Can We Love Someone But Not Like Them?
Hi, I’m Alasdair Groves, and this is Where Life and Scripture Meet, a podcast of CCEF. CCEF exists to restore Christ to counseling and counseling to the church.
I am a words person. I love words. I love thinking about words and how they work together. I love the fact that God has made us as his creatures and image bearers to have such profound impact on the world through our words. As we all know, that impact can be good or bad, but I just find it endlessly fascinating how the different subtleties of the words that we use can play out and can have impact. I don’t want to be nitpicky, but sometimes I find it really helpful to examine particular words, particular phrases and say, what is this getting at? What are the benefits and what are the challenges or the disadvantages of using particular words in particular contexts, maybe even in particular seasons or generations of the church? And what I’d like to do today is to examine one particular phrase I’ve heard many times in many different contexts and just think about it. Reflect in a pastoral, theological way on how this particular phrase, what it might be getting at and what some of the challenges to it might be.
And the phrase is this. Have you ever heard someone say, “I love you right now, but I don’t really like you.” Or I love so and so right now, but I don’t really like him, or I don’t really like her. What are we to think of that? Is that helpful? Is it unhelpful? Is it some combination of the two? My own reflection on it would be something like this. I think that phrase is getting at something true and helpful, but I don’t think it’s the most helpful way to get at it. So what I’d like to do is to look at sort of the good kernel that I think is there in the phrase: I love him, but I don’t like him. And then talk about the problems I see with speaking in that way, and then spend a little bit of time thinking about, so what’s a better way? What would be a solution that might be more in line with the way that Scripture would call us to speak and to think?
Here’s the good. The good is that it is recognizing that life is complicated. That sometimes you can be frustrated with someone whom you really do love and care about. That the simple fact of feeling annoyance, fixation, frustration, anger doesn’t mean that love has stopped behind those feelings. That the background, the context, the platform, the relationship is one in which the love is unchanged. And what you’re experiencing right now in this moment is a sense of something being off. And on some level, you’re irritated with the person you’re speaking about.
Now, I’ve probably seen this, heard it most often from parents whose teenagers in particular, kids in general, but teenagers in particular, probably were being foolish, were being exasperating, were showing and displaying in their lives a pattern of relatively foolish behaviors. And a phrase like, “I love my kid right now, but I don’t really like them,” is certainly trying to convey that you can still love your kid. You can be angry with them. You can be upset about what they’re doing. You can be feeling a certain distance from them. You can be feeling hurt by them. And it doesn’t change the fact that all of who you are is oriented toward their good, that you deeply desire what is good for them.
I love the quote by C.S. Lewis from The Problem of Pain, where he’s talking about, he’s looking at, what do you do when you see something in somebody else that’s really bad? And he talks about how actually love will critique. Love will bring hard words, because it cares about the other person. Because love cares, it gets upset when it sees something that is not good in the object of its love. And the quote is this, he says, “Love may forgive all infirmities and love still in spite of them, but love cannot cease to will their removal.” Love can forgive all infirmities and weaknesses and failures. Love can forgive anything and still love knowing full well that those things are there. It doesn’t turn a blind eye and pretend that the one you love is fine and perfect. And you can absolutely love deeply and passionately and fully in the face of somebody’s life displaying all kinds of ugly stuff. But if you love that person, you will never stop wanting the evil, the bad, the destructive, the foolish, the wrong…you will never stop wanting that to be removed. You’ll never just say like, “Oh, well, whatever, it’s fine.” You’ll say, “No. If this is bad for them, if this is bad in them, I will always want it to be pulled away, torn out, surgically removed.”
So “I love you, but I don’t like you”—there’s a comfort here that we can take that’s being upset with someone doesn’t mean you don’t love them and vice versa. If somebody is frustrated with you, if you’re experiencing someone’s irritation, being upset, it doesn’t mean that they don’t love you. And I think that is a helpful context to have, especially if you’re panicking because someone seems upset with you, or you’re feeling deeply guilty because you’re upset with another person. There’s a broader context here. Love is bigger than the vexations of a particular moment or even a particular season. And this is going to be especially true and important if you love someone who is consistently behaving foolishly. So that’s the good kernel. It’s helpful to recognize you can love even when you’re upset.
