Is It Okay To Love Someone And Not Like Them?

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I recently met with someone and—what can I say?—I I just didn’t like him very much. Oh, it wasn’t his bad breath (I didn’t get close enough to find out) and he wasn’t terribly obnoxious.

I just didn’t like him very much. And I felt bad about it.

And, no, he isn’t a reader of this blog. So if you’re a reader, it’s safe to meet with me. (Unless, perhaps, you just don’t like me very much.)

A week later I was sitting in a coffee shop and I overheard a loud no_like_button(obnoxious) neighbor talking about one of her friends. She said,

Well, I love her, but I don’t like her very much.”

I thought, “I know exactly what she means. I love this guy; it’s not my fault I don’t like him very much.” I felt much better about myself and thought,

Yes, that’s me. I’m a loving kind of guy. I obey Christ’s command to love my neighbor even though he’s a bit boring. I like me!”

And then, as these thoughts raced through my mind, I began to dislike myself. As you read my thoughts (above,) perhaps you began to think of me, “What a jerk!”.

Now I’m thinking, “I love me, but I don’t like me very much.”

Why don’t we like some people?

Maybe we share no interests. They like football. We like ballet. They like Comic books. We like William Faulkner. There’s no common ground. But I remember a friend I liked in college. He loved opera (a good enough reason to dislike him) and I liked James Taylor.

He liked Pagliacci (Italian for Clowns) and I liked Gorilla (Italian for Gorilla). But my friend’s low-brow musical tastes weren’t hopeless. He shared my dislike for The Monkees (Italian for Sappy Boy Band).

The differences made our friendship better. Times together were interesting. His fascination with opera was almost contagious. (But not quite.) Some of my friendships are with similar people but many of my friendships are with people completely different. Sometimes opposites attract.

Life would be boring indeed if every human was a clone of me. Or of you.

So maybe it’s the similarities

I once returned from a meeting and complained to my wife about its leader. He had repeated, rephrased, or clarified virtually every comment made.

If I said, “That’s a good idea,” he’d clarify, “Sam is in favor.” If someone said, I’ don’t get the point,” he’d rephrase, “Sally needs clarification.” It was like we were all idiots, too dumb to speak or too stupid to understand. I didn’t like him much. (But I still loved him.)

I shared all this with my wife. She responded, “Sam, you do that all the time.” I rephrased, “Do you mean I frequently clarify comments?” She retorted, “You’re doing it right now!” I clarified, “So is this another example of how I do it?”

She groaned, “Argh!” (Italian for, “I love him but I don’t like him very much right now”). Sometimes we see a bit of ourselves in others, and we don’t like it.

Irritating faults

Some people are just harder to like than others, like the person who dominates every discussion without needing to take a breath (how they do it is a medical secret). Or they’re irritating, insensitive, overly-sensitive, or whiners.

Their faults scream out while their worth whispers. Their blemishes bellow while their warmth whimpers. In the scales of likeability, their faults outweigh their merits.

It’s admirable to love the unlovely, to cook their meals, mow their lawns, and listen to their complaints. But I wonder if it isn’t more virtuous to learn to like the unlikeable. It is no virtue of mine to like someone who is charming (Matt. 7:11).

But how do we do it?

Let me be honest. I don’t know. But I want to learn. I think it involves seeing beneath irritating externals to discover hidden inner-beauty. It’s like searching for a treasure of gold in a field of weeds, then letting those treasures outweigh the faults.

What if God spoke to me clear as a bell, “Sam, I love you ever so much, but I don’t really like you”? I’d feel gypped. Somehow God’s “loving” me always felt like he also enjoyed being with me. If God doesn’t like me, does he really love me?

When Jesus was in agony in the garden, his often irritating disciples fell asleep. He finds something good, “The Spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt. 26:41). Seeing past their faults, he unearths something good that he is birthing in them. Letting the new virtues outweigh the obvious faults, he says, “You’re my friends; I love you. And I like you.”

He says the same to you and me.

Best friends

Not everyone can be our BFF (Italian for Best Friends Forever). But my best friends see my faults (and me theirs) better than anyone. Our liking each other despite those faults is one of our best ways of loving each other.

Liking (or loving) the charming is easy. Anyone can do it. Learning to like (and love) the unlikeable takes spiritual heart change, new spiritual eyes of the heart to see beyond the obvious faults and to treasure the new man or woman God is making them to be.

Arrivederci (Italian for “See you later”),

Sam

P.S. My Italian rephrasing is mostly done for your multi-cultural education. (You’re welcome.) And partly because my wife and I leave tomorrow for Italy to celebrate our thirtieth wedding anniversary.

