I’ve been wondering a lot about love lately, in both its human and divine incarnations.
I also just got back an assignment, which I received a terrible grade on.
Yes, I promise there is a connection between the two statements above. Let me explain:
As the Church enters the period of Lent, we are called to contemplate our sins, and also God’s mercy. This is not as easy as it sounds. Take the first. Realizing my own wretchedness as a sinner was harder than it sounds. The fact that we are all sinners seems like a universal truth, but it is not as self-evident as it appears, because everyone’s wretchedness is different. Everyone’s forbidden fruit is different. And truly realizing, internalizing, the extent of my wretchedness was frightening indeed. It can feel like a quicksand of your own making, when you become aware of your own faults and failings.
But there is also the second element to contemplate: God’s mercy. If I had to take a stab at defining Christianity, I would say that we hold two beliefs: that we are sinners, and that by God we are saved. The point of being a Christian is not to wallow in the sorrow of being a sinner. It is to glory in the joy that despite your status, despite the utter wretchedness of your sin, God loves you just the same. And God loves you so much that He went through the same thing you did, in much greater pain, so as to empathize with your personal journey, and to convince you that yes, He knows who you are, and yes, He still chooses to love you. There is so much joy to that.
I wrote before that mercy is love to the undeserving. In Church last Sunday, someone offered me an alternative definition: mercy is loving even when your love has been rejected. On the divine plane of love, that is easy enough to understand. God reaches out a loving hand to us, and carries us even when we try to push Him away, even when we commit the incredible folly of thinking that we know better. I know I have done this far too many times.
But as Valentine’s Day came around just half a week into Lent, I began to compare my experiences with human and divine love. We are made in His image; we are called to love as He did. But that is often terribly difficult. How do we love when our love has been rejected? How should that love be manifested?
By giving, without asking for return
My mother shared this excerpt with me. The emphases are entirely my own, but I wish the words were; if anyone knows where this is from, do let me know.
“The mercy of God transcends all human understanding, which had only been familiar with ideas of justice and love. Justice involves giving each one his or her due. One is first evaluated, and then given only what one deserves. Love transcends justice, in that love involves a certain self-forgetfulness in giving oneself to the other. But even in love, there is a certain reciprocity. One gives oneself to the other with an expectation that the other would reciprocate the love given. When the other does not care, there is a hurt that burns with pain. Exactly as love is precious and dear, that hurt is also deep and powerful. And yet mercy transcends love, in that even when one is hurt, one seeks to reach beyond the hurt and bless the other. Mercy is giving undeserved love in the fullness of joy.”
By letting go
Of course, the corollary to ‘giving, without asking for return’ is that you need some sort of fuel for that amount of giving. I’ve always loved this quotation from Mother Teresa: “Give, but give until it hurts”: that is, I’ve always found it beautiful, but also painfully true. Loving hurts. Giving, passing on your light to others without anyone to relight your candle, can be exhausting, and, at worst, self-harmful. I have found myself getting easily annoyed, pugnacious, or vindictive, when actually I am just so tired of giving without getting any replenishment in return.
And therein lies the catch. We cannot hope to aspire to God’s level of love if we only aim to achieve His level of giving without reciprocally achieving His level of sustenance. Here is where my assignment comes in: I had put in X amount of work, and did not understand why that did not translate to my desired grade. I had hoped it would be like a mathematical formula: X + Y, “it necessarily follows” that Z, and so on. But as these aggrieved thoughts floated through my mind, I began to find them very familiar. I found them highly reminiscent of my thought processes when my human loves failed.
There’s a beautiful scene in the film (500) Days of Summer where Tom says that at the end of every relationship, you go back and start to see where things began to fall apart. You start to play the narrative back a little differently. When I did so, I often found my thoughts playing the same mathematical formulaic arc: “now she’s putting in X amount of effort…” “…now he’s being won over…” (Yes, I’m aware this is sounding like a really bad sports commentary, of maybe a lame community game show nobody watches.) And at the end, I’d inevitably question: I thought I had it in the bag there. What happened?
