Loving those who annoy you
Spiritual practices for cultivating a heart of love for difficult peopleby 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? As the wild parties and loud fights increased, I wanted to avoid my neighbors.
But was that really an option? I’m asked to love my neighbors 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 wasn't hurting them, I told myself. But God 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?
Heart exam: For this kind of love God requires a heart transformation. 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 frustration and low-level hostility that becomes the routine focus of our mind. Such bitterness sneaks up on us. We nurture memories of being mistreated, snubbed or insulted. We let the sun go down on our mild wrath, so to speak, which flourishes into sarcasm, grumbling, cynicism and gossip.
A life-rhythm of everyday hostility casts a shadow on "children of the light." Such minor hostility may seem normal in today's society in which people attack each other on talk radio, but we are invited to love our neighbors, not to ignore them, avoid them or lash out at them.
Heart patterns: What could I do? I was tempted to try really hard to love difficult people, but trying harder does not work. We begin 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 Alice (not her real name), a church friend who was being unkind and spiteful toward another friend. How could my friend act with such venom? 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—that she would let God's love permeate her soul and pass it on. I gradually began to speak kindly toward her and to care about what happened in her life.
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.
Silence: There are many ways to practice silence, but one that particularly helps me keep a right heart toward others is the practice of not seeking 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) pour over me also. 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 pastor annoying—so much so that she couldn't stand to listen to his sermons. She wanted to change so, led by God, she attended the pastor's weekly Bible study and offered to fix the coffee. I noticed that she seemed to sleep through most of the study and asked if she was tired. As we talked, she revealed to 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."
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 God—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).
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