How To Love Those Who Annoy You
By Jan Johnson
A Confession: I have not always loved my neighbors, especially the ones next door. At first, I was annoyed by the husband’s habit of parking the cars on his lawn-oops, there was no lawn, just dirt and weeds. Then there were the wild parties and loud fights. And though I tried to be friendly, our encounters were always awkward. Take, for instance, the day my husband was outside changing the oil in our car. The wife next door observed his frustration from the vantage point of our connected driveway. “Go ahead and cuss like the rest of us,” she said. Forget loving my neighbors; encounters like this made me want to avoid them.
As I grew in my capacity to “love” God with all [my] heart and soul and mind, I grew increasingly troubled by my incapacity to love my neighbor (Matthew 22:37-39). And not just my next-door neighbor, but any person God might bring near me (a neighbor is literally one who is “nigh” to you). I began to notice certain disturbing patterns in my life. I avoided opinionated people, people who belittle what I thought was important, and people who never let me finish a sentence without interrupting. I criticized such people, even if only in my thoughts. I lacked love for those I labeled “difficult.”
At least by avoiding these people I’m not hurting them, I told myself. But the Holy Spirit kept nudging me with this question: What would it look like to love the person in front of me-even if only for the next 10 minutes, even if this person annoys me?
The kind of love God was calling me to required a heart transformation. The first step was to understand what my present attitude toward the hard-to-love people around me was doing to my heart.
I discovered what you may have noticed: Dealing with the annoying people who populate our everyday lives can give rise to bitterness, frustration, and low-level hostility. These negative attitudes then become the routine focus of our thoughts and our hearts.
The process is subtle; it sneaks up on us. We nurture memories of being mistreated, snubbed, or insulted, how certain people barely spoke when they passed us in the hall; or how, when they did speak, they deliberately pushed our buttons. We let the sun go down on our mild wrath, so to speak, which flourishes into body language, words, and deeds such as eye rolling, generalizing (“he always…”), name-calling, sarcasm, grumbling, cynicism, and gossip. Even perfectionism (“I’ll show my dad!”) and rejecting authority (“What do cops know?”) often have at their roots a hostility toward someone or many someones. All these can be signs that we do not value others as people whom God loves.
Additionally, our spur-of-the-moment responses toward total strangers are wake-up calls to what is going on in our hearts. I struggled for years with my attitude toward telemarketers, habitually responding to them with irritation. After all, they were interrupting my concentration! I lost sight of them as innocent people trying to make a living.
Sometimes, however, our anger toward strangers seems justified. The driver who cuts us off, the supermarket checker who takes so long to do her job, the kid behind us on the airplane who kicks the seat for the entire flight-these people really are behaving badly.
But for children of the light called to light the world, a life-rhythm of everyday hostility is not justified it’s a serious problem. Yes, such hostility may seem “minor” in today’s society in which people attack each other daily on talk radio. But we are not called to live that way. We are called to love our neighbors. Not to ignore them, avoid them, or lash out at them, but to love them.
When I considered all this, I came to see that I had a heart problem.
Having seen what was truly in my heart, I felt tempted to try harder at loving my difficult neighbors. Trying harder was not the solution, however. Rather, I needed to begin with cultivating a right heart-a heart of good will toward them. That cultivation takes place through certain spiritual practices that help me connect with God and, through that vital connection, build a right heart from which loving actions are more likely to flow. Here are some practices I’ve found particularly helpful in cultivating a heart of love for difficult people.
Prayer One day as I was hiking, my thoughts kept turning to Alice (not her real name), a Christian friend who was being unkind and spiteful toward another friend, a non-Christian. Even as my thoughts condemned Alice for acting with such venom while bearing the name of Jesus, I felt guilty about my inability to love her. What could I do?
Matthew 5:44 came to mind: “But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” I did not think of Alice as my enemy, yet I sure wasn’t feeling any love for her. So I concluded that Jesus’ words applied well to my situation. I needed to pray for Alice.
