Finding Victory in Difficult Relationships
by LESLIE LUDY
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another;
As I have loved you, that you also love one another.
Corrie ten Boom told a remarkable true story of a Christian man named Thomas who lived in an African village with his young family. One of his neighbors hated Thomas because of his faith in God. The man began sneaking over at night and setting fire to the straw roof on Thomas’ small hut, putting his little children in danger. Each time Thomas was able to rush out and extinguish the flames before they destroyed the roof and walls. He never said an unkind word to his neighbor and only showed him love and forgiveness — which seemed to make the neighbor hate him even more.
One night when the neighbor had set fire to Thomas’ roof, a strong wind came up and blew the flames across the street, causing the neighbor’s own hut to go up in flames. As soon as Thomas finished putting out the fire on his roof, he rushed across the street to put out the fire on his neighbor’s hut, and in the process badly burned his hands and arms.
When people told the village chief what had happened, he had the neighbor arrested and put into prison. Instead of being happy that his spiteful neighbor was finally getting what he deserved, Thomas was sad and burdened for the man. He prayed a bold prayer on his behalf, raising his burned hands in the air: “Lord, I claim this neighbor of mine for You. Lord, give him his freedom, and do the miracle that in the future he and I will become a team to bring the gospel in our tribe.” Corrie witnessed this prayer and was deeply touched. Later when she was able to visit the prison where the neighbor was being held, she shared the Gospel and he willingly received Jesus. Then Corrie told him what Thomas had prayed. The man was so overwhelmed by this extraordinary display of love that he wept and agreed that one day the two men would become a team for the Gospel, just as Thomas had prayed.
We often think of God’s miracles coming in the form of supernatural healing or amazing financial provision. But there is another kind of miracle which is equally powerful — the miracle of God’s victorious love. It’s a love that enables us to forgive the unforgivable, to love the unlovable, and to endure the unendurable — even in our most difficult relationships.
To show the kind of unselfish love that Thomas displayed for his neighbor is totally impossible with human strength. But with God, nothing is impossible. I have often had to remind myself that the same supernatural, victorious love that has enabled countless Christians to forgive their worst enemies is also available to me. Whether I face small annoyances from people in my daily life, or deeper hurts and disappointments from people close to me, God has guided me toward a victorious pattern for navigating difficult relationships. It is not a pattern in which all relational conflict magically melts away, but it is one in which bitterness is replaced with love and harshness is replaced with gentleness.
There are two key principles I have returned to over and over again whenever I’m struggling to find God’s victorious pattern in relational challenges. When I have been purposeful to apply these truths to difficult relationship situations, I am always amazed at the transformation that takes place; if not in the relationship itself, at least in my own soul — which is where freedom and victory really begin.
Jesus said, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.”
Deny in this verse means: to forget oneself, to put self out of the way entirely. Self-denial is the polar opposite of what our human nature desires, and it’s also the polar opposite of what our culture promotes. When it comes to challenging relationships, there is only one way to put aside our selfish tendencies and embrace self-denial, and that is to call upon the enabling grace of God in the very moment we need it.
Amy Carmichael wrote about a moment in which someone spoke rudely to her, and how she was immediately tempted to respond with an “angry, flashing remark.” But then an inner Voice reminded her, “See in it a chance to die.” In other words, that moment was presenting her with a chance to die to herself, take up her cross, and follow Jesus.
Though it was a seemingly small, insignificant decision, Amy realized it presented a big opportunity to walk in God’s victorious, triumphant love. She asked for His grace to hold back her angry words and respond with gentleness instead. And from that point on she began to intentionally apply the principle of self-denial in her relationships with others. Perhaps that was why she was able to build a powerful, Christ-centered family made up of hundreds of rescued women and children; the kind of family that was known all around India as “the place where they all love each other.”
Many people in India came to know Jesus Christ because of the supernatural love and unity that they witnessed in Amy’s family of orphans and widows. As Jesus said, “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn. 13:35).
Walking in victorious love toward others can seem like a lofty-sounding ideal, but it really boils down to our willingness to embrace self-denial over selfishness. And the victory is usually won in seemingly small, everyday opportunities to choose the higher road by God’s grace. Amy Carmichael described it this way,
And is it not a strength to remember that when we feel our patience wearing thin, that “patience towards others” is a gift to be had? We can easily get to the end of our own sweetness of spirit, but not the end of our God’s … One of my dearest friends wrote these words…
“Let [nothing] in my soul’s gesture or behavior
Obstruct sweet glimpses of Thyself today.”
If we pray that prayer truly, we shall not, by little acts of careless rudeness, make it harder for others to see the Lord Jesus. And if anyone is inclined to think that rudeness and honesty run together, and politeness and insincerity, I will tell you what I have found: The strongest, bravest, truest people I ever knew were (are) the most gentle-mannered. Good manners are not among the things that do not matter. Can we imagine our Lord Jesus ever being rude?
All those little daily decisions to choose kindness over rudeness can add up to a lifelong pattern of walking in God’s victorious love. Of course this doesn’t mean that we should never confront someone who is being hurtful or insensitive. But when we are walking in self-denial, we won’t make the mistake of confronting others in a fleshly or ungodly way. We are called to “speak the truth in love,” not speak the truth in rudeness or irritation. (See Ephesians 4:15.)
