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Learning to Love

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It was one of the more difficult seasons of work I had had for some time. I was working with clients that I found challenging. Whether it was because they reminded me of painful relationships in my past, or because I recognized in them things I didn’t like in myself, I am still not sure. But I was struggling to find my feet in my work. In the midst of this struggle, my mentor asked me how I was loving my clients. My heart sank, as I wasn’t sure how to answer the question.

I floundered, and said, well I can see what they can become if they get healthier. She said no. How are you loving them now as they are?

That question has hung around my subconscious for a very long time. What does it mean to love? To love the person that I am not sure I like? What does it mean to love difficult people? For that matter what does it mean to love the people I like?

As a society we are more than a little impoverished in our understanding of love. A movie of my teen years had the tag line “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” on its posters. Even at 15 I knew that was wrong. Pop culture has not significantly improved since. Love seems to be a simple matter of emotion. Love is a feeling and little more. We know where that one leads once the emotion shifts. As it will.

Let’s say that the difficult people in my life, clients or not, do not generally inspire positive emotional responses. Is love then a matter of choosing to love? That is part of the answer, as it deals with the problem of love as simply emotion. But it doesn’t really satisfy. If it is a choice, what am I choosing? It cannot be a choice to experience the emotion, as my emotions don’t tend to respond so easily. Choosing to love difficult people sounds nice in theory. Until the next experience of that person rubbing me raw.

I began to think of love in terms of behaviour. Jesus, it seems to me, is pretty clear in his call on our behaviour. Do good to those who despise you. Pray for those who persecute. Perhaps this could offer some purchase on the slippery slope on which I was struggling.

And then I ran into some material by Scot McKnight, who blogs at Patheos. He suggests that love has three movements. Love is “with”, it is “for”, and it is “unto”. Perhaps not the most felicitous grammar, but as he fleshed these out, I sensed that there was something here worth attending to.

Love is relentlessly WITH

Love is with. It is present. When we love someone we are present to them. If they are happy, we are with them in their happiness. When they are angry, we are with them in their anger. When they cry we are with them in their (and our) tears. When those we love are difficult, cause us pain, act in unhealthy ways, we are with them. We don’t walk away, no matter what.

Love is relentlessly FOR

Love is for. It is for the other. No matter what those we love are dealing with, we have their back. When the can’t speak for themselves, we speak for them. When the pain overwhelms, we help hold them till they recover.

Love is relentlessly UNTO

Love is unto. Love invites the other to something new. It opens the door to something better. It calls the beloved to be better. It calls the beloved to health.

Choose almost any interaction Jesus had with people facing struggles. The woman caught in adultery is one of many examples. Brought to Jesus so he could be tested for his fidelity to the law, she comes into the interaction as tool to be used against Jesus. How does he respond?

He starts by being for her. He stands between her and those who would have brought the full weight of law upon her. “The one without sin can cast the first stone.” Then standing to face her, he engages her directly. He is with her, to take her seriously. And then having released her from her fate, he calls her to something new: “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

All of that lead me to think about my clients. I realized that I had done a really good job of being “unto”. I knew what they had done wrong, I knew what they had to do to fix that. And they flatly refused to hear me.

The reason was simple—how could they, why would they listen to me, if was clear that I had been neither with them nor for them. I had not listened deeply enough to their pain, I had not been willing to have their back. I simply knew the solution to their problem and I was going to tell them what they had to do.

Not only did this way of thinking shift my way of working with clients, it has begun to seep into other parts of my life. What does it look like to be “with” and “for” my partner? My children? My parents? What does it like to be “unto” those people. That is of course a delicate dance. How is it is to slip into lecture mode. Yet when I have truly been with and for, the invitation to something new comes naturally, and it can heard for what it is. An invitation. Not a lecture. A desire for them to be their best. Not a demand that they fit my picture what what I want them to be.

But here is where it bites. Even if they refuse my invitation. Even if they are not ready to hear my desire that they be the best they can be. Even then, I have only two responses. To be with. To be for.

Try this one at home. You might be surprised.

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Keith works in the field of conflict resolution and restorative justice. As well as delivering conflict and communication training, Keith leads processes to re-shape congregational identity, mission and direction, and provides congregational assessments and mediation for leaders, leadership teams and congregations.

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