Category Archives: Loving Others

What Makes A Marriage Work?

Nate and Vanessa Geoffrion WeddingCharge to the Wedding Couple

Nathan and Vanessa Geoffrion

By Rev. Dr. Timothy C. Geoffrion

July 16, 2017 

Your wedding day is one of the most important days of your lives. Even though you have been in love for some time, today you are making a lifelong commitment to one another.

You’re in love. You are committed to each other. You’re excited. You have spent a lot of time planning not only for this day, but for your future together.

You’re ready to get married. Probably more than ready. So, the question for today is not, will you commit yourself to each other. You’re already ready to do that. No, the real question going forward is, what are you going to do to stay committed? What do you need to do to keep your love alive and growing?

Everything I’m going to say, you’ve probably heard before, but now is a very good time to remind you of what you simply must remember going forward, if you want your marriage not only to survive but to also thrive and be all that God intends for you.

In short, a marriage that both survives and thrives is one in which there is rock solid commitment. There’s a lot of grace. And God is clearly at the center of everything.

Rock-solid commitment

Let’s talk first about commitment. What kind of commitment is needed in marriage? Well, the minimum level is a commitment to stay together, come what may. In a few moments, you are going to promise to take each other as your spouse, and to hold on to each other throughout your lives…for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health…until death. I think that’s pretty clear. Come what may, you will be promising to stand by each other until the end of your lives.

That’s the minimum. But our commitment should go deeper and further than the minimum.

  • The kind of commitment that helps a marriage do more than just survive is also a commitment to do all you can to work things out when things get rough or rocky. You have to keep talking, and be willing to face things in yourself and issues you might prefer to avoid.
  • It’s also commitment to keep growing as individuals, and as a couple, so that you have more and more to offer one another.
  • It’s a commitment to learn how to love each other when loving seems really hard or when you get preoccupied with other interests or concerns.
  • It’s a commitment to learn how to love each other as God love us—as much as that’s possible.

The biblical definition of godly love, also known as agape, comes down to putting the interests of others ahead of your own. Agape means acting in ways that are truly in the other’s best interest, even when it costs you something to do so. Even if you’re not getting all of what you want in the relationship.

Agape is the kind of love that led Jesus Christ to give up his life to bring salvation to the world. He didn’t do it because he felt all warm and tingling inside all the time. He did it the people he loved had a great need, and he alone could do something about it. He did it because he wasn’t thinking only about what was best for him. He was thinking about what was best for us.

In a word, agape is unselfish commitment.  It’s not devoid of feelings; it’s just not dependent on feelings. Agape is a steadfast commitment to each other, commitment to treating each other in the right ways, commitment to believing the best things about each other, commitment to being there for each other.  

Agape simply does not give up on the other person. What this means then is that you need to be each other’s best fan. You need to believe in the other, even if no one else does. You need to focus more on what it is right than what is wrong in that person. And you need to hang in there, even when the going gets tougher than you ever dreamed it would.

Full of grace

The second ingredient in a marriage that both survives and thrives is grace. Be sure there’s a lot of grace in your marriage.

You know about grace because you’ve experienced it from God for yourselves. God’s standard for our lives and relationships doesn’t waver, but he continually remembers our frailty and limitations. He knows all our failings and weaknesses, but he loves us anyway.

God treasures and values us so highly, that even when (not if) we fail to be the kind of person he calls us to be, he is there to offer forgiveness if we turn back to him. And he’s there to help us to get back on our feet again, when we need a helping hand.

That’s grace.

When I got married 35 years ago, Jill and I had no idea what we were getting into! Some things we knew, but there was so much we didn’t know about ourselves and each other. We had so much growing up still to do. And then, there was so much that life brought to us that we never could have imagined. Sometimes we were ready for the unexpected, and sometimes we were completely caught off guard. Sometimes, we handled challenges really well. And sometimes, we fell flat on our faces.

Yet, in the midst all our weaknesses, limitations, failings, and missteps, what’s helped us through has been grace. Commitment, to be sure; but also grace.

Grace accepts the other person as they are. Grace recognizes that none of us is perfect, and never will be; yet there remains value and preciousness in each of us. Grace forgives when necessary, and chooses to be patient and kind. Grace chooses to focus on the good, rather than what’s wrong. Grace believes in the other person, even when your spouse cannot believe in him- or herself.

In short, grace offers what the other person does not deserve, because the other person’s worthiness is not the point. Grace offers what love chooses to give. And once again, God is our example.

