“We grow up hungry for love, and in many ways so deep as to remain unexpressed we long for our Maker to love us ” quote: Philip Yancy- What’s So Amazing About Grace (1997-pg 41)
I grew up starved for love. What I found never seemed to be enough to fill the hole inside. My grandfather used to say, “Most people live in silent desperation.” I think this is more true today than ever. Some are fortunate enough to receive love from their families. Many do not. Some get love defined as a mixed message which comes in the form of “I love you therefore I beat you.” Some get a dysfunctional performance based version of love and never unconditional acceptance, kindness, grace and favor. I am not referring to an idealized, romanticized nor a narcissistic version of love. I’m talking about protective and nurturing love. I’m talking about being unconditionally accepted as well as being given a sense of belonging and security while being treated with kindness and empathy and compassion.
For many of us we seek love and and not having found it we seek approval through performance and appeasing. I was love starved most of my life. I tried to fill it with all sorts of things. But rather than focus on love in general I want to give my attention today to one side of love. The attribute of love is grace. I believe grace is one way we express love.
As I peruse my library I find a number of books on similar subjects. I have a ton on the Tabernacle, the Temple and Worship. Next in line are those of what might be defined as self-help books. Those gems facilitated my support and recovery from an assorted abuse and codependency. I have a number of books which in some fashion discuss a variety of issues with and within the church. Those which stand head and shoulders above the rest in how many times I have read and re-read and forever remain top shelf status especially when I need encouraging are those whose subject is full of grace.
Grace is an elusive element.
Grace isn’t just one thing. It isn’t as easily identified as its definition might suggest. Synonyms for grace are: benevolence, courtesy, favor, indulgence, kindness, mercy, or service. It’s what Yancy describes as “the last best word.” and the “one grand theological word that has not spoiled.”
“Grace has to be the loveliest word in the English language. It embodies almost every attractive quality we hope to find in others. Grace is a gift of the humble to the humiliated. Grace acknowledges the ugliness of sin by choosing to see beyond it. Grace accepts a person as someone worthy of kindness despite whatever grime or hard-shell casing keeps him or her separated from the rest of the world. Grace is a gift of tender mercy when it makes the least sense.”
I first knew grace from my grandfather. Grandpa Johnny was if nothing else, full of grace. He was a man who sought grace and forgiveness. He was a man who offered grace and forgiveness. He didn’t seem to mind at all when children behaved as children. In his mind that’s what children were supposed to do, and he encouraged it. He was known to act like a naughty child well into his eighties. He had his moments of anger and frustration but they were typically short bursts that seemed to relieve his tension. Like the tiny valve on a pressure cooker once the pressure inside is released you can open the lid without fear of explosion. Unlike Grandpa, my parents didn’t have a release valve. They didn’t possess much in the way of grace. At times Mom was known to show grace but it could be quickly followed by a sudden explosion. Growing up in a home governed by the unresolved anger of an adult child of an alcoholic, grace was conditional. Grandpa, the former alcoholic, had found grace through AA. He was shown grace by those who also sought grace through Alcoholic’s Anonymous. He sought God’s grace. He sought forgiveness. I believe in the end the only one who hadn’t forgiven him was himself. But that’s another story.
Grandpa was the one who taught me how to ride a bike, how to swing and play softball. Grandpa was the one who taught me how to pray. He taught me how to laugh, and play as a child and how to continue to laugh and play as an adult. He loved me. I knew he loved me. His was not a conditional love. His was the only unconditional love I have ever known. Concerning family, Grandpa said “you are my people.” What he not only meant that was we were his tribe, his children, his offspring, but those to whom he identified himself. You are a product of me. And he loved us because we were his. We belonged to him, not as a possession but because we were embedded in his heart. That seemed to be his only motive for loving us. My mother argued that he was only looking for playmates. While that may be true to a point, the fact is that he chose us as playmates. My biological father chose his girlfriend as a playmate. He never thought of us as his, necessarily. Acceptance wasn’t offered by my father. We gained approval based on our performance and outward appearance, and that might reflect on him. That isn’t love. That isn’t grace. That is the self-centered preoccupation of a narcissist.
In Grandpa I found acceptance. I also found empathy, forgiveness, love, mercy, kindness, gentleness. He was a flawed vessel. But a vessel which contained grace. I don’t know what anyone else’s experiences were like. I only know my own. Some people have parents who lavished love upon them and who accepted them for who they were. Mine did not. My parents love was always conditional. Those conditions were known to change on a whim. If behavior or appearance wasn’t perfect I was deemed unacceptable and unworthy of their good graces. But there was one place, one person in my life who always received me, always had time for me and always showed me love. That person was Grandpa.
I was introduced to Jesus early on in my life. When I was presented with the gospel I embraced it. When I was asked if I wanted to invite Jesus into my life I said yes. I was seven years old at the time. I was not too young as some might think. I was fully aware of what was being said. I had been taught that Jesus is the Son of God. I had been taught that Jesus was born to a virgin, lived a sinless life, was crucified as a sacrifice for the sin of mankind and that if we accepted this as truth that Jesus would come and live within our heart. Since the Jesus I had been introduced to was a Jesus full of grace and forgiveness I quickly invited Jesus into my heart. Later, as a teenager I went through what I would call a born again experience but my introduction to Jesus came when I was seven.