When we embrace self-denial in our day-to-day relationships, we will be far more prepared to respond victoriously in the bigger relational challenges that come our way — just like Thomas was ready to respond with love and forgiveness when his neighbor began to harass and endanger him. God-enabled self-denial must be a daily process, not just a one-time action. Paul wrote, “I affirm, by the boasting in you which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily” (1 Cor. 15:31, emphasis added).
Next time you are faced with the temptation to respond to someone with an “angry, flashing remark,” as Amy Carmichael put it, see in that moment a chance to die to self, take up your cross, and follow Him. You may not get the instant (fleshly) gratification that comes with retaliation, but you will have the far deeper satisfaction of knowing that you are walking in the footsteps of the One who denied Himself for you.
See God’s Bigger Picture
Ahn Ei Sook (also known as Esther Ahn Kim, mentioned in my previous article) was a young Korean woman imprisoned for her faith during World War II. While in prison, an insane woman was placed into the cell next to her. The woman had been sentenced to death for murdering her husband. She was horribly filthy and completely out of her mind, spitting, writhing, and screaming unintelligible words through most of the night. The other prisoners would have nothing to do with someone so repulsive. Ahn was already suffering tremendously from starvation and disease, and the continual screaming of the woman in the next cell grated on her nerves.
But God enabled her to look beyond her disgust and annoyance and recognize the preciousness of the woman’s soul. She began to feel a deep love and burden for her, and asked the guards to transfer this woman to her own cell. At first the woman tried to attack Ahn whenever she came near her. But Ahn continued to pursue her relentlessly. She gave the woman her own limited food supply, cleaned the filth from her body, and spoke words of comfort and truth to her. As a result of Ahn’s unselfish love, the woman regained her sanity, received the Gospel, and was completely at peace when the day of her execution came.
This amazing testimony reminds me how important it is to see God’s bigger picture when dealing with challenging people. When I encounter someone who wrongs me or tries my patience, I often fail to look beyond my own hurt, irritation, or disappointment to remember the preciousness of that person’s soul. It is only when I ask God to enable me to see the other person as He does that I can truly reflect His victorious love.
Amy Carmichael once commented on this verse from 1 Thessalonians 5:14:
Admonish the disorderly, soothe them of little soul, help the weak, be longsuffering towards all … It is evident that there were unruly, lazy, tiresome, weak people then, just as there are now, and they were as trying to faith and to good temper then as they are now. There is nothing flabby in these directions about how to deal with them, but I have been saved from mistake by that gentle word, “Soothe them of little soul.” … Unruliness, unreasonableness, unmannerliness even more than some things which may be worse, have a curious power to ruffle the spirit unless it dwells deep in the love of God.
Those words ring very true for me. Many times I have allowed my spirit to be ruffled by “unruly, lazy, tiresome, weak” people, completely overlooking opportunities to demonstrate the love and gentleness of Christ. Unless I am purposeful about keeping my soul anchored in the love of God, I will miss the bigger picture and fail to approach difficult relationships with eternity’s values in view. The souls of people are of far more importance than my personal offenses and annoyances.
If there are especially difficult people in your life, ask God for the grace to lift your gaze beyond their faults and failures and see the value of their souls. Ask God to show you what role you might be called to play in their rescue and redemption. Though the enemy often tries to use weak or irritating people to distract and frustrate us, we can turn the whole situation around when we participate in God’s redemptive work.
. . .
Darlene Deibler was a missionary to New Guinea during the Second World War when the Japanese invaded the island and took all foreigners captive. She and several other missionaries were forced to live together in very tight quarters, with limited food and supplies, while being constantly harassed and threatened by cruel captors. It was a stressful situation that would have tested even the closest of relationships. And yet in the midst of these trying circumstances, the power of God’s victorious love was clearly seen. As Darlene described it:
Take seven very individual, independent women and one gentleman, accustomed to being a leader, put them in cramped quarters such as these in which we were now being confined, and what do you have? Put God in the midst, and you have that rare and beautiful thing known as the fellowship of the saints.
Psalm 133:1 expresses this truth: “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” (NIV).
It is exciting to catch a vision for the relational transformation that happens when God’s victorious love is allowed to come shining through our lives. But it doesn’t happen by accident; we have an important role to play in the process. By God’s grace, self must be silenced, and eternity’s values must be kept in view.
Prayerfully consider some practical steps you can take to become a catalyst for God’s victorious love in your daily relationships. Is God nudging you to forgive someone who has wronged you? Speak kindly to someone who has been rude to you? Make something right with a friend or family member? Pursue a wayward soul by showing love and gentleness instead of anger and annoyance? Ask God for the strength to say yes to those nudges. Those steps of obedience pave the way for His victorious love to triumph even in our most difficult relationships. The triumph might not be evident immediately — at least to human eyes — but the moment you say yes to His nudges, you can be confident that His victorious love is already triumphing in the spiritual realm.
Right now the enemy is working overtime to fragment and divide the Body of Christ, splinter relationships, and erode the fellowship of the saints. And he is trying to keep us so caught up in our own frustration toward those who are ensnared by sin in our culture that we are losing opportunities to win precious souls for eternity. Let’s refuse to play the enemy’s game.
Remember that God’s victorious love is so much greater than any difficult relationship we may face. And as Corrie ten Boom once said, “It is not my ability, but my response to God’s ability, that counts.”