When I first decided that I was going to be a Christian, I knew that the endgame for me was being able to live the love of Christ expressed in the Bible. How I knew that I would have arrived was if I could–with a genuine heart–say the words, “Forgive them for they know not what they do” in the face of my difficulties with other beings. From my perspective, that was the greatest and most impressive miracle attributed to Jesus. After coming to accept how easy it is for people to hold grudges over the smallest inadvertent offenses, I reconciled with myself that if someone were to prove to me that none of the other miracles were true, this assertion on the part of Jesus in the face of unimaginable betrayal, would have been enough for me to seek to live his Way.
By the time I was six, I already had a list of grievances with this world that could have taken a lifetime to work out. Chief among them was the fact that I was destined to grow up with my father outside the home. Fortunately, at an early age, my mother, grandmother, aunt, and uncle each taught me in their own way about what it means to have a relationship with God. And as I wrote in a previous post, grabbing on to the idea of God as my father figure was a saving grace for me.
Like many sons, more than anything, I wanted to please my Father. To me that meant trying to live up to what I thought were the rules for God’s acceptance. To figure those out, I read the Red Letters like crazy for ideas. That’s where I convinced myself that I had to be able to love and forgive as we’re told Jesus did. At first I thought that would be as easy as seeing the best in everybody and not holding a grudge when they made human mistakes. And in the beginning, it was that easy. But eventually, the stakes started to get higher. It seemed like the more forgiving I appeared to be, the more people I attracted who wanted to push me to my limits. As I became aware of this, I became increasingly nervous that I would eventually come across someone that I would feel was unlovable and unforgivable–perhaps even “deplorable” by some people’s standards–and that my failure to transcend it would lead to me displeasing God and perhaps cause God to leave me the way I felt my earthly dad did.
Before the realization that what I thought was being a “good Christian” was doing was nothing more than trying to use my own so called “goodness” to put God in my debt and thereby control the behavior of the Creator of All things, I developed a plan to exercise my forgiveness muscles so that I could outpace the meanness of anyone who might try to intentionally do me harm. It consisted of studying the documented actions of some of society’s leading a**holes (really Hitler-y individuals), meditating on the mindset of the unapologetically selfish, considering the rationale for obvious hypocrisy, visualizing myself preemptively forgiving a variety of abuses, and reimagining any forgiveness delays or failures I may have had so that I would do better next time. I also imagined myself in the role of the oppressors and offenders and worked on forgiving myself for whatever tendencies I might have toward that behavior. It wasn’t long before this exercise plan became a habit. Eventually, I got so good at preemptively forgiving myself and others that one person who was trying to offend me on purpose got so exacerbated that they accused me of being too arrogant to be offended. That was a new one for me, but I took it seriously and explored whether their opinion had any merit.
From what I hear, a person can be addicted to anything. I’m not 100% sure if that is accurate, but I can say that I exhibited some signs of addiction when it came to trying to forgive other people. Whether that is a good thing or not, I don’t know. What I do know is that in my efforts to maintain that level of “forgiveness no matter what”, I subjected myself to some real physical, mental, and emotional harm that I hardly ever questioned. And it wasn’t until I heard a talk called, “Sometimes It’s the Other Person” about a person who almost destroyed themselves trying to save a loved one who was addicted to drugs that I started to question my approach to living the love of Christ. In the talk, the speaker suggested that sometimes we try to forgive people for the wrong reasons–reasons that have more to do with ourselves than the other person or even God. And when we do that, we’re actually robbing both ourselves and the other person of the truth of our true feelings about the situation. It isn’t that this is necessarily wrong, but we should know when this is the case and accept that we aren’t doing the “forgiven person” any favors. I found this very interesting and decided to test my motives.
