Monday, July 10, 2006

Letting God Love You

A friend of mine recently asked me to write something on this topic. It ought to be the easiest thing in the world to let God love us—“Sure, go right ahead!” But we’re such complex beings who often have a history of pain or alienation, so that it is actually an effort, at least in the beginning, to allow God to do what He does best: love us!

We have to start by realizing that God loves us even if we do not “allow” Him to. We are sometimes like wounded animals that only lash out at the very ones who come to help and heal us. But God is Love by nature and cannot not love us, so we ought to find some consolation in that. God loved us first, as St. John says, so at least we don’t have to worry about trying to get Him to love us. And St. Paul says that even while we were enemies of God through sin, He showed his love by sending his Son to die for us.

Some people may wonder, as they perceive themselves with perhaps a too-critical eye: “But how could God love me? I’m just a confused blob of dark and dirty spineless jelly.” I just read something from St Augustine that may help here. He said that when a craftsman spies a gnarled and rough old piece of wood, he immediately begins to think of what beautiful thing he will make of it once he applies his carving and polishing skills. It’s not because it is gnarly and rough (and maybe a little bug-eaten) that he loves it, but because he knows what he will make out of it. Similarly, God does not love our sins and how they’ve disfigured us, but rather what He, the Master Craftsman, will make out of us when his love and mercy and grace are applied to us, restoring his image in us so that we can shine like the sun in our Father’s Kingdom.

So we see thus far that God loves what He has made, and what He will re-make, since we tend to ruin everything by our sins. But what happens in the meantime? Are we to flounder fearfully in our defilement while we wait with wavering hope that He will indeed make all things new, make us lovable and loving? Here is where we need a bit of courage. Someone once wrote about “the courage to accept acceptance,” and this is an important element of letting God love us. It doesn’t matter so much if you are at this moment the gnarly wood or spineless jelly or ugly duckling. Once you accept the fact that God has chosen you anyway, accepts what you are in view of what you are to become, then you can begin in earnest to cooperate with Him, so that your transformation can get underway. It’s not being a pile of spiritual rubble that keeps God’s love from working in you, it’s choosing to remain such despite his invitation to restoration and renewal. That’s refusing to accept that God accepts you. That is what despair is all about; despair is the only thing that can really create an impenetrable wall around you, and thus God’s love is not allowed to enter.

Perhaps part of our difficulty in allowing God to love us is that we have a skewed understanding of love. What we may have learned to call love is a kind of unhealthy enmeshment, marked by conditions, fear, co-dependency, unreasonable expectations, or even some form of abuse. So we may not feel able to offer the unconditional surrender, the necessary vulnerability to God that makes a loving union possible. This is something that only time and grace can heal—along with our continuous efforts to purify our own understanding of love and to recognize the distortions for what they are, realizing that God’s love is wholly above and beyond the defective human versions it has been our misfortune to endure. This takes faith as well as courage and trust.

It is in fact easy to say to God, “go ahead, love me!” but our love is required in return if it is to bear fruit. The failure to love, or to love fully, is always on our part and, frankly, I think we should spend more time learning how to love God than how to experience God’s love for us. I think we know how, though; we just don’t always want to do it his way. We don’t want to make the necessary sacrifices or renunciations, we don’t want to “lose our lives” for his sake, we don’t want to walk the rough and narrow path. To love God is not to surround Him with the flowery phrases of puffed-up piety, but rather to hear the word of God and do it!

In the final analysis, it is in giving that we learn to receive, in loving that we allow ourselves to be loved. Just say yes. Just invite God into your gnarly heart, exactly as it is, trusting that He will make it exactly as He intended it would be when He created you in the first place. It’s all about trust. It’s all about “let it be done to me according to Your word.”