God lavishes his love on us not because of our worthiness, but because of who he is. It’s how he wants to relate to his creation. He wants to love us, and he has within himself the capacity to be gracious and kind, even when we are at our worst. We find in Scripture several places where the writer praises God by saying, “You, O Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Psalm 86:15).

That’s the kind of God we have. And he is our example…

Rock solid commitment and willingness to show grace to each other are critical ingredients to a successful marriage. But there’s something else even more important.

Keep God at the center of everything.

No matter what your intentions may be today, you cannot fulfill your commitment or become all of what God intends for you to be in your own strength or by just focusing on each other. Your love, as great as it is, is limited. Your relationship, as special as it is, cannot be everything. It can’t even be the main thing.

From a Christian perspective, what makes a marriage and a family thrive is God. God is the author of love. And it’s only by tapping into God’s incredible love that you are going to be able to keep loving each other in the face of all the demands and pressures ahead.

All this means that you need to build a strong relationship with God, and to make that relationship a high priority. As Christians, you also need to put Christ at the center of your lives, at the center of your marriage, and at the center of everything. It’s only when Christ becomes the reason for your lives, and God becomes the source and strength of your lives, that you can hope to experience all of what God intends for you. …that you could hope to experience the kind of marriage that God intends for you.

So many times in my marriage, I have noticed that it’s been our common commitment to Christ and our relationship with God that have helped us through the rough spots.

  • Individually, we each gave our lives to Christ, and that common spiritual commitment has given us a common language and purpose in life.
  • When we’ve been tempted to just focus on ourselves and what we want, our common faith has helped us to remember that we are here to serve God and others. Marriage is never just about the lives of the husband and wife. When we remember that we are here not to just serve ourselves, but to serve Christ in the world, that outward focus has kept us from turning inward and collapsing on ourselves.
  • And when we did not have the strength to face a particular trial, our common habits of prayer and seeking God’s help have led us over and over again to fresh perspective and strength to not give up.

We haven’t been perfect in following Christ by any means, but our relationship with him has been an anchor when we’ve needed stability; it’s been a lighthouse, when we’ve needed to avoid danger in the darkness; and it’s been our North star, when we’ve needed to know which direction to go. It’s been our common root, from which we both can grow.

If you continually pursue this kind of Christ-centered, agape filled, gracious and purposeful marriage, not only will your marriage survive when many others are failing; your marriage will thrive. You will see God use you to bless others in more ways than you can imagine now.

May God bless you both with this kind of marriage—grounded in a rock solid commitment, full of grace, and centered on God through Christ.

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4 Steps to Loving ‘Hard-to-Love’ People

What do you do if you’ve just had it with someone? It may be a family member, a friend, or maybe a co-worker. You may have even been quite close at one time, but lately the relationship just isn’t working. I am not necessarily talking about someone who is actively spewing forth hostility or hatefulness, or someone you have to avoid for your own safety. I’m thinking of those people you simply don’t want to be around, but can’t avoid, or you feel as if you shouldn’t give up completely on them for one reason or another. On your best days, you would still like to be able to love them better or show Christ’s love to them. Loving such “hard (for us)-to-love” individuals is, well, hard! Sometimes the slightest comment or look by “hard-to-love” individuals can stir up a whole rash of negative feelings and even bring out your worst self. Then, there are all those times when your best efforts to try to love them actually backfire, and the relationship deteriorates even further. You’ve figured that you can’t change them, and you also probably realize that it is harder to change yourself than you might like to admit. You may already be at the point of giving up completely.

Tough times on the Camino 2006
Tough times on the Camino

So, what hope is there? Lessons from the Camino In 2006, when my wife, two sons, and I walked five hundred miles across northern Spain on the Camino, a ancient pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, we had a LOT of time together as a family. We were deeply grateful for the unique opportunity to be together for 37 days on this kind of spiritual and physical adventure. On the other hand, our close proximity under these conditions made it impossible to avoid facing unresolved tensions in our relationships. Blow ups, sulking, withdrawing, attacking, followed by more conversation, trying to listen better, many miles to walk and think, praying, and stumbling along under stressful circumstances made the journey a lot harder than we ever imagined. Yet, facing the truth of our relational issues all led to some new insights over time. What emerged were four practical steps anyone can take to improve a broken or difficult relationship that proved to be quite helpful to us then and ever since in many different contexts. Here they are. 1. See—The first step is to open our eyes to see people for who they are, not who we want them to be, or who we’ve caricatured them to be. 2. Accept—We need to let go of any negative emotion we might be carrying from our dislike/disappointment/resentment/frustration etc. arising from the fact that they are not who we want them to be. 3. Appreciate—From a peaceful place of acceptance of another person, we are in a much better place to look for the other person’s qualities and unique gifts and contributions, and to begin to genuinely appreciate something about them. 4. Delight—From an attitude of appreciation, we can now let ourselves actually delight in this or that aspect of their personalities or way of being in the world.

