If People Don’t Love You Back

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People won’t love you back the way you love them.

This struck me as I was taking my morning moonlight walk. Mostly I noticed how cold my face was and how being cold again, after I thought Spring 2021 meant business, hurts just a little more. But also I was praying and this came to me clearly in the “brisk” (32º) pre-dawn air.

I’m not doling out romantic advice here. That’s a post for a different day–or maybe never. I’m going to do what I do: try to think more deeply about something that sounds good in theory and consider how/if it actually works in practice, in our real, messy, imperfect, grace-breathed but sin-bruised lives.

“People won’t love you back the way you love them” came to me this morning when I was pondering someone in whom I have invested a piece of my life. During a span of many years, we talked frequently, spent a lot of time together, I offered the best sounding board, input, and encouragement I could, and I got to see the person grow a lot. It was cool.

Let me say clearly right now that I’m not talking about mentoring young adults. I’ve mentored…a hundred? Maybe more. A lot, especially if you define “mentor” loosely as “intentionally spend time with and get to know for the purpose of being a positive influence.” It’s a good life and I wouldn’t trade it. When I work with young adults, I expect them to grow up and I want them not to need me/lean on me at the same level as they get older. I’m available, but I’m not looking to develop others’ dependency on my support. That’s not what support looks like. Plus, it’s a little sick and narcissistic.

I’m talking about a different level of friendship here. If you love people, if you invest time and heart and thought and prayer into others, you’ll get burned sometimes. Sometimes, one hopes not often, you’ll get stabbed in the back. You’ll find out they were undercutting you, talking shit about you, undermining or sabotaging you. That sucks and is a big forgiveness issue. I’m still working on forgiving a few of those people. But I’m not talking about that here, either. Those folks who stab you in the back make it clear you aren’t missing out when you aren’t friends anymore.

Today, I’m pondering the friendships that we watch fade away. The people you start to wonder “Am I doing all the work here? They trying to tell me something?” The ones you would have listed among your close friends until one day you realize, “I’m clearly not on your list anymore.” I think these are the most painful losses, when we’ve loved someone and, without explanation, they stop reciprocating.

I’ve had people ask my forgiveness and it was exceedingly clear they didn’t care about me or how I am now. They knew they were supposed to ask forgiveness to clear their conscience. I was the motion they were going through. That’s not a great feeling. “I want you to forgive me and I also want nothing more to do with you.” So…that means I’m absolving you? We often discuss how you can forgive someone even if they don’t ask or deserve your forgiveness, because forgiveness (though not reconciliation) can be unilateral. But when someone decides to make your forgiveness of them unilateral–“Hey, sorry about that, I need to hear you say ‘I forgive you’ so I can check this off my list. K? Bye.” it leaves us feeling…used. Dont’ get me wrong, I want to see people experience forgiveness and the healing of grace. But it’s a strange form of selfishness to ask someone’s forgiveness for yourself, not for the person you’ve wronged.

I think this is one of the dangers–and symptoms–of an unhealthy form of Christianity that has become so individualistic. If I only need to be “right with God,” then I can ask you to forgive me because that’s what God requires of me, and how you actually are now is not really my concern.

When I say, “People won’t love you back the way you love them,” I mean that real love requires that I invest my heart in you. I can do you good without caring about you, but I can’t love you without caring about you. I know it sounds obvious when I put it that way, but here’s the trick about following what Mother Teresa said (that someone else wrote and was found written on the wall in her children’s home in Kolkata): it’s between you and God as far as the results go, but it’s still love only if you give your heart in the exchange. If I do the equivalent of what I described in the unilateral asking forgiveness–I’m loving you because I want to get the love box checked by God, but I’m doing it so I will get a “love credit,” not to love you for real–then I’m fooling myself. I’m not loving you. I’m trying to score points.

Real relationships in whcih we love the other person are both costly and risky. Even marriage, with covenant vows exchanged, isn’t guaranteed. Friendships are simply “We’re friends as long as we both decide we’re friends.” This is why some people (understandably) become self-protective and stop offering their heart in friendship. This is also why, ultimately, I need to know that God loves me enough to keep me rooted when friends stop loving me back. I either have to love self-defensively and half-heartedly, or I love wholeheartedly and trust God that I’m still loved if people burn me. In that sense, it’s absolutely between me and God. Otherwise, I have to do whatever it takes to keep you being friends with me–which very quickly stops looking like love and starts looking like manipulation.