With grades, it’s easier to say that it’s all arbitrary. It’s up to the teacher’s discretion; it’s up to your ‘law school karma’ (replace with degree as relevant); etc. I wish I could say differently for human relationships, and so pin down some way to remain in love forever, mathematically speaking; but it’s not. Human love, after all, and grades, both stem from the same source: humans. And humans are, insofar as emotions are involved, illogical and arbitrary. (Even our rational processes are not spared.
See here for how our unconscious biases may in fact adversely impact the rationality of our decisions.)
I think giving only stops hurting when we give up the need to be affirmed or recognized. This is different from giving without asking for return. Sometimes, we don’t want a reciprocal gift per se; we just want someone to turn around and acknowledge the gift of ourselves that we have vulnerably proffered. But this view of giving runs into the ground for the same reason as applying mathematical expectations to grades or love: we begin to feel hurt, and then aggrieved, and then maybe angry, when nobody acknowledges our gift.
I think giving only stops hurting when we begin to place our need for affirmation in the hands of God instead. When we place our vulnerability in His hands, and accept the affirmation that comes on His terms, then we can let go of earthly weights and truly give as freely as He gives.
Happily ever after?
I said before that I was trying to compare my experiences with human and divine love.
The next theological hurdle I came to was, if divine love is giving without asking for return, and if mercy is loving even when love has been rejected, then how do we deal with the idea that God is always calling us to come home? Why does He want us to be with Him so dearly?
Does this speak of a notion of ownership – i.e. ‘I want you here with me now and always’? If so, what does this mean for human loves? For the sacrament of marriage? Is it just a religiously acceptable form of possessiveness?
The long quotation in the first part above ended with, “Mercy is giving undeserved love in the fullness of joy.” The idea of ‘fullness of joy’ is, indeed, a recurring theme in Christianity. There’s something about the ideal relationship between a human and God that is whole, that is full. Mother Mary is said to be “full of grace”; she is brimming over with God’s mercy and God’s marvelous, marvelous love.* I think that is what God wants for us too. He wants us to be with Him because He knows that only then can we be completely and incandescently at rest. There is no notion of power play in the sense that ‘ownership’ suggests. As our divine father, I do think there is a paternal element we cannot escape; but we must not mistake this for a master-servant relationship. God does not want us with Him to subjugate us to His commands, like slaves; God wants us with Him so that we, too, can achieve fullness of joy.
What this means for human love is that sometimes, we rush to the altar. We are too quick to pronounce a state of heady happiness as ‘fulfillment’. We see the best in others, and are too quick to proclaim this sufficient to achieve the best that God has in mind for us. When we tolerate differences, without any way (or intention) of getting around them, we necessarily settle for the lowest common denominator in order to get along. (I thank both my friend Anne and my Constitution Law lecturer for this epiphany.) The question then arises whether this does us justice; whether ‘getting along’ is actually the closest we can get to happiness, or if, through a little more strife, a little more work, there can be something more golden that awaits us.
There is a reason why Adam proclaims Eve as “this one, at last, is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” (Gen 2:23). (It’s not just because she is literally made from his flesh and bone.) It is because with human love that reflects divine love, there is a sense of coming full circle. People speak of ‘coming home’; we have found the one in whom we can see, and aspire to, God’s level of love, at last.
Grace has to go both ways. There is a saying that God’s mercy is like the rain, but we must turn our buckets upwards in order to catch the droplets.* We have to open our hearts to the transfiguring power of God’s love, and first understand how much and how He loves us, before we can love others as He loves us.
* These ideas are from the book The Art of Grace: On Moving Well Through Life by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sarah Kaufman. The book is a work of art in itself, which I hope to write about one day but in the meantime highly encourage everyone to pick up someday.