With All We Are (1)
Learning to Love God/Pray with the Whole of Ourselves
Anyone who has ever attempted to pray will know that this is easier said than done. Most of the time, our various “parts” are divided, heading in different directions, even set against one another. My body may be at rest, but my mind is not. I want to pray, but my emotions keep getting in the way. My attempts to reflect on a passage of Scripture are deflected by a persistent and painful memory. And so on.
Moments of coherence and cohesion are rare. Learning how to foster the Godward alignment of each aspect of our being, is the work of a lifetime. And yet we can only achieve this end if we get to know, learn to respect, and endeavour to love every part of ourselves. To do this, we learn to listen to what is going on within us; we learn to trust, sift and interpret the information we are receiving; we learn that, even when we do not like what we see or hear, this data is valuable; and we learn how to use it. What we learn from listening to the various aspects of ourselves forms the basis of a creative response to our situation. A response that “makes sense” in all sorts of ways and at all sorts of levels. A response that takes us forward.
What we learn is that every aspect of our character has its value, its needs and its aspirations, and if we want to live worshipfully, lovingly and well, we cannot afford to ignore, still less deny or suppress, any part of who we are. Loving God with all we are means loving all we are. It does not necessarily mean liking all we are, or liking all we are all the time - that is something else entirely. But it does mean knowing ourselves, respecting ourselves, caring for ourselves, trusting ourselves, keeping faith with ourselves.
Loving God with the whole of ourselves means learning, first to recognise, and then to respect, every aspect of who we are. Obeying the greatest commandment requires us to pay attention to our variety, diversity and complexity. Above all, this means learning to face, manage, and even respect those parts of ourselves we ignore, dislike or fear; those parts that we have been taught to believe are “unacceptable”. Because these, too, are part of who we are. They are part of the “whole self” that God loves, and that is called to love God in response. We cannot love God with our whole self if we deny part of that self - deny its existence, its importance, its value or its needs. We cannot offer God something we do not know exists, and we ought not to offer God something we despise. We cannot love God with our whole self if we hate part of that self.
After all, if we are not prepared to value our bodies or our intellect or our imagination or our emotions or our sexuality or our memories, why do we expect God to value them? Or do we think that the fact that God does value them somehow allows us to go on neglecting, suppressing and denying them?
For example, there have been times in the past when I have shrugged and said, “God loves me,” meaning, “I hope God loves me, because I don’t”. I could not accept myself - because of something I had said, or done, or caused to happen. My words or deeds had revealed an aspect of myself that I could not love, and so I could not see how I could be lovable. I could not see how I could be lovable at all. Because I could not see how anyone could love me at that moment, I felt that no one could ever truly love me. Not if they really knew what I was like. And this way of thinking even caused me to doubt that God could love me, especially when other Christians harped on about God’s awesome holiness, righteousness and purity, and his expectation that I would want to be the same. Given all this evidence against me, my hope that God loved me remained just that. Hope. Not the humble confidence that arises from personal experience.
Now we all need a healthy sense that we fall short of that amazing grace we meet in Christ, because knowing this keeps us asking, seeking, searching, working, changing, learning, growing, moving on. There is always more to be given, received, undertaken, understood. But if we are continually saying, “God loves me. I can’t”, it eventually becomes “Because I know God loves me, I can go on hating myself and still claim to be a Christian”. In other words, God’s love for us becomes an excuse for staying put, wallowing in our wretched view of ourselves and the world around us, and refusing to change.
This is not faith, but its opposite, fear. We are using God’s love for us as a way of avoiding looking at something we are afraid to tackle. We are refusing to take responsibility for the way we think about ourselves. We are refusing to address the deep-seated reasons why we prefer to think meanly of ourselves. We are refusing to recognise that there are advantages to remaining trapped in our wounds. We may have gained our self-image from the way others treated us, but as adults we choose to continue believing what they taught us to believe. Even if we have rebelled against it, their opinion may still be the yardstick we use to measure our revolt. And the chief reason why we choose to stay “stuck” is that, however miserable we feel, thinking like this, at least we don’t have to face that even greater monster. Change.
