Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Reality of God's Love, and our Illusions

I have, on more than one occasion been asked, "How do you know God loves you -- personally, tangibly -- not as a theological truth". My heart breaks for people who ask that question. I've been there and know the pain of thinking you are unlovable, and to be honest there are days when I find myself back in that place. For someone like me, who spent 20+ years of my life thinking I was 'damaged goods' and 'unlovable if you really knew me', it is an exceedingly hard place to get free from. But thankfully, gradually, the days of living as if I'm not loved are becoming fewer and farther apart.

Part of my problem, and the problem that I think many like me face, is that we accept our culture's definition of love, and our culture's standards for 'being lovable'. So we put on a mask of performance to meet those standards. The world may love the mask, but our true selves behind the mask receives none of that love. We may even think God loves the mask, but in our more honest moments we know that he sees right through it and we think that, by the worlds definition of love, God can't possibly love us.

But the open secret of scripture is that God's love for us precedes any action on our part. "For God so Loved the world that he sent his only begotten son..." (Jn 3:16) and "We loved because he first Loved us." (1 Jn 4:19) are truths we all too often forget. And God's Love isn't the needy and conditional 'I love you because of what you can do for me' kind of love that the world offers; His love is selfless and without end. He says, "I have loved you with an everlasting love." I know this is still in the general head knowledge or 'read in a book' kind of information, but it is one of the things we need to know if we are going to dare to believe it and dare to put down the mask of performance.

Putting the mask down is probably the hardest thing a person will ever do. For certainly there are some people who live by the worlds definition of love and will walk away; preferring illusion to reality. We will all be tempted to pick the mask back up when around certain people, especially those who are significant to us in our relationships. But if we are to begin to experience the reality of God's love for us, we need to face the reality of ourselves. Only then then will we realize that God has always loved us, our true selves hidden under our masks and the walls of protection we've built for ourselves. And we can be confident of his love, because we have given up the illusions and see that God's love depends on God, not on us.

I read a quote from Thomas Merton's "No Man is an Island" on one of the blogs I follow, and thought it would be worth sharing here as well.

13. Our ability to be sincere with ourselves, with God, and with other men is really proportionate to our capacity for sincere love. And the sincerity of our love depends in large measure upon our capacity to believe ourselves loved. Most of the moral and mental and even religious complexities of our time go back to our desperate fear that we are not and can never be really loved by anyone.

When we consider that most men want to be loved as if they were gods, it is hardly surprising that they should despair of receiving the love they think they deserve. Even the biggest of fools must be dimly aware that he is not worthy of adoration, and no matter what he may believe about his right to be adored, he will not be long in finding out that he can never fool anyone enough to make her adore him. And yet our idea of ourselves is so fantastically unreal that we rebel against this lack of “love” as though we were the victims of an injustice. Our whole life is then constructed on a basis of duplicity. We assume that others are receiving the kind of appreciation we want for ourselves, and we proceed on the assumption that since we are not lovable as we are, we must become lovable under false pretenses, as if we were something better than we are. The real reason why so few men believe in God is that they have ceased to believe that even a God can love them. But their despair is, perhaps, more respectable than the insincerity of those who think they can trick God into loving them for something they are not. This kind of duplicity is, after all, fairly common among so-called “believers,” who consciously cling to the hope that God Himself, placated by prayer, will support their egotism and their insincerity, and help them to achieve their own selfish ends.

14. If we are to love sincerely, and with simplicity, we must first of all overcome the fear of not being loved. And this cannot be done by forcing ourselves to believe in some illusion, saying that we are loved when we are not. We must somehow strip ourselves of our greatest illusions about ourselves, frankly recognize in how many ways we are unlovable, descend into the depths of our being until we come to the basic reality that is in us, and learn to see that we are lovable after all, in spite of everything! This is a difficult job. It can only really be done by a lifetime of genuine humility. We must accept the fact that we are not what we would like to be. We must cast off our false, exterior self like the cheap and showy garment that it is. We must find our real self, in all its elemental poverty but also in its very great and very simple dignity: created to be a child of God, and capable of loving with something of God’s own sincerity and His unselfishness.

The first step in this sincerity is the recognition that although we are worth little or nothing in ourselves, we are potentially worth very much, because we can hope to be loved by God. He does not love us because we are good, but we become good when and because He loves us. If we receive this love in all simplicity, the sincerity of our love for others will more or less take care of itself. Strong in the confidence that we are loved by Him, we will not worry too much about the uncertainty of being loved by other men. I do not mean that we will be indifferent to their love for us: since we wish them to love in us the God Who loves them in us. But we will never have to be anxious about their love, which in any case we do not expect to see too dearly in this life.

15. The whole question of sincerity, then, is basically a question of love and fear. The man who is selfish, narrow, who loves little and fears much that he will not be loved, can never be deeply sincere, even though he may sometimes have a character that seems to be frank on the surface. In his depths he will always be involved in duplicity. He will deceive himself in his best and most serious intentions. Nothing he says or feels about love, whether human or divine, can safely be believed, until his love be purged at least of its basest and most unreasonable fears.

But the man who is not afraid to admit everything that he sees to be wrong with himself, and yet recognizes that he may be the object of God’s love precisely because of his shortcomings, can begin to be sincere. His sincerity is based on confidence, not in his illusions about himself, but in the endless, unfailing mercy of God.