On the journey together
On the journey together

How these four steps transformed my marriage In my own marriage, this four-step process has been extremely helpful. My wife and I share many things in common, but our personalities are quite different, and clash rather easily. Learning to “see” her for who she is has included giving up my ideas of what I thought a perfect wife should be and even who I thought I was marrying! One of the most helpful things I have tried is to consciously set aside my previous expectations for her and start over. I step back and try to see what is real about her. I keep asking her and myself, “Who is Jill?” Not, “Who do I want her to be?” but “Who is she, actually?” (step one) Seeing her for who she truly is leads then to a decision point: Will I accept her as she is? A negative answer perpetuates my unhappiness and the tension between us. A positive answer opens the door to greater peace—not resignation, but simply accepting that this is the person she is without a big, negative emotional charge. (step two)  Then it becomes a whole lot easier to stop reacting when she doesn’t meet my expectations in one way or the other. With this, I have been training myself to say, especially when the old reactions flare up, “Well, that’s Jill.” (That is, “That’s who she is, and I can live with that.”) At this point, the marriage can take a real turn for the better. I’ve decided that I don’t want to stay stuck in disappointment or resentment, thinking about all I might want her to be or to do. Instead, I choose to focus my attention on her unique gifts, her tremendous love for me, all that she does for me and for our family, and the many ways that she creatively contributes to the world. (step three) Then, delighting in her suddenly didn’t seem so impossible to imagine anymore. In my case, I begin to genuinely enjoy many of the idiosyncratic ways Jill gives of herself to love and help me, our family, and many others day after day. There’s nobody else quite like her, and I am now more sure than ever that I wouldn’t want to be married to anyone else! (step four)

Tim and Jill dancing on the Camino
Learning to dance together again

Not giving up It may be easy to blame “hard-to-love” individuals for our feelings or attitude toward them.  But Jesus’ teaching on loving our neighbor and even our enemy doesn’t really support that kind of thinking. He simply doesn’t give us much room to blame someone else for our not trying to love them. To love others is our calling regardless of how others behave, not our reward for their approved or desired behavior. So, in the end, from Jesus’ point of view, loving others is not about them, it’s about us. It’s about our commitment to being people of love, who continually ask God to love others through us more and more. It’s about our willingness to humble ourselves and to let God change our hearts. It’s about doing the hard work of learning how to see—accept—appreciate—and even delight in our “hard-to-love” neighbors, so that we may love them as God loves us and we love ourselves. Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Colossians 3:12-14, NIV) If you want more suggestions… Who is one “hard-to-love” person in your life? You may be at a complete loss to know what to do differently or you may feel powerless, but you still would like to learn how to let God’s love flow more freely through you to him or her.

  1. Make a list of their characteristics as fairly and objectively as you can. Who is he? Who is she? Without judging them, try to “see” them for who they are.
  2. Let go of all that you’ve been wanting them to be, and choose to accept that this is the way they are—and who they are likely going to be unless they choose to change. Take a deep breath and release all your pent up feelings as you exhale. Pray for the grace to get to the place where you can observe this person and simply say, “Well, that’s _________________ (so-and-so).” You know you have successfully completed this step when you can mention their name without an emotional charge, and you can think of them without disdain or distress in your judgment of them.
  3. Now, identify their strengths as you perceive them. What do they contribute to the world or others? What potential do you see? What of their life do you genuinely value, even if they are not offering their best side to you personally?
  4. Lastly, from a place of peaceful acceptance and genuine appreciation, is there anything about this person that you actually like or enjoy? Don’t try to force this step, but ask God to give you eyes to see what Christ delights in when he sees this person, and to free you to begin to enjoy some aspect of that person, too.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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What kind of love makes a marriage flourish?

On July 8, I had the privilege of giving the Charge to the Couple during the wedding ceremony for my son Tim and his bride Stella. Since so many people we know and love around the world could not witness this incredibly joyful experience, I am reproducing the Charge here as this month’s essay. So many longtime couples who were present at the service told me that the message was not just for a bride and groom, but for longtime couples as well.

Charge to the Couple

The Rev. Dr. Timothy C. Geoffrion

What does it take to make a couple’s love stay strong? What kind of love is needed to not only make a marriage last, but to enable it to blossom and to flourish continually?

