Loving Difficult People

To love is to will the good of the other.”

–St. Thomas Aquinas

Do you have people in your life that are difficult to love? Perhaps their attitude challenges your ability to be patient or to remain silent. Perhaps their words and actions cause you to lose your temper or to crawl under a rock and hide from them. Perhaps their very presence conjures up memories that cause you pain or resentment. I don’t believe I am the only one that has a difficult person or two in my life and, I also concede that I am probably considered as such to some people in my life. It’s the human condition! It is into this very condition that God chose to subject Himself. It is correct to assume that Jesus Christ himself was surrounded by difficult people. He knew a thing or two about dysfunctional relationships and the symptomatic resentments and bitterness that accompany them.

Grain of Sand One

What I find most challenging about Christ’s response to the difficult people in his own life is that he expects the same choice from me! There’s not one single reason I can offer up to him that would change His answer to me, not one! I’ve tried, oh, I’ve tried, to justify my feelings to Him about a difficult person by listing all the seemingly valid reasons I have for resenting them. And still, His answer is the same! He states it in varying ways but, it always comes down to how St. John penned it, “…love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.

We know that if Jesus Christ is telling us to do something, he will show us the way to do it. If our heart is inclined to his lordship in all things, we can see our way forward in learning to love difficult people if we are willing to swallow the hard pill of loving others we don’t like. The Sacred Scripture provides several glimpses into how we can love as Jesus loved; learning from His example is the way forward into peace in all our relationships. I’m reminded of St. Paul’s words to the quarreling Corinthians, “God is not the God of disorder, but of peace.” He did not will that we would be disordered by self-love and so He remedied that by becoming flesh and dwelling among us to demonstrate how to love Him and those around us. No self-help books are needed other than what the Gospel reveals to us about Jesus’ character; truly we can solve all the disorder in our relationships if we will but follow His lead.

What should be our disposition toward other’s who may have failed or betrayed us? When we are surrounded by “difficult people” who have an agenda that is soul-sucking, much like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, we can follow Jesus’ cue. Recorded in Saint John, chapter 2 are some extraordinary words about Jesus:

“…Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.”

If Jesus wasn’t understood, why would we expect to be understood, and why do we “entrust” our heart to people when Christ didn’t even entrust himself to them? To “entrust” means to assign responsibility to someone. When we live in a way that we hold others responsible for our peace of mind or our sense of worth, we surely will be disappointed. We, in effect, set the other up for failing us. It’s not the other’s job to do that for us; it is the LORD’s alone. The sooner we release others in our life from this responsibility, the sooner we will find our way out of disorder into God’s peace. The difficult person may be a family member that we have a hard time relating to; the way forward is to ask the Holy Spirit to pour His gift of understanding into our life. Other times we have to shut the door on a relationship; I know that sounds like a rather hard-lined approach, but in reality, given the circumstances, what better choice is there to make? It is natural to expect to be loved and understood, but anyone who has been through the school of hard knocks quickly learns to lower expectations. Some of the hard knocks can be eliminated when we allow a relationship to end.

We tend to expect more of others than they are able or willing to give; we set ourselves up for disappointment when we do so. Do you recall the scene in Mary Poppins where Mary has just moved in as a nanny for the Banks children? As Mary is unpacking her carpetbag looking for a measuring tape, Michael and Jane ask her why and she replies, I use it to measure people, and I want to measure you. The children are then accurately measured by her magical measuring tape, then the children ask to measure Mary; the results are exactly what Mary figured: Mary is practically perfect in every way. We can look at others like Mary Poppins, measuring people with a judging spirit toward them while measuring ourselves “practically perfect” in every way. When we choose to consider others in the way Jesus considers others, we, in effect, never use our measuring tape. This sounds much more simple than it is, but when we stop entrusting ourselves to others we allow them to be who they are without any judgment on our part. It’s the old “walk a mile in my shoes” advice, or better yet, “there but for the grace of God go I.”

How could this play out in our relationship with a difficult person? Perhaps you have a person whose actions or attitudes challenge your patience, but because they are a family member or co-worker you can’t avoid their presence in your life. Rather than expecting them to change, we choose to remind ourselves that it is not our job to change others. The job is already taken, and the Holy Spirit is much more qualified than we’ll ever be. Remembering that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me” is true insofar as another’s words cannot change our identity as beloved children of our Creator. We can train our way (through the counsel of the Holy Spirit) into righteous confidence in ourselves and our ability to graciously relate to others despite whatever challenges our relationship.

Grain of Sand Two

I was speaking recently with my spiritual director about the difficulty I was having in a relationship. I was flummoxed by another’s words used against me and in my mind I felt I must confront that person with my frustration. To my question about what to do, she wisely responded that we are called to bear witness to Christ’s love. Her words immediately changed my outlook on the relationship. Lesson learned: I must ask myself if whatever is being said or done a moral matter or a relational matter? Another question I need to ask myself, “Are they doing this because they are strong or weak?” Asking those questions as a prayer is helpful in reminding me to see with eyes of compassion and mercy. Very often a grievance is based on the human error of reacting to an unfair word or action in a relationship not on mortal sin. The particulars of how that conversation came to be really don’t matter, the response must always be the same–I am called to bear witness to Christ’s love. How so? Loving the other in spite of what has been said and done can require enormous effort, especially when the offense is repeated, even habitual. I take encouragement from something Samuel Johnson wrote, “Kindness is in our power even when fondness is not.” I know! Easier said than done. You are probably thinking thoughts I think when once again I’ve been burned by the same person in the same way–it’s even too hard to feel kind let alone respond kindly. But here’s the thing, Jesus Christ very nature is love and his actions bore that truth out. While we may only be able to endure someone’s presence in our lives, Christ in us is able to love through us even when it is hard to feel kind.

