What if the only person hindering my ability to receive love is…me?

As I begin to allow God’s unconditional love to heal up the raw, aching wounds in my heart, I’m experiencing an unexpected shift of perspective:

I see the good in people.

I even (dare I whisper this?)….see that perhaps I am not a totally ugly, depraved, awful human being. I can see the good in myself, too. I can see that I am worthy of love.

When we were in Bolivia, I was repeatedly surprised by my teammates’ compassion not only for the children we visited but for each other. I was even overwhelmed by their love for….me. Do you know how powerful it is when you look in someone’s eyes and intentionally ask them: What are you feeling right now? How can I be here for you?

This is the kind of love my Bolivian team-mates showed for me and it made me feel so safe, valued and appreciated. I was folded in with love and it was almost more than I could bear. It sounds strange to admit it, but the outpouring of love was so abundant I didn’t know what to do with it. That’s when I realized:

I don’t know how to receive love.

Has love been here all along and I’ve been so busy pushing it away that I’ve never let myself receive it?

I remember this one time in Mass when I felt such an abundance of Jesus’ love for me that I got almost embarrassed. I was like: “OK, OK, Jesus! I get it! You love me. Sheesh.”

I’m beginning to think that the only one standing in the way of receiving love is….me. I have all these thoughts of my unworthiness, my vile worminess, my desperately wicked heart. I’ve listened and believed when pastors told me that God loves me and also hates me.

When I first encountered the unconditional love of God, I didn’t believe it. It was too good to be true. I’m slowly beginning to understand I am not inherently evil but that there is an essential goodness to my humanity.

What really amazes me, here, is how bad theology can have such damaging effects on something as fundamentally necessary to well-being as the ability to receive love. I have been so persuaded of my inherent, total Depravity that I simply assume I’m not worthy of being loved and I EXPECT rejection. This is why I’m always surprised when my friends keep loving me, when my husband doesn’t leave me, when my children spontaneously hug me (when readers on my blog leave gracious comments–even when they disagree). :)

As I allow compassion and deep, unconditional love to root me safely and deeply in God’s love, I am able to write with emotional honesty. Love is freeing my voice. Love is gently unwrapping the bandages around my heart and letting me share love with you.

There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun…I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes.  If only they could all see themselves as they really are.  If only we could see each other that way all of the time.  There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…” –Thomas MertonConjectures of a Guilty Bystander

  • http://ashleighbaker.net Ashleigh Baker

    Oh, Elizabeth. This is so powerful and so true. I have spent so much of my life wrapped up in the chains of such a theology and then feeling the natural outpouring of that in others’ relationships with me and mine with them. If God can’t even love us unconditionally, then of course we wouldn’t love each other with anything less than expectations and judgement. An odd reality, too, the way relationships with people are cut off for disagreement – often by the same people who try to convince each other that salvation can’t be earned or taken away. Anyway… yes. This is huge and life-altering, both in the way we view ourselves in relation to God as well as with his also-so-loved people.

  • http://mamamiamcmasters.blogspot.com/ Linda

    Yes. You are so lovable. :) We all are.

  • Christopher

    Sometimes I wonder if I’ve been so thoroughly convinced that no one could really love me, that whatever expressions of love I don’t simply fail to recognize, I dismiss because of that foregone conclusion. Actually I know I’ve done this consciously a few times. In my head I think “yeah, well you don’t really know me” or “you just say that to everyone because you are loving, not because I’m lovable”.

    I can understand why it would be overwhelming to feel love. Matter of fact, I started devoting myself to Mary last week, and if I weren’t locked in my room lying on my bed with my eyes shut, I don’t think I could handle the love I feel from her. I’m not exactly one to enjoy breaking down in public.

    God be with you.

  • christina

    thank you once again for making me ball my eyes out at work!!!! I have had a horrible morning and often wonder if I am loved..I think it has been so ingrained in us to see our “guilt/sin” that we often overlook God’s love and think that others dont “really” love us!!! Thanks so much for helping me see this!

    and I will now go put on my makeup again!

    • http://www.elizabethesther.com elizabeth

      YOU ARE LOVED!!!! xoxoxo. now go put that makeup back on! :)

  • joy

    This was a lovely essay. I think I can basically feel worthy of love–God’s, my family’s, my friends’–but I do struggle mightily with not feeling good enough, smart enough, accomplished enough, feeling that I’m just faking everybody out all the time, and sooner or later, the game will be up. On some level I know all that is not true, and I know that the love we give and receive is the only thing of real value, the only thing that makes our other human endeavors worthwhile, but it is good to be reminded. Thank you.

    Also, I really love the image of the peach, and thinking of each other as lovely, delicate, peaches.

  • Michael M

    I think for me and probably for a great many people, we just don’t know how to respond to unconditional love. How can anyone love a flawed person like that? It is almost uncomfortable, as if we should all find some fault with each other just so that we’re normal. Wonderful post, I know I struggle with this too

  • Maggie Dee

    Simply beautiful!

  • http://papuagirlindallas.blogspot.com Kacie

    Can I ask an honest question? With that change in theology, what do you do with the things that were done to you that were abusive? Wasn’t all of that the wicked responsibility of someone?