As you may know there are many different kinds of “love” in human experience: love for family; love for friends; romantic love; erotic love; and the kind of love that Greek writers called, agape. And when we speak about love between a husband and wife, there are also many different ideas about what marriage means: Should we think of marriage in utilitarian terms, a contract between a man and woman to produce a family and secure a couple’s well-being in old age? Is it a romantic saga wherein a strong hero rescues the damsel in distress and cares for her valiantly for the rest of their lives? Is it about passion, a union that allows for the fulfillment of every dream and desire? Or is it really about a treasured friendship between a man and woman, who simply want to be together and to spend the rest of their lives in each other’s company?

There is not one right answer to these questions, and these options are not mutually exclusive. What matters the most is not so much what answers you come up with, but that you are willing to find answers that work for both of you. In other words, marriage is not simply about trying to meet your own individual needs or to gratify your own desires, but to develop a relationship in which you work with each other to create something beautiful and good for both of you.

What kind of love do you have and will you seek for each another? What kind of marriage do you envision, and do you intend to create?

We read in Genesis 2 (verses 18-24) that from the beginning of time, men and women have left their parents in order to cling to each other in marriage. The writer is not talking about an impulse or even sexual desire, but a deep level of attraction that draws a man and woman to want to create a union between them that is like no other. But no matter how powerful the mutual attraction, this kind of love is only the beginning point for a marriage.

From the Song of Songs (2:8-14), we were drawn to the amorous feelings of two lovers. Passion is indispensible in bonding a husband and wife to each other, and can lead to tremendous satisfaction in the marriage relationship. However, eros, as the Greeks called this kind of love, is neither a superior nor an inferior form of love to other kinds. Eros brings joy like nothing else, but it is certainly only one dimension of married life; and no marriage can survive only on it. More is needed.

In reading Paul’s interpretation of agape love, we realize immediately that he’s talking about a kind of love that is more than an ideal and more than a feeling. He was not writing about marriage, but the relevance to a married couple is immediately obvious. Listen again to how he characterized agape.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.

It is not rude, 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, always perseveres.

Love never fails. (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a)

C.S. Lewis wrote about agape love in his popular book, The Four Loves. He describes agape as a “selfless love…that is passionately committed to the wellbeing of the other person”. [1] That’s well said.

Such love is not devoid of feelings; it’s just not dependent on feelings. Agape is a steadfast commitment to treating each other in the right ways, to believing the best things about each other, to being there for each other. Agape leads to sacrificial service for the sake of the other person, and for the sake of relationship that one has with the other person.

Right now you may think that you really know each other. But you don’t.

You may think you know what married life is going to be like. But you don’t.

Right now you may think that you really love each other. And (don’t worry) you do, but you do not yet know how much your love needs to still grow in order to endure for the rest of your lives.

You are about to embark upon an adventure that will be filled with many surprises, twists, and turns. Some will be wonderful, and some will be harder than you can imagine. For some things you have been well prepared, but for others, you are going to feel completely over your heads.

It’s simply not possible to prepare for all that is ahead of you, but you can commit yourselves to love each other no matter what. When times get tough relationally, you need to be committed to stay together, and to work through whatever you need to work through. No matter how much your love may falter, agape love insists on remaining faithful and not looking elsewhere or to someone else to meet the needs that are reserved for the marriage union. When you don’t understand each other or don’t know what to do, you need to seek whatever help you need, and to do your best to treat each other kindly and respectfully while you’re figuring it out. That’s agape love at its best, and where it’s most needed.

In other words, agape within marriage refuses to give up on the other person or the marriage. What this means then is that you need to be each other’s best fan. You need to believe in the other, even if no one else does.  You need to focus more on what it is right, than what is wrong in that person. And you need to hang in there, even when the going gets tougher than you ever dreamed it would.

When I think back to my parents’ marriage, I remember distinctly that their relationship was rocky at times. They weren’t the best match for each other, and sometimes it was painful to be around them when they were arguing. Yet, one thing never wavered. And that was their devotion to each other, and their commitment to their marriage. I believe it was that kind of love that saw them through so many painful and disturbing experiences that had to endure. It was that kind of love that gave me security as a child.

And when I married, guess what? It turns out my wife and I were actually quite different. Yet it was our common commitment to our marriage, our common commitment to Christ, and our willingness to seek help from God and others when we didn’t know what to do that have helped us through the hard times. And today, having gone through a lot of ups and downs, our love is stronger and more vibrant than ever. Even after 30 years of marriage, we are still discovering new ways we need and appreciate one another; and new ways for us to serve God and live life that bring us more joy and satisfaction than ever.

