“Love; it will not betray you, dismay or enslave you. It will set you free.”

-Mumford and Sons


All the things that she’d suspected

I’d expected her to fear

Was the truth that drew her to me when I landed here. 

Jack Isbell

There is always a quest in life to achieve ‘love.’ From an early age, in almost every culture and context, the stories of love are captured, told, and retold captivating audiences. There are very few stories of love that we don’t like to retell, even the ones that end in tragedy. Shakespeare enjoyed writing these stories. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet retell the tragic story of the Titanic, and Disney jumps on board with titles such as “Beauty and the Beast” (one of my personal favorites).

Love is often in the air, even if only for a fantasy moment.

As a child these moments seemed like they happened constantly to all people, all the time. This seems to build a sense of expectation, that, once one falls in love, they will never be able to fall out of love with that person or object of their love. That’s the tragedy, in and of itself. Approaching ‘love’ with high expectation causes significant consternation, difficult disillusion, and needless and endless misery. We have all experienced the infatuation of love to some degree, whether that be with another person, an animal, our family, or some other inanimate object. We have all said “I love…(fill in the blank).” We even suggest that we completely understand love, by retelling the romantic, sometime tragedy-filled stories of love. The Titanic, as long as it was, is one of the highest grossing movies of all time for a reason. Disney has capitalized on telling stories of love and romance, through animated films. I dare you to find a movie, story, book, or poem that doesn’t at least hint at some version of love that (oftentimes erroneously) sets expectation for the average person to believe that they will experience love in the same ways as what the actors are experiencing.

Learning what love is can be complex in a world of romanticism and infatuation. It can be especially complex in a religious world that tends to dress up love as the antidote for all the bad things that happen in the world. Think about it. John 3:16 is a verse that most Americans would be able to identify if they saw it on a sign. Specifically, Christianity highlights love as a necessary cornerstone in the story of God, where God loved all people but they didn’t love him back. We find a similar story in Islam, in Mormonism, in Native American culture and religion, and even in Buddhism. My guess is that religion in general is built on some equation of love, for that is a very core part of humanity. It is the essence of our existence to some degree.

But what is love?

Really, when we get to the heart of love, we may not find what we were expecting. We will not find the romance, the bliss, the attraction, and the fondness that are all perpetuated on the big screen. Our expectations of love may fall completely short of what our experienced reality declares. I have had to rethink and relearn what love is, why love is important, and how love can be grasped in a way that is both tangible and realistic. I’m not going to be able to completely ‘define’ love, as it is wildly multifaceted, nor am I trying to construct some new version of love using experience and scripture.

In a lot of ways, love is simple. And in so many more ways, it is one of the most complex concepts that humanity has ever encountered.

Running in myreligious circles, I have often heard that Jesus said to ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ Seems pretty easy right? It seems like love would be a natural byproduct when someone sees themself as worthwhile. It seems like it would spill over into other relationships, and the display of affection, caring, and desire would bleed into the life of the one that deems themselves as worthy. For many of us, me included, deeming myself as worthwhile has always been a difficult task. Finding myself has been a lifelong journey and part of that journey and discovery has been the ability to see myself not as a fluke or a mess up, rather, to see myself as smart, able, and capable.

As a perfectionist, I tend to be pretty hard on myself when I make mistakes, and tend to be harder on myself when others point those out. I have discussed at length in other places the temptation to try and ‘be perfect for others’ causing tremendous grief, strife, rifts, and wars within relationships and within myself. I have not found myself to be worthy of much of anything, and often my ‘accomplishments’ were met with an internal doom and gloom conversation and ended with a declaration of unworthiness. In some stages of my life, this was celebrated by others as ‘humility.’ In some stages of my life, this was celebrated as self centeredness, and still other phases of life brought about a victim mindset within me that continued to grow. Because I am very aware of each and every flaw in my own life, I am also very aware of the flaws and gaps in other people’s lives as well. This has led to judgement and sometimes, in contrast, over-the-top empathy with those that had experienced life’s hard knocks. I knew that loving ‘the least of these’ as a follower of God was important but without any amount of self love, serving others became an incredible burden and duty instead of eliciting the freedom that love is supposed to bring. I was bound by rules and regulations, and in retrospect, should have experienced great joy and freedom, when serving others that were difficult to love. I thought I needed to ‘perform love’ (as was the case in most areas of my life) and instead, I needed to experience love for myself. To grasp how much others loved me, how much God loved me, how much I had to offer, when I was healthy.

I needed to go through a season of difficult, tough love to really understand what love can look like, when the going gets tough and there is a roadblock to the attraction, romance, and bliss. I needed to love me. And instead of loving me, I hated me. I hated the versions of me that I was and had become. I hated the secrecy. I hated the desire within me to run, to get away, to go hide. I hated me in my loneliness, in my depression and anxiety, and hated me for the actions that I engaged in response to these things.  Once addiction begins, it takes you further than you want to go, keeps you longer than you want to stay, and costs you more than you ever thought you would pay. And for me, it led me down a very dark road of self loathing. It led down a dark road of apathy and regret. And ultimately, it brought me to a place where the idea of love was so upside down in my mind that I thought it would be more loving to those around me, if I just didn’t exist anymore.