I have three more thoughts on this.

1)I’m not a planner. I’m not great at looking down the road. I respond in the moment. I’m a very good friend for many people, a complete letdown for others, and someone could easily have written this blog post with me in mind because I offer my friendship freely to most people and then, sometimes, find I’ve overextended myself. If you’re that person with me–if you read my blog out of spite, just to say to yourself, “Yeah, like you have any business talking about that!”–um…I am sorry. I have grace for people who have let me down, even when they explicitly offered something and didn’t follow through, because I’m acutely aware that I have done this to people, and even when I had the best intentions.

2)I choose to have no regrets for offering friendship. I mean that sincerely. I do carry some pain for the people who have chosen not to reciprocate (or continue reciprocating) when I’ve invested deeply and, in my own way, loved them well. But I would not go back and change any of these choices (and trust me, there are choices I would change). In other words, I don’t write this post to say, “Damn, I sure wish I had loved less freely and kept my defenses up more! If only I’d been able to foresee that some people would end up dropping our friendship, not appreciating me, and leaving me to wonder if it meant anything.” See, I know it did. Loving others is how we change the world.

In this sense also, my loving others is between me and God. I may at times have an exaggerated sense of my self-importance, but I’m clear that our effort to love others counts. If Jesus is saying what I think he is, our effort to love may be the only thing that counts. The people I admire most go through the world with their hearts and their arms open, offering blessing and grace wherever they go, and seem wondrously able to give freely without keeping score. I want to do that. I want to give my heart freely, even when it hurts, and then forgive and…and forget the score. In other words, I want to be more loving, not less.

3)If I offer love freely to others and make it between me and God, that means I’m not posturing. I’m not virtue signaling. (Hate that term, by the way.) I’m offering love with the expectation not that they must reciprocate perfectly–or even what I judge to be adequately–but in faith that when I love anyone, God shapes my heart. Pulls the old Grinch trick and grows my heart bigger than it was. The paradox is that I can’t love for myself, pretend to love, or just love to make myself be (or appear) more godly; when I do love, it benefits me, but if and only if it’s authentic love.

And yet…and yet. We always have mixed motives, don’t we? We’re complex, loving-yet-broken children of God. When I say “authentic love” I don’t mean pure, flawless, or fully altruistic. Come on. If you’re at that level, my blog probably isn’t the place for you (though thanks, I’m flattered). In the real world, we love people and we hope. We love people imperfectly and we get hurt. Jesus invites us to love people who need it and promises not that we will be safe from getting our hearts broken, but that loving others as best we can is the only way for our hearts to grow alive and not die.

6 thoughts on “If People Don’t Love You Back

  1. Trish G

    Mike ~ I agree with your conclusions here ~ love openly. Love extravagantly. Trust God to be the one supplying your need for love ~

    ~ but I’m going to say that your opening scenario is much more confusing. As though a friend in having less to invest in you personally now, than before, has sinned against you. As though this is a situation requiring forgiveness.

    Knowing ~ as I suspect you do ~ that most of us don’t have the relational resources to love hundreds of people deeply as you do ~ many of us may have what it takes to invest deeply in two or three people in a given week ~

    I hope you can accept that moving on is a reality, often a necessity, may cause the pain of loss, but is not a sin. Should not even be considered a breakage of trust. Because none of us can honestly say in embarking on a friendship, “I commit myself to love and invest in you just this way for the rest of my life.”

    We do attempt to make and keep such a commitment in marriage, in parental love toward our children ~ there’s a reason these types of relationships are set apart, are considered sacred. We can’t do that with everyone.

    And yes, we sometimes do invest deeply in our friends ~ sometimes for the long haul. This is utterly voluntary. A choice, not an obligation. I consider this a crucial distinction ~

  2. Trish G

    I intend no insult, nor have I ever felt you oblige people to be your friend.

    This is a boundaries issue I feel strongly about. We don’t need to hang on to friendships we shouldn’t be in, out of misguided loyalty. I think I’ve done a lot of that in my day ~

    And most of us don’t have the capacity to maintain hundreds of deep relationships ~ it’s just too much. A few is plenty for many of us to handle ~

  3. Marilyn

    Thanks for sharing your heartfelt thoughts. It helped me to sort some relationships out. It’s what I needed today!

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