Several years ago I knew this guy who wanted to be good friends, but he didn’t act like much of one.
Sometimes he passively aggressively insulted me; other times he flattered me. He could be aloof, and then he could be clingy. But I stuck around because we had known each other for a while, and I felt like I owed it to him.
The wheels came off of the friendship when he started repeatedly insisting on telling me what to do with my life. I didn’t invite his feedback, and quite frankly, I didn’t want it. But if I didn’t take his word as gospel, I was an idiot.
I got tired of it, and after several slow steps backward, the friendship eventually died on the vine. For a long time I wondered if I failed that guy and if I failed as a Christian because I didn’t “love my neighbor as myself” like Jesus commanded (Mark 12:30-31). In retrospect, I don’t think so.
When Jesus calls us to “love our neighbor,” I’m certain it means we’ll have to give more than we want, and sometimes it’s not even optional (like most of the time in marriages). But in generally speaking, here are a few things I think it doesn’t mean:
- It doesn’t mean you have to keep giving when it’s unhealthy. There are people who will take everything you’ve got emotionally, financially, and/or physically if you will give it to them. Those people will often demand more and more of your time and energy. You have no obligation to offer it to them, and in fact, it’s probably in everyone’s best interest to refuse to give it. They don’t own you or your time — God does, which brings me to my next point.
- It doesn’t mean you have to give to everyone in need. If “loving your neighbor” means coming through for everyone who needs you, you’ll never be allowed to leave a job where your boss thinks you’re essential; you’ll have to buy cookies from every Girl Scout; and if you’re dating a loser, you won’t be able to break up as long as the person wants to be with you. God didn’t create you to meet everyone’s needs though, and if you get trapped in that cycle, you’re essentially trying to do His job.
- It doesn’t mean staying in a relationship just because you’ve known someone for a long time. You don’t owe someone a close relationship simply because lots of time has passed (and that includes family members). In fact, the duration of your unhealthy, close relationship may be an indicator that you don’t have the courage to end a codependent relationship that meets your and their unhealthy needs.
This begs the question: If we don’t have to be in relationship with someone who drains the life out of us, what does it look like to “love them as we love ourselves”?
The answer isn’t simple, but Scripture at least paints a picture of what it can mean to love someone we don’t like anymore:
- We don’t give up on them as human beings, even if we distance ourselves from them (1 Corinthians 13:4, 7).
- We can keep a kind attitude towards them (1 Corinthians 13:4).
- We can keep an eye out for the ways our desire for distance is rooted in jealousy (1 Corinthians 13:4).
- We can maintain a humble attitude towards them (1 Corinthians 13:4).
- We can resist allowing ourselves to get easily annoyed with them (1 Corinthians 13:5).
- We can stop assuming the worst about them or rejoicing when they do unhealthy things that confirm our suspicions about them (1 Corinthians 13:5).
- We can keep believing and hoping that God can make a miracle of the person’s life (1 Corinthians 13:7).
If you’ve been in an unhealthy relationship for a long time, setting healthy boundaries will probably feel like you’re betraying the other person. That doesn’t mean you can’t step away though, and in fact, doing so may be the most loving option available.