In 1958 the Teddy Bears released the song “To know him is to love him, ” which might as well have been called “To know, know, know, him is to love, love, love, him, ” since that’s the way everybody remembers it. Either way, you get the idea: There’s this great guy out there, and the closer you get to him, the better you’re going to feel about him and, in all likelihood, the better he’s going to feel about spending time with you. After all, who doesn’t like being loved for who they really are?
Of course, there is no rule that says you can’t choose instead to get close to a lousy person, no matter how mean, lazy, stupid, violent, or unbelievably selfish he or she might be. On the contrary, there are plenty of rules saying we should do just that, in the name of Jesus. And there are plenty of stories and proverbs suggesting that when we do, wonderful things can happen. And so they do, especially early on in the relationship.
The problem is that to love, love, love a lousy person over a long period of time is … well, to find out just how lousy they are. It is to see for yourself, over and over again, why the rest of the world has left that person alone. In other words, in some cases, the closer you get to someone, the worse you are going to feel about them and, eventually, the worse they are going to feel about spending time with you. After all, who doesn’t hate being disdained for who they really are?
This isn’t an idle meditation on the Teddy Bears’ one and only hit. This is me trying to figure out why some folks who used to love being with me don’t want to be with me anymore, even though all I’ve done is care and help and give and forgive … and quietly lose respect for them even as they fall ever deeper into my debt. Okay, so maybe I’ve already figured out why.
I know I always say this thing is more about loving people than trying to fix them, but it turns out I have been secretly hoping that if our little core group set a tone of mutual love, we would unleash the “inner good neighbor” in everybody else, and a true fellowship of friends would emerge, wherein everybody genuinely cared about each other. It never occurred to me that if folks couldn’t — or just didn’t want to — start improving their lives or giving back to the group, the warmth they initially enjoyed might end up feeling like some kind of negative judgment. It never occurred to me that grace could backfire.
God, how do you keep loving people who can’t stand being known? If you pray, ask that for me.
Bart Campolo is a veteran urban minister and activist who speaks and writes about grace, faith, loving relationships and social justice. Bart is the leader of The Walnut Hills Fellowship, a local ministry in inner city Cincinnati.