Morning friends, 

I hope you are doing something for yourself this season to recharge your spirit. This year normal holiday festivities are changed.  They may be virtual or non-existent, but our need for community and connection remains strong.  

Even if you are single, divorced, or living out a “new normal” during this time, remember, you are not alone. There are others who need your smile, your friendly hello, and to see them, really see them. The clerk who checks out your fast food, the homeless person on the street, the tired bus driver, or a harried custodian at the mall who is working harder than ever to keep things sanitized for us all. Smile, say hello, wish them a good holiday and perhaps even do something a little more for those who Mother Teresa called, “Jesus in his distressing disguises.” 

Today Question: I thought instead of answering a new question, I’d continue the discussion we started last week when one of my readers asked a question whether you can or “should” love the unlovable. 

Answer: If we are to become like Jesus, then we must love the unlovable. Click To Tweet

But this kind of love is not a romantic, feeling-oriented kind of love. It’s an agape action-oriented kind of love. This kind of love does what is best for the loved one, regardless of how they treat you.  

Agape love is not transactionally based. It’s not the kind of love that says, “I love you because you love me.” It’s also not humanly within us. Agape love is God’s love through us that says, “I love you and therefore, I will act in your best interest, even when it costs me. It’s the laying down your life kind of love and the love your enemy kind of love that Jesus speaks of. (1 John 3-16-18, Matthew 5:44).

The million-dollar question becomes, “what is in the best interests of the other person, especially if he or she has harmed you?”  And that’s not always clear or easily discerned. For example, with the population we discuss most on this blog, a destructive or abusive spouse may believe it’s most loving not to implement negative consequences such as separation, divorce, or jail time, for abusive behaviors. Yet as Henry Cloud wrote in his book Necessary Endings, “Jail does some people good.”

And we may also experience false guilt or be told by others we’re not loving someone when we do what we believe is best. Even children feel “unloved” when we take away their IPAD or force them to do homework when they’d rather play. Yet we know as mothers we are trying to act in our child’s best interest whether or not he or she agrees with us.    

With adult relationships, including our adult children, spouses, and adult parents who are destructive to themselves or others, it may be more loving to let them go. Jesus did this with the rich young ruler and with Judas, even though Scripture says he loved them. (Mark 10:17-27).

The Biblical story of the prodigal son is where a father loved his son but let him go. (Luke 15:11-32).  Letting go may do more to foster a person’s “wake up moment” (which is their good), than trying to convince them to change. It also stops them from having any more opportunities to harm you (which is not only good for you, it’s also good for them).

When you have a hard time letting go, what you’re feeling is not love in the truest Biblical sense. Rather it’s a strong feeling resulting from an unhealthy attachment (as one person mentioned) or perhaps even a trauma bond. This difficulty detaching may also come from misplaced guilt about your role in someone else’s life. When you get caught in that quagmire, the best route is for you to get some help for yourself to detach and figure out your own internal resistance to letting go.

As Christians, we’ve often been taught that forgiveness always means reconciliation and that grace always means canceling out negative consequences. But that teaching is not only false, it can be unloving. We’ve also been wrongly taught that somehow we can hold a relationship together if we just love enough, are strong enough in the Lord, try hard enough, and forgive enough.  

But truth says we are not in charge of another person’s life, thoughts, emotions, or actions. A good relationship, especially one that is a long term such as marriage must be maintained and repaired by two people investing in the things that create a safe and trusting connection. When sin breaks that apart, (which happens), forgiveness can be granted. But without repairs, forgiveness does not automatically heal broken trust and safety, especially when the sin has been repeated again and again (Matthew 18:15). The Bible reminds us that love rejoices in the truth (1 Corinthians 13:6) and love walks in the truth (2 John 1:6).

To collude with someone else’s misapplication of Scripture or internal lies is not to love them well. It only enables them to stay deceived and Jesus says truth is what sets us free (John 8:32).  

Friends, how have you learned to detach from enabling, yet stay loving rather than bitter and resentful towards someone who has harmed you?

24 Comments

  1. Dawn P on December 16, 2020 at 9:28 am

    Such life-giving truth here! Thank you, Leslie. How important it is for each of us in the body of Christ to do the work of “training our senses” to become mature – as Hebrews 5:11-14 commands us. Thank you for providing spiritual “meat” for us to chew on today … and every day.

