“I love you; I just don’t like you.”
When I was young I heard these words from other children at different times. Only children are honest and brave enough to say such words to your face. As adults we learn to control the expression of our inner thoughts and feelings. However, as adults we still feel like this toward people. At least, this is what we say to ourselves and perhaps even to other people who share our dislike for another person. “Just because I love him doesn’t mean I have to like him,” we assure ourselves.
I have to be honest. I meet some people I don’t like. It could be things about them that are different. Sometimes I find myself disliking someone when I see that their views and opinions oppose mine. Other times I dislike people when I see them celebrating immorality. And sometimes I don’t like people just because I am jealous of them—they are better looking, more talented or more popular and they know it. I tend to dislike people universally who portray themselves in an arrogant way or who are very aware of how “cool” they think they are. I’m not saying I am right to dislike these people, but I am trying to be honest with you.
I have discovered something about people I don’t like. Almost always, I would say 99.99% of the time, when I don’t like someone it is for one of two reasons: 1) I feel inferior in their presence and they say or do nothing to make me feel less inferior, or, 2) I perceive that they don’t like me or that they look down on me.
The first reason is simply the feeling of “I don’t measure up.” When I feel like this around people, it can be overcome by their friendliness. That is, if people I know I don’t measure up to (in education, in wealth, in looks, in popularity, etc.) show me that they really like me, then I will not be intimidated by them and will begin to like them. If they are neutral towards me, then I am in danger of projecting. I project onto them the idea that they look down on me because I am not as educated; or because I am not as wealthy; or because I don’t enjoy the same kind of “cultured” lifestyle. I assume that they look down upon me even though they have done nothing to actually indicate this. In reality I am looking down on myself when I compare myself to them. I dislike myself for the fact that I do not “measure up” to them. I suppose without any evidence that I would not be accepted into their circles.
The second and more typical reason I find myself disliking people is when I perceive that they don’t like me or that they look down on me. It is difficult to like someone who doesn’t like you. It is really difficult to like someone who seems to purposely offend you, insult you, or make you feel stupid. So, I usually don’t like people who don’t treat me very well and don’t show respect.
So, what about liking versus loving people? Jesus commanded us to “love one another.” He didn’t say, “Like one another.” But these very much depend on how we understand “like” and “love.”
Traditionally, we understand that to love someone we wish them no ill-will (don’t want to see them suffer or die) and we do nice things for them in spite of themselves. When we like someone, basically it means we want to hang out with them and be around them. We want to become their friends. That’s what the children were saying to me when they said, “I love you; I just don’t like you.” They were saying, “I don’t want anything bad to happen to you, but I don’t want to be your friend. I hope things go well for you, but I don’t want to hang out with you.”
Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) He also said, “I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” Jesus associated love with friendship, and friendship with letting people in. We know from Jesus’ example that he spent time with people. The power of his presence was found in the fact that he accepted people others didn’t like. He spent time with them. He let them in.
Much has been said to explain the different Greek words for “love.” We say that agape love is the highest and most Christ-like of the different “loves.” And this is the word we typically translate “love.” Eros love, on the other hand, is often described as “selfish love" (which I believe is an incorrect understanding). Instead of calling this eros, I would call it conditional love. It is loving people for being lovable.
In reality, what we often call “love” (I hope you don’t die, and here’s a sandwich) is not much more than a mere gesture. Furthermore, what we call “like” is better described as that conditional love—we like those who like us back, and we therefore let them into our lives calling them our “friends.” However, Jesus’ example of agape love might better be described as unconditionally liking people. Could you intentionally like someone who doesn’t like you?
I was once at a Christian conference attended by people I mostly did not know. I only really knew one person who invited me to the meeting. As I sat and listened a woman went forward to the microphone to share something on her heart. The tone of her voice sounded a bit whiny to me and the things she said gave me the impression that people in the room weren’t being spiritual enough for her. She didn’t say that. That was just my impression. So, in my heart, I disliked this woman.
When the meeting was over I discovered that this very woman was close friends to the person who invited me to the conference. So I was introduced by my friend with some undeserved compliments. This woman smiled really big and seemed to like me from the very first moment I met her. I subconsciously thought that this “like” wouldn’t last long once we talked and got to know each other more. But as I saw this woman more and more over the next few years she continued to show a sincere interest in me and often invited me to eat dinner with her husband and family. I still don’t know why this woman likes me. But I discovered that I stopped disliking her. In fact, I would call her a good friend.
I have discovered that liking people is a very powerful thing. People don’t want to be loved. People want to be liked. We want for others to be interested in us. We want them to want to be around us. We want them to call us “friend.” We want to be liked. Because, when it comes right down to it, liking people is really loving people the way Jesus loved people.
I have also discovered that people don’t like me for the same reasons I don’t like them. People don’t like me when they perceive that I don’t like them. Things we do that indicate to people that we don’t like them make them not like us. So I am learning to respond differently when I perceive people don’t like me. I think, “Did I in some way show them I didn’t like them or looked down upon them?” And I try to treat them in ways that do not communicate dislike or disdain. More than anything, that is showing them that I see their value and that I want to spend time with them. This may be difficult to do, and at times impossible if the person persists in their dislike. But sometimes it is enough to turn a heart around.
God help me, for my heart is more bent on hate than on truly loving the unlikeable.