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What to Do if You Struggle to Truly Love Others

What to Do if You Struggle to Truly Love Others

Love is something more stern and splendid than mere kindness......
Love is not an affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person's ultimate good as far as it can be obtained.
– C.S. Lewis

The core cause of an inability to love is the inability to accept yourself as loved. This is fed by the belief that you are irretrievably defective, unredeemable, and unlovable. Such beliefs emerge from the emotions of a child as he or she grows and develops in key environments where there is rejection by family, peers, friends, authority figures, etc.

This rejection can be overt or the result of neglect. And for the more sensitive child, the cause(s) can be unpredictably subtle. For example, if a child runs home from school and bursts into the house with great excitement over what they’ve just experienced but is shut down through punishment or shaming, that one incident alone can be painful enough to a sensitive child to create an unspoken, interior commitment never to share their deep heart again. They have just learned that sharing a deep feeling can make them vulnerable to pain. So, they erect a wall in their heart beyond which no one can enter.

The degree of suffering experienced by any given child varies according to their level of sensitivity and their capacity to observe (or imagine) both overt and covert signs of rejection by others. Additional variables include the accuracy with which they perceive rejection and the importance that the person rejecting them has in their life.

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The Core of People Who Cannot Love

As you might imagine, with all of the abused and mistreated people on the earth today, this condition is epidemic and has given rise to a massive population of individuals who are incapable of truly loving others. They know only the romantic fantasy of loving, and how to mimic it, but not the reality. Their experience of rejection has made them so self-focused and protective that they have never learned how to give themselves selflessly and sacrificially for the good of another. Their inner wounds scream at them continuously: “Protect yourself at all costs! Do not trust! Do not be fooled! Do not be vulnerable! Do not give yourself to others in a sacrificial way unless there is a reciprocal benefit to you. Do not commit to others on an emotional level, because they will only hurt you and let you down in the end.” These are some of the core beliefs of the person who cannot love.

What makes it even more complicated is that many such individuals are not even aware that they hold to such foundational beliefs. Yet they enshroud themselves in self-protective mechanisms that keep them from experiencing the deep pain of being reminded (via perceived rejection) that no one really loves them. And should someone profess to love them, they cannot accept it, believing that once that person discovers who they really are (-i.e., defective and unlovable), they will reject them. And on that day of impending rejection, it will hurt less if it comes from a person with whom they have not shared their deep heart.

These people also tend to be perfectionists. They see the world in black and white terms and tend to romanticize relationships. The hard fact for them is that since we are a fallen race, no one can perfectly love them all the time. And so, their expectations eventually become self-fulfilling no matter how hard another person may try to love them.

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Feelings Vs. Beliefs

Our selfish and evil world can be very damaging to a person whose experiences of rejection have been quite dark, and ongoingly so. In the 1940s and ‘50s, Dutch psychiatrist Dr. Anna Terruwe got everyone thinking about this when she diagnosed such problems as issuing from what she termed, “emotional deprivation disorder,” which is a repression of the emotions brought about as a result of love-deprivation. Her colleague, Dr. Conrad Baars, who brought this discovery to the U.S. in the 1950s, referred to it as “deprivation neurosis.” Contrary to the Freudian teaching that emotional repression belongs to the "superego" or conscience, Dr. Terruwe discovered that, “It is not what a man believes about his emotions that make him repress, but what he feels.”

Feelings, of course, are the product of experiences that are then translated into beliefs. As we've seen, if someone believes that he/she is unlovable (based on the way they’ve been treated or neglected and how that has made them feel about themself), then they will erect a strong emotional wall that protects them from the pain of such feelings and beliefs, as well as from anything that might trigger them.

Such a person needs to come to know that they are loved, not just as a rational fact (-i.e., Jesus died for you – therefore you are loved). They need to actually experience love from the Triune God and from other human beings. They need to feel the reality of it, rare as it may be in this messed up world.

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Learning How to Love Others

Suzanne Baars, (the daughter of Dr. Conrad Baars), says that people need to learn how to communicate love in affective ways – ways that go well beyond simple kind deeds and intellectual statements. She defines “affectivity” as “the capacity to be moved by the emotions of love, desire, and joy – emotions given to us by God.”

If you know someone who does not seem to have the capacity to love, even given the limitations of a fallen world, according to Suzanne you need to learn how to communicate your love for them “affectively” – not with mere words, but with the way you celebrate their presence, the way you look at them with a twinkle of delight – in general, the way you act when they’re around, the way you find a unique and keen interest in them and the issues of their deep heart. Additionally, this kind of affirmation needs to be ongoing, because it will probably take a long time for it to have the effect of helping your friend to heal and to re-calculate their worth.

The bad news is that almost no one knows how to do this. You can always move to the Dallas area to become one of Suzanne’s patients, but for most people, that is impractical. Plus, there is a hidden problem in becoming a practitioner of effective therapy. The love that you try to communicate must be genuine in order for it to have its proper effect! It cannot simply be a technique for the counselor to learn - a transformation of the counselor’s heart needs to take place first. They cannot communicate love that they do not possess. They must acquire it for themselves. And God is the only source for the real thing.

Anyone can learn to do it really. And in the learning of how to effectively love others, we actually learn to see ourselves as loved.

What Is Love?

What Is Love?

