When I was young, I was teased mercilessly and rejected by the popular crowd. I learned that I wasn’t good enough, pretty enough, funny enough, or worth being around. Yet there were a few key people through my early years who believed in me and treated me with dignity and respect. They showed me myself, graced me with unconditional love, and nurtured my growth.
Now, as I travel, I listen to speakers at conferences and read business and personal publications, and I am constantly taught that in order to reduce the stress in my life and live with more happiness (which of course everyone wants), I need to spend my time with people who are upbeat, enjoyable, and life-giving. I need to cut out of my life as much as possible anyone who is negative or who sucks the energy out of me, anyone I don’t look forward to spending time with, or anyone who brings me down.
I think there is a bit of truth in that. We do need to feed our spirits, finding people who can act as wise sounding boards, who can truly play with us and help us retain our sense of wonder and fun, and who bring us life. Yet we are not called to love only those who love us. We are not called to pay attention only to people that we receive something from in return. This widespread advice is readily adopted everywhere I go, yet it is ultimately narrow-minded, selfish, and decidedly un-Christian.
Can you imagine those words coming out of the mouth of Jesus? Quite to the contrary, Jesus teaches that we must love our enemies, forgive endlessly, and reach out to those who have nothing or who return nothing to us. Jesus surrounded himself with disciples who didn’t understand, with sinners, and with those rejected by others. I’m sure Jesus also had people he leaned on and who supported him, people with whom he could let down and relax, and people he considered good friends. In fact, some of those good friends may also have been the very people who sinned and who sometimes didn’t understand him at all! But mainly, Jesus surrounded himself with God. He filled his soul with God, found his dignity in God, received his strength from God, and then turned around and saw the face of God in every face he encountered on earth. Can we do the same?
The problem is that we want answers now. Following the common advice, looking out for myself and associating with people who feed my own interests, is instantly gratifying, and we so strongly desire the easy path. Following the Gospel is neither easy nor instantly gratifying. It takes time, constant prayer, patience, and determined effort to look beyond the outward traits that we find so annoying and see into the hurting, wounded soul. It takes an open, Spirit-filled heart to recognize that this “distasteful” person is a child of God, a sister or brother, deserving of respect, dignity, and love. It takes generosity and grace to give freely without thought of reward. It takes strong faith to look into the face of another and see the face of Christ. And it takes persistence and fortitude to consistently treat that person accordingly, with kindness and care instead of disdain and rejection.
I am forever grateful to those instruments of God’s grace who paid attention to an “unlovable” young girl, and I have never forgotten how their love shaped and formed me. As an adult, I find myself particularly sensitive to people who are hurting or rejected. Perhaps what they need is not more rejection, but love. Perhaps they need less guilt and more forgiveness. Perhaps they need less anger and more understanding. In reality, despite any outward appearances, they are more like me than different from me. They are my neighbors, intimately connected with me in the one Body of Christ.
Ah, but that takes too much time and effort in our society. We have to look out for ourselves. We have to be “happy”. We have to focus on our own needs and make sure the people around us can fill them. Love is too demanding. The Gospel is too difficult and unrealistic. And Christ is crucified again.
Amy Florian is a teacher and consultant working in Chicago. For many years she has partnered with the Passionists. Visit Amy’s website: http://www.corgenius.com/.