Loving Messy People

by Debbie Stovall

Do you have a messy friend? Or maybe you ARE that messy one. And I’m not referring to one whose house is a wreck, whose car is full of fast food wrappers, or who (like me) looks a bit wilted and slouchy as soon as she walks out the door even if she just spent 2 hours getting dressed.

I’m talking about those with messy lives. Issues. You know… A history of bad decision stacked upon bad decision. A string of divorces or jobs or financial problems. Addictions. Self-destructive tendencies…cutting, abusive relationships one after the other, binge drinking or eating or shopping. Compulsive lamenting over illnesses or a verbal barrage of negativity, complaining, whining, or self-pity every time you are within earshot. THAT kind of messy! The kind of messy that makes the friendship uncomfortable at times even though you love them dearly. The kind of messy that makes you take a deep breath as you answer their calls. The kind of messy that leaves you in tears and prayer when the call ends. The kind of messy that makes you ask, “Will she ever find her answers in Christ or will she deal with these crazy ups and downs until she’s 80 if she lives that long?!”

I’m here to tell you there is Hope for even the messiest of us!

As a Beloved daughter of the Most High you have something to offer those Messies. When they text you at 2:00 a.m. and you have no solution in your playbook to answer their question,… you still have something to offer. When they lie and manipulate and use your friendship in unhealthy ways, you still have the love of their Creator to offer them. When they get stoned or pregnant or caught in their sin, you still have the mercy of Christ to offer them. When they hang up on you and won’t listen to you, you still have something to offer on your knees to The One who is ever-listening. When your compassion and willingness to deal with them has flown out the window, you still have something to offer – forgiveness and a fresh start. The grace, mercy, salvation and unconditional love of God are what you always have to offer and what our dear Messies need more than they need a shoulder to cry on, or money, or advice, or a place to crash, or positive affirmation. 

Many of us are Messy People ourselves, struggling to walk faithfully with God. Interacting with other Messy Folks will either strengthen us or tear us down. Whether we struggle ourselves or think we’ve got it together at the moment, every interaction with the “messy” friend stretches us to our limit to love unconditionally. Sometimes we think we just can’t do it anymore. Sometimes our friend just wears. us. out. But scripture is true – when we are weak, He is strong. When we can’t, He can. And does. And those are usually the key moments in those messy relationships. When we have no mercy and grace left in our heart to offer and we’re so mad we just want to verbally bash them with the truth of their sin and failure, Father God pours into our hearts His mercy and grace by the armfuls and enables us to draw them in to a hug and bless them.

The grace, mercy, salvation and unconditional love of God are what you always have to offer and what our dear Messies need more than they need a shoulder to cry on, or money, or advice, or a place to crash, or positive affirmation. 

As we are stretched we learn not only how to offer these things, but also how to speak the truth boldly. We find our voice. As the Holy Spirit stirs up scriptures in our mind that we never remembered memorizing, we speak the truth to them in love. And then we are able to let go and to say, “It’s your choice, but you need to know the consequences.”

Messy people are challenging. But aren’t we all messy at times? Aren’t friendships inconvenient? Isn’t being REAL a hard thing to do? Giving ourselves and our time when it seems to make no lasting difference is hard. So when you’re finding it challenging to deal with that Messy friend, here are some tips I’ve found to be true.