What is this love that I’ve been writing about? I like the definition given by pastor and messianic leader Daniel Juster in his article, Justice vs Love, where he writes: “Love is passionate identification with the other person, perceiving their worth and seeking their good, guided by the law of God.” The Bible teaches, “We love Him because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). And so it comes from God and is always selfless, as illustrated in 1 John 3:16: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down His life for us.” So we see from the Scriptures that love is the very substance of God that bears fruit in commitment, obedience to God (John 14:15, 21-24), and sacrifice for the good of the other.

Remember – it is not what you believe that makes you repress or avoid love - it is what you feel about love, about others, and about yourself that creates the problem. The good news is that God the Father wants to enable you to love by imparting what you lack.

In Jeremiah 29:11-14, God categorically declares that anyone who seeks Him with all his heart will be found by Him. So, you already have a promise of a tangible, supernatural revelation from God of His very Being, which is love, (1 John 4:8,16), if you seek Him with all your heart (See also Deuteronomy 4:29; 1 Chronicles 28:9; Hebrews 11:6).

So, how badly do you want healing? How badly do you want to be able to love others? How badly do you want to be able to love yourself? An intellectual belief in the fact that God loves you is helpful, but it is not what brings healing. We are healed through a direct experience of God’s love – an experience that is reinforced throughout life as the fruit of an intimate relationship with Him.

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Surrender Yourself to God’s Love

Let me take this in a personal direction for just a minute. I am one of those people, who because of experiences in life, came to believe that I was unloved and unlovable. And since I believed that I was unlovable, my emotional growth was seared, and I was rendered incapable of loving others. Fortunately, God had a magnificent plan to overturn that condition.

When in my filth, I finally turned to God for help, the very first thing that He did was to supernaturally give me an experience of His love for me. Before helping me to get all of my doctrine right, before showing me how to have victory over temptation, He responded to my pursuit of Him, and my heartfelt need for Him, by allowing me to feel that “river of living water” that Jesus spoke about (John 4:10,13-14; John 7:37-39; Rev 7:17). It was an enormous flooding of my soul with pure, unadulterated, liquid love.

That was the first thing that I needed after surrendering my life to Him. I needed to know Him as He really is, as opposed to the unloving image of Him that I had concocted over the years. I needed to see Him as Love itself before I would be willing to forsake all my idols and let Him transform me into His image (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Still, my wound was deep, and that "river of living water" experience was only the first of many revelations of His love for me – some found in the pages of Scripture, others experienced in prayer and worship, and still others through the kindness of fellow believers who loved me when I was the most unlovable.

My experiences of God’s love were unexpected and immensely varied. I’ll never forget the day that I walked through a busy office where I was working, ignoring a secretary who was passing by. Suddenly God’s love for her poured through my heart and out to her. I was completely taken by surprised and greatly embarrassed at all the lovingly wonderful compliments that I suddenly felt compelled to give her. It was an experience so foreign to me that I kept my mouth shut and kept walking for fear that I would say something incredibly embarrassing. As I walked away, God said two things to me: 1. “No one has ever loved her” – a revelation that broke my heart – and 2. “I (God) can love her. Just let the love that I have for her pour through you. It is not something that you need to manufacture. It is a natural fruit of intimacy with Me."

It was a moment both devastating and frightening, as I realized that I was completely incapable of loving anyone unless I was in communion with God and operating under His unction and direction. That idea wreaked havoc with my inner vow to "remain in control of my life in order to keep people from hurting me". God was challenging me to let go of that vow and to trust Him. In other words, "Jesus, take the wheel!

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Continue to Learn

Some 40 years on now, I am still learning to love. My progress creeps along during those times when I neglect intimacy with the Lord and jumps logarithmically when I’m in sync with Him. But compared to 40 years ago – there have been light-years of progress.

One of the most fruitful things for me now is to remain conscious of the fact that the righteousness of Christ is in and around me. As a believer, I am clothed in it (Isaiah 61:10; Galatians 3:27). Thus, when the old thoughts come (usually after sinning) that I am still that bad person that I used to be, I shred them with the truth that because I am united with Christ, I now share the righteousness of God Himself! (2 Corinthians 5:21; Ephesians 4:24) I don’t have a righteousness of my own, but that which comes by faith in the Son of God who sacrificed His life so that I might be made righteous in God’s sight (Philippians 3:9). That means that the only life that an accusation from the enemy can have is the one that I allow back into my soul. Now I know what an absurdly ridiculous thing that is to do!

With faith and understanding of what Christ has done for me on the cross, self-hatred can be overturned. And if that self-hatred has been superseded by multiplied experiences of His love, then I am enabled to love others in the way that God intends. This can take many years to realize, and only little by little, but it is a real change that God absolutely loves to engineer.

If you are in need of a greater capacity to love God, self, and others, this is the way of escape from the old lies of self-hatred and self-condemnation that have kept you from thriving in God’s love. It’s always and only been about the One who died for you. Seek Him with all your heart and let Him reveal His transforming love for you!

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Dr. David Kyle Foster is the host of the Pure Passion Podcast and author of Transformed Into His Image and Love Hunger. He is also the founder and director of Mastering Life Ministries. Read more of his take on sin and brokenness in his newest book, The Sexual Healing Reference Edition.

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