Love. A powerful word. A loaded word. A foundational word. A revolutionary word….
John the Beloved said that, “God is Love.”
Paul said, “…these three will endure: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
Jesus said, “The world will know that you are my followers by the way you have love for one another.”
He also said, “The greatest commandment is to love God with everything you are; and the second greatest is to love your neighbor the way you love yourself.”
John the Beloved also said, “Perfect love cast out fear.”
In fact, in both his account of the Gospel and in his letters, John talked a lot about love.
So did Jesus….
I grew up in church. Sang, “Jesus loves me, this I know. For the bible tells me so.”
And, after half a century of thinking I knew what love was, I find it is not that simple.
Okay – this may be hard to get out and it may come out awkward, but here goes….
You see, love scares the crap out of me. When you grow up being sexually, emotionally and physically abused, love is a strange concept. For me, love is not necessarily comforting because those who love me may be cruel to prove a point – to teach a lesson. They may withhold affection to toughen and make me ‘strong.’ They may scold and they may punish. They may ignore until I make them mad. Those who love me may use a belt to correct even before wrongs are understood. In other words, when you tell me God loves me, I’m liable to cringe a little and hope his mercy outweighs his love……
And the flip side of that is, if I love, I will get out of bed in the middle of deep sleep to drive across town and get someone a coke with that ice they like. If I love someone, I will jump when they say jump…I will make all the bad stuff in their life go away. If I don’t take responsibility for someone else’s happiness, I don’t really love them.
And that is how I grew up. And let me tell you, being expected to take responsibility for the happiness of a malignant narcissist in the name of love is a recipe for mental breakdown. It is the ultimate double bind. And I find that now, I distrust this word ‘love.’
On an intellectual level, I understand that the love I experienced growing up and the love Jesus and John and Paul talk about are not the same….and yet…..I don’t know for sure.
I am realizing that I fear God’s love because I expect it to look like my parents’ love: always watching for errors to correct. The ever present ‘gotcha!’ I cringe before the Father, because I expect him to have the belt ready to punish….hmmm….you know, the church culture I grew up in contributed to this, as well. The whole concept of “getting your act together with God or he will take you out to the woodshed.” Yeah. That’s what the word love is connected to in my mind.
Deeper, there is a voice that tells me there is something different than what I’ve known. And the odd thing is, I have no trouble seeing the deep, compassionate, embracing, generous, wrap-you-up-in-warm-comfort love he has for other people. I can look in their eyes and feel the love of God for them…..but I cannot seem to translate that back to myself.
The Message puts John’s words like this: “There is no room in love for fear. Well-formed love banishes fear. Since fear is crippling, a fearful life—fear of death, fear of judgment—is one not yet fully formed in love.” (1 John 4:18). So…a fearful life is one that is not fully formed in love. So….love does not cause fear….it banishes it. Tilt. This is slowly seeping in through the cracks of my childhood-old walls of defense.
For me, this is a radical idea, that God loves me as I am – for real and not just hypothetically. Hmm…I realized, a couple of days ago, that one of the issues I have had with accepting God’s love lies in the fact that somewhere along the line growing up, I learned that if you did not earn something, you had no right to take it and if someone gave you something you did not earn, you needed to do something to prove you deserved it. This had a subtle effect on how I viewed God’s gifts of grace and love. I had the vague subconscious feeling that in order to truly enjoy it and let it settle into me, I needed to prove I deserved it. This is part of what led me into the bowels of a cult (and thankfully back out). And while in that cult, it led to the idea that it was not okay to do anything that was not spiritually focused. And now, I realize there is a subtle (and until now) subconscious belief that “sin is fun and God is hard.” And the thing is, I bet there are a few of you that read that and nod in agreement: yes, quite right.
But the thing is, it is not quite right. In fact, I’m beginning to see that it is quite backward. Sin is hard and God is fun. See, if we are in him and he is in us, then sin is certainly not fun. It hurts – it sucks. And if we are in him and really start to get that he loves us, he is fun – his burden is light, not heavy and tiresome. He is not against recreation. Playing games – having fun with friends. I had reached the point where I thought he was against these things – that my love for him had to be demonstrated in the complete sacrifice of self – likes, interests, fun…..anything outside of studying him…..and anything the ‘church’ said was ‘wrong’….
And I find myself back in the heart of this battle….what does he demand of me? Some old interests – things that I used to really enjoy pre-cult days – have been re-introduced into my life. And my initial reaction was one of excitement and wow, really? Can I? And now, I am fighting whether it is okay to have fun again. Is God displeased? Am I asking for the belt? Within the church world, I never saw anything to contradict the concept of getting the belt for getting ‘out of line.’
Sigh. Perfect love casts out fear. All fear. Including the fear of being in trouble.
And yet today, I find fear a companion like it hasn’t been for years. Fear of punishment. Fear of being wrong. Fear of being unworthy. Fear of ‘sinning.’ And I know that the primary thing that Jesus came to set us free from was that very fear. I’ve written about it in a previous post. I have lived led by fear and it sucks. It is superstition. It is the fear that God will communicate his will by means of tests that stretch your stress levels to the breaking point. Fear that if I get out of line, he will remove his favor, his protection, his love….turn his back and let me take my lumps…..teach me by sending trials…….
And I know this is not really what love should look like. Deep underneath, my heart knows what love should look like. But that scared, abused, broken little girl is still scared to death that she will be found out and the shit will hit the fan. Found out in what? That she is a fraud, of course. She doesn’t really deserve to be in this ‘club’ because she is ruined. She is tainted. She didn’t do anything right. And she will be the one that gets thrown out of the wedding feast for not wearing the right clothes. (see Matthew 22:11-13) And it doesn’t matter that she wants desperately to be with Jesus, to be close to God. Because she is a fraud – doesn’t measure up to the standard set – she will be found out and thrown out. She grew up in church living a lie that she was ‘pure’ when she was not. And the truth is, I really don’t want to try to measure up anymore. I want to give up. But I am afraid that if I turn my back on that (it seems so foundational in my life), I will also turn my back on God….There. That is the fear. But I know that is not Truth…..and yet the fear remains. And I am not sure how to unroot it.
And so, my prayer is that I would know what love really is. That the fear of losing it will be swallowed by the reality of it.