Nothing could be further from the truth. God loves and has always loved me. He has been committed to me for a very long time. The bible says that he was committed to me before the creation of the world, and regardless of how that all happened, that is a very long time! Other people love me. I know that now. I know that there are people that love themselves enough to commit to me regardless of how I act, sinfulness that I engage in, or problems that I face. I am learning to love me. I’m learning to have confidence again, in the way that I am created, made, and designed. I’m learning my strengths and my weaknesses all over again through the lens of love.

Maybe love is being completely committed to another person regardless of their behavior. In my belief system, God seems to model that the best of anyone. He is committed to humanity, even when humanity is completely unfaithful, unloving, and unwilling to allow his engagement with them. In my experience, those that love me have been committed to me, through the thick and the thin of life’s shit. I know that there are people that would give so much, to see me thrive. Ironically, I rejected all of those things, because I struggled to love myself.

There is a scene in a movie that I watched growing up. It’s a cheesy ‘christian’ film but it’s one that has always stuck with me. “The Buttercream Gang” is a story about two good friends that grow up together and eventually get to a place in their relationship where tension develops. The main character of the story works really hard to stay committed to his childhood best friend even when his friend is making boneheaded decisions that threaten their relationship. There is one line that I will never forget. The scene is a moment of truth, tension, and conflict, and the main character asks the wayward friend, “Why can’t you just let me love you?” The wayward friend responds and says, “I don’t need you to love me. I cannot even love myself.” He ends up leaving the friendship, but by the end of the movie understands in greater depth than ever before what it means to experience others loving him. If only I had learned from the movie, instead of having to experience the same thing in my own life…

If I am to understand God’s Love in my own life, it is necessary to understand that His love is not dependent on my actions. It is absolutely not connected to the right and wrong that I do and don’t do. But in a religious environment, I tend to swallow religious axioms (certainly what Billy Graham said had to be scriptural right? I mean…he’s like at the right hand of Jesus…) and we cannot understand when things go poorly in our own lives, how God could actually do this to me, if he really ‘loved’ me. What about all that I did for God?

I say things like:

God, I have worked so hard to please you! And this is what I receive?

God, I haven’t done things that are THAT bad. Why am I being punished?

God, What can I do differently so that I can avoid the pain in my life that God causes? 

God responds with:

I am well pleased with you. You are one of my kids. 

I love you whether you are good or bad. You can’t change the way that I love you because of that.

Nothing. But know that I am not crushing you without pain to me. I’m disciplining you, walking with you, and working through your porous character to grow you up as a rock solid person, able to withstand pain. 

We don’t think God can love us the way we love our children. We can say that we trust him, but as soon as something goes wrong, humanity tends to blame God, instead of understanding what love really means.

To quote one of my favorite books (that I moonlighted in my religious days because it was seen as heretical in the majority of circles that I was in) “The Shack” (Paul Young)

“Papa is especially fond of me. He knows who you really are. And he loves us because of that.”

I don’t have to be someone else. I don’t have to dress myself up for God. I don’t have to follow a bunch of religious rules. I’m no longer about performance because there is no way that I can please God more than I already do. There is no way that I can lose or gain more of his love for me.

In my own experience, the religious construct of love says that rules are the key to receiving love, rather than relying on trust, faith, and commitment as the basis for living life. Obligation becomes the key to religious success, instead of brokenness being the key to life success. Operating out of this obligation is celebrated within religion and has been the downfall of many attempting to have a relationship with God. Love is something that transcends obligation, duty, and rules. Love transcends the notion that I have to perform, to earn love.

Love is proven when I don’t perform. Love is proven when I am unlovable. Love is proven when people are there to say the hard things to me that I need to hear. Love is clear even when infatuation is distant.

One of my children has a picture hung up next to their bed that says “Let your love be bigger than your fears.” Duty, obligation, and the legal construct of the religious world breeds fear. The Author of 1 John may have been onto something when he said, “There is no fear in love. Perfect love drives out all fear.”

Fear of failure is wiped away.

Fear of others opinions is obliterated.

Fear of the future, gone.

Fear of the past, diminished and crushed.

Fear of the present, muted.

Fear of God’s heavy hand of discipline when I screw up..   

You decide.

Love is not infatuation with another. If that were true, humanity would be screwed, because God would have given up a long time ago (and it seems in scripture, there was a time when he may have been on the verge of that, but that is writing for another day). If infatuation was all the love was, we would have been crushed by the mighty hand of God. Instead, there is a still small voice that speaks and calls us to experience love in a fresh, new, and profound way. Letting God love me in this way invites me first to be okay with me. All of me. The bumps and the bruises and the glaring weaknesses along with the strengths that God has built within me. All of that is loved by God, and so all of that I’m learning to love.