  2. Jeni Custer on December 16, 2020 at 10:15 am

    We have tried to reconcile and asked for forgiveness for breaking a boundary but we always follow boundaries and we slipped up on mentioning something that really got into a long 8 months seperation from our grandchildren. They know us, miss us and love us and I am bonded to my grandaughter and have been told that she really misses us. Shes only 6. We love them but they wont let us contact them in any way. We are cut off, I do feel rejected as it wasnt a harmful boundary, although important to them. It seems as if every time we do anything the least bit that their mom doesnt like we get cut off again. Its hard to let go….we didnt. They have. My son ignores our phone calls and I dont think this is deserving of such a harsh punishment. I feel repentful, sad, unworthy and so very heartbroken. We can even say we love you.

    • Judy on December 16, 2020 at 2:09 pm

      I’m so sorry Jeni! I feel your pain.
      I’m in a similar situation. I’m almost divorced and have just recently moved back to the area that 4 of my 6 children reside in. I am kept from my three granddaughters belonging to my oldest son and his wife, and have no idea why. I reached out to my son with a very respectful letter asking for clarification. He has not responded. He answers when I show an interest in his work, but completely side steps answering my letter. I have been very respectful and had no expectations. They welcomed me initially as did my granddaughters.
      I think they’re believing lies about the situation with my ex. and think my son may feel caught in the middle. The change in them happened after my ex was up to visit them.

    • Aly on December 16, 2020 at 4:45 pm

      What boundary did you break that would warrant a cut off?

    • Leslie Vernick on December 16, 2020 at 6:59 pm

      Yes it is sad, hard, wrong, horrible. I would hate that to happen to anyone. Grandchildren need their grandparents. But when someone rejects you and/or cuts you off, the most loving thing you can do in that moment is accept their decision and heal your own heart and hurts so that if they ever come to their senses and repent or want to talk or reconcile, you are in a good place to have that conversation.

      • Aly on December 17, 2020 at 9:50 am

        Leslie,
        I think the Grandparent thing is complex. I do believe it’s a blessing and important place in a child’s life to have a healthy relationship with a loving and supportive grandparent(s) .. if they are that. Something I have always wanted for my children.
        If the grandparents undermine the parent/child relationship and if they don’t respect the parent, or they only want to see the grandchild (on their time frame of convenience) and not have a relationship with the parent, then this can cause great problems.
        In my case, I’m waiting for the grandparents to come to their senses, something I don’t have much hope in as time goes on. My children have done well through the pain and have found replacements of these pivotal people in their journey.
        I think it can be a bit of a stigma, that the grandparents are innocent and waiting on others to repent to move forward or they are left with the pain of it being horrible.
        It’s horrible for the other side also.

        • Nancy on December 17, 2020 at 12:11 pm

          Aly,

          You wrote this so well. As you know, our daughters have no contact with their paternal grand mother, and this is because we chose this, for our girls’ well being. Zero contact is a brutal choice to make and one that we (like you) did not take lightly!

          You wrote ‘if the grand parent undermines the parent/child relationship…then this can cause great problems’. I would add ‘if the grand parent undermines the relationship between grand children’.

          In our case, when we ‘woke up’ to what was happening we saw that she would consistently pit our youngest against our eldest, in a weird playing out of her own relationship with her older sister.

          Because my husband had not properly ‘forsaken’ all others (his mother), we did not have a strong marital foundation to consistently set boundaries against this generational sin that was playing out before our eyes, and grabbing hold of our children.

          Protecting our children from her covert abuse was one of the hardest decision we’ve made. We did it alongside a counsellor, who we brought each step of the process to. A decision that, 3 years later, we would do again.

          I agree with your point about the stigma of the grand parent being the victim. My mother in law is severely physically disabled and has weaponized that reality to make us into the aggressor. The guilt of cutting off an elderly, tiny, physically disabled grand parent from the only grand children that live close by was overwhelmingly guilt inducing.

          It turns out- it was false guilt.

    • Nancy on December 17, 2020 at 12:34 pm

      Hi Jeni,

      I want to challenge this statement ‘it wasn’t a harmful boundary, although important to them’.

