Several years ago, I made friends with a guy who volunteered at the same organization as me. He seemed like he wanted to be good friends, but he didn’t act like much of one.
Sometimes he passive 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 eventually 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, he would get annoyed and say that I wasn’t using common sense.
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His behavior didn’t change; I got tired of it; and after several slow steps backward, I finally moved on. 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 I failed the guy at all.
When Jesus calls me to “love my neighbor,” I’m certain that it means I’ll have to give more than I want. Generally speaking though, here are a few things I think it doesn’t mean:
1. It doesn’t mean I have to keep giving when it’s unhealthy. There are people who will take everything I’ll give if it’s available to them. Those people will often demand more and more time and energy. I have no obligation to offer it to them, and in fact, it’s probably in everyone’s best interest if I refuse to give it. That person doesn’t own me or my time. God owns it, which brings me to my next point.
2. It doesn’t mean I have to give to everyone in need. If “loving my neighbor” means coming through for everyone who needs me, I’ll never be allowed to leave a job where my boss thinks I’m always essential; I’m going to have to buy cookies from every Girl Scout; and I’ll have to be friends with everyone who wants to be close to me. God didn’t create me to meet everyone’s needs, and if I get trapped in that cycle, I’m essentially trying to do God’s job.
3. It doesn’t mean staying in a relationship just because I’ve known someone for a long time. Long-term relationships can be a great blessing because, over the years, I get to be known for the real me and be loved anyway. A long period of time in a relationship can also mean that I’ve been tolerating dysfunction for too long, and the best thing for everyone may be for me to move on (the equation is far different in marriage, which is much more complicated situation).
If I don’t have to be in a relationship with someone who drains the life out of me, what does it look like to “love that person as I love myself”? Here are a few suggestions that are drawn from a famous passage in 1 Corinthians 13:
- I don’t give up on the person as a human being, even if I distance myself from a relationship with him or her (1 Corinthians 13:4, 7).
- I can keep a kind and humble attitude towards the person (1 Corinthians 13:4).
- I can resist getting easily annoyed by him or her (1 Corinthians 13:5).
- I can stop assuming the worst about the person (1 Corinthians 13:5).
- I can keep believing and hoping that God can do something good with his or her life (1 Corinthians 13:7).
When we’ve been in an unhealthy relationship for a long time, setting healthy boundaries may feel like we’re betraying the other person. We don’t owe that person a close relationship. We’re allowed to take a step back from draining relationships, and in doing so, we may discover that we’re doing the most loving thing for us and the other person.