I hope I don’t rephrase her comments too often. She won’t like it.

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What do YOU think?

28 thoughts on “Is It Okay To Love Someone And Not Like Them?

  1. I remember when my oldest was my only. We were outside and there was a child who was a couple years older who loudly and often proclaimed how much better he was at doing whatever my daughter was doing. I was quite irritated. Then he said to me, “No one ever watches me play.” Deeply convicted. Obnoxious child needed love.

    • Hi Marion,

      I LOVE (and like 🙂 ) your comment. It is a great example of learning to like. It’s easy to dislike the obnoxious, but as we get to know them deeper, I think we can learn to love and to like.

      At least … I think so. I’m still learning.

      For me, at least, I’m beginning to realize that the un-likability of many people is not their fault, it may have been parenting weaknesses, poor social skill-training, or simply physical halitosis. I sometimes dislike someone for something completely out of their control.

      My parents were pretty loving and nurturing, they taught me some social skills (not that I picked up on them!), and I have enough money to buy Scope. Should I dislike others for not having the same advantages I had? God help me.

      I love your ending line, “Obnoxious child needed love.” I think we all do.

  2. Sam,

    I’ve loved all of your recent posts, but this one hit me personally, thinking about how to love (and like) kids who are not particularly likeable in ministry, specifically with Young Life. I think a lot of really good leaders miss this when hanging out with and loving kids well. Lots to think about.

    • Hi Matt,

      Great personal reflections. I never said it would be easy. I’m not sure I know how to do it.

      I’ll tell you what got me thinking about all this. It was when I said to myself, “I love him but I don’t like him…” and then that made me feel better.

      I realized that I was using that phrase to feel good about myself. Instead of figuring out how to love someone else, I was figuring out how to love myself. YIKES!!!

      I think the solution is being be-friended by Jesus, letting him see inside us and love us, and declaring, “The spirit is willing.” Letting him love (and I think like as well) is the key. Once we have that–or as we get it more and more–we’ll be able to love and like others.

      Thanks man!

  3. Sam,

    That was a really fun read with a great message. I loved this exchange: “I shared all this with my wife. She responded, “Sam, you do that all the time.” I rephrased, “Do you mean I frequently clarify comments?” She retorted, “You’re doing it right now!” I clarified, “So is this another example of how I do it?”

    Thanks for sharing,

    Brendan

    • Alas! Sometimes the things that bug us in other people are just revelations of ourselves.

      I’ve got to admit, when that exchanged happened, we both laughed so hard. I knew it had to go into some kind of post someday.

      Thanks for your laughter.

  4. Sam,

    This hits close to home.

    I had a stepmother I didnt like, but my father did, so I loved her to a point. That changed when she became deathly ill and my father asked me to care for her because it was too painful for him to watch.

    Though we had been enemies for many years, I realized even your enemy doesnt deserve to die alone.

    I got a humbling lesson in the second half of the Fruit of the Spirit followed by a blessing concerning someone I didnt like.

    Enjoy your 30th anniversary. Mine’s next year!

    Jim

  5. I remember one time when I was having a terrible time because I was obliged to be in close contact with a person I didn’t like over an extended period. In desperation, I asked God to show her to me through his eyes. That very evening, I was sitting on the porch steps when she sat down next to me and said, “I don’t know why, but I feel like God wants me to tell you my story.” For the next 20 minutes or so, I listened to the story of her life, how God rescued her and spoke to her heart and eventually brought her to that very porch. The experience melted me. God plainly loved her dearly, and had done so all of her life. I was quite tenderhearted toward her after that.

    Years later, I found myself having to spend regular time with a man I disliked. He had a history of womanizing and a coarse sense of humor, and I just didn’t like being around him. Then one night, I heard him tell the story of his life, how drinking and drug use estranged his family, endangered his work and eventually took him to the point of suicide, how he survived an attempt that should have been lethal, how he continued nonetheless to be completely subject to his addiction for many additional years, snatched from death over and over until he finally, inexplicably, got sober. He went on to tell how in subsequent years he would repeatedly and incomprehensibly run into people he had harmed in the past and be given a way to make amends to them. He talked about how grateful he was and that only God could be doing it all. I was really humbled that time. God had been unrelentingly tenderhearted toward that guy when there was no end in sight, while I had felt contempt for him when he was actually well over the threshold of new life.

    I don’t like everybody yet, but I am convinced that all their varied stories contain the evidence, however hidden, that each is loved. I figure I might as well take their loveableness for granted.

    • Martha,

      These are lovely stories. Thank you so much for sharing them.

