I was raised in a Christian home. I was taught that God loves me. I was taught that God sees me as I am, in all the mixture of human fallenness and human beauty. He sees me and he loves me. He does not demand appeasement or proof, or a demonstration of worthiness. He put an end to that by offering himself on the cross. No, he knows me and yet he loves me.
I was taught that truth, I felt it and experienced that kind of love through people.
When I got older I taught others that God loves them. Eventually I studied the message of Christ and preached to congregations that God loves us.
And yet one night…
When I was in seminary, our close friends came by for dessert one night and it was getting late. We were having so much fun talking and enjoying each other’s company that we didn’t want the night to end. Someone suggested, the heck with it, let’s play Apples to Apples. Forget the clock, forget going to work tomorrow, lets just stay up late and enjoy a game.
I wanted to play the game, but I also was concerned. I needed to get everything ready for the morning, for breakfast and coffee, lay out my clothes, make sure my work bag was full of precisely whatever it was I needed for the next day.
So I said, sure, we can do that, but we just need to get a few things ready for tomorrow.
Our friends watched as we raced around putting out cereal boxes, bowls, glasses, clothes, etc etc. It wasn’t strange because I needed to do this to relax, it was strange to them because of the precision with which I needed everything to be done just right.
I needed each and every detail to be done just right or…or what? Our friends were concerned and suggested I visit a counselor. Because I trusted them, I was open to hearing this. And I was open because the stress of having a new baby, of working full time, and of being in school was wreaking havoc on my life.
Something was wrong inside. For some strange reason, I needed to get everything just right, even down to the way the spoons sat next to the cereal bowls, or else impending doom lay ahead. So I finally agreed that it was time for me to talk to a Christian counselor.
I went and for a few weeks we talked about the usual things, life in general, why I had come in, my childhood, and I was enjoying talking about myself.
But around about the fourth or fifth visit she asked me a question: “Do you believe that God loves you?”
Sure, I believe that. God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son. God loves us.
She asked, “do you think he knows you fully and loves you fully?”
Sure do. No problem there.
I wasn’t sure why she kept going back to that question. Of course I knew that God loves me.
She asked me whether I thought that God would stop loving me if I messed up.
After a few more weeks she asked me, “What would God do if the cereal bowls were not put out the night before?”
I was stunned. At that moment I realized that a part of me believed and deeply felt that if I didn’t keep everything together perfectly, if I didn’t walk the line, if I wasn’t always grateful and proper and good and right, that God would no longer love me.
I felt deep in my heart that God would remove his protection from my family, and his blessing from our life if I wasn’t perfectly right with him.
I replied, “I believe God loves me, but I feel like he doesn’t. I feel like he’s watching and waiting for me to mess up, so he can remove his protection from me and my family.”
I would never do that to my own children. I would not abandon them from my love for any reason. But in my heart I resisted the love of God my Father. I resisted the idea that he just plain loved me and that there was no need to offer him a sacrifice. I didn’t fully embrace the love of a God who fully knows and fully loves me in Christ.
How could a man who preached Christ’s love, who professed it, and who experienced it, also resist it?
The dough of my life was being kneaded. God’s love was spreading more and more throughout my life. We worked on other “cognitive behavioral” strategies, and those were, and are, important. But this fundamental relational reality with God was such a key part of seeing where I truly was.
Sometimes it is because deep in our souls we just cannot fully accept that if we were fully known, from our head to our toes, from our first moments of life to our present and beyond, that we could still be loved and accepted through Christ.
Something in our human nature resists this love that is offered by God. Something says, that can’t be for me.
Being Loved is Difficult to Do
In fact, some studies show that for a person to believe that another person loves them, they have to experience at least fifteen expressions of unconditional love. Fifteen! That’s just to begin believing we are loved.
Psychologist and counselor Harville Hendrix accidentally discovered this aspect of human nature while trying to help couples show love to each other.
He set out to have each spouse list behaviors – just behaviors – that would make them feel loved. They were then to exchange lists and without demanding anything, just ask their spouse to do those behaviors so that they could reestablish a feeling of safety and trust.
For example, one woman asked her husband to bring her flowers once in every two weeks. One husband asked his wife to tell him two things she liked about him every day.
He insisted that the behaviors not be forced or demanded, and that the person doing the loving behavior did not have to even feel loving. They just were being asked to behave in a loving way toward their spouse, as defined by the spouse.
After years of encouraging couples to show love to each other in their behaviors in order to create a better atmosphere for intimacy, they discovered something they had never expected.
That’s right, resistance.
People liked what their spouse was doing. But mixed with this feeling of being loved was fear. Fear that they should not enjoy this love. Fear that they would not live up to it. Fear that this love was conditional or that they did not deserve it.
People resisted love!
In fact, the resistance is so fierce it is like the fear of death. Hendrix had to tell people, “A voice from deep inside of you is going to say, ‘Stop! This is too much! I’m going to die!”
So Hendrix had to build into his program a process of continuing to love on each other, knowing the resistance would come. He told them to keep on showing love despite that resistance until the spouse begins to believe that he or she can receive that love, can enjoy it, can rest in it.
If we resist even the conditional love of our spouse or other human beings, then how much more do we feel the need to resist God’s unconditional love? Even people like me, who were taught from infancy that “Jesus Loves You” find it unbelievable.
But he doesn’t quit. God’s love is like yeast being kneaded into the dough of our very beings. It will spread, it will do its work. His love will continue, and it will captivate us. He wins over our hearts. Even the hearts of religious people like me who think they already know everything and hide away from him in a cloak of knowledge or ministry. He’s just that good.