Complicated Love

When I was young, my faith was expansive. I listened as friends told desperate stories of an unplanned pregnancy; of the fear of deportation; of the explosive anger of a boyfriend she couldn’t stop loving; of the courage it took to tell parents of a same-sex attraction. I shared my own fears, desperations, and foibles, and proclaimed to us all that the Jesus I knew stood with us. Life was complex and it made sense that Jesus would hold space for us to grow up, learn to live with our choices, and show us redemption. Jesus’s love was real, God was big, and in time, the Spirit would make room for everyone to find their way.

Fast forward a decade. I had babies to raise. My feeble heart still longed for my big Jesus and God’s Spirit to be capacious enough to manage the weighty, joyful job of raising children into flourishing, faith-filled adults. I wanted to believe that God could take my pathetic effort and make something wonderful. But there was so much at stake. I needed to make sure that I wasn’t going to screw it up, or screw them up, or screw us all up. I needed a guaranteed, golden outcome.

So like many of my era, I discovered self-help and parenting books written by Christian faith leaders. These offered biblical formulas to ensure the likely sum of successful marriage, happy family, and untroubled, well-loved kids. I began to follow the formulas and over time, I watched my big, beautiful faith shrink into pleading prayers and chiseled scripture verses that were clear about what God loathed and hinted at the mysterious sweet spot of obedience that ensured a blessed life. Avoid what displeases God, pray ceaseless hedges of protection around your family and—Voila!—strong-willed children are tamed, distant spouses return, and the enemy is kept at bay.

For me, this formula trained a system of righteousness hedged mostly by the fear of being or doing wrong. Rather than allowing the words of God to form and shape me, I often allowed them to become yet another to-do list.

During this tense and tenuous season, a wise friend shared a counter-cultural thought: Following what pleases God includes large doses of grace. We’re going to get some things wrong. In her view, if one had to be wrong about something, she wanted to be wrong on the side of love. She believed that God could manage any error in her theology just fine if she loved well. I can still feel the scales falling from my eyes. This was a biblical formula. Not holding to rigid rules, not being right, not even spouting pat passages as answers to childhood questions. The formula was loving wholly and risking being a little wrong. Revolutionary.

There is a passage in the gospel of Matthew that reads:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. (Matthew 22:37-40)

The last line of this passage stopped me in my tracks during those years. Jesus said, “All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments.” 

I may be wrong, but it seems to me that all of it—the rules, the prophetic judgments, the chastising—are hangers-on to an overarching umbrella of love. If a law or a prophecy or the denial of care cannot hang on to or fall under love, then…

This is worth pondering.

Using God’s formula, love always ranks above being correct.

Friends, the gust of cool air that found its way into my shrinking balloon of faith that day was positively God-sized.

It isn’t easy and it isn’t always clear how we do this. In a world where power and party and privilege have a death grip on everything, how can we know who warrants this kind of love?

Jesus. We observe Jesus. Jesus, who sought out people living in prostituted bodies and oppressed poverty. Jesus, who called people to lay down weapons and seek peace. Jesus, who made prophets of women and children and threw open the doors to welcome everyone to the party. Jesus, who never championed the religious, but made champions of those whom the religious sought to dismiss. Jesus, who loved the vulnerable and hurting ones standing right in front of him, or reaching out to him, or looking up at him. Jesus.

Love that is whole-hearted, whole-being, whole-thinking. Love that restores souls, fills stomachs, and heals bodies. Love that abhors weapons and disparity. Love that offers peace and equity. Love that calls the holders of power to lay it down. Complicated love. Uncomfortable love. Sacrificial love. Crucifixion love. And this beautiful, awful, complicated world has never needed it more.

Most days, I don’t do this well. Some days, I downright stink at it. But as my friend encouraged all those years ago, I have come to see that sacrificial love makes a way if we simply try. The sweet spot of faith-filled, feeble love is infinitely more expansive than having all the right answers. On behalf of a world awash in desperation, fear, and anger, may we err on the side of love. Even if we don’t do it well, God will.

Jill English is an avid encourager of people and a lover of words. She is most at home out-of-doors, especially if the out-of-doors involves a beach. Her most magical moments happen as ‘Mimi’ while spending time with her well-loved grandchildren and her adult kids. Jill spends her workdays helping others discern vocational call through theological education. Her favorite conversations involve connecting the sacred dots of everyday life and faith. Jill lives in Grand Rapids, MI with two small, elderly pups.