Here’s the problem: I just don’t think it is very helpful to speak this way, especially because it tends to be and I would say almost always when I’ve heard, it’s an acknowledgment: I do love this person, I am upset. But it tends to have a way of sort of just saying, “And this state of affairs is okay. It’s okay for me not to like this person right now.” In a sense, I don’t even feel a pressure to try to. I’m accepting the fact that right now this person’s being kind of an idiot and I don’t like them. Somewhere deep down I know I still love them and I know I’m all for their good, but I’m content to allow emotions of upset-ness, looking down on, being frustrated with…I’m content to just sort of let those be the headline over this day, over this season.
And obviously when I say content, I don’t mean that someone’s coldly, callously saying, “I don’t really care how my kid is doing.” No, it’s not that. The person saying those words is expressing pain. They’re expressing anguish. They’re expressing frustration with the state of affairs. They would love to feel differently. When I say contentment or an acceptance, I simply mean I often hear it spoken as with a sense of, “And I’m not going to do anything about this emotion in myself. I’m not going to do anything other than just name, hey, I’m frustrated and that’s okay. It’s all right for me to not like you right now.” That’s the sense I have almost always heard when I’ve heard people use the phrase or that’s how I have had it come across to me at least. And I don’t think that’s the right way to think. I don’t think that’s okay. I don’t think we should ever accept, “Oh, you know what? I just don’t really like this person right now.” I think that should always be a call to press deeper, to seek to love in ways that lead us toward a greater tenderness and affection.
Further, I think it’s problematic because I think it tends to subtly reinforce something that all too easily, any and all of us can believe, which is that this is how God treats us in our sins. That so often I hear people say, well, I don’t hear them use these exact words…I have, but it’s rare that people use these words, but the feeling of, “God may love me on some level, but he doesn’t really like me. God is upset with me. The primary thing God feels when he looks at me is annoyance.” And why are they like this? And frustration with my sins, because I feel frustrated with my sins. So if I do, how much more should he? And yeah, sure Christ died for me. And he’s sort of stuck with me now and substitutionary atonement means that my sins have been erased and Christ stands in my place. But my primary feeling in the relationship is one of a hang dog, sheepish holding back from his love, because I can’t really fathom that he could mean it. He doesn’t really like me. He doesn’t really want me in his presence. He’ll take me because Jesus has sort of put him in an awkward position. That’s an overstatement or at least maybe a slightly crude way to put it. But so many times there is this sense of, I don’t know where I stand with the Lord and I don’t think it’s good. And I think the same mentality when we express it toward others has a bad way of reinforcing it between us and the Lord, and can easily reinforce it between them and the Lord as well. Too many times, I think, “I love her, but I don’t like her” becomes an excuse that lets you off the hook of praying for compassion and love for those who have wronged you. Those who are being foolish.
Lastly, saying that to another person, “I love you, but I don’t really like you right now,” is a devastating thing to say. It is a crushing thing to communicate, even if you don’t mean it. Even what you’re trying to convey is an emphasis on, “Look, I do still love you, even though I’m irritated.” What the other person will invariably hear is a deep and profound rejection, pain. You are telling this person to their face, I don’t like you, the things about who you are and what you’re doing make me mad. They don’t lead me to where I want to be. They will hear a fundamental selfishness in it. And I think, and I should have said this right up front, I have used this phrase and I’ve been convicted that I don’t think it’s a helpful one to use. So I understand if you yourself have said these things. You’re in my company. I don’t know if you’re in good company, but you’re in my company and I’d love for us not to do that to another person. And even if you’re saying about someone, you wouldn’t ever say it to their face: beware, because that kind of mentality and attitude, it always gets communicated in other ways. People are always picking up those kinds of signals than we want to think.
So what do we do with that? How would Scripture point us differently? How would Scripture urge us to handle a situation where you’re upset, but you do really still love? And I would say the fundamental place we’d want to go, although there’s many we could, would simply be this: we want to imitate the heart of Christ. We want to know how Jesus handled this exact dilemma, which of course he experienced vastly more profoundly than any of us. God’s love for us and God’s depth of anger against sin anywhere in the entire universe, including in our hearts and actions is, there’s a more extreme chasm between the two and he is perfectly able to resolve it. And ultimately of course he resolves it at the cross.