I plopped down on the side of the trail under a willow tree and prepared to pray. Unable to find other words, I prayed the ones in Philippians 1:9-11: that her love would abound more and more, that her knowledge and discernment would increase. I continued to pray these and other requests for Alice in the months ahead, and in time I found I was able to speak kindly toward her again and to care genuinely about what was happening in her life. Prayer had cultivated in me a more loving heart.
Confession As I prayed for Alice, I found myself doing a good deal of soul-searching as well: What is in my heart toward this woman? Do I see myself as her victim too? What is she doing right that I’m not giving her credit for? Do I need to trust God more with this situation? Soul-searching led me to confession. I needed to come clean to God about the resentment within me.
Confession is not a time to beat ourselves up; rather it allows God to surround us with empowering grace. It’s one more way to get our hearts right.
Sometimes after we confess to God, He will lead us to confess to the other person. A friend of mine made an appointment with a youth pastor who had said some hurtful things to her teenage son. She wanted this youth pastor to understand how and why her son was hurt so the injury wouldn’t be repeated. As they talked, she quickly sensed that the pastor felt like quitting. His despair helped her see that her heart had not been as loving as she thought. So she confessed to him, “When I came here, I wanted to get back at you, but that was wrong. I believe God has called you here, and you’re very important to our family. Please forgive me.” As you can imagine, this was a transforming moment for both of them. The youth pastor no longer felt accused and inept; instead he was empowered to move forward in ministry. My friend felt the goodness and humility of a cleansed heart.
Silence Silence is another spiritual practice that helps me cultivate a loving heart. There are many ways to practice silence, but one way that particularly helps me keep a right heart toward others is the practice of not seeking to have the last word. Especially when someone tries to get a reaction from me or offers a final zinger, it helps my inner peace to say nothing.
I saw the power of this practice once when a family member smarted off to my very sweet sister. I immediately became irritated. My sister, however, said nothing and simply smiled at the offender. The look on that young person’s face changed. She realized she’d been unkind to my sister who was always kind to her. And I, standing off to the side, felt my irritation vanish as I felt God’s grace (in my sister’s face) pour over me as well. It was a love-drenched silence.
Service Does it seem phony to serve someone you dislike? It shouldn’t. Sometimes God leads us to serve in order to develop a right heart in us.
Many years ago I knew an older woman who found her pastor annoying so much so that she couldn’t stand to listen to his sermons. She knew she needed to change, so, led by God, she started to attend the pastor’s weekly Bible study and even offered to fix the coffee and set up the chairs. I noticed that she seemed to sleep through most of the study, and I asked if she was tired. In response, she told me about her “heart problem” and the Spirit-suggested solution. Then she added, “I find myself praying for our pastor during the study. This has helped me see him differently. It’s the best thing I could have done.”
She has inspired me to do some odd things. After a meeting at church, I discovered I was parked next to someone who had irritated me during the meeting. The ash from a recent wildfire covered all of our cars, so I got a duster from my trunk and gently wiped off his car. That action was a prayer of sorts-one I was too annoyed to have verbalized. Yet by the time I was done, my heart was right toward him again.
With my next-door neighbors, God gave me a means of service that surprised me. I was an art volunteer at their daughter’s elementary school. Interacting with this sweet-natured girl cultivated in me a more loving heart toward the family who managed to produce a child like this. As I befriended her in small ways-giving her an art book, speaking and waving to her from our driveways her parents became more friendly too.
Practices such as these-prayer, confession, silence, service-cultivate in us hearts that trust God with difficult people. As we align ourselves minute-by-minute with the one who is consistently kind even to the ungrateful, we start to take on the character of His Son. We more naturally “participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires” (2 Peter 1:4) even if, sometimes, it’s only for 10 minutes at a time.
Article “How To Love Those Who Annoy You” written by Jan Johnson is excerpted taken from www.discipleshipjournal.com the 2003 May/June edition.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”