I am certainly not saying that we are the “super couple.” I am saying that by being committed to one another, “for better and for worse”; by continuing to seek to grow, as individuals and in our marriage; and by being willing to admit that we needed help at times and by seeking that help, that we have experienced so much growth over the years. And God, who is the author of agape, is key to all of it.

When your life is rooted in the love and grace of God, and you learn to treat each other with that same love and grace; and when you seal your marriage relationship with an unbreakable commitment and devotion to one another, then your marriage will be strong and life-giving for both of you. You will feel secure, and you can relax in the safety of each other’s commitment; and from that place you can dare to be yourself, to experiment, to learn, to grow, and to create freely and fully as you build your life and family together.

For your marriage to be strong and healthy, you will need to discover what love truly means to each of you, and what kind of marriage you want to create with each other. That will take time. That will take openness and honesty. It will take compromise, understanding, graciousness, and a willingness to change and grow. But you can do it. With the help of God, the love and support of family and friends, and true humility and agape love, there is so much that you can look forward to you in your married life together.

Benediction. May your love become deeply rooted in the love of God. May it blossom beautifully and richly. May it flower so gracefully and fragrantly that it becomes the greatest most precious gift that you give to each other, your children, your family, your friends, and all those whose lives you touch.

Amen.


[1] Cited in Wikipedia, under “Agape,” July 6, 2012.

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Jesus, Help Me! (6 of 6)

A series on accepting God’s love for us and portraying that love to others

Getting hurt, or hurting others, can happen so easily. It might occur by accident, through neglect, or, sometimes, even on purpose. None of us is immune from being hurt by others, nor are we capable of never hurting someone else.

However, we can learn how to minimize the damage we do to one another. We can learn strategies and spiritual practices to bring healing sooner rather than later.

Simple, heartfelt apologies often go a long way to heal the pain and alienation arising from our hurting one another. However, when we don’t acknowledge and deal adequately with what’s happened, the wounds can fester. We judge, accuse, blame, and can get stuck in our alienation and rage—and the problem gets worse.

Wars, suicide bombings, character assassinations, vindictive acts of revenge, and all sorts of other hateful, seriously damaging behavior often stem from not knowing how (or choosing not) to resolve conflicts peacefully and constructively.

In this week’s article, I offer some simple guidelines and suggestions for how you can deal more effectively with the hurts and broken relationships in your life (regardless of who’s at fault), from a spiritual and practical point of view. (Of course, if you want to best equip yourself, I also strongly recommend that you attend a full day conflict resolution workshop, seek help other professionals, and consult the growing amount of literature on inner healing and nonviolent, conflict resolution.)

Above all, you must take responsibility to do all you can to address the relational breakdown, while recognizing that you cannot control what the other person chooses to do or not to do. At the same time, without abdicating your responsibility, seek all the help you can get from God by asking the Spirit of Jesus to reveal his presence in your heart and mind as follows.

Situation 1. You are at fault, or you have wronged someone else.

• Imagine that you are looking directly into Jesus’ eyes as you explain what happened.

• Prayer: “Jesus, please listen to how I think and feel about this situation. Please show me where I have been wrong, and how I have hurt [this person]. How can I keep from making the situation worse? What can  I do to make it better?”

• Constructive response to the one who has been hurt : “I am sorry that I have hurt you. Can we talk? How can I make this situation right?”

Situation 2. You have been wronged by someone else.

• Imagine Jesus holding your hands or with his arm around you, compassionate, caring, and helpful.

• Prayer: “Jesus, please give me courage and strength to acknowledge how I have been wronged. How may I respond to this situation in ways that best serves your purposes and honors God? Please give me an ability to forgive and even to love [this person] regardless of their response to me.”

• Constructive response to the one who has hurt you: “I have been deeply hurt. I need to talk about what has happened for my sake and the sake of our relationship. I want to seek healing and reconciliation where possible. Can we talk?”

Situation 3. Both you and the other person are clearly at fault.

• Imagine you are standing with Jesus, and the look on his face is one of compassion, integrity, and willingness to help.

• Prayer: “Jesus, please help me to find a balanced perspective, fairly assessing both the part I have played and the part [the other person] has played in the relational breakdown. Please give me courage and strength to face my own failings, to stand by my own perspective of how I have been wronged, and to know how to go forward from here. ”

• Constructive response to other person: “Please tell me how you have been hurt by me. Please listen to my feelings and experience, too. Let’s be honest with one another, forgive one another, and find a way to rebuild our relationship.”