  1. Love them with a God-love. Human love can be self-serving, conditional, too merciful at times, and even mean when people don’t act the way we think they should. First Corinthians 13 teaches us about God-love.”…If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”
  2. Set boundaries with them. This is NOT a cruel concept. It is Biblical. In scripture God gave His people boundaries for their land and tribes. The garden of Eden had boundaries. Even Jesus displayed boundaries in His actions – He did not minister to, nor heal, every single person around Him, and He often left them just as He had found them except with a choice to live differently. When I was a young married mom of four I protected my family time even when engaged in a mentoring relationship with a Messy one. She knew she could call me 24/7 with an emergency, but I wasn’t available for a gripe session at 3:00 in the morning when she was drunk. No, I wouldn’t get matching tattoos (even a small one!) because it went against my convictions for myself. Yes, she could spend the night on Thanksgiving evening and enjoy the holiday as a part of our family since her mom was partying with her boyfriend. No, I wouldn’t taste this alcoholic drink they love (once again – my convictions!) or go to questionable places to meet their friends. Yes, I will invite you out to lunch and pay at times, but I am not a free ride for you when you have been irresponsible. The list could go on (‘cause those are just some of the things that really happened), but you get the picture. And you have your own list that you have had to or are needing to set boundaries on. Check out the book Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No, to Take Control of Your Life by Henry Cloud and John Townsend for more on boundaries.
  3. Remember their real need is a relationship with Jesus Christ. Be less focused on their outward circumstances and more focused on their sinful heart needing the Redeemer. We fall into wrong thinking when want to give advice and “fix” these Messy ones. We will not stop them from drinking or shooting up or lying or sleeping around or smoking (or whatever else) with our wise reasoning and brilliant words. The only thing that will permanently change their messy lives is the salvation of the Lord. A transforming encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ will heal their messy broken hearts and put them on the path to cleaning up their messy habits and messy lives, just as Christ has redeemed and cleaned up our messiness.
  4. Pray. Pray with them. Pray for them. Let them know when you are praying for them. Pray for yourself as you deal with them. Pray silently for yourself in the moment as you don’t know what to say next. Pray aloud with them in the moment so they’ll know what is being spoken on their behalf. Pray for their family and people who impact their lives. Pray scripture with their name inserted. When you wake up with them on your mind – Pray! Prayer walk their neighborhood, dorm, work, or school. Pray against temptation for them. Pray for their protection. Pray for their mind, situation, finances, character, job, relationships,… anything that God brings to your mind. But most of all pray that the day of their salvation will come soon!
  5. Speak truth, speak scripture to them. Your words are kind and helpful, but sweet friend, your words have no eternal power! But scripture does! Isaiah 55:10-11 says, “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is My Word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”
  6. Treat them as a friend, not a project. People sense when we aren’t being real. If this person is your project, they’ll know it. If you are on your knees for them and heartbroken over them they will sense that too. So relax and enjoy your times together. Sometimes those days will be deeply spiritual, but other times shared laughter or cooking a favorite meal together strengthens the bond and lets them see your love and know they can trust you because you really care. Don’t be self-protective. Love them even if others don’t understand. Don’t worry about what people think.
  7. Bless themSpeak sweet, pure words of blessing over them whenever God reveals something to you that they need to hear. It may be nothing more than, “God will redeem your pain and make something beautiful from it.” (For more on the Blessing of people as we see it in scripture, read Genesis 48 & 49 or check out The Blessing Challenge or the book, The Blessing by Gary Smalley & John Trent.)
  8. Mentor them. Some Messy people are already believers like many of us, but they may not have had the guidance to grow up in Christ. They need you to disciple them, mentor them, mother them, be their “spiritual doula.” First, ask them if they are willing to be mentored. Explain what you mean if necessary. Then set up a regular time to meet each week for discipling them. Choose a Bible study or plan to read through a book of the Bible together explaining Christian principles as you go. Your goal in mentoring: 1) to teach them how to apply the truths of scripture to their lives and 2) to be open with them where they can see a Christian living out the Word in everyday life. (They don’t need you to be perfect!) If you don’t have a Bible study you like for mentoring them in the basics of walking the Christian walk, check out my friend, Iva May, her blogs: Iva’s blog and CBT Blog , and her discipleship materials, especially W3: Women, Worldview and the Word. (NOTE: Only disciple other females. The messy male co-worker you want to help…just don’t go there! I’m warning you gently. Unless it’s your son or brother, don’t get into intimate interpersonal relationships trying to disciple a male. Find a godly man you can recommend to do the mentoring.)

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“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love…. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear,…” from 1 John 4:7-21

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