by Mary Southerland
We live in a world that hosts a myriad of problems. However, you will be thrilled to know that I have discovered the biggest problem of all – people! In my opinion, if there were fewer people, there would definitely be fewer problems.
Let’s be honest, some people are more difficult to get along with than others; they “rub” us the wrong way! I call them “sandpaper people.” Sandpaper people come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, and sometimes they are us! We try to change them, run from them, ignore them, and even take a stab at fixing them. If only it were that simple. It rarely is.
Getting along with sandpaper people requires a new point of view - seeing them as God sees them. We cannot base love for difficult people on feelings, but rather on God’s love that is released when we choose to love a sandpaper person as is. In reality, we cannot change them anyway. God has to do the changing if it is to be a lasting change. Our responsibility is to love them with God’s unfailing love.
Sandpaper People Need Love
As a ministry wife, I often have the opportunity to love people who rub me the wrong way. It seems that ministry is overflowing with sandpaper people. My husband, Dan, was the pastor of a church for 13 years. During those years, I was involved in many areas of ministry, but my first love was the women’s ministry.
On the third Thursday of each month, hundreds of women gathered for a community Bible study and a time of connecting with God and with other women from every walk of life. As the Bible study teacher, I prayed fervently that God would make me sensitive to the needs of every woman who attended. I taught on life issues – relevant topics that I hoped would draw in those women who would ordinarily never set foot in a church. It worked!
Sandpaper People Need Less of a Mess
I learned many important lessons while teaching that Bible study. One was that ministry is messy. Sherry was my first real mess. I will never forget the first time I saw her, standing at the back of the auditorium looking utterly lost and completely out of place.
I was teaching, “In His Eyes,” a study designed to lead women to see themselves as God sees them, through eyes of love and with a heart of forgiveness. Sherry’s layers of makeup, suggestive clothes, and the smell of alcohol told me she was running as fast as she could from her sin, desperately hoping to find someone who cared enough to stop her and help her.
Sherry had been raised in a Christian family, but at the age of 13, decided she was ready to live life on her own. Soon she found herself in places she never thought she would be, and at the ripe age of 14, Sherry became a prostitute to support her drug and alcohol addictions.
Sleep was a luxury she could no longer afford. Food was either provided as part of her services to men or fished out of foul-smelling garbage cans lining back alleys. Cardboard boxes and newspapers became her bedding as the bottom fell out of her world, casting her into a dark, slimy pit. A drug overdose landed her in the county hospital, where doctors delivered the ultimatum that if she did not change her life, she would soon lose it.
It was in the hospital that she met a student volunteer who gave her the newspaper in which we had placed the ad for our Bible study. “Somehow I knew I was supposed to be here tonight. Can you help me?” Sherry pleaded. My heart soared with the thrill of leading a lost lamb to the Shepherd.
For an hour, we read Scripture, prayed, and found the answers she had come seeking. Finally, Sherry prayed, surrendering to the One who loved her most, inviting Jesus Christ to take control and “please fix my screwed-up life.” It was a precious moment of transformation. When she asked if I would teach her how to live this new life, I decided right then and there that God needed my help in saving her.
During the following weeks and months, I spent hours each week teaching her how to study the Bible, pray, deal with her sin, and withstand temptation. Sherry became my personal project - and I was failing miserably. She was off and on various drugs, always promising that this time would be her last. I often smelled alcohol on her breath and she seemed much more interested in spending time with me than with God.
Sandpaper People Need The Savior
After several frustrating months, I finally realized that I had become Sherry’s savior. And let me tell you, I make a lousy savior. There is only one true Savior, and I am not Him. I picked up the phone and called her, inviting her to a special lunch the next day. I let her go that day, relinquishing her to God. The results were amazing. She began to depend on Him instead of me.
Other women stepped into her life as friends and mentors. As I began to accept and love her just as she was, Sherry was set free to become who God had intended her to be all along. My love had failed, but God’s love didn’t and never does. His love is the only love that wholly embraces and transforms the broken lives of sandpaper people.
As a woman in ministry, I am often tempted to slap that huge “S” on my chest, don my self-made power cape and pronounce myself “Superwoman.” It never works. What does work is making the deliberate choice to love that sandpaper person, inviting God to work in and through us to bring about change – His change.
Difficult relationships yield to love as the worth of a soul is recognized and valued. Sandpaper people desperately need someone who will look beyond their abrasive behavior and rough exterior to recognize their worth. That’s where we come in.
Sandpaper people are a reality of life. God uses these difficult relationships as catalysts through which He lovingly upsets comfortable plans and purposefully redirects safe and carefully calculated steps. The results can be chaotic and unsettling, but will always be life-changing.