For example, think about Jesus in Matthew 23, just one of my favorite passages, where Jesus spends this lengthy sermon condemning and preaching woe upon the sin of the leaders of Jerusalem, right? And he says, “Woe to you, woe to you, woe to you” and he gets to the end of the passage. And you can hear the tears in his voice as he says, “How I have longed to take you under my wings.” It’s also in Luke, I believe 14, 13:14. And he just says, “You’re killing yourselves. You have not known what would make for your peace and for your good. I’ve longed to gather you like a hen gathers chicks under her wings, but you would not come. You are doing this foolish thing.” So even in the midst of his most lengthy sermon of severe rebuke to people who are hardening in their sin, he still ends and lands with this profound compassion for his people. A love, a desire that they would be different, a grief that they are speaking as they are. It’s not “I don’t like you,” it’s “I long to hold you tight, to be close.” The emphasis is on, “I want to gather you under my wings, like a mother hen.” Here’s the Lord of the universe comparing himself to a hen, to a chicken. I mean, it’s a profoundly humble image and it’s incredibly tender. That’s the heart we want to imitate.
Dane Ortlund in Gentle and Lowly uses the imagery and he of course is drawing from a lot of different Puritan authors, but talking about how precisely they could, because God loves you. He wants your sin to be gone and he hates watching your sin affect you and damage you and cause harm to your soul and to your relationships, and even to your walk with him, right? He compares it to a child who is sick with a fever. And the more a parent loves the child, the more they will hate the fever and hate what it does to the child. Jesus never loses his tender compassion and love for us. He does not, God does not literally forget our sins. He doesn’t actually cease to somehow ever be aware that they ever happened. But as far as the east is from the west, he has forgotten our sins in every sense that matters. And in fact, delights in us though we are still people who have remaining sin, even as his children. He sings over us. He cares for us, right? Romans 5:8, “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” John 13, “lay down your life for your friends. Greater love has no man than this.” Laying down his life for his friends. Who had more exasperating friends than Jesus? Who had more right to say, “I don’t even like you guys”? Does he say that? No, instead he walks with them. And even when he rebukes them and even is stern with them, he continues to eat with them. He continues to enjoy pressing into time with them. He continues to invite them to know him and to walk with him and talk with him and share their hearts with him and share meals with him. And he brings them into the Last Supper. Even knowing he’ll be betrayed severely by Judas, but very directly by all of them, including Peter. So Jesus shows us the way and the way forward. I would fundamentally say our desire to imitate him would be this. We would beg the Lord’s help in having deep, softhearted compassion for people who are being foolish and hurtful and sinning against us, knowing that that’s only something that’s going to happen with the help of the Holy Spirit.
One last thought. In moments when you find yourself wanting to say such a thing, when such a statement as “I love you, but I don’t like you” would feel like it could be appropriate. I recently had a situation where I had to press and challenge someone I know well and care about. And it was really hard for that person and their initial reaction was to feel like I was being totally unloving and I was being unkind and unjust. And they communicated that to me. And my immediate reaction inside was to get a bit defensive and to say, “Can’t you see all I’ve done for you? Can’t you see all the ways I’ve proven that I do care and I do love, and I’ve been faithful?” And I wanted to defend my record and accuse this person that I care about of being unkind and unfair. And even if there was unfairness in it, I had this immediate second reaction for which I’m very grateful. It wasn’t my choice to feel it. It was something that the Spirit brought to me, which was conviction. And I realized here I am saying, “How could you think such a thing of me when I’ve been so good to you?” Which is of course the exact thing that my Heavenly Father has every right to say to me every single day. The blindness, the entitlement of my sin is profoundly foolish, is profoundly stupid. It’s insane in the face of his unbelievable steadfastness and love to me, to his people over the centuries, to me over the years of my life. I am a sinner loved by a Lord who died for me on the cross when he had every right to simply snap his fingers and have me stop existing. What a wild thing, that he should love me.
And so my final thought then, my encouragement, my challenge to us is this: when you find yourself in the moment where you want to say, “Ah, I don’t really like you right now, and I’m trying hard to love you,” right? When that is the place, let those moments, let the sin of the other person, the foolishness of the other person, the harm of the other person, maybe even against you directly, or at least harm to your heart as you watch them harm themselves and do foolish things that are destructive…let that experience drive you to your knees in gratitude for the grace of God to you. Not in some kind of, “Oh, I’m just as bad as the other person, I guess I don’t really have any right to judge. I shouldn’t say anything, not like that.” Rather, knowing that your love for the other person is right and your displeasure at the fact of their foolishness is also right and good and loving. But let that experience, let it just bring you a shocked, awe-filled sense of what it means that God loves you, a sinner. That what you are tasting right now is just the tiniest, tiniest sliver of what he has experienced to be your beloved Father, your Friend, your Brother, your Rescuer. This is the Lord, and this is the heart we want to share. And we share it only because he’s good enough to build it in us, give it to us, pour it into us in ways we could never do for ourselves. Thank you, Jesus.