Even when I was a little girl, I knew that my love was deficient. I can recall pondering how I could know if I really loved my parents. People assumed that I did. They said that we all do, and I thought that I did, but I worried that maybe I didn’t. How could one tell? What did “love of parents” feel like? If I really loved them, wouldn’t I always do what they asked and expected of me? If I really loved them, would I get so mad at them when they did not let me do what I wanted, or made me do what I did not want to do?
When I was a bit older, I switched the object of these questions from my parents to God. By then I wouldn’t say people assumed that I, or anyone, actually loved God. There seemed, rather, to be an assumed accusation that I didn't and that it was up to me to prove them wrong; but I suspected (feared) they might be right. Again, how was I to know? Was it an emotion? Was it my obedience? Could I offer enough, or any, evidence?
I don’t want to leave the impression that I was stoic or unfeeling. If anything, I felt things too deeply. I remember needing to have every single one of my dolls, and stuffed animals tucked in with me at night because I could not bear to hurt any of their feelings by playing favorites. I was very aware of each of my parents' emotional barometers, and, without being asked, I took on responsibility for their moods. When my friends needed a shoulder, I often had a way of “entering their pain” to a degree that I could imagine what they were experiencing as if it were happening to me and could often put into words for them just what they were feeling.
At the same time, however, I was painfully aware of how much love people needed, how inadequate my supply seemed to be and, truthfully, how reluctant I was to try to meet the need. Sometimes I would picture myself standing on the edge of a roiling volcano, being expected to sacrifice myself by jumping into the bottomless pit of need, and I always drew back and felt ashamed. If I really loved God and others, as I should, I reasoned, God’s love would just flow through me to them. I would simply be a conduit of his love, so I would never need to fear depletion or annihilation. It seemed obvious that there must be something very wrong with my connection to God.
In my marriage, I carried a lot of guilt. I believed that my incomplete love was the reason for any unhappiness. If I had just been able to love, as I should, as God loved me, unselfishly, I could have helped us both soar above any difficulties.
Even with my children, where I experienced, for me, the most unselfish form of love, and for whom I would have unhesitatingly given my life, I was horrified at the level of selfishness I still exhibited, daily, accompanied by self-pity, resentment, and anger.
It wasn’t that I didn’t love. I loved deeply, but I was also aware of the much deeper reservoir of self-love that kept me from ever loving fully.
I knew that scripture said love would be the hallmark of Jesus’ disciples. I knew that love was the fulfillment of the law. I knew that faking it was not acceptable, because scripture says that it has to be sincere. I knew that perfect love casts out all fear. I also knew, therefore, that I was doomed.
I prayed and prayed for more love. I prayed that God would show me how to love others as he loves them. I prayed for the ability to love with utter abandon, to be willing to give myself away, with no fear or resentment. I prayed for perfect love.
In response, God showed me that even my harshest assessments of the quality of my love were way too generous. He brought reminder after reminder to my consciousness of situations, some long past, where, even in the name and under the guise of love, I was horrifyingly selfish. I recalled circumstances that I had chosen either to forget or to completely cast in a false light, as born of honest concern and compassion, when the reality was that I was willing to hurt everyone in my path, in order to be admired. Scene after ugly scene replayed in my head. I was undone. I saw myself for who I am, at least partially, because I suspect that God, in his mercy, still hid a great deal from me lest I completely succumbed to despair.
Then, he showed me love. His love. The only perfect love. He showed me how, in love, he sent his Son who did not shrink back from throwing himself into the bottomless pit of my need and the need of all humanity, and who came out of that pit, victorious. He showed me that only his infinite love could ever be enough. He assured me that his perfect love is credited to me now as if I had always loved as he loves and that Christ took all of my failures to love and nailed them to the cross.
Finally, he invited me to love others by sharing the story of his love with them, pointing them to him, and not by trying to impress them with my poor attempts at love, which will always be incomplete and inadequate. I know now that I can love as generously and fearlessly as he enables me to love, but only with full and humble acceptance and admission of my many limitations and frailties.
What glorious relief to know: “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:10)