Do you meet people who are friendly enough at first, but your acquaintanceship never moves farther than that? You never become more than distant “friends” who don’t actually know each other well. At times, you may even forget each other’s names, let alone remember what is important to the other person, the kind of things true friends should know.
But perhaps you wish you could grow closer with the distant friend. You wish you knew the person better, beyond just a name and basic physical features. And you wish he or she wanted to know you better, too. You wish your “friend” cared.
It bothers me when I meet people who, as much as I try to be friendly, they want none of it. These people do not open their hearts, but hide behind intimidating barriers with signs marked, “Back Off.” Closed people make me think it is better to leave them alone. My self-esteem crumbles. The message is that I’m not good enough. I have nothing to offer. I’m dull, boring, unattractive, annoying, needy, [fill in the blank]. So I tell myself we don’t have enough in common and move my attention to someone more receptive.
I long for personal intimacy with everyone I know, and some may say that asks for too much. Does it? Is that how the world turns, and no amount of effort can push it the other way? I recently realized I only befriend those people who love me back. God has supplied me with plenty of such people who conduct his love. It feels as if God could not bless me more by my friends. These special friends have loved me steadfastly over the past several months, so that I feel undeserving of their generous affection. But because of their love, I’m encouraged to love them more in return. This becomes a reciprocal relationship of intensifying intimacy and warm, fuzzy feelings.
Jesus calls us to love, which my friends and I do well for each other, yet Jesus wants us to love more than just anyone at all. He calls us to love all people. Whether a perpetual drunk, a self-absorbed jerk, an incessant know-it-all, or someone in the deepest pit of poverty, we are told to love them. The poor, the widowed, the orphaned. He does not direct us to the easy-to-love: the caring, the affectionate, the humble, the flattering, the responsible citizen, the good neighbor.
But people who are hard to love intimidate me. I think they probably don’t want to talk to me, anyway. I’m not worth their time; or rather, they are not worth mine. The truth is, I collect around me supporting, friendly Christians who flatter me and boost my self-confidence. They make me feel valued and important. They feed my ego. And if they don’t, the friendship fades.
When one friend became too busy with schoolwork, personal struggles, and a new boyfriend, she no longer had time for me. I assumed she didn’t want to see me. I took it as a hint that she didn’t care about me anymore. I no longer mattered in her life. So I gave up trying and left her alone. If she didn’t have the time for me, I would move on and forget the close friendship we used to have. I told myself that I could still love her from a distance; I would forgive her and bear her no ill will.
The Spirit examined my heart one night, during that precious time just before sleep when heart barriers lower from their usual daytime duty. He led me to an honest look at my love for others and compared it with Christ’s love, which is always active and working. Christ-like love doesn’t walk away because someone doesn’t show interest at first. Or because a friend grows cold.
Real love holds on. It fights to break through to the hearts of others and won’t stop until it does. It is strong and penetrating, conquering all. This is why romantic heroes who fight for the heroine, and don’t accept rejection, are so popular for movie-goers. They make women swoon in their theater seats.
This heart exam threw me low as only the Spirit’s humbling influence can. Looking back on my treatment of my distant friend, I saw it wasn’t love as Christ would show. Did Jesus give up on Peter when he denied three times even knowing him? And at a time when all of his other disciples had fled and he was about to be sentenced to death? If any desertion could be unforgivable, wouldn’t this qualify?
But that’s not right, at all. Love is not merely a lack of meanness toward someone. It doesn’t simply vow to not hate. It demands more. Once Jesus returned to life, he revealed himself to Peter and again invited his friend to join him in God’s work. “Feed my sheep,” Jesus told him. And Peter did for the rest of his life, leading the early Christian church into an unstoppable movement of salvation through Jesus.
How might we change lives if we persisted in love? Would people see Jesus living in us?
The next day after the Spirit’s humbling, I happened to read Matthew 5:43-48. Jesus had an uncanny ability to sum up truth in few words, and his words still speak to us today. They hit to the heart of the matter:
“‘You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.'”