How to love our difficult neighbors (at work)

William Morris, in his delightful book, Love thy Colleague observes, “There is nothing quite like incompetence at work.”

Throughout this book, Morris explores the topic (quite competently, I might add) of “What it means to be a Christian colleague in the workplace.” In each chapter, he focuses on a different neighbor who may be difficult to love. In chapter three, he provides a biblical perspective on how to care for the incompetent — or inexperienced — worker.

This year there are a vast number of workers who were unexpectedly thrust into a technically challenging telework environment or, even worse, lost their jobs, which may have added to perceptions of incompetence from others or themselves.

In this new season of work for many people, grace and empathy are necessary for navigating frustrations in the workplace, whether that is physically in the office or from home. Morris provides several biblical principles to help Christian workers show sacrificial love to their neighbors in biblical and practical ways that will glorify God.

What does loving our neighbor (at work) look like?

Morris explains what many of us experience at some point in our career or work life. He states,

Like ripples in a pond – or, perhaps, a bad odour – the effects of incompetence seem to spread out in every direction. Fellow workers have to do the work not done, or clear up the mess by redoing the work done badly the first time. The client or customer often suffers through shoddy goods or services – and a reduced trust and confidence in that business.

We have all seen it from various angles. As a customer, we’ve seen it in those who are supposed to take care of us, but do not. We have seen it in our bosses, in our co-workers, and in our employees. If we are honest, we have seen it in ourselves. How is a Christian supposed to respond?

The “why” of incompetence is often varied

Before we get to the answer, Morris helps readers understand the causes of incompetence. He explains that not all incompetence is the same. He lists three major causes: Incompetence can be caused by simple inexperience; Incompetence can also arise in situations where those skills or rules have been incorrectly or imperfectly learned; And incompetence can sometimes arise because of circumstances unrelated to our level of knowledge, skill, and application (or lack thereof). It can arise, for example, from simple overload.

In my three decades of serving in and with the Army, I have seen each of these causes illustrated.

A newly commissioned second lieutenant or a private that has just graduated from basic training will certainly start out as incompetent, due to their lack of experience. I have also seen many soldiers who, for whatever reason, were never trained properly. They may have several years of experience, but they are rough around the edges, unjustifiably overconfident in their abilities because previous leaders did not mentor them well. Lastly, there have been many positions where I have barely kept my head above water. I may have appeared to be failing due to too many unrealistic expectations. I knew what I was doing, but I wasn’t fast enough.

Responding to incompetence with mercy and grace

The best response to how we are to deal with others is that we need to extend the same mercy and grace God extended to us. Paul exhorts the church, “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Col 3:13).

Jesus demonstrated this in his response to an incompetent employee he had. How did Jesus deal with Peter after he denied Jesus three times?

In John 21:15-19, we read of Jesus’ talk with Peter by the Sea of Galilee. Jesus asks Peter three times if he truly loved him. Each time, Jesus responded, “Feed my sheep.” In doing so, Jesus reinstated Peter. This was confirmed on the Day of Pentecost where Peter, now filled with the Holy Spirit, preached a sermon where 3,000 people came to Christ. (See Acts 2:14-41.)

Certainly, whether we are supervisors or peers, working from home or back in an office, we can make every effort to provide tools to help our weak and inexperienced neighbors at work by methodically coaching, teaching, and mentoring them. We can share with them some of the valuable lessons we have learned along the way. Personal mentoring is more difficult while teleworking, but it can happen if done with intentionality, remembering God’s mercy, patience, and grace toward us.

Topics: Christian Life, Issues Facing Workers, Love

About the Author

Russ Gehrlein is the author of Immanuel Labor - God's Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work. He earned a master of arts in biblical studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. In 2006, he retired from more than 20 years active duty in the US Army in the rank of Master Sergeant. He currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at the US Army Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear School in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.