Love Can Be Tough

Let's look at another FAQ in neighborhood ministry: “Some of my neighbors don’t like me (or are jerks). What should I do?” I’ve become convinced that every neighborhood has a difficult neighbor or two. If you don’t think your neighborhood has a difficult character, maybe it’s you. (Probably not!)
I know where this question is coming from. Over many years of ministry, God has brought a number of difficult people across our paths. I remember a young man who sat in the back seat with our kids and sang profanity-laced lyrics. Another guy refused to do his Bible study, but never let that keep him from trying to dominate the discussion. Then there was the time I was called un-American by someone in our ministry. (I don’t remember what I did, but I do remember that I had just returned from Operation Desert Storm.) I have been falsely accused of a number of things over the years. These are normal occurrences as we relate to people while following the path of Jesus.
For some reason it’s harder with neighbors, probably because they live right in our midst. Our first introduction to “Judy” came when we heard her cursing her kids. Garbage was kind of a theme with her family, both the kind that spewed from their mouths and the literal kind that seemed to overflow from their yard to ours. Their dog was vicious and once tore into our dog, resulting in a large vet bill. They asked us for help all the time. We picked up their kids from day care, loaned them things, helped them clean up, invited them over, and tried to love them.
We also grumbled about them and harbored secret fantasies that they would move. They didn’t. We did discovered something about our grumbling, however. We discovered that the amount of energy used in complaining could be applied with equal force to our prayer life. In fact, we discovered a law: We were using our mouths either to pray or to grumble, but never both. Iris and I held each other accountable. If we started to complain about the neighbors, we would instead begin to pray for them.
Jesus does not give us a love-exemption for those tough-to-love neighbors. On the contrary, Jesus says to love not just our neighbors, but our enemies. We are to love them, do good to them, and pray for them. I’m currently reading the Psalms, and this is how the psalmist often prayed for his enemies: “Let burning coals fall upon them! Let them be cast into fire, into miry pits, no more to rise!” (Psalms 140:10, ESV).
In his wonderful commentary on the Psalms, Derek Kidner says, “The New Testament will redirect this fighting spirit, but it will endorse its single-mindedness.” In other words, we do not fight flesh and blood but principalities and evil powers in the heavenly realms. (You’ve heard that before, right? See Ephesians 6:10.) There is a New Testament passage that is both reminiscent of this curse and conscious of the redirection of the fighting spirit. It says, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head” (Romans 12:20, ESV).
Recently I had the joy of facilitating a group of international Navigators on the topic of neighboring. I asked each person to share his or her biggest neighborhood challenge. A brother from a particular country I won’t identify said that his biggest challenge was that some neighbors whom he identified as “fanatics” from the dominant religion in his country wanted to kill him. He then told the story of wrestling through fear for his life as he helped those same neighbors restore their electricity. Yes, he worked on their electric box, not knowing if they would murder him when his back was turned. He loved his enemies, who also happened to be his neighbors.
So, you have a difficult neighbor? Forgive me for being so obvious, but the only answer is love—no matter how tough.  

Al Engler is the director of Navigators Neighbors and Navigators Workplace. This article is part of a series on Frequently Asked Questions regarding neighborhood ministry. To contact him or to learn more about his ministry, click here.