“For God so loved the world.”
This is, to me, an absolutely astonishing sentence; nearly impossible for me to wrap my head around.
I grew up not loving the world, but fearing, rejecting, separating from, needing cleansed from, even hating the world. Non-Christians, Catholics, the poor, “townies”, communists, immigrants, the Chinese, Arabs, homosexuals, military personel, casinos, slums, cities, governments, culture, rock and roll… I could go on.
And so for God to love the world, is incomprehensible! The world: in all its diversity, pluriformity of cultures, ways of expressing itself, hungers, desires, passions, loves and beauty. That God loves the world is truly the kind of thing that can transform the Church today.
But there is something even more central to this verse. Something even more confusing, even more difficult for me to understand. Something, I’ll be honest, I haven’t been able to think about much for several years. And that something, is that God… loves…. Me. God is love.
I believe, like modern western psychology, like Christian spirituality for 2000 years before that, and scripture before either of those, that we humans are always going about the business of compensating. Paul says that “we all fall short of the glory of God.” I believe this to be the one biblical truth that no one has ever had any trouble believing, whatsoever. Why is it so easy for us to believe that about ourselves, and so painfully difficult to believe about ourselves that we are loved and accepted?
Maybe it has something to do with my own need to have no needs. I am after all white, middle class, American, English speaking, highly educated, Christian raised on the Protestant work ethic, a Western ‘individual,’ and a pastor. All characteristics which are strikes against me feeling even slightly comfortable with my hands out to anyone, even God.
Turns out that having blocks like this might be pretty universal for most of us. Michael Casey, modern Eastern Orthodox priest and author, says “God’s word and Spirit lead us ineluctably to the truth, and part of that truth is that there is much within us that is resistant to God’s love. Only when we become conscious of this do we truly seek God, and thereby open ourselves to the healing balm of divine mercy.” Howard Thurman, one of the 20th centuries greatest Black pastors and theologians, began a famous prayer with
“My ego is like a fortress.
I have built its walls
Stone by stone
to hold out the invasion
of the love of God.”
Even modern psychology says the same. Riso and Hudson, in discussing personality types, suggest that our personalities are constructed like a cast, and “develop most powerfully around the areas of our soul’s greatest wounding…None of us has gotten out of childhood without some need to hide, or to shut down and protect ourselves from any further hurt.” This, apparently, is our reality. Perhaps this is what Paul meant by saying “we all fall short.”
So how do we get from actively working to keep God out, to openly embracing the humbling truth that God loves us, and that we are in need of a God who loves us? In short, how are we healed? For starters, I really like what Karl Barth has to say: “Jesus does not see us as we again and again would like to see ourselves, not in our fitness, not in our zeal, not in our eagerness, not in our believing, not as warriors in the army of light, and not as God’s chosen co-laborers,… He sees us as laboring and heavy laden… He is interested not in our answers but in our questions, not in our security but in our restlessness, not in our finding but in our seeking.” Healing, it seems, happens when we uncover the mask, and let people see us for who we are. Warts and all. I can attest to this truth in my own life. Allowing family, my wife, and even at one point a therapist to see me as I really am, permitted them to love me when I thought myself unlovable. And opens up for me the possibility of healing, and hope, and love. Transformation happens when we accept that we are acceptable. The words that fly around for this kind of thing tend to be transparency, authenticity, intimacy, etc… But really at its core it is just community. The tectonic plates of my soul shift towards love at the point at which I stop seeing myself as an ‘individual,’ and start seeing myself in community. Community with God, and community with others. This level of community is rooted in nothing more or nothing less than trust, or what traditionally we religious types like to call ‘belief.’
Trusting Jesus frees us from the law of expectation. It frees us from a need to be cool, or perfect, or the best. Frees us from searching for the right outfit, the most popular music, the best sport. It frees us from putting on masks or glittering images to impress the world. It frees us from craving the next Good Thing from Martha Stewart, or Oprah’s Favorite Things, or serving miniature truffle puff pastries from a spun-sugar cornucopia to impress our middle class friends.
We are acceptable. End of story.
Trust that reality. Stop worrying about your reputation. Stop worrying. Stop everything. And accept the acceptance granted to you by God and others. It will change everything. Trusting Jesus means we stop working to be acceptable, and drop our churchy façade. We stop projecting who we wish we were, and allow ourselves to be who God created us to be: a human being loved by God. Trusting Jesus means believing honesty, transparency, authenticity is better than hypocrisy, and so we repent. Trusting Jesus means “if we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us and cleanse us from every wrong (1 John 1:9).” Trusting Jesus responds when Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden (Matthew 12:28).” Trusting Jesus means we know its true that Jesus loved us, accepted us, “while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8).”
So, we are invited to put down our masks. To let God and community see us as we truly are. We are invited to acknowledge there are forces within us resistant to God’s love, and to set those aside. This Lenten season, may we replace our resistance to God’s love with new ways of getting to know our Lord and our loved ones. For God is love.