There is a dangerous prayer that I believe God will always answer. It’s not an answer that comes quickly. It may takes decades of chipping away at your previously held, even cherished, belief that you are entitled to be different than the person you are praying to become. The prayer is that you learn to love as God loves.
My personality is one that has been described by counselors as overly responsible and overly hard on myself. I’ve learned to be less so, but that life-long habit of critiquing myself and holding myself responsible for every flaw I can find is one I also apply to others. I am an expert critiquer. But, years ago, in the same spirit of wanting to correct every flaw in myself I could find, I prayed the dangerous prayer that I would learn to love others as God loves.
This desire coincided with my introduction to the Episcopal church and the habit of praying the confession at least every Sunday. “We have not loved you with our whole hearts. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry, and we humbly repent.” My start in the Episcopal church was at a time when I was ready to leave the church altogether, but I needed rent money, and I had a job as an organist/choirmaster at an Episcopal church. Thank goodness. As that dear congregation, and especially that dear priest, ministered to me and brought me back, I was soon praying Morning Prayer on a daily basis. “We have not loved you with our whole hearts. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry, and we humbly repent.” I want to learn to love my neighbor.
It starts with learning to love yourself and learning to forgive yourself and learning which of your rules for yourself are things God didn’t ask of you. When you are an overly responsible person, it can be very hard to let go of the rules you or your culture made because following them may be the reason you like yourself. But, that isn’t the way God loves. He doesn’t love you because you follow heavy expectations and rules. His yoke is easy and his burden is light. He loves you because you have worth that doesn’t depend on your doing everything right. This part of the process can take decades, and that is another thing I have learned. My expectation is that things can be fixed quickly, but God’s timing is not based on my expectations. (This paragraph is a blog post unto itself. Maybe later.)
Learning to love others as God loves is harder, I think. I want people to deserve my love, my patience, my time, my friendship, just as I once thought I had to deserve God’s love. If I can identify their character flaws, I feel superior to them. Never mind that some of my own character flaws may be worse, just the ability to identify theirs makes me feel justified in sitting above them as a judge. Honestly, sometimes, I have found it easier to love the worst of the worst – a mass murder, even – than to truly love an acquaintance who has a character flaw I can identify and which annoys me. Ironically, then I tend to feel virtuous for loving the mass murderer when the truth is I am all the more sinful for failing to love someone whose sins are so much like my own. Love is not being winsome to their face and critical behind their back. As I have become more aware of my judgmental tendency, I have slowly, slowly started to become less annoyed toward others’ character flaws and more sympathetic, knowing that they are engaged in a daily struggle just as I am, and that change takes long stretches of time.
In my last post, I mentioned that there is someone who I know is being judgmental towards me, but they don’t know my history and why I’ve made the choices I have. If they did, they might understand, but I’m not required to share my story with them just so they’ll approve of me. What if I realized that every person I’m judgmental toward also has a story I know nothing about? Loving as God loves means realizing that only God knows that person’s whole story. Loving as God loves means realizing that they are in the process of becoming holy, the process of messing up and trying again and again and again, just as I am. Loving as God loves means being patient with their process of learning as God is patient with mine.
I’m reading Greg Boyd’s Repenting of Religion: Turning from Judgement to the Love of God. It’s been serendipitous to discover this book at a point of my life when God was already working hard on my judgmental attitudes. Boyd relies heavily on Bonhoeffer, and here’s a representative Bonhoeffer idea: “For man in the state of disunion (with God), good consists in passing judgment, and the ultimate criterion is man himself. Knowing good and evil, man is essentially a judge.”
There were two trees at the center of the Garden of Eden, the tree of life, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They are set up in the story in opposition to each other. One gives life. The other, death. I’ve never thought much about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. My former teaching about it consisted mainly of the fact that Adam and Eve were disobedient, and it was that disobedience that caused their downfall. Not much was ever said about why God wouldn’t want them to have the knowledge of good and evil. I had an incomplete understanding. Only God is qualified for judging what is good or evil.
In Acts 10, Peter dreamed of a sheet of unclean animals being lowered from heaven. “Kill and eat,” he was told. Eating unclean animals was forbidden according to the law. He refused. But, the voice said, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” Peter was called to give up his idea of what was good/evil so that he could accomplish God’s purposes, but he could have chosen to dismiss his dream and continue in his scripture-based judgment and even to feel virtuous for doing so. Who would have blamed him? What courage it must have taken for Peter to defy scripture itself because he had a dream. Peter may have known scripture, but more importantly, he knew firsthand the living word, Jesus himself. He had come to understand that rules, such as the one about honoring the Sabbath, are made for us, not us for the rules. He knew that God can decide to call clean what he once called unclean. It’s up to God, not Peter, not me. Union with God means leaving God’s job up to God.
Boyd says “The essence of sin according to the Genesis account is the transgression of this proper boundary. We are not satisfied being God-like in our capacity to love, we also want to become God-like in our capacity to judge, which is how the serpent tempts us. But in aspiring toward the latter, we lose our capacity for the former, for unlike God, we cannot judge and love at the same time. The essence of sin is that we play God. We critically assess and evaluate everything and everyone from our limited, finite, biased perspective. Instead of simply deriving life from that which is given at the center of our existence, we try to derive our likeness of God, our life and worth, from that which is forbidden at the center of our existence.”
I balked at “we cannot judge and love at the same time.” Can’t we? But, as I examined my own conscience, I must admit that I can’t. The minute I judge someone for their perceived sins, I feel superior to them. I can see their sin and feel sympathetic for where they are in their journey and still love them, but the minute my critical judging spirit jumps in, I’m not loving them anymore. I’m loving my own supposed virtue.
Boyd comments on the church: “…the church has tended to focus on the symptoms rather than on the source of the disease. We have tended to define ourselves as the promoters of good against evil and have often seen ourselves as specialists on good and evil. We have consequently become judges of good and evil rather than lovers of people regardless of whether they are good or evil. As harsh as it may sound, we have sometimes promoted the very essence of the fall – the knowledge of good and evil -- as though it were salvation!”
I know I have tended to think that my knowledge of good and evil is salvation – the way I might be able to save myself. But, we can’t save ourselves. Nor can we save the culture with a judgmental spirit.
There is an attitude within much of evangelical Christianity that pointing out other’s sin is loving. Don’t think I’m suggesting that we pretend sin doesn’t exist. I do believe there is a place for gentle, private, individual admonishment done from a place of great humility based on the awareness of our own sin and great debt to God’s forgiveness. This is best done within the space of trusted friendship where individual stories can be told and loved. However, the majority of the non-evangelical world sees evangelicals as condemning, not loving at all. The urge to transform the culture with rules and regulations and judgements about whether those rules and regulations were obeyed will never succeed. This is never how God transforms us individually. Why would we think he would do so culturally? Only love that is received and perceived as love and not judgment will transform people. Sadly we have tried hard to redefine judgment as love because we are still tempted every day to be like God.
Indeed, as I mentioned in the first paragraph, I have felt entitled to be a judge. I have even cherished the ability to critically evaluate others. I enjoy sitting in a higher seat. But, God is showing me another more holy way, even though I stray off the path a bit just about every day. I pray that he will continue to break through my arrogance and teach me more.