      People love to say, “We are on a journey.” But it’s true. We meet people at one point on that journey–the journey is long enough that even years could be considered, “one point on the journey.” You reminded me of the C. S. Lewis quote:

      “It is a serious thing,” says Lewis, “to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.

      All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.

      There are no ‘ordinary’ people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”

      Thanks.

  6. Thanks for sharing your stories Martha. Its amazing how God puts us in circumstances or with people we dont like to stretch our limited understanding of love and the boundaries we hold on to.

  7. I heard from a wise man once that “the things that bother us most in others are often the things that bother us most about ourselves” So true! Thanks for re-phrasing it for me!
    Keep listening brother, the Lord is doing a work through you!

    Tom J

  8. No, Sam, it is not okay if the person is reasonably normal and you just don’t want to put forth the effort to include them in your circle of friends or reach out to them. That happens all the time at Churches where folks don’t want to go beyond their comfy zone and it is selfish. But, that is where the biblical validity of your message ends.

    I consider this article no less than a guilt trip on those who are dealing with people they love but who are toxic and abusive. Biblically, God so loved the world that he… but we are shown over and over in scripture that God hates evil and because he loves the world he tolerates what he abhors for a time to allow people to abandon evil until the stench becomes intolerable. Then, God distances himself from those he loves and then disciplines those he loves to the point of having them imprisoned and slaughtered by their enemies (I Kings 17 as one example). God’s response to what he rightfully dislikes in those he loves is not limited to Old Testament times.

    This is such a touchy-feely article and irresponsible to those poor Christian souls who are driving themselves crazy trying to understand and accept toxic, abusive and even crazy people they love. Without a qualifier from the head, this article from the heart has the potential to heap unwarranted guilt upon suffering Christians without any reasonable hope of ever being able to like the toxic, abusive, crazy and evil in those they truly love. Don’t you see it is the same for God? (Sam graciously encouraged me to post this after emailing him directly.)

    • Hi Susan,

      FIRST: thank you for YOUR grace. You first emailed me privately to show your disagreement. I appreciate that thoughtfulness. Then you agreed to publish it after I asked. You may have given words to other people who agree with you but couldn’t articulate it.

      You were a living, breathing (and writing) example of how to do work directly and graciously (as discussed in the Cowardice of Christian Niceness).

      SECOND: I do NOT want guilt trips. Yes, I occasionally point to an area we may be guilty of (Pharisaism, self-centeredness, etc.), but my point is not to create a guilt trip. It is to create an environment in which we can honestly explore the depths of our lives.

      We often fall short, but I don’t think “guilt trips” change the heart. Only God’s love does that. We love because he loved, not because we feel terribly guilty.

      I apologize for any guilt trips I’ve been the tour guide for. 🙂
      THIRD: I appreciate you bringing up the topic of toxic or abusive relationships. Frankly, it is neither loving (nor liking) to allow another person to abuse us. Never.

      A woman once told me that her long-term husband had just hit her. It was the first offense and she didn’t want to leave him so she asked what to do in the future. I said, “If he ever comes close to hitting again, call the police!” We talked about other things too, but it is not loving to allow another person to abuse us.

      If we are in an abusive or toxic relationship, we need to learn freedom; we need to learn not to let that person control us, physically, emotionally, or spiritually. Sometimes—maybe oftentimes—that “learning” involves putting the relationship on hold.

      LAST: I still think that loving involves some type of liking, even though a toxic relationship may mean we cease the relationship. There is some way God sees gold that would be good for us to learn to see.

      We just don’t know where God is at in their lives. We can’t write them off. One thief on the cross came to God in the last moments of his criminal life. I hope we can help others do the same.

      Susan, thanks for an incredibly gracious and thought provoking comment. I think I like you!

      Sam

  9. I think we’re called to see the ‘gold’ in everybody, as Bill Johnson puts it, and called to pull it out of them by constantly encouraging and loving them as Christ would.

  10. It is difficult when one believes that someone ‘loves’ them but doesn’t really like them especially when it is someone close to them … and when one does not understand what it is that is the issue….while trying to communicate with them about it……I’m being very generic but I hope you somehow understand ….Diane

  11. Okay… was it me? I mean, like, I’ve noticed you haven’t liked me on Facebook. Of course, it would be a challenge for you, since I’m not on Facebook. But still…

    Honestly, this was delicious food for thought. Thanks, bro, and “bon appetit!” Delight in your travel time and celebration of thirty years of committed loving and liking.

    Bob

  12. Happy anniversary! I think you hit this spot on. Liking someone doesn’t mean we don’t notice their faults or their sins. Susan’s point is valid, but I don’t think you’re saying that liking the person means excusing their sin or abuse.