    I feel this tension. One the one side, you have Protestants or anyone really who despise humanity because of their sin, on the other side you have anyone that looks at humanity and sees all good and beauty but has no context for the sin and nastiness that comes out of so many of us.

    Both sides miss the point – isn’t there a balance? Are we not all in some way prodigal sons, we do sin, our minds and hearts were affected by the Fall. I’m watching a nasty divorce right now and the selfishness I see is just… so overwhelming to me. But then… are we not all also created by a perfect God? Does He not love us so much that His Son was worth sending for us? Is He not running to us exploding with love as we trudge to Him, ashamed?

    • joy

      Something that bothers me a bit in these discussions is the attribution of various beliefs or actions (usually negative) to Protestants, as though Protestants are monolithic and all believe and do the same things. “Protestants” do not despise humanity. I’m sure some Protestant denominations or some evangelicals do, but I know that many do not.

      • http://www.elizabethesther.com elizabeth

        i understand what you’re saying. for the sake of simplicity, I use the word Protestant to describe a large sector of non-Catholic Christianity while also realizing that there are people inside that group who do not ascribe to every single belief i discuss. it’s just that Protestant Christianity is so divided and sub-divided that it’s nearly impossible to talk about these issues without grouping people into larger categories that are sometimes, admittedly, unfair. please understand that this is simply my shorthand method for categorizing my religious experience and is not explicitly or authoritatively definitive. thanks for understanding.

        • http://mommainprogress.blogspot.com Momma in Progress

          “grouping people into larger categories that are sometimes, admittedly, unfair”
          I think there’s a word for this . . . hmm, let me see . . . oh, yes: stereotyping. It’s generally frowned upon. I know no one will ever see this comment, because you’re going to delete it, but I used to love reading this blog, and now it’s just so disappointing. Unsubscribing.

          • http://www.elizabethesther.com elizabeth

            Momma In Progress: In the past 3 months that you’ve been commenting, here, I’ve only deleted one of your comments. I deleted that one because you went after another commenter in a harsh, attacking tone. I try to keep this blog a safe place for ALL readers and commenters. There are plenty of places on the Internet where people can tear into each other. If my readers feel like they are going to be attacked for their opinions by other readers, this will not be a safe place for them. Thanks for reading here. I wish you well.

      • http://mommainprogress.blogspot.com Momma in Progress

        Joy, thank you for commenting on this.

    • http://www.elizabethesther.com elizabeth

      Yes, it was someone’s responsibility for sure. And they will stand before God for that. All I can do with that abuse is forgive. I forgive for my own healing, for their healing and for the healing of all. However, I’m also interested in the underlying beliefs that sometimes drive people to make decisions–and that is what I’m talking about, here.

  • Handsfull

    I find it hard to accept love too, although I’m a lot better at it than I used to be. I still have that underlying thought running through my mind that if they really knew what I was like they wouldn’t love me then.
    Another odd thing I’ve noticed is that I find it really hard to accept compliments about my kids. I find myself saying dismissive comments, or in some way minimizing the compliment… I think it all comes from the same mindset of ‘If you REALLY knew…’ I don’t do that in front of my kids, only when others compliment me on them when they’re not there.
    We’re a complicated lot, for sure!

  • http://blog.amberlbaker.com Amber-Lee

    Bad theology is a deadly thing. It can destroy our hearts. Praise be to a God who can heal even bad theology.

  • Abbey

    I didn’t grow up with abusive theology, but I did grow up with abuse. I’ve found it very hard especially to accept mother-type figures when they show love and affection to me, as my mother was my abuser. Thank you for writing this, you’ve given me something to pray about.

  • chick

    Of course there is an essential goodness to your humanity. When mankind fell, we did not obliterate the image of God within us. We merely blurred it. To speak of our inherent evil is to deny the truth of us all being created in His image.

  • http://brandeeshafer.blogspot.com Brandee Shafer

    Delurking to say: I’m excited to be among the cloud of witnesses who will watch what continues to become of you in the mighty hands of God.

  • Sarah

    :’) You really know how to cut to the core of things. Love is so difficult to let in, I struggle with that every day. I try SO hard to allow people to love me, but for some reason I always want to look at them with disgust. Thank you for sharing your heart, for having the courage to stand up and say it like it is. You are so loved and appreciated by your followers.

  • http://www.shackbible.com ShackBibleGuy

    I believe the key culprit is the theology that God both loves you and hates you, which gets preached weekly in more pulpits than I can count. We split the Father and Son into “Good Cop” and “Bad Cop”–one finds us disgusting and can’t bear to look at us, and the other one steps in and say “Dad, if you need to vent your temper and kick somebody, kick ME.” I’m sorry, but that is NOT good news. If God is schizo like that, then the most sensible thing in the world would be for me to be miserable, fearful, and abusive to others for the rest of my life.

  • Mark S.

