Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about relationships and what it truly means to love others well; to love as Jesus directed and love our neighbors as ourselves (see Matthew 22:39). We’re coming into a time of happiness and holidays, celebrations and gift-giving, where cheeriness and good tidings abound … but I know that for many, this season comes with a mixed bag of emotions—myself included.

As an adult, I long for the carefree holidays of childhood, when I wasn’t responsible for creating the “magic” and navigating the tricky landmine of divvying up days among family members and deciding who gets what time. If we’re honest, we could probably all identify at least a sliver of anxiety tucked into the gentle melodies of that Christmas music many of us already have playing.

Families are supposed to love one another, but what if the family dynamic resembles something more akin to Jackson Pollack than Normal Rockwell?

Traditions are touted as grand instruments connecting us to the past, but what if our present renders them difficult to implement?

Friends are supposed to gather and have parties, but what happens if you find your friends have shifted under the strain of unexpected conflict?

In this season focused on good tidings and joy, sometimes loving others well feels anything but holly jolly. What do we do with our twisted emotions?

That friend or “friend” who’s difficult to love?

That neighbor who makes you want to pull your hair out?

That coworker who induces you to make an about face and bolt in the opposite direction?

That family member who causes you to consider boycotting the holidays this year?

I’m probably not alone in loathing the friction that arises from trying to love those who we find hard to love—whatever the season! Perhaps on paper it even appears such persons don’t “deserve” our love. In the words of “Peg + Cat,” we’ve got a really big problem (and it’s not just my children’s love of PBS! There’s a little mom humor for you this morning.).

The Problem

In our cultural climate, we have a twisted sense of “love.” And while I don’t believe all social media is corrupt, I do believe it’s playing a significant role in warping that sense.

Potential mates are boiled down to a single profile picture and a list of interests. We know way more information than we ever should about hundreds of “friends.” We’ve torn down the walls of privacy and replaced them with iron bars that, whether intended to or not, often prevent true intimacy from occurring. It’s as though we know everything and nothing about one another.

And please, don’t get me started on Twitter, the utter personification of quid pro quo affection. Follow me and I’ll follow you—even though I know nothing about you and will promptly unfollow you should you fail to follow me back within 48 hours.

Ugh!

All this works against us, magnifying our worst flaws as humans by feeding our voracious search for self-aggrandizement, self-focus, and self-worth. All the while we plod along, craving genuine, unconditional love—craving the love we’re so slow in doling out to certain people in our lives.

Nearly every advertisement and cultural norm around us—indeed, our very sin nature—points us towards a selfish, self-seeking type of love.

Is it any wonder Jesus commanded us to love one another as ourselves? He called this the second greatest commandment of all (see Matthew 22:39). As our Creator, He knew doing so would not come naturally for us. We were in need of clear marching orders.

Reality Check

This “loving our neighbors as ourselves” thing is a hard truth for followers of Christ. It wasn’t simply a gentle suggestion or a nice thought. It was a command. We have been called to love in a different way. I always want love to be a feeling. I want it to come easily and naturally … but God asks us to love at all times, whether we feel it or not. Challenging, of course—but He empowers us to accomplish this sometimes seemingly impossible task through the Holy Spirit living in us.

If that call wasn’t hard enough, in Luke 6:27-28, Jesus really threw down the gauntlet on loving well when He said:

But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you (NIV).

He goes on to note that even “sinners” love those who love them and do good to those who do good to them (vv. 32-33). Ouch. Add those words to the list of hard things I wish Jesus hadn’t taught!

Likewise, the New Testament is full of similar admonitions. A quick search led me to nearly two-dozen references with cringe-inducing calls to “be devoted to one another in love” (Romans 12:10 NIV), “serve one another humbly in love” (Galatians 5:13 NIV), and “[bear] with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2 NIV). I don’t know about you, but that last one really makes me squirm. Often, I live as if Paul told us to avoid one another rather than bear with one another.

Jesus was so focused on His mission of loving God and loving others. He knew His Father would provide all the strength and ability necessary to fulfill that mission, therefore He was freed up to do the hard work of loving unlovable people (e.g., all of us!). To His last breath, Jesus loved those who hated Him, betrayed Him, and ultimately snuffed out His earthly life.

And we are to go and do likewise.

Finding Peace in Release

But how? I believe the answer is found in the simple yet challenging word release. Our world screams the message that we should hold onto our rights with an iron grip, withholding love from those who do not love us well. We’re bombarded with the call to live within that quid pro quo paradigm of love … and on paper, perhaps this approach seems like a fair option.

But one of the many things I love about our Heavenly Father is His sense of the ironic and how He’s woven the counterintuitive into His plan. Just as forgiving others releases you from the grip of bitterness, so loving others paves the way to a heart at peace. Releasing love, even when it isn’t easy and it isn’t “deserved,” is the express pass to a heart and mind free from the icky entanglements of twisted emotions.

I know how difficult and counter cultural it is to hear those words, especially when you’re in the weeds. Trust me, I get it. But in quiet moments, I think you would agree that when you’re struggling to love someone well and choosing to withhold love, you’re the one who ultimately suffers.

And the great news is that we are never alone in our struggle to love others well—when God calls us, He equips us (see Hebrews 13:21). We have the Counselor with us at all times, to guide [us] into all truth (John 16:13). That, dear reader, is all we need to put the gospel into action and love how Jesus loved.

Let me close by extending a challenge, to you and to me, since I’m right there in it with you. Is there a person (or persons) who came to mind when you read this? Picture him/her/them in your memory, and—deep breath—ask God to show you how you can specifically love that person well.

Is there a phone call you need to make? An e-mail you need to send? A kind act of service that you really, reeeeally don’t want to do?

Take a chance and lay down your rights, grab ahold of God’s gentle, capable Hand, and ask Him to supply the love you need to accomplish such a task. I think you will be pleasantly surprised at the result and the change that happens in your own heart. God is itching to dazzle us with His ability to supply grace, freedom, and supernatural love beyond our comprehension … He’s simply waiting for us to obediently take that first step into the Jordan (see Joshua 3).

Step in, my friend, and be blessed by what the Lord can do!