Long story short, the next time I had a situation where I was about to initiate what had become my normal response, I hesitated and instead examined the event. What I discovered was shocking. As it says in Isaiah 64:6, I came to see that my righteous deeds were pretty much filthy rags. I witnessed that most of my “love and forgiveness” that I thought I was giving didn’t amount to much in light of the way of Christ. I know that probably sounds pretty harsh to some people. After all I was trying to be a “good person”. That’s got to count for something, right? Maybe for some people, but what I discovered was that–at least as far as I am concerned–there was some truth to that person saying I was arrogant. Even though my arrogance was subconscious, it was affecting my choices deeply. You see, as long as I was trying to get myself qualified for God’s love, I was actually denying it. Likewise, I was subconsciously denying the worthiness of those who weren’t “putting in the work” to be as good a Christian as I appeared to be. Let me explain.
Even though I was pretty good at understanding human motivations and thereby able to reason my way out of anger as well as outwitting those who made it their business to offend me intentionally, I came to understand that in a lot of instances, I was really just dealing in the realm of justification. Christ’s love is beyond justification. It is truly free. What I realized was that justifications are nothing more than the inverse of conditions. In other words where conditions say, “I will love you if…”, justifications say, “I won’t not love you if…”. Conditions are performed by the one who wants to be loved and justifications are performed by the so called lover. Neither have anything to do with the grace of God who loves all unconditionally and without justification–a reality few of us are willing to consider deeply because of what this revelation shows us about ourselves and our withholding of God’s love from those we deem unworthy.
Grace and Gratitude: A Mechanism for Love
A friend who struggled with drug usage once told me that the hardest part about recovery was confronting the memories of what they did when they were using. Even when the drug was out of their system, the painful memories were often enough to draw them right back into using. I experienced a similar revelation when I stopped using justifications. Without my justifications, I started to see many people for the kindness abusers that they were and I saw that in a lot of ways I was equally culpable, because I was being an enabler. And just like alcohol can give some people liquid courage, my justifications gave me a sense of synthetic righteousness. Without them, it turned out that I was not as forgiving or loving as I thought I was. How humbling.
I could go way deeper into this realization and explain how, from this awareness, I have come to see just how far off the mark many of us are when we are motivated by approval–even if it is approval from God. Instead I will skip all that and share that I could not really begin to love God as God until I was no longer seeking God’s approval. I know that sounds counter-intuitive to many, but I discovered that I could not fully experience the true freedom in God until I stopped trying to keep God hostage with my goodness. It was after this realization that I shifted from approval motivated to grace inspired. Once I realized the limits of my goodness and the unconscious, yet still manipulative, actions I was performing in order to secure God’s love, I was actually able to be grateful that all along God was loving from the precept expressed in Romans 13:8, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
All We Need Is Love?
The writer of 1 John says that God is Love. Paul says that one who loves others fulfills the law. Jesus said loving God and neighbor (including enemies) with everything we have in us fulfills all of the law and the purpose of the Prophets who came to guide us. In other words, love naturally accomplishes everything I was trying to do on my own. But in order for me or anyone to give this love, we must first be able to receive that love. What I see now is that it is out of gratitude for the love that I could never earn that I naturally grow in my desire to extend that love to others–even those who don’t love me.
The rapper Bizzle has a line in a song called “No Hate” where he said, “Your love is measured by the hate you can love through.” These days I find that I can see the measure of my love not only in my daily interactions as a minister, but also in paying attention to the comments sections in many of the divisive articles about the situation in America that I see daily. For years I would never look at the comments sections because it limited my confidence in people’s ability to participate in a peaceful society. If you’ve ever checked them out, you know what I am talking about. The way people talk to each other in these comments is amazing. Many of them of course profess the approval of their “Lord and Savior” in sanctioning their verbal assaults. I’ve even had a few of them go off on me for some of my blogs.
In the past, I would have needed to spend a lot of time trying to justify to myself why the Way of Jesus compels me to try and love people who clearly put little effort into understanding these teachings–all the while claiming His Name. These days, I simply say “Thank You” because I see now that the love God has for us is truly unqualified. Therefore, my extension of that love must be equally unqualified.
44 But I say unto you, love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you, 45 that ye may be the children of your Father who is in Heaven. For God maketh the sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.46 For if ye love them that love you, what reward have ye? Do not even the publicans the same?