I have a problem.
My problem is trying to figure out how to love an asshole. The particular asshole I have in mind (let's call him Mr. A.) is rude, arrogant, and disturbingly un-self-aware. I keep wondering if there's a psychological diagnosis that fits him--but I think maybe he's just a mean jerk.
His verbal weapon of choice is sarcasm, and he apparently has not learned that though occasionally funny, sarcasm is often harsh and hurtful. Mr. A. slings sarcastic barbs around like a porcupine slings quills into anything that threatens it. It's impossible to have a civil difference of opinion with this dude--he feels threatened by disagreement, and inevitably responds with condescension, disparagement or sneering.
I cannot totally avoid interaction with Mr. A, so that means I must figure out how to love him. Probably the first thing I could do is stop calling him an asshole. But even that's hard, because, let's face it, that's what he is sometimes.
We all come across people like this in our lives. Sometimes we're even related to them. Or we live next door to them. Or we have them as bosses, co-workers, or God forbid, they go to the same church that we do.
I do know, intellectually, what Jesus calls me to do with regard to this person. Jesus says I'm supposed to love him. "Love your enemies," Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount. "Do good to those who hate you." I'd define enemy fairly loosely here, but even Merriam-Webster agrees that it's someone who "is antagonistic to another; especially, one seeking to injure, overthrow, or confound an opponent."
The answer to the question How do you love an asshole? begins and ends at the Sermon on the Mount--but it begins before Jesus tell us to love our enemies. It begins with the first and primary element of the character of a believer: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
Poor in spirit: acknowledging that I am spiritually bankrupt. I have nothing to offer to God, "nothing with which to buy the favour of heaven," as John Stott said. None of us is poor in spirit without God's spirit causing us to be poor in spirit. None of us, on our own, admits to, or even sees, our own spiritual bankruptcy.
But when we do see it and acknowledge that we have no goodness to offer on our own that is not corrupted by Self, then beatitude-wise, my next correlated characteristic is that I mourn over my own sinfulness that separates me from God. "Blessed are those who mourn," Jesus said, "for they shall be comforted."
"The cross is the differential of the Christian religion," said Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Looking at the cross means that I am constantly aware of my own inability to save myself with my own goodness, that I can't be good enough. Looking at the cross means that I'm remembering that Someone paid the highest possible price to redeem me, to pull me out of the pit of Self and Sin.
When I'm mourning over my own sin, I'm less focused on the sins of others. I can look at the asshole, and remind myself that I am an asshole, too, in the grand scheme of things. I know my own self, and my own capacity for selfishness, for self-righteousness, for self-protection and pride. I might not be mean (most of the time), but I am guilty in many other ways, and Jesus took the Way of the Cross just as much for me as he did for that asshole.
The cross is the differential: it changes how I see myself, and how I see other people.
And that is how you love an asshole.