I want you to be able to believe in a God who loves you. I am still learning to believe in this God.
I want to be free, and to help free you, from the contortions that come from hateful beliefs about a loving God.
I’m coming from an evangelical background. I’ve always felt a bit out of step with the evangelical community. But I held some of these specifically evangelical beliefs very firmly—preached them, in fact. When our baby son, Isaac, died after eight hours of life, the grief and shock shattered my faith. I’m writing my current book about my experience of losing and regaining relationship with God. I can’t say what my life would have been if Isaac had not died, as that was the watershed event of my life. Becoming a Jesus follower changed my life, but having our son die changed how I follow Jesus. If this statement makes you uncomfortable, I’m okay with that; it did more than make me uncomfortable.
Many Christians, especially a certain inclination of Christians, are always ready to dig in for a good theological debate. What we believe about God is important. But the urge to compel others to believe the right things, as we understand them, and to bring that about through force of words rather than simply offer love and relationship and leave the rest to God, now makes no sense to me. That’a a huge change in my life. For many years, I would have said, “Well, I am loving them by discussing this with them.” If the person or persons I was debating didn’t feel loved, that merely indicated that they were resisting the truth.
Do you see what a circle that is? I’m debating you and if you agree with me, God has shown you the truth; if you disagree, your heart is hardened against the truth. Obviously, implicitly we understand that I’m right in this debate, because I’m speaking God’s truth, after all.
Here are two major problems with this approach, which I really did believe, though I’m empathetic and relationally adept so it often came across less abrasive than this description…I think.
1) I might have been wrong.
That kind of takes the air out of the ball to start out, doesn’t it? The view that “I’ve read the Bible and therefore I know the truth and am infallible in my knowledge” is such a horror to me now. So I’ll just say I’m sorry for every time I came across like that. I was wrong about thinking I was always right.
2)Even if we are speaking God’s truth, if we do not love others in our communication, the problem is with our hearts, not theirs.
I’ve talked about this before. If we use the truth as a hammer, it’s not the other person’s problem for not enjoying being hit with a hammer; it’s ours for hitting them. I want to be clear, when I use “communication” here, I mean every aspect of the communication act. Not merely what words we say, but the message that comes along with them, that frames and flavors them. I can speak the exact same words to Kim and convey that I love her or that I disdain her and would like to start a fight. I think we all know this but tend to believe that we are innocent in our communication, when we’re anything but.
These two concerns have changed how I approach people. I used to look at people and wonder if they need to be saved and what I needed to do to be a part of that. Now I look at people and know they need to be loved and wonder how I might go about that. When I pray for them, I’m not asking God to help me fix them, or even asking to help God fix them; I’m asking to be part of how God is already loving them.
Now, lest I come across as simply having a new and improved version of how I know everything, I’m really shaky at loving certain people and, with a few, it’s more like trying not to do more harm than good. I needJesus to make my heart bigger. I’ve realized that as I’ve improved ever-so-slightly at establishing boundaries, I’ve also hardened my heart toward some in a way I find repulsive yet tempting. When you grow up without clear, healthy boundaries, it’s easy to swing from love-means-I’m-responsible-for-everything (your feelings, your responses, your pain) to screw-you-and-leave-me-alone. That’s a boundary, right? Well, it is, but not a healthy one.
That middle ground of healthy, semi-permeable individuation that I get to choose? Still working on that. My least loving moments seem to come when I feel angry and threatened in my identity. *Deep breath.* That is why some people get “I’m trying not to hurt you” as my best expression of love toward them, because something in me gets triggered by their words and actions (whether they have malicious intent or not—some do). God has nudged me a lot about enemy love in the past couple years. Dang, it’s hard! It’s much harder when we’re honest with ourselves about whom our enemies are.
