Dear Donagh, A friend keeps saying to me “God loves you as you are.” Almost every time we meet. She means well, but instead of consoling me it makes me feel worse. God would have to be mad to love me as I am. It’s enough that the world is mad. My religion is very important to me, but I feel very discouraged with my performance as a Christian. Is there anything you can say to help me? Don’t tell me God loves me as I am, because I know myself too well…. Valerie
Dear Valerie, Thank you for your email. You don’t mention any particular reason you feel so discouraged, so what I say will have to be very general.
Why not go into detail with a friend who is a good listener? He or she may then be able to refer you to someone else - if need be - who has some skill in helping you further. That would be a start. Here, I'll just comment on a couple of things that struck me in your letter.
Yes, God is mad! St Catherine of Siena (14th century) used to keep repeating this. “O mad lover! And you have need of your creature? It seems so to me, for you act as if you could not live without her, in spite of the fact that you are Life itself, and everything has life from you and nothing can have life without you. Why then are you so mad? Because you have fallen in love with what you have made! You are pleased and delighted over her within yourself, as if you were drunk with desire for her salvation.”
Anyone who knows anything of the Christian tradition will repeat to you, as your friend does, that God loves you as you are. There…I've said the very thing you told me not to say! But it is a statement about God, not about you! It doesn’t say you are so good that you have earned God’s love. If we felt we had to merit God's love it would be an unbearable burden, not a consolation. Our relationship with God is not an equal relationship; we are not trading partners. If we were, there wouldn’t be much in it for God, and nothing for us but guilt. It would be a suffocating relationship. “We can breathe again, my brothers,” said St Bernard of Clairvaux to his monks, “for if we are nothing in our own hearts, perhaps there is another opinion of us hidden in the heart of God - Father of mercy, Father of those who need mercy. Why do you set your heart on us? I know, I have the answer: your heart is where your treasure is. How can we be nothing if we are your treasure? In your sight all are as if they were not… yes indeed, before you, but not within you - in the judgment of your truth, yes, but not in the love your fatherly heart.”
Notice that both made the same point: God loves us within himself. It’s not, then, as if we were somehow ‘over there’ from God, who sizes us up and decides to love us if we show signs of promise. If you loved someone as they could or should be, you would not love them at all, but only your idea of them. You have to love them as they are: that's where everything begins. To love them as they should be is to begin at the end. It has the reverse effect: it leaves them exactly where they are, and burdened now with guilt. When we know that God loves us as we are, we somehow become better than we are. That's the effect that love has on people. It’s not a condition, it’s an effect.
Valerie, we’re all discouraged at our performance as Christians. But can you imagine someone who wasn’t! I wrote the ‘Gospel commentary’ for November 1 with your letter in mind. If God saw only our performance we would be in a bad way. But it is the commercial world that sees only our performance; God sees our being. It’s a mercy to have come to the end of the performance: to have seen through some of our illusions, to have come to the end of our resources. It is the only way to learn something about God's grace. Thank God you have gone deeper than trading with God. Now you can enter the drama of a great love-story.