    Elizabeth Esther, pretty amazing, isn’t it? The total, all-encompassing force in the universe is God’s complete love for each of us as individuals. There is nothing you or I can do to cause Him to stop loving us. From time to time I, like you, struggle with loving myself and feeling that I could ever be loved. As you said, THAT flaw, illness, confusion is in us. And God even helps us overcome THAT! God is love my sister in Christ, and we are His beloved children. I still need to pinch myself sometimes to see if it feels real. Peace and all good!

  • sanchez

    On this whole protestant vs. catholic labeling thing, I get that we all need to use labels for the sake of simplicity… that’s the weakness of language that we live with and it’s important to recognize both the need and the weakness. But I want to push back a little on using these *particular* labels at all for this *particular* topic of the theological ground for unconditional love. I don’t know if it’s helpful for your project here or ultimately for you, but that’s ultimately for you to decide.

    I was raised in a strictly TULIP-adhering Calvinist church. I’ve since left that church and have all kinds of problems with that theology, although I remain presbyterian in a church that openly values the tradition of Calvin but rejects traditional teaching on hell, the more twisted readings of the T (we teach that we all sin, and it’s a relief to be able to admit that so we can forgive each other and grow together), and most especially the L in TULIP (which, incidentally, is nowhere to be found in Calvin’s actual writing… nor are the more cartoonish readings of the other points of the acronym). Everyone in my current church has some story about how they found love there, some for the first time. Our church is also in a Catholic neighborhood in South Boston and most of our neighborhood members are ex-Catholic. Some go to both churches, but it in our case it tends to be the Catholic church that they attend because of their family and the presbyterian church they attend for their own sake.

    I could make several points here, but perhaps the main point is that even as a child, in the problematic Calvinist environment, I personally never felt unloved or unworthy of love because the actual *people* around me–my parents, especially, but also the pastor and leaders of my church–were all really loving people. Theology has effects, sure, but those effects are primarily mediated through the physical flesh and blood encounters we have in our homes and communities. And theology is inherently (like language) malleable–it can be implemented in a variety of ways. I believe that TULIP theology is dangerous and more likely to lead to be effects, which is why I am in the church I am now. But the fact is that my current church is still Protestant and even still “Calvinist.” All traditions are a mixed bag, and part of the deal is to draw out the best part of the mix–but most importantly, to find a place where love happens on the ground no matter what the theology is.

    Two more examples. My mother was raised Catholic, and left the church after experiencing extreme un-love there. After being “non-religious” for about 6 years, she had an evangelical conversation, which at the time she herself as having become a “real” Christian. As time has passed, however, (this was 30 years ago), she has come to realize that Catholics are just as much Christians as anyone, and her reason for leaving that church was largely that the particular expression of it was unloving and hypocritical. She remains now a happy presbyterian, but will defend Catholicism all day long.

    Finally, just one more example that doesn’t have to do with protestant/catholic labeling but I think perhaps best illustrates my point. Even as a “conservative” child, I never had a problem understanding that God is not a man, so therefore the “He” pronoun is a convenient label. As I grew older, and saw the dangerous effects of using only “He,” I easily switched to a linguistic practice that largely avoids the pronoun altogether and uses “She” on occasion. But this has been a very hard realization for my mother. She is unusually and continually bothered by “She” or especially “Mother” language applied to God and finds great comfort in the “Father” language (she always opens her prayers with “Father”). I could not for the life of me figure out why she had such a hard time letting go of the masculine-only language. Had she internalized paternalism so much?? Finally, after we talked and talked about it, she realized that she had a loving and life-giving relationship with her father her entire life, but a fraught and painful relationships with her mother. So was it the theology that gave her feelings of un-love? Is gender-inclusive theology unloving? Of course not. Her feelings of unlove stemmed from her own material context.

    There are absolutely dangers in theologies, but I would argue that all theologies pose dangers, and these dangers are realized or avoided–across the board–in communities. Some quaker communities are toxic, some are loving. Some catholic communities are toxic, some are loving. Some pentecostal communities are toxic, some are loving. Some presbyterian communities are toxic, some are loving. Some american families are toxic, some are loving. Some russian families are toxic, some are loving. Etc. It’s in *that* kind of world that we have to navigate, tweak our theology, try to see things better… and sometimes labels can obscure that complexity.

    Thanks for putting up with this long post, I enjoy your work and your spirit.

  • Erin

    I’m a chronic lurker, but must write to say how much I appreciate this post. Growing up evangelical, although always in supportive and honest communities, I can look back and identify that quite a few people seemed to truly believe that although God’s love is unconditional, the demonstration of that love is conditional. I don’t believe that (even typing that feels weird though!) because it denies grace. But wow, the habits of the mind run deep, don’t they?! I’m walking out of that, thinking about those familiar words that ‘there is now no condemnation’, knowing that He always knew I would need grace and it’s His pleasure to flood me with it. And it makes me sad for those who are so harsh with themselves, because Jesus hung on a cross out of love, not anger.

  • http://www.vanderbiltwife.com vanderbiltwife

    I can’t help but think that this post might be the reason I didn’t clean out my Google Reader, even when it had 300 posts. Thank you. I needed it. Because I can see myself in this: “This is why I’m always surprised when my friends keep loving me, when my
    husband doesn’t leave me, when my children spontaneously hug me.”