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Loving When You Can't

A few weeks ago, I shared at a small retreat. As I was working on the message, the truths God showed me in the process greatly impacted me and have continued to be what I am processing with God in my own life in a lot of areas. I decided to share the content on the blog as well. Maybe it will be as helpful for you as it has been for me!


John 13:34 A new command I give you; Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. 

This command had a new standard. Not only are we to love our neighbor as ourselves, but love in the same way that Jesus did. This is seemingly impossible in our real, everyday lives.

As with most commandments, our issue isn’t so much with the ‘what’ but the ‘how.’ 

More often than not, it is easy for us to write off seemingly impossible commands as a complete impossibility for this life and either wear ourselves out doing our best to at least act loving and never measuring up or write it off as ‘not for now’ and give up. 

BUT, What if this command is not only a possibility but something that could be the pathway to a growing and deeper walk with Jesus?

The truth is, we can’t love like Jesus without Jesus. It's impossible. 

Quote from Dallas Willard:

Is it then hard to do the things with which Jesus illustrates the kingdom heart of love? Or the things that Paul says love does? It is very hard indeed if you have not been substantially transformed in the depths of your being, in the intricacies of your thoughts, feelings, assurances, and dispositions, in such a way that you are permeated with love. Once that happens, then it is not hard. What would be hard is to act the way you acted before.

When Jesus hung on the cross and prayed, “Father, forgive them because they do not understand what they are doing,” that was not hard for him. What would have been hard for him would have been to curse his enemies and spew forth vileness and evil upon everyone, God and the world, as those crucified with him did, at least for a while. He calls us to him to impart himself to us. He does not call us to do what he did, but to be as he was, permeated with love. Then the doing of what he did and said becomes the natural expression of who we are in him. - Dallas Willard in ‘Divine Conspiracy’

It’s not hard to be who be who we actually are - especially under pressure. It’s actually hard to be who we aren’t.

Who we actually are is who actually shows up when it matters. When our kids push our buttons, when our co-workers do something we don’t like, when our husband offends us, when our friends reject us, when major disappointments happen, when something happens at church, when we are overlooked for an opportunity, or when someone deeply hurts us or those we love, this is when we tend to see the uncurated us. 

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We live in a curated world where it is easy for us to believe the image we portray is who we actually are, but the real us is the one below the surface that only God sees. Those closest to us often see the more true versions of us. 

When we are dismayed about ways we feel or act unloving, the worst thing we can do is try harder or ignore the issue and hang out with people who just make us feel good about ourselves or avoid those who don't. The real issue is much deeper than that. The unsavory fruit has just revealed a place in us that is actually not loving. 

God desires to integrate our inner and outer world so they match. When this happens, our actions come from who we actually are and not from desperate attempts at holiness or as in the case of what we are talking about here, loving better.

This doesn’t need to be a source of shame for us, but an opportunity for us to see where we have yet to allow Jesus more access to our lives.

The good news for us is that God is never surprised by what is there, only we are. His love for us is completely unshakable and independent of how ‘good’ we are. He sees all of the unrestored and unwhole places in us, knows what to do about them and has the capacity and wisdom to bring complete restoration to that place.

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When we see something in us, we can respond in shame which leads away from God or accept His grace and forgiveness which leads to healing, restoration and growth.

We don’t need to come sheepishly, sullenly or in shame but can come boldly before the God who loves us and is full of grace.

*Hebrews 4:16 Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need. 

In John 13:3, there is a telling verse that shows what enabled Jesus to love and serve others. “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; SO he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing and wrapped a towel around his waist.” 

Jesus did not feel the need to prove anything because He was living from the truth of who He was. 

I believe the secret that allowed Him to live from this place was this:

Luke 5:16 - “Yet he often withdrew to deserted places and prayed.” 

Prayer is just being with God and this is where we learn to rest our identity in Him.

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Jesus knew who He was and this made Him unshakable in His love. His supply and validation came from the Father, therefore when others misunderstood Him, accused Him, rejected Him and ultimately killed Him, He was never shaken in His love. He was also not moved by the approval of man.