Situation 4. No one seems to have sinned or deliberately done wrong, but there is great regret, hurt, and/or grief.

• Sit with the wise rabbi, who clearly has the ability to give needed guidance under painful and difficult circumstances.

• Prayer: “Jesus, please help me to sense your strong, gracious, loving presence. Please help me to forgive myself for what went wrong. Please show me the way forward and walk with me.”

• Constructive response: “I’m sorry for whatever ways I hurt you. I did not mean to cause you suffering. What can we do to make this situation right, or at least go forward from here?”

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.  And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6, NIV)

The Point: Asking Jesus to make his presence better known to you in the midst of the unresolved relational pain or conflict is different from asking God to fix the problem. By all means ask for relational miracles and for God to change the heart and mind of everyone involved. However, don’t abdicate your own responsibility. Ask Jesus for wisdom, grace, strength, courage, and opportunity that will enable you to do everything within your power to make things better or right…with God’s help.

Prayer: “Loving Lord Jesus, you are the Prince of Peace. Please give me the grace to face my pain and the pain I have caused others, and show me the way forward from here.”

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One Way Love (5 of 6)

A series on accepting God’s love for us and portraying that love to others

Over the past few weeks, I’ve written about the power and importance of love when loving doesn’t come easily or we’re not sure what to do—“Simply Love Them” (Dec. 21), “When Loving Gets Tough” (Jan. 4), and “A Harder Kind of Love: Forgiveness” (Jan. 11). Perhaps the most difficult kind of love to offer, though, is what we do for others with no expectation of return.

I’m not talking about anonymous giving or unrequited romantic love, but the arduous, self-sacrificial love shown to those who cannot, for whatever reason, return our love or show appreciation. They may have dementia, be mentally disturbed, or even be our enemies. In such cases, our loving is entirely one way, and we may easily feel overwhelmed or utterly inadequate to rise to the occasion.

In 1988, I first knew something was seriously wrong with my mother. It took three years for us to have a firm diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, and nearly fifteen years before her breathing finally stopped. In between, each day on the long journey felt like a little death, as everything I knew and loved about her kept slipping away from me bit by bit.

Watching her slowly degenerate, lose her dignity, cease functioning, and become completely incapable of communicating with us was horrifying. The sense of loss cut like stab wounds, inflicted over and over again.

Alzheimer’s is a wearisome, disturbing, and heart-wrenching disease. Usually, long, long before the victim succumbs to death, loved ones have the responsibility of caring for someone who no longer knows them, let alone is able to offer them the same kind of love and relationship they have known.

So, what does it mean to love under such circumstances?  Warm feelings are often replaced with shock, anger, revulsion, depression, or all of the above. Natural motivation to reach out can wane over time as weariness sets in, especially when nothing comes back. I’ve seen heroic spouses, children, or siblings carry on year after year, but so many others cannot seem to handle the horror of the disease or the pain of the gradual loss, and they disappear.

My nearly fifteen-year journey with my dying mother taught me many things about such one way love that may help you, too:

• It’s OK to be angry and upset. Don’t minimize your distress or rush to look for silver linings. If you really loved the person from your heart, seeing their demise or struggle will be extremely painful. To feel and express your emotions is human, and may provide the energy you need to find ways to cope with the tragedy.

• Don’t try to be a hero. Get support, get a break when needed, and get help. My father probably shortened his life trying to care for my mother too long in his own home. For most of us, providing love for sick or troubled people can be the most taxing and troublesome ordeal of our lifetime. Don’t try to do it alone.

• At the same time, don’t run away. Resist the temptation to cope by neglecting the aging person. You will be sorry later on if, when the loved one is gone, you didn’t do what you could have done to be there for them.

• Separate your own anguish from that of the one who is sick or dying. They have their own psychological, emotional, and spiritual grappling to do, you have yours. Let the pain and cognitive dissonance you are experiencing be a catalyst for your own growth.

• Choose to love them in action, even when you don’t feel love. Insist on their proper care, whether you are one of the actual caregivers or not. Advocate for them continually. Check on them frequently. Look after them as you would a newborn baby who poops and cries a lot, yet is too young to even smile in return.

• When the one you are committed to rebuffs you, hates you, acts violently toward you—as can easily happen in cases of dementia or other mental illness—the example of Jesus may help. When he was rejected and literally crucified by those he sought to love, his attitude was gracious and kind. His prayer was, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

• It’s OK to ask your questions of God. My mother’s illness made no sense to me, because I was living under the false assumption that faithful Christians serving Christ’s purposes would somehow be spared from such tragedies. Being honest with my questions and seeking better answers was extremely helpful to me. Re-thinking my assumptions about God and about the meaning of life and human suffering have helped me to mature and to draw closer to God than ever.

