I noticed I was parked next to someone I’d found irritating in the meeting. The ash from a recent wildfire covered all of our cars, so I got a duster from my trunk and gently wiped off his car. The movement was a prayer of sorts—one I was too annoyed to have verbalized—and by the time I was done, my heart was right toward him again.
With my next-door neighbors, God gave me a means of service that surprised me. As an art volunteer at their daughter’s elementary school, I interacted with this sweet-natured girl. This cultivated in me a loving heart for a family who managed to produce a child like this. As I befriended her in small ways—giving her an art book and visiting now and then in our driveways—her parents became more friendly too.
Cultivating a heart that trusts God with difficult people transforms the soul. As we align ourselves minute-by-minute with the One who is consistently kind even to the ungrateful, we start to take on the character of his Son—even if it’s only 10 minutes at a time.
Jan Johnson is a speaker and the author of Invitation to the Jesus Life: Experiments in Christlikeness, from which this article is adapted (www.janjohnson.org).