I’m guessing some who read my title, “God of Love,” were expecting some deep theological points, not all this pastoral-relational stuff. But see, that’s my point. Hateful beliefs–and I’m talking about beliefs manifested in our actions, not what we might tell ourselves we believe–about God often begin with a view that the end (i.e. goal) of loving God could ever come about with anything other than loving means. In following Jesus, the ends do not justify the means. As Jesus followers, we are people of means and we trust God with the ends. I’m not looking to quibble over whether being brutally honest is more loving than fudging about how you think someone’s outfit looks. I’m addressing how we claim to believe in a God who is love, and then work out in our heads that “love one another” might mean scold, shame, name-call, belittle, demean, or dismiss. Most often, we do this when we perceive others to be contradicting or attacking “the truth.” But Jesus didn’t say, “Defend the truth, use nasty names when necessary.” Jesus said, “Love one another as I have loved you.” (John 13:34)
I do not have love in my heart for every person. I believe in Jesus. I believe Jesus loves everyone. Jesus tells me to love others as he has loved me. The God of love teaches me to love others by first loving myself (“Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself.”) So when I first realized that Jesus loved me, I tried to go along with that and learn to love myself by the same means I knew so well: I attacked myself and called myself names and ridiculed myself to get myself to be more loving.
Worked like a charm. Utterly failed. But I started to find grace even in that self-attack, because Jesus showed me patience and kindness, and didn’t say “Hey, not like that, Stupid!” Through God’s nudging, I went through a long period of calling myself “the beloved” (as John called himself in the Gospel, e.g. John 13:23, 20:2) which rang about as false as words can ring at first…but over time, and with long practice, started to seep into my hard little heart.
That went on until about sixteen minutes ago. Just kidding. It’s much more recent than that.
I want to be able to love everyone I encounter. Not an abstract “love for all humankind” that has no concrete manifestation with the reckless male driver or the woman in the grocery store who scowls at me for no apparent reason. I believe that’s who Jesus is in the world, the one walking through the world offering and living shalom everywhere he goes.* Probably without anything Velcroed to him, but I leave that up to personal interpretation.
I don’t have enough of that love, that grace-mercy-justice-in-balance mixture that leads us to being reconciled with God, our neighbor, and ourselves. But I’ve tasted it. I’ve seen it’s good. I have a constant struggle in my heart between this love and the desire for power.** By power in this context, I mean when I feel hurt by others I can hurt them back. This power means I can use other people as a means to my ends. It means I don’t have to think about how others feel and instead they have to cater to what I want. If certain people mean nothing to you, that’s often a choice of power over love.
I’m horrified by how some act hatefully in the name of Jesus. I understand why this leads many of us to distance ourselves from any association with God or church. I’m tempted to write a scathing attack on the haters. The angry part of me wants to believe I could make them stop, see themselves, and repent, if only I could express forcefully and eloquently enough what they are doing wrong. I hope you get the irony here. I want to do the thing I used to do, but this time I want to use it for good (as I now understand “good”)…and because my intentions would be good… In other words, “If I wore the Ring of Power, I’d make everything better…”
There’s a place for confrontation. But God has thumped me (the lingo here would be “convicted”) that I need to talk more about how Jesus has loved and changed me, and to come back to being a storyteller about grace. I once was a self-righteous, proud, arrogant, argumentative jerk-for-Jesus, but now I’m…less so. It’s a beautiful story. God is faithful.
The funky little community I’m part of is also working on “I” statements. So I am motivated more to talk about how God is changing me than how I wish God would change others. I once was lost. I now am found. And each day I am becoming more found. Because the God of love loves me and you.
*Some will quickly bring up that Jesus also spoke very strongly to some and also drove some sellers and moneychangers from the Temple. As I read the Gospels, Jesus reserved his strong, confrontational words for the religious leaders who led others away from God (Matthew 23), and similarly his act of aggression came against those who made “God’s house of prayer a den of thieves.” (Matthew 21:12-17)
**I’m not suggesting this is the only way to understand power. “Power” can also be the ability to wield influence which can be used for the good of others. Of course, it corrupts, but that’s another discussion…