One thing I love to do when I read the Bible is to read it in the opposite. I Corinthians 13:4 is known as the Love chapter. 

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, alway perseveres.”

 If that is the picture of love, this is the picture of lovelessness:

“Lovelessness is impatient, it is unkind. It envies, boasts, and is proud. It does not honor others, is self-seeking, and is easily angered. It keeps record of wrongs. Lovelessness delights in evil (or wants the worst or revenge for another; celebrates their wrong as proof of our goodness) and is quiet with the truth (if it is not to our advantage to speak it). It happily exposes, is distrustful, and gives up on others.”

This backwards reading of the passage reveals the protective nature we can live from that makes loving well impossible. Every one of these is a self-protective stance we take in our humanity.

Whether it is refusal to forgive, a need to control, judgment (which is often envy or pride disguised), an inability to be confronted, comparison, fear, a need to be noticed, or all of the other ways we protect ourselves at the expense of others - these point to our need for God.

The truth is, any place we lack love, is a place that is not rooted in our identity in God because God IS love. It always reveals a place in us that needs healing, forgiveness or something else from Him that we don’t have within ourselves. 

Sometimes, in my own life, I have noticed the things I think I am doing out of love for others, actually are done so that I feel better about myself. It can be my need to be needed that is actually what motivates me. In the end, it’s for me, not for the other. My best attempts at love are often not actually loving at all but a way to get my own needs met.

If I investigate further, oftentimes the people I don’t like are those who hit an insecurity in me. Maybe I feel inferior in some way around them, am envious of them or perhaps, they have mistreated me, talked about me or hurt me in some way. I do this with groups of people too: those who think differently than I do or on the opposite side I feel strongly about. If I am honest, I don’t like them because I feel threatened. Something in me is not rooted in the God who is unshakable.Whatever it is, in some way their actions have touched my identity, self worth or activated a fear in my life.

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Wherever there is fear, love cannot be. We are all looking for something to find our worth in and wherever we find it in something other than Jesus, that is the exact place we will have a hard time loving well.  

Things are not all or nothing in our walks with God. This is because we are growing and maturing - hopefully for our entire lives. Parts of us may be rooted in Him and other parts may not be. Sometimes we can even have a mixture of good and bad motives. Our wrong responses and motives reveal places that are not yet rooted in Him and reveal opportunities to grow.

For example, my husband found me extremely hard to confront a lot of the time. The minute he would, I would begin to feel very self-protective. No matter how kindly he said, “Hey, can we talk about this issue.” Because of past baggage, I would immediately hear, “You are not enough. You are an utter failure in this area. You are hopeless.” 

He was saying none of these things but this is what I would hear. When he confronted me, the loving response would have been to pay attention to how I was hurting him, but in that moment, all I would care about was protecting me. Honestly, it was all I could care about until Jesus healed the wounded places. We will always protect what still needs to be healed. I needed to ask for forgiveness. I needed forgiveness BUT I also needed healing and Jesus readily gives both. 

It wasn’t until Jesus began to heal my heart of the shame and perfectionism that filled it that I was able to love my husband better in my response. I don’t do this perfectly at all but am growing in it. We never need to protect ourselves from God, but can always come to Him with all that we are. He is not confused by us and knows what to do. Even the darkness is not dark to Him and we are safe in His love. That’s where change comes.

We have the choice to live self-protective or God-protected.

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I want to interject that there are real enemies in our lives and people who have truly harmed us. I don’t want to minmize or trivialize very real pain and hardship that people have been through. But with Jesus, and only with Jesus, there is the real possibility of loving even our very worst enemies and those who have harmed us the most. His love is wide enough and deep enough to cover any experience we have had from the most trivial to the most horrific. 

