I have spent most of my adult life trying to learn how to love.
I just didn’t seem to get it. I just didn’t know how to do it. So my biggest prayer, my go-to request throughout my adult life, was, “Lord, show me how to love.”
But I never seemed to improve, and I couldn’t understand why that prayer, of all prayers one could pray, wouldn’t be answered. Surely that prayer was well within His will. Surely He rejoiced to hear that prayer.
That’s a bit of backstory. We’ll come back to that, but first I wanted to finish what I started talking about last week in Back to the Drawing Board, about the lies my father, mother and brother, and later my husband, told me about who I was.
The thing is, there was nothing I could do to make them happy, as far as changing and becoming better, because I wasn’t actually doing the things they were accusing me of. And it’s not like I didn’t try – I worked double-time to not do the things they said I was doing. My driving purpose in life was to Do the Right Thing. As soon as I figured out what the Right Thing was, I did it, no questions asked.
So while I was, of course, human, and made mistakes and wrestled with pride and sometimes acted selfishly, there were so many things I was never even tempted to do. Not because I was extra holy in any way, but because I was fear-driven to avoid making a mistake or committing a sin that my family could point to as proof of the lies they told about me. I was the Good Girl who Loved God and Did the Right Thing and believed the narrative the church told me that if I just did those things, my life would be blessed and successful and my marriage would be heavenly.
What a crock that piece of “theology” turned out to be.
Which brings me to another slant in Christian literature that I struggle with. So much of Christian rhetoric seems to be based around the idea that “you don’t need to feel shame over all those awful, awful things you did,” and that just leaves me feeling yet again that there’s something wrong with me, because I didn’t do any of those things. Due to my compulsion to Do the Right Thing, I never stole, I avoided lying, I didn’t cheat, I went out of my way to not take advantage of people. I didn’t even smoke or drink or party.
As a result, I avoided a lot of issues people tend to deal with, a lot of consequences of bad choices. Again, not because I was superhuman or better than anyone else. It was the silver lining in the way my psyche was twisted by the lies of my family – even when you do the right thing for completely the wrong reason, you still reap the benefits of having done the right thing.
I was musing on all of that, thinking about the way I actually have lived compared to what I was accused of, and I realized that rather than doing things I should feel shame for, I was patient. I was kind. I did not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoiced with the truth. I bore all things, I believed all things, hoped all things and endured all things.
The 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians suddenly took on a whole new meaning. I have generally heard that preached as a list of things we should all try to do and that none of us ever live up to:
“Insert your name instead of the word “love” and see how far you fall short of who you are supposed to be.” What a horrible thing to do to people. My bestie pointed out the other day that the only person who doesn’t fall short of fulfilling that chapter is, of course, God himself, so if you’re going to substitute a name in, put His name in there and read it as encouragement that this is how He loves you.
Perfection in fulfillment aside, however, as I reread those verses, I realized I had actually been living that way. I really was patient with people, I really did go out of my way to be kind, I bore a whole crap-ton of garbage for 30 years, believing that if I just endured long enough, my ex would come to his senses and stop abusing me.
So why, then, did I think I wasn’t good at love? Why did I feel cold and distant from emotion? Why did I sometimes just not have it in me to reach out to others or even notice their needs? And it hit me that that wasn’t a lack of love on my part. If I didn’t love, I wouldn’t even notice that there were times I couldn’t express it.
As I read through those verses again, it was like my world suddenly stopped turning and righted itself. The problem had been the place of pain and shellshock in which I lived. The problem was the survival mode it pushed me into.
I’ve never not loved. I’ve simply not been loved.
I didn’t know what to do with that realization. I didn’t want the world to start turning again if I was going to go back to how I felt before. I held my breath, wishing that moment of rightness would never go away.
And slowly, over the next few days, I was able to exhale, to take tentative steps forward, and realized that the rightness was staying with me.
That prayer I prayed, over and over, to be shown how to love – that wasn’t ignored. The Lord had been showing me for years how to love. He had been revealing to me how to turn around the coping mechanisms I had developed into tools I could use for his kingdom. The hyper-empathy that developed from coping with my mother’s mood swings, so that I could display only the emotions that matched hers, that empathy helps me see when people are hurting.
The sharp tongue I developed at an early age when I was only given about a sentence’s worth of time to respond to my mother’s accusations before she interrupted me and went off on a tirade, that ability to boil down a paragraph’s worth of content into the perfect set of words whose connotations alluded to far more than their literal meanings, that didn’t always have to be a weapon. That could also be used to cut through to the heart of a person in need, to deliver healing words and encouragement crafted specifically for them.
That endurance and hope that I had placed in that horrible theology that if I did everything Right, God would make sure my life was charmed and everyone would love me, that developed muscles of faith that, when placed correctly in God himself, and not someone’s idiotic interpretation of His words, could enable me to step out and take risks in serving Him, in breaking free of the lies I was told. And even more, could enable me to love.
He hadn’t ignored my prayer. I just hadn’t seen what he had been doing. I was doing it – I was loving – but not feeling it, because I was still believing the lies of my childhood, and still being fed the lies my ex used in an attempt to prevent me from seeing him for who he was.
And do you know what this means? This means that there is redemption for all those lies. This means God can even use our scars and turn them into our strengths. If He has our hearts, there’s nothing He can’t do with us. Because while we are imperfect, often stumble, make mistakes and get things wrong, love never fails.
Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, 5 does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, 6 does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; 7 [b]bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never fails. (I Cor. 13:4-8)