      If a person articulates a boundary, then crossing that line is indeed harmful. That’s called trespassing.

      Trespassing causes injury and Jesus addresses this issue by directing us to repentance for such actions. (‘forgive us our trespasses…’ in The Lord’s prayer)

      I could be wrong, but you minimizing the harmful nature of your actions makes me wonder if you have taken full responsibility for your trespass….?

  3. annette on December 16, 2020 at 3:14 pm

    Pray for him and leave all the Consequences to God. Learn to get healthy by working on myself in therapy and Community. Thank you for all that you do for us Leslie!

  4. Julie K on December 16, 2020 at 4:47 pm

    I really appreciated this post, especially about the need for mutual repair in a marriage. If it’s not there, something’s wrong. However, I object a bit to the assumptions in the question posed to us. I’m not bitter and resentful …… I’m *grieving*. And I haven’t “enabled” …… I was ignorant of what was really going on and have done plenty of truth-speaking once his true beliefs and motivations were revealed. It’s still very hard to accept ……and it should be. There’s nothing good about a marriage being broken.

  5. Nancy on December 16, 2020 at 7:28 pm

    In my relationship with my mother, the process of detaching from enabling was separate from learning not to be bitter or resentful.

    First I learned to set the boundaries. That ‘no’ is a full sentence. Then I had to learn that I didn’t owe her an explanation, and when she’d ask ‘why’, I’d say ‘because that doesn’t work for me’. Then I had to learn to stand against escalating tantrums in response to my ‘no’. But then, after many, many ‘no’s she started to learn that her tantrums wouldn’t get her anywhere and she slowly….slowly accepted my no.

    Although I know that my actions were loving towards her, it did not FEEL this way AT ALL because of the fact that this caused her very real pain. It took a long time to detach from trying to fix the pain that we both believed was my fault. It took a long time for me to accept that her pain was her responsibility. We both believed that it was mine.

    I cannot say that I was not bitter or resentful during this process. The truth is, I was in survival mode.

    We went through long periods of time with minimal or strained contact.

    Now, a good ten years later, I am no longer bitter or resentful.

  6. Connie on December 16, 2020 at 7:51 pm

    I would hesitate to compare our boundaries with taking a child’s phone away. It is already too easy to see boundaries as in punishing or trying to change the other person. A boundary says you can do whatever you want, and this is what I will do for my own personal safety and sanity. Like telling the child that they can sleep in if they want, but you won’t drive them to school or write a note of excuse.

    • Leslie Vernick on December 16, 2020 at 11:13 pm

      I didn’t use the illustration of taking a child’s phone away to talk about boundaries but about an immature (child) person not seeing the “good” in your loving action and yet we (as moms) don’t let their opinion of the goodness of our action stop us from taking appropriate action. This may be a different boundary with an adult. So if you say to your destructive spouse or mother, “I will not continue to be in this relationship, or discussion, when you lie to me, or yell at me, or curse at me, or threaten me” that is YOUR boundary. However, the other person will try to convince you through guilt and shame that your boundary is unloving, much like a child. That is why it’s important for you to #do your own work so you don’t get sucked into their narrative and feel guilty.

  7. Autumn on December 16, 2020 at 10:02 pm

    One of the short comings of the English is that there is only one word for love. The Geek language has six words for love. I think love is very hard to define and describe. One word just doesn’t do it justice.

    When I mentioned someone being unloveable, I was referring to the romantic definition of love. When I think about the love that comes from the indwelling spirit of God I think of the Corinthians passage…patient, kind, bears all things etc.

    When I think of destructive people in my life who have chosen to sin against me, plot evil and bring repeated harm again me, there is no place for romantic love. In fact, they are so unsafe, that all interaction needs to cease for my protection and sanity.

    So, what do we do with those relationships? I say we go, as they say, “grey rock.” Do no harm. Think no evil thoughts. Let them ownership of their own evil and pray for God to have mercy upon their soul. Chose to love them in the way you would any stranger, from a distance and without inappropriately assigned emotions or responsibility for them.

    • Leslie Vernick on December 16, 2020 at 11:08 pm

      Jesus tells us to be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves. So agreed, doves do no harm, but a wise person sees danger and takes refuge. We must come to emotionally accept that a healthy relationship with these individuals is not possible.

