Difficult People and God’s Uncontrolling Love

By Steven A. Luff

Modeling our understanding of God’s uncontrolling love may be easy in mutually rewarding relationships, but what about with difficult people?

Many of us want to model what we believe to be God’s uncontrolling love. We want to accept people where they are and allow them the space to explore, make mistakes, learn, and grow. This process is easier with some people in our lives than others. The parent, sibling, partner, or friend who has demonstrated patterns of facing life’s challenges with curiosity, resolve, support, and ownership are much easier not to control and by virtue of that, to love. Demonstrating our understanding of God’s uncontrolling love in those cases often makes us feel good about ourselves. We were there for someone in need. We accepted them unconditionally. We brought wisdom.

But not all of the people in our lives are like this. Some of the people in our lives are unmotivated, isolated, and blaming, often blaming us. They are rude, entitled, and sometimes emotionally and physically abusive. What does it mean to demonstrate God’s uncontrolling love in those situations?

The short answer to this question is whether your own choices in dealing with difficult people in your life are motivated by a true desire to help the other person grow or to hurt them directly or indirectly. So really, when we are discussing modeling God’s uncontrolling love in our response to difficult people, we are talking about detaching from the experience, seeing the people in our lives from a bird’s eye view, and understanding them in developmentally appropriate contexts. Once we can see them in this way, we can have and hold boundaries that are not controlling, but instead allow these people the opportunity to mature and grow.

For many of us, knowing to set and hold a boundary with a protesting six-year old when they want more than their allotted share of cookies is a much clearer direction than say, setting and holding a boundary with a sixteen year-old who continues to abuse drugs and alcohol while telling you “everyone else is doing it,” or setting and holding a boundary with your partner who continues to spend your savings on gambling while explaining “it’s normal to lose some before you hit the big winnings.”

Many of us are faced with circumstances like these and circumstances far graver like an adult child who continues to abuse you verbally or physically in your own home. Even when you know for sure this is not developmentally appropriate behavior, and that it may not be in their best interest to continue to be living with you, you may think to yourself, “Where would they live? I can’t have them live on the streets. God wouldn’t turn them out, how can I?”

If there is one thing we know about the nature of the world in which we live (the nature of God?) it is that when any organism is faced with resistance, it adapts to that resistance, which means it grows stronger. Stronger is better. Stronger means that the organism can survive on its own and can thrive. In what ways, when we do not hold developmentally appropriate boundaries with difficult people in our lives, are we preventing these people from experiencing opportunities to strengthen and grow, to improve and mature, to thrive?

Of course, there are times when organisms are faced with too much resistance when they are not strong enough yet and that resistance kills the organism, but that is some of the discernment I am talking about here. What boundaries are developmentally appropriate for the people in our lives? When are we crushing them with our boundaries and when are we giving them opportunities?

A child will not starve to death if they do not get the extra cookie and might just gain some skills in delaying gratification, the greatest predictor of future success. An adolescent sent to a recovery program when they are abusing drugs and alcohol will not experience irreversible psychological damage; instead, they might just have the opposite occur in learning how to manage emotions through healthy relationships instead of substances. A partner who no longer has access to your financial assets will still have their next meal and a roof over their head but may need to learn how to manage their money better if they want more from life. And the abusive adult child who has been evicted from your home most likely will not die on the streets, will most likely find a new place to live, and may just learn the lesson that it is a privilege to have access to a home for which they are not paying.

Setting and holding boundaries like these is not easy to recognize as godly, uncontrollingly loving, and perhaps the right thing to do. But instead of that difficulty being a sign that doing so is cruel and unloving it may be a sign of your own opportunity for growth. First, to know whether a boundary is uncontrollingly loving requires learning about what is and is not developmentally appropriate. Maybe we are not even holding ourselves to those standards. And second, what does it say about us and our own value and worth when we struggle with watching other people face life’s challenges?

Learning what is and is not age appropriate requires resources, support, and education. It also requires a bit of distance from the difficult people in our lives to see that they are not special cases. They may be special to us, but they are not special cases. Just because they are our parents, siblings, children, partners, or friends does not make them exempt from what is expected from the rest of humankind. Also, accessing resources, support, and education takes time, and patience. And if there is one thing that will undoubtedly mature us, it is waiting. Remember the earlier comment regarding the greatest indicator of future success?

Once we can see these difficult people in our lives are just as much a part of humankind as the rest of us, and require the same level of developmentally appropriate boundaries, the next question for ourselves if we are still struggling with holding those boundaries is, why are we still struggling? Are we struggling because we have difficulty trusting our own wisdom? Are we struggling because we feel that our own past mistakes make us unworthy of being respected? Are we struggling because if we do hold boundaries, we believe we will ultimately be alone in life? Are we struggling because the consequences of holding those boundaries may broadcast to other people in our lives that we are heartless, unkind, and ungodly?

Interestingly, when we do decide to dedicate our lives to modeling God’s uncontrolling love through developmentally appropriate boundaries, we draw closer to God instead of alienating ourselves from God. Fundamentally, when we have and hold developmentally appropriate boundaries with others, we recognize a fundamental truth about existence: we can only control ourselves, not other people, which means that when we set and hold boundaries with difficult people in our lives, we are relinquishing these people into God’s hands, into God’s love. Can we really let them go, and trust that they are ultimately cared for? Talk about uncontrolling love!

Modeling God’s uncontrolling love with difficult people in our lives may be the most difficult thing we will ever do. Humans are built for connection and through control we believe we can keep people connected to us. But keeping difficult people close regardless of how they treat us is not love. Rather it is subjecting ourselves to abuse. As you hold boundaries, and work your way toward understanding and building healthier relationships, you have the option of focusing on God’s love. God’s love for you!

To summarize, what is in our control when dealing with difficult people in our lives is educating ourselves about what boundaries are developmentally appropriate, having and holding those boundaries (sometimes through legal channels), and gaining support through support groups. Support groups may come through our religious communities, but if those communities are not helpful, or if you would like to keep your challenges confidential, you can always find them in 12-step programs such as Al-Anon (for friends and family of addicts) and CODA (Co-dependents Anonymous).

Remember, we do have control of letting go of control (ironically!). And letting go of control is trusting that God, the ultimate non-controlling and loving force in our lives, is working all of existence in a benevolent direction. Set and hold developmentally appropriate boundaries with the people in your life and trust the direction of life’s flow. Trust in God’s uncontrolling love.

Steven A. Luff is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. Through his Faith & Sex Center (www.faithandsexcenter.com) he works with clients to transform their understandings of God into frameworks that promote personal and communal well-being, especially as it relates to sex. He is the principal author of Pure Eyes: A Man’s Guide to Sexual Integrity.

To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Love Does Not Control: Therapists, Psychologists, and Counselors Explore Uncontrolling Love