A young girl, completely unprepared, marries a young boy. “Love will see us through,” they reason. It doesn’t.

A young child enters a new home, via adoption or foster care. The parents cling to the notion, “All this child needs is love.” The child turns out to need love but also so much more.

A wife mourns the absence of her increasingly distant husband. “I just need to love him more.” She does. He becomes more detached.

All you need is love. Waa waa waa waa waa. So said The Beatles. Is that true?

Modern spiritual teachers proclaim that the universe abounds with love. All we need do is embrace it and extend it to others. What if “the other” is a human being who has caused you pain?

I was challenged by a friend to exercise tough love with a family member. She asked, “Are there no programs? Aren’t social services available to lend assistance?” 

In a moment of clarity I responded, “It’s easy to talk about mental health issues in the abstract. When the issue roosts in your own home, it’s quite another matter.”

In the abstract, all problems are solvable. From afar, it’s easy to spread your love into the universe. Down in the dirt with tears and lies and betrayal, it’s hard to love.

But as Christians, we are called to love. We don’t get to pick who we love. It’s easy and rewarding to love the lovely. It’s more of a stretch to remember that those who challenge us are also created in God’s image. If I can accept and embrace God’s love, then I need to offer the same to others.

Can I really emulate a love that calls me to, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you”? (Luke 6:27-36, ESV)

My very human reaction to relationship difficulty is to distance myself. Walk away. In weaker moments, I might even lash back with a hurtful commentWhen I feel judged at church, my sinful nature accuses the speaker and my brain says, “You have no idea what I am dealing with.” When I encounter resistance from my older child, my weak spirit is too willing to retort, “Fine, if that’s how you want it. You made your choices.”

And then I remember another person who dealt with difficult, hurtful people. He responded in a super human way. At the Last Supper, “He got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.” (John 13:4-5, NIV)

All you need is love?

Jesus was surrounded by people with whom he had complicated relationships. What did he choose to do? Serve them.

If only love were simpler than that. Let’s say, to demonstrate my love for you, all I had to do was to pick lush beautiful flowers from a garden and present them to you. Doing so is pleasant for me and also blesses you. But that’s not all love requires of us. Sometimes love requires us to clean the nasty, gnarled feet of the other, who may treat us poorly and betray us.

Loving the hard-to-love calls us to change the way we see them. How can we possibly do that?

  1. Pray first. When a challenging interaction is inevitable, pray for compassion. If you’ve ever received compassion when you didn’t deserve it, you know the power of this practice.
  2. Look at the feelings behind the challenging behavior. Every person has a story. Knowing the story that preceded the pain can lead to a new level of understanding.
  3. Look for small ways to connect rather than focusing on large areas of disagreement. Share a pleasant experience or recall a story of better times. These small strings will bind you together.
  4. Words spoken in anger are like toothpaste. You can’t put them back. If your words are not ultimately kind and uplifting, keep them to yourself.
  5. Own your part. Have you examined how you might have contributed to the difficult relationship? Recognize your own faults and make it right with the other person.
  6. Love because you are loved. Don’t be a hypocrite. You are no better or worse than anyone else. Let your love and grace attract others rather than repel them.

Is love all you need? That depends on whether all you need in life is fresh flowers.

As for me, give me the love borne of struggle and strain, of wrestling in the dust, of sleepless watchful nights in the garden, and of the fresh dew in each new day.

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