    • RP on December 17, 2020 at 6:00 am

      I read somewhere to change the name of the person in my phone contact so when the name pops up I’m not as triggered. I wanted to choose something that would keep my heart soft toward that person so I asked the Lord what to put and He said, “Pray4me”, so I did and it has been really helpful to see that pop up and prompt me to pray first. This is helping me fight against bitterness toward them.

      • Suzanne on March 3, 2021 at 7:53 pm

        I love this. I am going to do the same right now!

    • Nancy on December 17, 2020 at 1:53 pm

      This is well said, Autumn. Especially, ‘Choose to love them…..from a distance and without inappropriately assigned emotions or responsibility for them’

      • autumn on December 17, 2020 at 2:51 pm

        Thanks for overlooking the grammatical errors. I often write a response on my tiny phone screen and can’t see what I write until after it is posted.

  8. Kristen Candito on December 30, 2020 at 11:00 am

    I want to thank you for the latter part of your article, specifically the part i am copying below.. I am in the process of divorcing my husband and the time it is taking for him to leave our home is taking a long time… and he has been showing polar opposite behaviors to me (which i dont trust are long term) during this time, which is introducing doubt and guilt to my decision. I journal and pray daily (sometimes 2-3 times) to sort out my feelings (and yes i am in therapy). I have to keep going back to the basics… how did we get here? what are the reasons that i made this decision? And despite his best behavior now and him wanting to fight for the marriage, I continue to remind myself that this good behavior does not erase the emotional abuse and inappropriate internet behavior and infidelity that led to my decision. The message below helps me break it down to the basics… letting go and focusing on a healthy parenting relationship is where i need to focus. Thank you for stating this so clearly to me!

    The Biblical story of the prodigal son is where a father loved his son but let him go. (Luke 15:11-32). Letting go may do more to foster a person’s “wake up moment” (which is their good), than trying to convince them to change. It also stops them from having any more opportunities to harm you (which is not only good for you, it’s also good for them).

    When you have a hard time letting go, what you’re feeling is not love in the truest Biblical sense. Rather it’s a strong feeling resulting from an unhealthy attachment (as one person mentioned) or perhaps even a trauma bond. This difficulty detaching may also come from misplaced guilt about your role in someone else’s life. When you get caught in that quagmire, the best route is for you to get some help for yourself to detach and figure out your own internal resistance to letting go.

    As Christians, we’ve often been taught that forgiveness always means reconciliation and that grace always means canceling out negative consequences. But that teaching is not only false, it can be unloving. We’ve also been wrongly taught that somehow we can hold a relationship together if we just love enough, are strong enough in the Lord, try hard enough, and forgive enough.

    But truth says we are not in charge of another person’s life, thoughts, emotions, or actions. A good relationship, especially one that is a long term such as marriage must be maintained and repaired by two people investing in the things that create a safe and trusting connection. When sin breaks that apart, (which happens), forgiveness can be granted. But without repairs, forgiveness does not automatically heal broken trust and safety, especially when the sin has been repeated again and again (Matthew 18:15). The Bible reminds us that love rejoices in the truth (1 Corinthians 13:6) and love walks in the truth (2 John 1:6).

    To collude with someone else’s misapplication of Scripture or internal lies is not to love them well. It only enables them to stay deceived and Jesus says truth is what sets us free (John 8:32).

    • Aly on December 31, 2020 at 11:00 am

      Kristen,
      So well Said!!! Thank you for posting. I hope others are seeing past blog content, it seems the updates are not consistent.

    • Autumn on December 31, 2020 at 3:45 pm

      Kristen, this is something I have been saying to myself lately.

      You have lost the privilege of a relationship with me due to your repeated abusive behavior.

  9. Mac on January 1, 2021 at 2:16 pm

    Ok, I have stumbled upon this blog as I am going through a rough situation with my marriage of 30 years. Presently we are in the process of a possible separation due to her not wanting to be with me no longer. As the husband this is a different perspective from most that I have been reading but I have been dealing with emotional abuse for most of our marriage from my wife.

    My wife has been the one to break our marriage covenant not once but four times and I, through the love, grace and mercy of God have been able to forgive her but she has never truly grown in the areas of her biggest weaknesses. She continues to blame me for all of her struggles and that I don’t supply her needs which she says is why she cheated on me 4 times.