I have had much bigger offenses in my life where people have harmed me and ones I love in ways that have greatly impacted us. There was not a quick fix, but a process of sitting with Jesus, hands clenched around my rights, my real hurts and my true offenses. He gradually anchored me more in Him which gave me the courage to open my hand and release the offense a little bit at a time. This allowed Him to replace the offense gradually with love for the offender. 

As with any wounding, healing takes time. Under the proper care, healing happens a little bit at a time until that place is healed. Sometimes a scar remains, but pressure can be put on that place and it doesn’t cause the same reaction or pain as a wound. A healed scar no longer needs to be protected in the same way a gaping wound does. God healed my heart and gave me a real tangible love for this person even though he never apologized.The journey began with gradually hating him less. Sometimes the road is long and hard, but the possibility is there if we keep sitting with God and allow ourselves to become God protected instead of self protective. 

While journaling and processing these things, the God spoke to my heart, “You cannot love without having something bigger than yourself as your foundation. Your capacity to love well is directly correlated to your rootedness in me.” 

Our answer is not that we need to ‘love better’ but allow Him to do the work in us that will actually make us into loving people. All unloving places in us point to a faulty foundation in us that we can bring to God. 

 If we ARE loving, love is what will come out when we are under pressure. 

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How do we do this?

-Let ourselves be loved by God. This happens in His Presence. Sitting with Him, our questions and our hurts allows for the healing that needs to come. We cannot know love from a place of being loved if we don’t spend time in the presence of Love. He is the source of true and unconditional love and being in His presence is the only place to see this transformative and powerful love received and formed in our lives. Without His presence, we have nothing firm to tether our life to. 

There is a lot of value in inviting Him to just be with us and sit without ‘doing’ something. We can be ‘busy’ in our quiet times too. Sometimes we even hide from God in our time with Him by not allowing Him the space to do what HE wants to do or by filling the time with so many words, we never listen. This can actually be a way to avoid intimacy with Him.

Love from God is the pathway to growth. It is where we feel safe enough to bring our broken, self-protective and sinful places. This is where we find the safety to actually be able to forgive and lay down our defenses that keep us from loving. We will never lay down our defenses if we don’t feel safe. We cannot will ourselves to love more. We have to be loved into loving more. (We love because He first loved us. I John 4:19.)

-Look at who we are having difficulty loving and with God, dig deeper to see what is underneath it.

All people need to be tethered to something. If we aren’t tethered to Him, we will be tethered to something else. People always bear the brunt when our identity is shaken by them. Resting our identity on others keeps us from being able to love them well. Unconditional love is only possible when an identity is not resting on the person who is to be loved.

What insecurity, fear, desire, previous wound or other thing is this person hitting in you? What in you makes it difficult to give and receive love? In the case of someone who has harmed you in some way, what did their action speak to your heart? What lies may have found their way into your heart? What does Jesus need to heal in you? Where do you try to prove yourself? What steps do you need to take to heal? 

-Allow the unloving places in us to point us to God

Places where we cannot love well only reveal deep needs in us that only God can satisfy. They reveal a place where our foundation is faulty and on something other than Him.

We need to let God do the hard work in us that will actually transform us into truly loving people. 

Unloving actions are just like the check engine light on a car. We often try to turn off the check engine light without ever looking under the hood of our life. The engine light isn’t the problem, the engine is. If we took care of the problem in the engine, the check engine light would turn off. Our problem isn’t that we can’t act loving in an area, our problem is we aren’t loving.

Places where we are not loving should not be buried in shame or acting better, but brought to God for healing, forgiveness and care. We are not capable of changing our heart, but we are capable of setting our minds on Him or taking our car to the mechanic so to speak. 

There are no quick fixes and there is a participation we take in becoming like Jesus. We don’t want to hide behind Scripture and right answers, but instead allow the truth to reveal how we actually are living. Time with Him cultivates the soil of our hearts and His presence softens it.

We can tell what truths are inside of us by how we actually live our lives and what our internal world looks like. 

Fruit always reveals a root.

To love well, we have to live from a place of being loved.


HIS love is the source of OUR love.