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Friendship, loneliness, and prayer: Praying to love the poverty in our friends

Lynne Baab • Wednesday December 20 2023

Friendship, loneliness, and prayer: Praying to love the poverty in our friends

A friend of mine grew up in California’s Central Valley in a uniformly middle-class town. As a teenager in the 1990s, she discovered Mother Teresa’s writings. She was fascinated by Mother Teresa’s emphasis on loving the poor. My friend did a project on Mother Teresa for one of her high school classes. In a conversation with her teacher, my friend said she wondered how to love the poor in her town, where poverty was largely invisible.

Her teacher replied, “Call Mother Teresa and see what she says.”

My friend reached Mother Teresa in India and posed her question. Mother Teresa replied, “Love the poverty in the people around you.”

I heard this story from my friend almost 20 years ago. I have pondered it ever since. As my age-mates are experiencing health declines, and as I walk with my mother into extreme old age, I see limitations that could be described as poverty. In my friends and family members, I see poverty of spirit that comes from the hard work of caregiving for spouses who live with chronic diseases, the painful challenges of trying to love difficult extended family members, financial challenges, lack of a sense of purpose, and feelings of loss related to church.

Sometimes, I find it relatively easy to love the poverty in my friends — or at least love my friends in the midst of their poverty. In those instances, I feel compassion for what they are going through, and I pray for God’s care and compassion for them. I watch for God’s work in their lives in the areas related to their poverty of spirit, and I often see how God is bringing them resilience, trust, and kindness. In the instances when I can do what Mother Teresa recommends, I see the blessing in it: the growth in compassion in me and the ability to see God’s hand at work in them.

Often, though, I find it difficult to love the poverty in the people closest to me. I am ashamed of my lack of care and compassion. I am ashamed of the times I try to act kind, while judgmental thoughts swirl around my mind, and, despite my kind words, I am actually feeling irritated and impatient. I wonder if those unkind thoughts make their way into my words and non-verbal communication, even though I want to appear loving. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). Ouch! Because of the work of the Holy Spirit inside me, convicting me of sin, I see my lack of love all too clearly.

I wish I could give three easy helpful hints for loving our friends in the midst of their various forms of poverty. Maybe somewhere, somehow, there are five pointers that will help us soften our hearts so we can let go of judgmental thoughts about the poverty in others. Sadly, if those easy ways and helpful tips exist, I haven’t found them. 

The most I can say is that I trust that the foundational practices of the Christian life are helping me grow in love:  

  • Reading the gospels to learn from the way Jesus interacted with others
  • Reading the Psalms to soak in God’s love and receive God's invitation to pray about anything and everything
  • Memorizing parts of 1 Corinthians 13 and trying to act patient and kind
  • When I fall short, asking God for forgiveness and for the guidance and strength to show love more often
  • Praying that when my heart feels nasty and critical, God will mask those thoughts from the people I am trying to love so they won’t feel hurt
  • Praying that I will be honest about my heart, so I can bring my heart to God for cleansing

Perhaps my lack of love for the poverty within myself plays a role in my difficulty in loving the poverty in others. I was raised in a family and culture that embraces the “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” view of life. “Just do it,” the ads say. Nothing in my childhood told me that we are broken and finite humans who need God’s help to be able to show love. I was taught that any poverty within ourselves can and should be overcome by optimism and hard work.

God shows us a different way. In Jesus, we meet someone who loves us through and through, even those awful parts that we long to change. I can see that without acknowledging the poverty in myself, I cannot love the poverty in others. We love because God first loved us (1 John 4:19). We love our friends and family members because God placed love inside us, and we depend on the power of the Holy Spirit to help us keep loving.

God who loves the poor, help us bring to you the poverty in ourselves, and help us love the poverty in others. We can’t do this without the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit, so we acknowledge that we depend on you.

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In this series of blog posts, I am alternating posts on friendship with posts on listening skills. Next week I’ll focus on listening skills again: “holy curiosity” in listening. Illustration by Dave Baab: the waiting room in an urgent care clinic. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up below under “subscribe.”

You may enjoy the two short videos I created when I wrote my book on friendship:

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