However, for Jesus, obeying this commandment was the source of a radical, transformative power. To say “God loves me” changes the scale of it is possible for me to imagine, believe, attain and achieve - if I notice what Jesus teaches and demonstrates about the way God loves me. Because God does not look upon us with pity, as poor, weak, whiny, miserable sinners who are utterly dependent on divine grace. Of course, we are like that sometimes, but that is not how God sees us, generally speaking. We know this, because we know, from our own dealings with other people, that pity - even when softened with sympathy - tends to become patronising and condescending. Sympathy is based on our ability to think like someone else, to match their experience and understand how they might feel. But under stress, sympathy breaks down. Faced with extreme behaviour, our capacity to understand the other drains away. Sympathy preserves a distance between ourselves and the other. It may allow us to travel beside them, but our path remains, at best, parallel to theirs. Pity provides no basis for ground-breaking love.
By contrast, God gives us respect. God’s love is built on empathy, the ability to project oneself wholly into the experience of another, to see the world through their eyes because we are walking their road in their shoes. God knows us from the inside out. And because God knows us so intimately, God loves us. Even though God knows us so intimately, God loves us. God loves us because we are strong, courageous, creative, caring people who do, yes, foul up and make a mess of things to a greater or lesser degree, but who are nevertheless capable of being loving companions, conscientious servants, faithful friends and partners in persevering generosity. In other words, God does not look at us, flinch, grit his teeth, and care for us despite ourselves. God looks at us and loves us because she sees the beauty in us.
The wayGod loves us changes everything, when we understand that this love does not criticise us and condemn us at all, but rather begins with total acceptance - unqualified positive regard - and then proceeds to encourage, empower, enable and equip us for the context in which we live and the challenges we face there. Yes, there is challenge, conversion, confrontation, discipline and even sacrifice along this road, but that comes later, once we have grasped the essentials, once we have internalised the knowledge that we are loved - utterly and eternally loved, by a God who looks upon us only with love, and who will keep faith with us until the end.
“God loves me” can help me face every part of myself with acceptance, affirmation, courage and hope. It helps me face the consequences of my actions, take responsibility for the parts of myself that are distorted or damaged, and ask for the help I need to take the next step in conversion and healing. It is a truth to reassure us, and to build in us a solid foundation of assurance that - whatever happens - we are constantly and consistently loved. And from that foundation, we can work with God’s Spirit on changing what needs to be changed.
This is the crux of the matter. This is what we do not want to do: change. We can get so used to thinking of ourselves as partly or wholly bad, rotten, wicked, damned, lost, that we actually prefer to stay that way. Our resistance to change is subtle and immensely powerful. Even if we have experienced a dramatic conversion, like St Paul, these “hidden ways of thinking” can persist. And while they will be eroded by long years of living with God and opening ourselves to God’s Spirit, we may still wish to consider speeding up this process by taking a pro-active approach: learning to identify them and to retrain our minds so that we think differently. Otherwise, the old doubts will continue to have power over us. A setback may tempt us to wonder if we really are acceptable to God. Or we may be thrown into turmoil by a confrontation with one of those zealots who feels the need to undermine us by asking, “Are you sure?”
No - at one level, we are not sure. That is the point. We were taught to doubt everything about ourselves, especially our belovedness. But the proof of our faith (if we need one) is this: that despite the disadvantages of our upbringing, we are using God’s vision of ourselves, and God’s way of loving us, to live an alternative in which we are gradually changing into people who know that we are loved. Instead of basing our lives on our own judgement, or another person’s judgement, as to whether or not we are acceptable, we are trusting God’s judgement. By listening to our thoughts and words, observing our actions and reactions, monitoring our choices and behaviour and holding all to the mirror of that high love which was revealed to us in Jesus Christ, we trust God to show us where we have fallen short.
And what we discover, when we take this step of faith, is that God is far less judgemental than we - or other people - are inclined to be.
Learning to love ourselves is hardly a “soft” or selfish option. Far from it. What it does is ensure that as we listen to God and as we deal with one another, we are starting from a realistic foundation. We respect each aspect of ourselves, and we know what they need, how that part of ourselves shapes and drives our desire. Having “befriended” our desires, we are in a better position to know which ones are important, right here and right now, and which ones can be deferred, or addressed in some other way. When we ask for what we need, we have a clearer idea what it is that we are asking for, and to what extent we should give it priority.
And when we are negotiating with other people, working out how - in this particular situation - their needs can be met as well as our own, we are not simultaneously trying to work out what we want out the situation. There is much less chance of us being left feeling aggrieved because we have in some fashion, which we cannot quite define, “lost out”. On the contrary, during the discussion, we have spare energy which we can use to be creative; a reserve which may even allow us to set aside our own needs entirely, at this time, so as to meet the need of someone else.