St. Thomas Aquinas penned that “to love is to will the good of the other.” To arrive at this response can be glacial, but it can happen through the Holy Spirit working in us, transforming our perceptions about another. Decades ago, I began asking the LORD to form in me a merciful spirit in keeping with His ways; he provided me with eye-opening circumstances that revealed my presumptions about a co-worker. It wasn’t long before I could see my co-worker with new eyes; it didn’t happen overnight and, it did take many experiences to will her good instead of ill. Today we consider ourselves good friends; we enjoy each other’s presence. Only the LORD’s transforming grace can accomplish what we see as unbearable.

Grain of Sand Three

I came across a quote years ago that has stuck with me as a measure for my own challenges that pop up in different circumstances. “Everywhere you go, there you are.” It aligns with something Watchman Nee wrote in the helpful book entitled, Release of the Spirit. The LORD’s great purpose for us is to transform us into the likeness of Christ; as Catholics we refer to that as the divinization of mankind. Saint Peter puts it this way in 2 Peter:1:3-4: “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature.“ In order for us to be partakers of the divine nature the LORD humbles us in different ways at different times in our life–all with the end goal of being so united with Christ that in Him we live and move and have our being. That is a tall order if left to our own devices.

I amend the above quote to illustrate where I am going with this thread of thought. “everywhere my willful nature goes, there my willful nature will be.” Watchman Nee put forth that we are all born with disordered thoughts and appetites which can lead to tremendous strain in our relationships with others and with the LORD. The Holy Spirit knows this of us and so he humbles us as we cooperate with him; we are trained by the Spirit, so to speak. Every trainer depends on the cooperation of the trainee–this is never more important than our training in holiness. If we refuse the Holy Spirit’s counsel due to our willful nature, he allows us to continue to digress in spiritual progress. He will come around again–“wherever you go, there you are“–bringing about another circumstance to nudge us again to choose his counsel.

St. Paul wrote to the Romans:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Romans 12:1-2

The renewing of our mind requires our cooperation. The testings that the Spirit allows are the stepping stones of discernment. I will use own nature to illustrate how this unfolds. My can-do nature (others may say stubborn) predisposes me to resistance when I sense another’s phoniness. I used to spout off using my tongue as a weapon more often than I care to admit. Everywhere I went, there I was. When I decided to cooperate with the LORD, he disciplined me into humble submission through each encounter. As I allowed Him to break my will, he, in a beautiful way, released my own spirit from that disordered disposition of my heart.

Watchman Nee drew attention to our need to present ourselves as living sacrifices each time we are faced with our disordered will. He concluded that every person will eventually bow their knee to the LORD’s will, either in this life or the next. In light of my own disordered stubbornness, I could refuse to allow my will to be disciplined by the Spirit, but He will continue to bring me back around to the disordered thinking for another lesson in humility. Better to be purged of sin now than in purgatory!

Grain of Sand Four

Lastly, years ago another co-worker of mine gave me a seed of advice that stayed with me and grew fruit in my own life to this day. She made the comment that if Jesus could die, conquer death and raise again in three days, then she could at least pray for three days before concluding something is worth doing or not doing. That’s worth writing on a wall, isn’t it? We can employ this rule in all our relationships. How so? In my early years of marriage and learning to love my husband the Holy Spirit led me to realize that what I needed most in learning to love my husband (and everyone else, for that matter) is understanding. That three-day rule has proved to be the most helpful rule for understanding others. I would take a matter to prayer for three-days asking the LORD to grant his Spirit’s understanding to me. You know what? He did! Why was I so surprised by the grace? Little by little, I learned a few things from the three-day rule. When I kept my tongue, I allowed the Spirit of the LORD to teach me his ways and he would faithfully give his gifts of Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety, and Reverence. The astounding realization grew in me that there is very little in life to fret and stew over, three days allows room for the mind to marinate in God’s grace and not pride, anger, or fear. Then, if after the three days (I realize that some matters take much longer, but stay with me here) of prayerful ascension to the LORD about a matter, if words must be shared our spirit is in a better place to share them. It’s the difference between reaction and response.

One Pearl

(Allow me to digress. I share this pearl last because it has been the most spirit-changing practice for me, so I highly recommend it as a general rule of life. The breaking of my will that the Spirit has accomplished through this little rule has spilled into other areas of my life. Regarding my disordered attachments to the shiny distractions of this life, if I am attracted to something and want to purchase it, I mostly give it three days on my Amazon Wish List before purchasing it. You can bet what happens. The Holy Spirit gives me insight during those three days about why I want the item. If it is disordered, I will not purchase it (most of the time, I’m on my way to perfection–wink, wink). It has even gotten to the place that I forget the impulse. It is a satisfying practice to come back to that wish list from time to time because I can see how the Spirit has worked to release my grip on “shiny distractions” a little more. With a prayer of thanksgiving, I press the delete button on my wishlist.)

Just as the Holy Spirit can bring me to the place where I can press the delete button on my disordered appetites, he can bring us to the same place with a resentment or frustration with another person.

Just as Jesus would not entrust himself to others for confirmation of his worth, he opens our heart and mind to the FACT-“I am the beloved child of the Creator God, his word about me is the only voice I am to trust.”

Is there a consistent theme running through your relationships? A theme or resentment or of expecting too much from others. Everywhere we go the Spirit wants to train us out of our disordered thinking and into Christ’s image.

Holy Spirit, soul of my soul, I adore You. Enlighten, guide, strengthen and console me. Tell me what I ought to do and command me to do it.

I promise to be submissive in everything you ask of me, and to accept all that you permit to happen to me.

Only show me what is your will.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Amen. 

*Prayer by St. Therese of Avila