    Granted the last time she committed adultery was 18 years ago, so she has grown in that area to not look for fulfillment in other men but I still continually deal with verbal abuse that I’m not good enough for her that usually comes out in indirect ways until I make her angry with a response she doesn’t like then I get the wrath. A handful of times that wrath will become physical to the point that I have to hold her to stop hitting me. She always reminds me of past mistakes and how I never take care of her needs.

    What you said in this article about :

    {But truth says we are not in charge of another person’s life, thoughts, emotions, or actions. A good relationship, especially one that is a long term such as marriage must be maintained and repaired by two people investing in the things that create a safe and trusting connection. When sin breaks that apart, (which happens), forgiveness can be granted. But without repairs, forgiveness does not automatically heal broken trust and safety, especially when the sin has been repeated again and again (Matthew 18:15). The Bible reminds us that love rejoices in the truth (1 Corinthians 13:6) and love walks in the truth (2 John 1:6). }

    I have tried for years to help her and have done all in my ability to nudge her to help herself or to have her get help. We have seen 2 different marriage counselors that both times she has ended because I feel that she doesn’t want and/or she doesn’t know how to handle her brokenness. Ive come to realize that I have to stop any nudging and just love her for who she is. I love my wife, I have been doing this for 30 years and it is my desire to not end my marriage but when you said:

    {The Biblical story of the prodigal son is where a father loved his son but let him go. (Luke 15:11-32). Letting go may do more to foster a person’s “wake up moment” (which is their good), than trying to convince them to change. It also stops them from having any more opportunities to harm you (which is not only good for you, it’s also good for them).

    When you have a hard time letting go, what you’re feeling is not love in the truest Biblical sense. Rather it’s a strong feeling resulting from an unhealthy attachment (as one person mentioned) or perhaps even a trauma bond. This difficulty detaching may also come from misplaced guilt about your role in someone else’s life. When you get caught in that quagmire, the best route is for you to get some help for yourself to detach and figure out your own internal resistance to letting go.

    As Christians, we’ve often been taught that forgiveness always means reconciliation and that grace always means canceling out negative consequences. But that teaching is not only false, it can be unloving. We’ve also been wrongly taught that somehow we can hold a relationship together if we just love enough, are strong enough in the Lord, try hard enough, and forgive enough. }

    This is failure to me! That I have lost the battle against everything the the enemy is wanting to do in my life by destroying the very thing that God has honored in my marriage. What is even more difficult is that my wife has taken steps to improve herself for the first time in our 30 years of marriage. She is actually in her second year of bible college at this present moment and about to go on a mission trip. This is a miracle for her to be doing that, she has never challenged herself to gain any personal growth.

    So I am struggling to let go since I do see some light at the end of the tunnel but it is very very dim at this moment. At the same time I’m tired of always having all of my failures in her mind held over my head, no matter how many times I ask for forgiveness and I forgive her for her words and actions. I’ve learned to forgive but forgetting which leads to “when is this going to happen again” holds me back from fully loving her. This is my present dilemma.

    • Ingrid Szalai on January 4, 2021 at 12:17 pm

      Mac,I have never written a comment in my life, but I couldn’t help it this time. You write, your wife is the one who wants to leave, and she is still abusive. The fact that she goes to bible college and even plans a mission trip won’t do away with the wounds she continually causes to you. It doesn’t seem she means to repair anything.
      When you write “At the same time I’m tired of always having all of my failures in her mind held over my head, no matter how many times I ask for forgiveness and I forgive her for her words and actions. I’ve learned to forgive but forgetting which leads to “when is this going to happen again” holds me back from fully loving her.” it is clear that the trust is broken and the lack of safety, which you express here, are a direct consequence of her past and present behaviour.
      Letting go is not easy. Admitting ourselves that what we have prayed and fought for for so many years has probably gone to nothing, may be even harder. Just as God has kept you in all these years of faithful waiting, He will keep you and heal you during the time of separation.
      After a while you may even realize how much brighter the sun shines without being constantly criticized and hurt, and she may not take you for granted, and start really thinking for the first time.
      Wait and see where God is leading you in this period of your life.

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