Sarah Rieke » Living. Loving. Pressing on.

Sometimes Love is the Hardest Thing

It was grocery day. I made my way down the two flights of stairs to the little apartment lobby, purse on my shoulder and shopping list in my hand. I twirled my sparkly new wedding band around my ring finger, excited for a new week of meal planning and meal making, another week of real life wife things.

I was deep in thought, planning out the most efficient way to make my way through the grocery store, when the upstairs neighbor lady entered the lobby. Her hair was frizzy and white and her eyes tired. She wore bright pink lipstick and you could tell by the smudges on her upper lip and front teeth that this lipstick was applied with very shaky hands. She had likely never been very tall, but now, her upper back bent with time, she stood almost a whole head shorter than me.

“Do you think you could help me carry my groceries up to my apartment?” She asked me, her voice heavy with hope.

My lips formed the word, “OK” while everything inside of me screamed the opposite. I had somewhere to go, meals to shop for, a husband to take care of. Didn’t she know how painfully annoying her interruption was?! At least I had the good sense not to roll my eyes in front of her.

I grabbed a couple of brown paper sacks out of the backseat of her powder blue Buick and followed behind up the three flights of stairs to her front door. She tried to make small talk along the way. I would have none of it. I hoped my short, curt answers would communicate, passive-aggressively of course, how very much her little request had inconvenienced me.

She fiddled with her apartment key and finally pushed the door open. I laid the sacks down, just inside her front door, careful not to step in. The last thing I wanted to do was give her the idea that I wanted to stay. She didn’t get the hint.

“Would you like to stay for tea? I can make you some tea?” She looked at me expectantly.

“No thanks,” I said dryly, “I have things to do.”

“Ok then.” She smiled and I turned my back to hurry down the stairs, grateful to be done with this very unwelcome task.

It took a couple of years removed from the incident to realize how incredibly selfish I had been in that moment, to reflect on why my own agenda was so infinitely superior to this woman’s simple request. She lived all by herself. She did not seem in good health. In the whole 365 days that we lived there, I never noticed any visitors. Did she know Jesus? I could have shown Him to her, been a friend, been a bright light on an otherwise dim day.

I didn’t even know her name.

Almost eleven years later I think about what happened on that day and it fills my insides with such regret that I almost can’t breathe in. I’d like to think I’ve changed. I’d like to think that, given the opportunity again, I would choose right, choose to give life, choose light. But there is still as much selfishness in my veins as there are red blood cells, except the selfishness only chokes the oxygen from inside of me instead of gives it.

I am a disgustingly self-centered person.

I’d like to think that I would do things differently, given the chance again. But, even now, I’ve perfected to olympic gold proportions my ability to artfully skirt around my husband’s playful flirting.

No thanks … I have things to do.

I’d like to think that with age I’ve become better at realizing how relationships are truly the most important thing, but when My son asks me to watch his video game like he’s offering me a pot of gold, I sit for as few minutes as I possibly can while still satisfying his request.

No thanks … I have things to do.

I’d like to think that with motherhood has come a dying to self that I have become very good at and even love, but still when my baby wakes me up from sound sleep and I reluctantly roll out of bed to take care of him, in my head I curse his swollen, breaking gums.

No thanks … I have things to do.

I want to think I know how to be the best kind of friend, but when a girlfriend texts me to see if we can talk, if she can share her hurting heart with me, all I want to do is text back … Later??

No thanks … I have things to do.

What is it about me that talks about loving people but when it comes down to actually doing it, I want out? What is it about me that sees my agenda as royalty and yours as a common, loathsome peasant? Why does saying yes to help a neighbor feel like they might as well have asked me to rip each of my ten fingernails off, one by one? Why is love in real life so painfully opposite of my natural instincts? Paul’s words might as well be mine, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (Romans 7:15).

In her book, The Broken Way, Ann Voskamp says, “It’s relatively easy to pontificate on how to live the gospel; it’s infinitely harder to incarnate the gospel in your life.” This is my unfortunate anthem.

Loving is easy when people are smiling. Loving is easy when everyone is pleasant and there are mutual benefits to the relationship. But love that requires me to kneel into the dirt and get soil underneath my fingernails and sweat to start pooling on my forehead – the love that requires work – that kind is hard. And it’s probably the very reason why Scripture had to tell us that love is patient, kind, and long-suffering; because we naturally are quite the opposite of those things.

It is hard to love my toddler when she gets out of bed for the eighty-seventh time. It is hard to love a neighbor who asks for my help when I’ve already started to dive into a task and my time feels tangibly limited. And It is hard to love a friend or family member who doesn’t seem to get me or worse, misunderstands my heart in a painful way. But if we only love people to the extent to which they don’t inconvenience us or annoy us or even hurt us, is that really love?

Jesus told us not only to love our neighbors, but to also love our enemies. In Romans 8:25 Paul talks about faith being defined as being confident and believing in what we do not see. The kingdom of Heaven is upside-down. So maybe the way to love – to really, truly love – is to love when it is hard, when it is inconvenient, when it feels like your kindness muscles are stretching in uncomfortable, burning ways.

Maybe the real way to love is to stretch your arms wide, like tender hands nailed to a splintered cross, and be willing to embrace the discomfort of loving when it costs you something, all because that very thing was done for you.

Matthew 1624


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