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Mable said, “I love him, but I don’t like him.” This remark was her leading statement as she was sitting down for her counseling session with Biff. She came to counseling because they were having marriage problems. And she wants me to fix their marriage.
What she did not realize was that God (or I) could not fix her marriage problems because she does not like her husband. When I brought this up to Mable, she said, “I really do love him, but I just don’t like him.” She doubled back to reinforce the first time she said it.
May I have a dollar for every time I have heard a statement similar to Mable’s? It’s like saying, “I love mayonnaise, but I don’t like mayonnaise.” The remark is nonsensical. To attempt to hold love and unlike in the same sentence while suggesting that they do not negate each other is semantic gobbledygook.
It’s a roundabout way of hiding a lousy attitude toward someone while soothing your conscience as you attempt to convince yourself that you love them. It’s justifying frustration to feel better about being disappointed with someone who is not meeting your expectations.
Imagine Christ saying, “I love them, but I don’t like them.” That’s weird. Either you like him, or you do not. I understand that you might not condone some of the things he does, but that is another matter. Christ did not like the stuff we were doing, but He loved and liked us (John 3:16).
But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44).
James told us that we should like all people because God made all people in His image. This understanding is the only way you can help someone. Even if you do not condone what they are doing, you should be willing to at least pray for them.
With it, we bless our Lord and Father, and with it, we curse people who are made in the likeness of God (James 3:9).
To not love or not like someone is to think you are better than they are. You cannot dislike someone without being above them or taking a “greater than” position over them. To not like someone is to be better than they are or, biblically speaking, more righteous than they are (Luke 18:11).
To be more righteous than anyone is an untenable position according to the Bible. Scriptures do not divvy up righteousness as though some people are better than others (Romans 3:23). The Bible teaches us that there is only one level or kind of person—unrighteous (Romans 3:10-12).
The only way one person can be better than another person is when he has received the alien righteousness of Christ. Outside of Christ’s perfected holiness, we are all the same. And since you did not do anything to earn His righteousness, you can’t brag or look down on someone who does not have His righteousness (Ephesians 2:8-9; 1 Corinthians 4:7).
To say, “I love him, but I don’t like him” is deceptive and intellectually dishonest. The first thing for Mable to do is come to terms with how she thinks about her husband. Again, I’m not saying she has to “like” what he is doing, but she must “like” (i.e., respect) this person as an image bearer, and he needs to “feel” (discern) her God-centered attitude toward him.
Before she can help Biff, she is going to have to repent to God and Biff and pray that the Father gives her a heart to “like” her husband. If I don’t like you, I’m not going to be able to serve you effectively (Philippians 2:3-4).
At best, I will be able to help you half-heartedly, but my help would not be how God would want me to come alongside you—consistently with the right attitude. And it would be the same for you, too. If you did not like me, I would not expect you to be entirely for me, and your dislike of me will get in the way of your redemptive efforts to restore me to God (Galatians 6:1-2).
Christ was different from what I am describing here. He was all in. He was committed to us—entirely and consistently. He loved us while we were full of nonsense, though He did not like what we were doing (Romans 5:8).
Imagine if you were going under the knife. You were having an operation, and just before the anesthetist put you to sleep, the lead surgeon said, “I just want you to know that I love you, but I don’t like you.”
What would you be thinking? How confident would you be that your surgeon was “all in” as he began slicing you open? Would you want him cutting on you, or would you prefer someone who not only loved you but liked you, too? Minimally, his statement would be confusing and most definitely would not help the relationship.
If Mable truly wants to help Biff change, she will have to change first. If she is not planning on assisting Biff to improve, she can go ahead and dislike him while hoping God will transform him in spite of her bad attitude toward him. But is this how marriage should be? Of course not. Marriage is one of the easiest and best opportunities to model the gospel. Why?
The regular and ongoing disappointment in a marriage will give you the best snapshot of what God has experienced since the fall of Adam. Since that fateful day, there has never been a moment where the sin of others has not grieved God.
But rather than getting into semantic arguments over love and like, the Lord got busy plotting a course to redeem humanity. And we saw that plan come to fruition when He came to earth to become a man so He could die in our place.
God hates sin, but He loves the world, and He has been actively planning a “way” (John 14:6) for the salvation and transformation of humanity. Mable cannot get to this place in her heart because she can’t get past her dislike of Biff.
The first thing she will need to do is stop playing word games. She will need to come to terms with the deceit and anger in her heart for her husband. She will have to repent of her idolatry—her need for him to be something that he is not at this moment.
