How to Love People You Don’t Like
Last week I had the opportunity to speak to a group of 5th-8th graders. In mulling over what to share I was drawn to one of the hardest truths Jesus taught: Love your neighbor. On the face of it, this doesn’t seem like a hard truth. I mean, it’s easy to love my neighbor, isn’t it? My neighbors are people just like me, right? They’re my family and the people I like and spend time with. Right? I believe Jesus goes and sets the bar higher than that. When asked by “an expert in the law” who was his neighbor, Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan and basically blows his listeners’ minds. You can read the passage here.
There are so many cultural and religious dynamics going in the passage, but I will save most of them for another day! What I want to pay attention to is that this teacher of the law wants to justify himself. He wants to break down his duty before God into a neat box. How does he inherit eternal life? Love God and love his neighbor. In his mind loving his neighbor is loving the people like him. It’s loving the people near him. It’s loving his family and his close friends.
Jesus tells a story that shatters that illusion. The priest and the Levite walk by this man who lies in a heap bloodied and beaten. Most people of that day would have felt they were justified. They don’t know who it is. They might make themselves unclean and unable to worship in the temple or to conduct their duties before God. And if the person is already dead? It would have made sense in a way that seems foreign to modern day, western readers, that these people walked on by.
But it shouldn’t and that’s why Jesus tells the story. The Samaritan is clearly not this man’s neighbor in their minds. He was considered a half breed – part Jewish and part Gentile. His religion was heretical holding to only the Torah and not the other books of the Old Testament. Their place of worship was not Jerusalem at the temple. The Samaritans were hated by Jews. If you needed to walk to Galilee, you almost always went around Samaria to avoid its people.
And yet, it is the Samaritan who stops; who binds the wounds; who takes the man to an inn; who shows mercy and serves this stranger. When Jesus asks who was a neighbor to the injured man, the teacher of the law can’t even say “the Samaritan”. He answers, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus tells him to go and do the same.
Jesus was asked, “Who is my neighbor?” His answer is unexpected. Essentially he says our neighbor is anyone who has need and that everyone, even the people we don’t know or we don’t like or we consider half-breed heretics, fall into that category. Love your neighbor and, by the way, everyone is your neighbor.
We love our neighbor when we don’t treat them as they deserve. We love them by showing them mercy. This is the first way we can love people we don’t like: We serve them.
I think there is a second way we can begin to love people we don’t like. We get to know them. This idea comes more from my experience of serving people in church and in outreach over the years. We often don’t like people because we don’t know them. We see the way they dress or we think based on their religion or nationality or the place they come from what they are like. We make judgments and assumptions and imagine we know what they are like.
When we take time to listen to other’s stories; when we honor them by listening and asking questions; we often discover that 1) they aren’t so different from us and 2) they are actually very likable. Now I realize this is not always the case. There are people who the more we get to know them the less we like them. We are called to love them anyway (They are still our neighbors after all and even if we hate them, we still have to love them…see Matthew 5:43-48 if you don’t believe me). But more often than not in my own experience, when I hear people’s stories I find respect and understanding for them that I lacked when I was stuck in my prejudgments and assumptions.
Surely getting to know them is harder. It takes time and it can be uncomfortable. But Jesus rarely took things at face value. He was always asking good questions which helped to reveal people’s hearts and motives. As we get to know the people Jesus calls us to love, we may actually find we like them.
One other way we love people we don’t like is we tell them the truth (in love). Speaking the truth in love is a non-negotiable for followers of Jesus (see Ephesians 4:15). The most loving thing we can do for anyone is point them toward the truth. We point them toward their heavenly Father who loves them more than we ever could!
I think speaking the truth in love points people toward Jesus, but I think we need to go beyond that. Most of us like for people to think we have it all together and have things figured out. The reality is that we have struggles and challenges. We have needs and frustrations and issues. Being willing to share our needs and our hurts and struggles can invite others to be a neighbor to us. It can move our relationship from being me offering from my abundance and expertise to a true give-and-take as we journey together. It can actually create better opportunities for us to tell our stories and to let others see how our faith is lived out.
Loving people you don’t like is not easy. But I believe these three ways make it practical and livable. I invite you to take time this week to ask God who might be a person you know you need to love but have been struggling with because you don’t like them much. Ask him to show you specific things you could do to begin loving that person better. How could you serve him/her? How could you get to know him/her better? How could you share the truth in love?