How to Love the Hard to Love
All of us are, more or less, hard to love. Sin entangles each of us, even the most mature, inevitably muddling and frustrating all our loves. And the deeper and more sustained the love — in friendship, in marriage, in parenting, in ministry — the deeper and more painful are the consequences of our sin.
As the end of another year approaches, we may be more aware than usual of what hasn’t changed or improved — in our own hearts or in our most important relationships. Patterns of sin may have persisted. Conflict may have tarried. Weaknesses may feel as weak as ever. Wounds may not have healed. The optimism and resolve of the new year may soon rescue some of us from discouragement or despair, but only until the brokenness emerges (and injures us) again.
Year after year, all of us are hard to love, and we’re all called to love someone who’s hard to love. While the stubbornness of our struggles may surprise us, they do not surprise God — and they do not exhaust the power of his Spirit. In fact, he often does his most important work in us through the most difficult relationships.
One Secret for Difficult Relationships
The apostle Paul knew the difficulties and complexities of challenging relationships, even among believers. In Romans 14–15, for example, he exhorts the strong to love the weak, even though he knows it’s hard. And he encourages the weak to love the strong, even though he knows it’s hard.
“If we really believed that God gave his own Son to bring us to himself, how could we give up when love gets hard?”
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Tensions had arisen in the young church at Rome over sensitive issues, including what Christians should eat (or not). Some abstained from certain foods out of reverence for Christ. Some ate freely out of the same reverence for Christ (Romans 14:6). Both found it hard to love the other. They were tempted to despise each other (Romans 14:3), and pass judgment on each other (Romans 14:13). Paul charges both sides, “Let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Romans 14:19). He says to prize one another over arguments about secondary matters, and passionately pursue one another toward greater and deeper peace when we share what’s most important.
My particular interest, at the end of another long year, is how. How do Christians persevere in difficult and sensitive relationships within the family? Paul says, more than once, that one secret is hope (Romans 15:4, 12, 13). Followers of Christ have more resources in difficult relationships than unbelievers do, because we have hope. Paul ends this section of the letter with what we all need: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Romans 15:13). Genuine hope in God holds power we need to love those who are hard to love.
Does Hope Make a Difference?
What difference does hope really make in difficult relationships? Paul explains something of the dynamics earlier in the letter, where he again ties peace, joy, and faith together with hope:
Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. (Romans 5:1–2)
Having believed in Jesus, we have precious peace with the just and almighty God of the universe, peace that gives birth to hope, and hope that, if real, makes us the most uncompromisingly joyful people of all — and the most patient and persistent in love.
What we really believe will happen when we die makes all the difference for the moments between now and then, especially the painful and challenging ones. If we truly believed that we are only decades (or less) from sinless centuries in the presence of the glory of God, how could we nurture bitterness for a few more weeks or months? If we really believed that God gave his own Son to bring us to himself, how could we give up when love gets hard? If we really believed that God had forgiven the raging river of our sins against him, how could we stew in self-pity and anger against one another? For as hard as it can feel to persevere in love, we were each harder to love and easier to abandon. And yet God loved us (and loves us). So, we have hope — oceans of hope. Our hardness, far from deterring him, served to exposed the unsearchable depth and inexhaustible tides of his love (Romans 5:8).
“We will have to fight hard at love for now, but not for long.”
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Someone without hope lives without a sail to drive him, without ballast to stabilize him, without a rudder to guide him, without an anchor to hold him. In every relationship, he is driven by the stormy winds of disappointment, conflict, and self-pity. But we hope in God. If that hope is real, it will slowly erode, and then wash away, the awful bricks sin builds between us in love.
Trials Build True Hope
What does Paul say next in Romans 5? “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings” (Romans 5:3) — including our difficult, broken, and contentious relationships. We do not merely tolerate or survive what (and who) we suffer, but we rejoice in our sufferings. Why?
We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3–5)
Suffering, in Christ, produces endurance — the grace-filled strength to persevere in faithfulness. As the painful effort of exercise produces physical endurance, the painful effort required (for instance, with hard-to-love people) produces spiritual endurance, which is all the more valuable (1 Timothy 4:8). And through endurance, God slowly fashions us into the image of his Son. Perseverance produces proven character. And the more intimately and pervasively our hearts grow to be like God’s, the more our hope grows in him — our assurance of greater, more glorious things to come, of the glory that is to be revealed to us (Romans 8:18).
Difficult relationships, then, not only make us more like Christ, but in doing so, they heighten our confidence that we are his and will spend eternity with him. They show us that we are real. As much as we feel tempted to grumble about the hard-to-love people in our lives, God has put them there as opportunities for us to know, deep down, that our faith is genuine. The inevitable stress and friction we experience in loving one another are meant to uncover more of God’s love for us and inflame our love for him even more.
Refill Your Well
Maybe some of us feel more exhausted in relationships because our wells of hope are running low. My prayer and charge for myself is Paul’s prayer and charge for us:
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. (Romans 15:13)
The God of hope is our hope. We are not longing for, or settling for, any future without him. Any hope we have from him, we have because we have him. And the hope of him sows contentment in any circumstance and sustains enduring peace between us, even where peace can be hard to keep. We simply and persistently plead with the God of hope to refill our wells of hope, until we abound in hope, which will feed even more joy, peace, and resilient love.
We will regularly tire in love this side of glory. We will inevitably flag climbing another steep hill of relational conflict. We will stumble, blindsided by the blow of another offense too close to home. We will need to say, again and again, “I’m sorry.” We will have to fight hard at love for now, but not for long. Hold that hope close, and that God close, as you love the hard to love.