“We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” (Romans 5:3-5, NIV)

The Point: Hanging in there with those who are no longer able or willing to love you in return can be one of the hardest tests of your commitment to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Yet choosing to do so can make all the difference in the world to the kind of person you become, and to the beneficiary of your love as well.

Prayer: “Loving Lord, thank you for the depth of your love for me. Please teach me how to draw more fully from your love, so that I can persevere better in loving others. Help me to release my own expectation and desire for reciprocity or reward from caring for hard-to-love people, and to look to you instead for the comfort, peace, hope, and love that I need and crave.”

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A Harder Kind of Love: Forgiveness (4 of 6)

A series on accepting God’s love for us and portraying that love to others

If loving others can be really hard sometimes, forgiving those who hurt us deeply can seem almost impossible at times.  Yet, forgiving others is not optional for Christians, and is perhaps the greatest expression of agape love we can show.

If you are struggling with your feelings toward a hard-to-forgive person, here are 10 points to consider that may help.

1. Forgiving others doesn’t mean that you are saying that what happened to you wasn’t terrible or wrong, or that you will enable their abusive behavior by not calling them to account. Rather, forgiveness means that you no longer want to stay stuck in your anger. You want to stop being fueled by harsh, resentful, or vengeful feelings. Holding on to your anger isn’t going to make things right; it’s only going to make you sick.

2. Forgiveness means that you stop hoping something bad will happen to “pay them back” or “to make them suffer” for what they did. Instead, you begin praying that God will work in their hearts and minds for good, remembering that “God’s kindness leads to repentance” (Romans 2:4) and that Jesus said, “love your enemies, and do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27).

3. When you forgive others, you stop holding the offense against them. You decide that you are not going to demand that they “give” you something (an apology, repayment, suffering, or some other kind of “payment”) before you will treat them with agape love, as described in 1 Corinthians 13. Instead, you choose to be patient, kind, and unselfish; and you refuse to punish them by treating them rudely or vindictively, because you want to be a person of love, regardless of what they have done or have not done.

4. Forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean that you will put yourself in a position to be hurt by them again. You need to know whom you are dealing with and what to expect from this person, so that you can set boundaries for your own well-being and that of others who may depend on you for safety. Limit their power to hurt you by not expecting kindness, goodness, or fair treatment from those who cannot or don’t want to love you in return.

5. Forgiving others will set you free from being a prisoner to the past, if you begin to discipline your thinking:

• Stop ruminating over what has happened. It’s not helping you.

• Stop trying to make sense of senseless behavior. It’s not possible.

• Learn whatever you can from what happened, and then stop going over and over the failed or dysfunctional relational dynamic. Such internal churning will wear you down, and give you nothing in return.

• Maintain at least a neutral attitude toward the person who refuses to apologize, or is unwilling to seek healing in your relationship.

6. Remember, the future lies before you. Grieve what was lost or taken from you and accept that you do not have the power to change what has happened in the past. Then start looking forward.

7. Forgiveness, then, means moving on:

• Use your energy to focus on what brings you life and joy.

• Cultivate and enjoy your relationships with those who truly love you, enjoy your company, appreciate you, nourish and sustain you, and treat you well.

• Focus your attention on your calling and purpose in life to serve Christ with your unique set of gifts, abilities, resources, and opportunities.

8. Ask the Holy Spirit to release you from your attachment to your hurts and disappointments. Ask God to release the poison from your heart and mind. Seek freedom and healing so that you will not be so controlled by the actions of others, and so that you can focus your energy on developing truly loving relationships.

9. Pray for the ability to be compassionate and gracious toward them; and to genuinely desire good for their life. For those who offer a heartfelt apology, set them free by accepting their gesture.

10. Accept that no matter how hard or impossible it may be to “feel” forgiving toward someone, forgiveness is ultimately a matter of obedience to the Holy Spirit, who tells us to forgive others as we have been forgiven.

After the genocide, “Nehemiah” wanted to kill as many people as possible. After his parents were killed by workers on their farm, he sought to slake his thirst for revenge by joining the army.

One day the man who killed his father came to him asking for forgiveness.  A revolver was holstered at his waist. This was his opportunity.

But he couldn’t do it. By this time, Nehemiah had become a Christian and left the army. He was teaching children and working as an evangelist.

When his elder brother heard that he passed up the chance to get revenge, he was livid. “Why didn’t you kill him?” he screamed. Jill and I asked him the same question.

