In reading Gerald May’s book, Addiction and Grace: Love and Spirituality in the Healing of Addictions, I happened upon a truth. It is a truth I have honestly known through all my years of ministry. It is the title of my blog Reflections on Grace: Living only in the shadow of grace.
Yet the simplicity of this truth tends to escape me in the complexities of life … complex ways of living in the world … complex relationships … complex philosophies of how things work … complex notions of how to love. We have made true sciences about what it means to love, and yet … and yet we continue to be incapable of attaining that high level of love to which we aspire … especially us Christians who feel like we are climbing the highest peak to love God “with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.”
Yet here is the truth. We can’t get there by setting out to love God. It isn’t a checklist. It is not something we can do in seven quick meditations or ten easy steps. Unless one of those steps is practicing stillness and seeing yourself … loving yourself … just as you are.
Edith Eger, in her book The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save Your Life, talks about the simple practice of looking in the mirror each day, smiling, and saying “I love you.” Then she encourages giving ourselves a kiss on the back of each hand.
To do this is to discover the grace that God has placed in the human heart. It is to move us to a place of hearing God say, “I love you just as you are … no matter what you have done or what you think about yourself. You are loved and you are mine.”
Think with me for a moment about how hard that is. It isn’t easy to stand at that mirror … we can do it for other people (well, at least, some other people) … but we have to set aside all of our internal self talk to get to this place.
It means that we have to set aside the self-criticism about how, if people could really see, they would know I’m really not good at my job. It means that we have to set aside self-judging phrases like “I know I am not good. It is just a façade. I just have to keep up the act so people will like me … or so I will get a promotion … or so I can at least pass for smart.”
We judge ourselves harshly for our addictions and past mistakes. “Why did I have that much to drink? Where were my manners when she tried to engage in discussion, and all I could think about whether I was appropriately dressed … which I probably wasn’t.”
All of this self-criticism and self-deprecation becomes more narcissistic, and is not about the love of self described above. I wonder what it would be like if you quiet the ego a bit … look at yourself in the mirror … and simply say, “I love you. No matter what you’ve done or what others have said about you or what I have said about you, I LOVE YOU just as you are!”
Graceless love is transactional!
“Graceless love” is the myth that I can do enough to love God and my neighbor. I can bring enough offerings, do enough good deeds, visit enough people, go on enough mission trips … finally to be good enough.
When we do this, however, it becomes transactional. Instead of love being the outpouring of ourselves … our souls … our lives, it becomes something we do so God will love us more. And then perhaps, if God loves us more, maybe people will love us more.
At the place of graceless love, by its very definition, grace ceases to be grace. Love becomes manipulative and cheap … because we cheapened grace itself by relegating it to doing and not being.
Grace is the key
To live in grace is to live at what people in 12 step programs tell us is the first step. We are powerless over our addiction. That admission has the power to move us to the place where grace … what John Wesley called “prevenient grace” … will meet us. It is the grace that asks us only to be still and to see God as God is. God is not requiring you to take a test. God is not tempting you to see if you are worthy of being loved by not giving into your addiction. God is not testing you by the things that have fallen apart in your life.
God is there mirroring to you the beauty that is within you. That is the reason mirrors are important. Sometimes it is an actual mirror. Sometimes it is a trusted mentor or sponsor or true friend who can look at you and say, “It doesn’t matter the harmful things you have done or the bad decisions you have made. Your accomplishments, your rise up the ladder of success, your titles and degrees, your great promotions … none of that matters either.
All that matters is that “I see you.” I see the broken you. I see the beautifully, creative, unique you. I see the you that is afraid of the future and guilty about your past. I see the you who feels unworthy. But the message of grace … the message of God … is only that I love you. Just as you are. In this very moment.
Friends, when we experience that kind of grace, we might just find it easier to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength. It just might be easier to love our neighbors because we will have learned how best to love ourselves.
A wise friend reminded me of something. We are not called “human doings.” We are called “human beings.” Practice being. It is there that you will discover a God who loved you before you were ever born. It is there that you will have learned to love from that divine center.