During the years that followed asking Jesus into my heart Jesus would visit me. No, I can’t really explain it. After fifty three I still find it difficult to put into words. But I don’t find difficult to explain is what I felt. I felt loved. I felt accepted. I felt what I later could define as grace. In Jesus I experienced love, mercy, kindness, gentleness. In Jesus I felt hope. During his visits Jesus told me about himself. He said things that later I read in the Bible. Since my experience with Jesus preceded my ability to read my understanding of Jesus predates my understanding of the Scriptures. I first knew Jesus as the embodiment of love. I first knew Jesus as the one who loved me even more than Grandpa.
The love I knew at first was Grandpa. Grandpa was my first experience with the expression of God’s gracious love. Then there was Jesus. And I knew Jesus loved me even more than Grandpa did. The thing about love is that when someone loves you unconditionally you respond to that love. Love begets love. (1 John 4:19 NASB) We love, because He first loved us.
The world at times seems completely devoid of the love of God. The church, which should be a haven of God’s love, is often where ungrace and unlove are entrenched. I went into the church idealistic and naive to this fact. I thought that everyone who had ‘invited Jesus into their heart” had the same experience with Jesus which I had. How was I to know that they did not? I had my own labyrinth of mysterious emotions and paradigms to walk through. I couldn’t even begin to understand how someone could say they had received Christ and yet not have experienced the love of Christ. To me these things were inseparable. It would be years before I would grasp this reality. And it would be decades before I was challenged to my face by someone who just damaged enough to not let me proceed without explanation.
The person who challenged me is my best friend. She is my friend and housemate. We have a lot in common. We were both married to and divorced from alcoholics. We were both raised by dysfunctional parents, with similar dysfunctions. We both have raised our families and are now on our own. Neither of us has a desire for seeking romantic entanglements. We both love the Lord. Yet, she is more introverted than I am. We both enjoy peace and quiet. I am more of a book reader. She is more of an article reader. I am mechanically inclined. She is intellectually inclined. We are both verbal processors. That means we spend an inordinate amount of time talking. After we met in 2008 we soon afterward went out for coffee. We haven’t stopped talking since.
There is one major difference between us. She has never experienced a manifestation of God’s unconditional love and acceptance. The first time I spoke of God’s deeply penetrating love she ended up in tears. Nearly every time I spoke of something which I considered to be a commonly experienced spiritual truth, she challenged me. In the beginning I thought she was just being antagonistic and argumentative. Rather than recognize that she was trying to figure out what I was talking about because it was foreign to her, I thought she was engaging in some kind of theological debate. Then one day she called me Sheldon. Yeah, Sheldon! the character from the TV show The Big Bang Theory. Sheldon in the early days of the series was a bit monstrous toward others less knowledgable than he. The character tempered over time but in the beginning he was a bit of an ass who was prone to arrogance, condescension and insensitive to the feelings of others. Being called Sheldon, I was cut to the quick.
That day was an awakening. I had unknowingly been insensitive. I was, however, not uncaring. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I believed that those who rejected certain spiritual things did so as a conscious and deliberate act. I didn’t know it was because they had never experienced it before. Case in point was the subject of the day, the Evangelical experience. It was my belief that Evangelical Christians, as a whole, rejected the manifestation of the Holy Spirit through conscious and deliberate choice. I believed that it was entirely on the basis of doctrine. That is what I was taught within my church experience. What I didn’t know was that there was a whole group of people within the church who were seeking God, loving God and doing everything they could to find God only to be left empty and void of the experience which I took for granted.
I take for granted that God loves me, because I experience His love in a very tangible yet internal way. I take for granted that I am accepted by God and nurtured by God, guided by His Spirit and embraced Him. I do so because that is my experience. What I didn’t know was that many in the church are out there looking for what I thought they had rejected on the basis of doctrine. What I know as accompanying salvation, re-birth, baptism etc is not what everyone else in the body of Christ has experienced. I never knew that until the day of my awakening. I am ashamed to admit that day came when I was well into my fifties. I am grieved over my years of insensitivity and lack of empathy.
I admit I have taken God’s grace for granted. When I read the Scriptures I see within them the words of my loving Savior, the God of all comfort and lover of my soul. What is not communicated to me are rules, regulations and demands. We all fall short. We all have flaws. I certainly have as many or more than the next guy. I’m not perfect. I don’t try to be. I have no aspiration for perfection. I did at one time. I wanted to be the perfect daughter. I thought if I could please my parents I might be accepted by them. What I didn’t realize was that I was knowing I would not gain acceptance, I was seeking their approval. I didn’t need to seek Grandpa’s approval. I had his acceptance. I didn’t have to seek God’s approval. I had His acceptance. Unfortunately, this is not everyone’s experience.
I can’t lay hands on someone and impart acceptance. I can teach about God’s acceptance. I can write about God’s acceptance. I can talk about God’s acceptance. What I cannot do is cause someone else to experience God’s acceptance. I can only extend grace. But extending grace doesn’t mean someone will experience grace. I pray that somehow God will touch people with His grace and love through my words.
I can, like Grandpa, act loving. I’m not perfect in loving. Only Jesus is perfect in loving. Only God can love without flaw. The rest of us are doomed to failure from time to time. We are human. And humanity is subject to flaws. It’s a part of being human. The human condition predisposes us to faults and flaws. I don’t have the ability to love everyone. But God does.
All I know is that God is perfect in His love.
And when we ask Him to show us His love He will respond to us with His love. I don’t always recognize God’s love. I don’t always appreciate the package it comes in or the manner in which it is displayed. In my brokenness I have developed specific lenses through which I view life and those around me. I am conditioned by my environment. I have had to unlearn as much or more than I have learned. Sometimes I forget about love and grace. Sometimes I’m the one in need of grace. But in the end I do know that God is love because I have experienced His love. I pray that you will experience His great love and amazing grace.