His answer was simple, but sincere: “God has forgiven me for so much, how could I not forgive him?”

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 4:32-5:2, NIV)

The Point: Forgive those who have wronged you, rejected you, or let you down, for your sake as well as theirs. Imitate God’s love by forgiving others as you have been forgiven. Choose to act toward them in ways that fit with your faith and values, in obedience to the Spirit, regardless of how they may act toward you.

Prayer: “Loving God, thank you for the immensity of your patience, kindness, and generosity to me, in spite of my reluctance to repent at times and resistance to your call to love others as myself. Please set free from my anger, hurt, and desires for revenge. May your will truly be done in me and through me that I may rise above my own limitations to increasingly become a person of love, without exceptions.”

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When Loving Gets Tough (3 of 6)

A series on accepting God’s love for us and portraying that love to others

Tim Geoffrion

Loving people can be really hard sometimes.

When conflicts arise or we have been hurt, or when others really irritate or offend us, it can be really tough to love them. Even when we are committed to being people of love, we can be tripped up by our own weaknesses, fatigue, or selfish instincts. For any number of reasons, our intention or attempts to love others can fall short.

There’s simply no formula that “works” in every situation. In spite of our best intentions, sometimes, we don’t know what to do differently. Or, if we do know, we may feel that it’s just too hard or exhausting to keep trying.

If this is how you’re feeling, it may be time to step back and take a fresh look at what’s going on. In my experience, greater self-reflection, changing my attitude or approach, and tapping more fully into the source of love have all helped me to become a more loving person.

Specifically, here are several things you can do that might make a real difference:

1. Don’t undo your efforts to love someone by letting yourself explode or say something nasty in a moment of weakness. Force yourself to take at least five deep breaths when you feel agitated or angry in order to calm down before saying or doing anything.

2. Ask yourself when you are trying to show love to others, “Whose agenda am I serving?” When others sense that your “love” is mostly about serving you or making yourself feel good, and not about them, don’t expect them to cooperate. You may get hurt or upset with them for ignoring or rejecting your overtures, but the problem in the relationship could very well be in you, not them.

3. Recognize and accept your powerlessness to change people. Even if you could change a loved one, it’s not your job. Your role is to love them, to encourage them, and to offer input when appropriate. Ask God for the courage and strength to speak the truth in the midst of conflict, and for compassion to do so in love. (Ephesians 4:15)

4. Remember that you always have power to choose how you are going to act toward others, regardless of their actions toward you. You may not have power to feel love or even to control your reactions as well as you would like. But you can keep returning to a place of resolve to show agape love in your actions—by being patient, kind, courteous, humble, selfless, forgiving, and encouraging (see 1 Corinthians 13:4-7).

5. Accept their limited ability to love you in return, or discuss with them how to make the relationship more reciprocal. If your love is contingent upon their loving you in return, or you would simply like more from the relationship, talk with them about your needs and desires. If you would like to be able to love them unconditionally with God’s agape love, then let go of your expectations of any particular kind of response from them.

6. Attend adequately to your own needs in healthy ways. Instead of just trying to change your behavior, seek wisdom into what is going on inside of you that keeps prompting you to act in unloving ways. What needs do you have that are going unmet? How could you get your needs for love, for affection, for friendship met in healthy ways?

7. Tap more fully into the source of love. We simply cannot love unconditionally on our own, and we cannot give what we have not received. What could you do to connect better with the Holy Spirit on a daily basis so that you may experience the love and grace of God in deeper and deeper ways? How could you cultivate your relationship with God so that you will have more fresh, living water in your inner “well” to draw from?

Loving others can be really hard or tricky sometimes, but it is your calling, regardless of the response of others. By letting God’s love meet your deepest needs, and by following the Holy Spirit’s leading in the ways of love, you will increasingly become part of the solution to a world riddled with unresolved conflict, alienation, and pain. It’s also the only way to truly experience the full life that Christ intends for you.

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8, NIV)

Point: Don’t expect loving others to be easy, and don’t reserve your love for those who love you back. We are called to get past our own self-centeredness and selfish instincts in order to love others as God loves us. Jesus showed us the way, and we have the Holy Spirit to help us to do what we cannot do on our own.

Prayer: “Loving and gracious God, thank you for your unconditional love and mercy. Please help me to fully trust in your love for me, to accept your forgiveness, and to be renewed in the deepest part of my being. And lead me in the way of love, especially when it is really hard for me, so that all those around me may sense your love flowing through me.”

This article is part of the “What Will Make a Difference?” series for your spiritual nurture and growth.

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