The reason she does not like Biff is that she is not getting what she wants from Biff. That is the core of her dislike. She married Biff with the hope that things would be a certain way. Her dream has not come true yet.
Biff has not measured up to her expectations, and she has been increasing her dislike for him. She does not see this because she has been rationalizing her heart worship (idolatry) by saying that she loves him.
If she loved him the way the gospel asks her to love him, she would be willing to set aside her expectations so she could be part of the redemption team that God has in place to transform her husband.
The Father, Son, and Spirit are already on the team. They all have set aside their plans for the greater good of Biff—especially the Son. He was in the form of God but set that apart and took on the form of a servant so He could help Biff (Philippians 2:6-7).
Mable is going to have to set aside her hopes and expectations and go all in like the Father, Son, and Spirit. If she does this, she may experience a profound transformative change in her marriage.
Then again, she may not see any change in him, but that is not the main point of marriage anyway. Our primary objective for all of life is to put God on display. Our chief end is to make God’s name fantastic in all ways, and marriage is one of those ways we can accomplish this aim.
Mable is not quite ready to experience this kind of grace from the Father because she does not like her husband. She is not getting what she wants from her marriage, which hinders her from working God’s plan for Biff. She is stuck on her plan.
Christ did a complete setting aside of all He had and took on the form of a humble servant to redeem some folks like you and me. I tried to communicate these ideas to Mable. I made an infographic for her. The graphic has four parts:
Foundation – You must like the person you want to see change. If you don’t like him, you will not be able to help him effectively. Up to this point in this article, this foundational piece is all I have been considering. That is because it is the most important thing.
This “I like you” attitude is what Paul possessed when he was addressing the Corinthians. I need not remind you what a pain in the rear the Corinthians were. You know they were a bunch of bad boys, right? Notice how Paul began his conversation with them:
I give thanks to my God always for you (1 Corinthians 1:4).
Call it like or love, it matters not to me. Paul had genuine affection for these people. Yes, he liked them. Paul was for them. He wanted to serve them because he loved them.
You cannot read 1 Corinthians 1:3-9 without feeling the great affection that Paul had for these unruly and undeserving people. Even in the verse that I noted above, we see that Paul had been spending time in his closet telling God how grateful he was for this pain-in-the-rear-end people.
Rather than going to them and saying, “I love you, but I don’t like you,” Paul took a gospel-centered approach. He displayed a tremendous amount of grace because his heart was in tune with God’s plan for transformation. If you want to be a gospel-centered asset in your marriage, you will have to get in line with the gospel.
The next section is where Biff and Mable are—the red and gray square blocks. They both are sitting on the foundation, “liking” each other. Rather than measuring and critiquing each other and basing their like for each other on the other person’s performance, they are setting aside their preferences for the greater good of each other.
“I’m willing to do that, but he won’t do it. What am I to do with that?” The answer is easy: model the gospel. Were you cooperating with Christ while He loved on you (Romans 5:8)? No, you were stubborn, rebellious, obstinate, and unworthy of His great love, but He loved you anyway. Just because you have repented and are repenting, don’t expect your spouse to be in-step with you. That probably will not happen.
If you’re already thinking about his unwillingness to change, even after you showed love to him, you need to go back to step one again and “re-like your spouse” all over again. What I’m saying is that you’re probably going to have to live in a continual state of repentance because I have a feeling your spouse is not going to cooperate with your desires for him.
As you walk in daily repentance, you will be more effective in the change process that your spouse is in with the Lord. Now, rather than living with an expectation of receiving something in return, you should be more gospelized in your thinking.
The gospel—in this context—is loving a person with no expectation of anything in return and no desire to retaliate when he does not meet your expectations. If you’re expecting your spouse to love you in proportion or because you first loved him, your motives are wrong. He may love you the way you want him to love you. He may not.
Regardless of what he does, his actions should not impact your affection for him. Your stubbornness did not stop the Savior from loving you. Your spouse’s nonsense should not prevent you from loving him.
If this kind of gospel thinking empowers you, you’re no longer wrestling with silly sayings like “I love him, but I don’t like him.” Those self-centered thoughts are long gone. You now have one objective: how can I be most effectively used by God to help this person get to Christ—the fourth part of the graphic?
It takes a lot of grace and a lot of personal repentance to live this way. But it can be done. Christians throughout church history have been doing this. Believers are famous for giving up their lives for the greater good of another.
This attitude is the gospel in action.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).