I left my wife in 1996. I was a mess of confusion and frustration and anger. My Christianity had primarily been a force for behavior modification and for years I had fought to keep my behavior in check. I was fearful of God’s disfavor with me and I was fearful that my Christian friends and family might reject me if my behavior did not meet certain standards. For many years I had been able to control the behavior I thought was most important. My feelings, however, proved uncontrollable. As my feelings and desires increased, my efforts to control my behavior became more and more exhausting.
The turmoil I felt inside was intense and I desperately wanted God to be pleased with me. I began to branch out theologically and eventually found theology that seemed to be a 180-degree turn from the behavior-based theology of my youth. In reality, though, the new theology was about behavior, too. Instead of condemning certain behaviors, it celebrated new behaviors. And it opened the door to a new way to be a Christian that seemed to fit the feelings that so dominated my life. And, armed with that new freedom, I moved out.
It was an interesting time in my life. My old friends, for the most part, were quick to tell me that my behavior and decisions were wrong biblically. Some questioned my salvation. While I had always been very eager to please in my relationships, my resolve was strong and I felt liberated and powerful. Not surprisingly, my old relationships became full of strife and disunity, and I rejected my old friends and pulled away from my family. Everyone assumed that I was motivated by my desire to behave sinfully, but what I really craved was the freedom to be real, and to no longer hide. The wreckage of past relationships was a loss I was willing to endure. It seemed as if, for the first time in my life, I was truly being honest.
In my mind, my family and old friends were simply bent on manipulating me to do what they wanted me to do. Most phone calls and letters ended with a plea to change my wicked ways, or a statement that what I was doing was wrong in God’s eyes and hurtful to the people in my life. They seemed to validate what I had come to believe about their love – it was conditional on me doing the right thing. But one day I got a special letter from one of those people. He had been one of the friends who had previously confronted me and challenged the life I was living. His letter was long, and I skipped right to the end to find his admonition against the sinful way I was living. But it was not there. I read the letter several times. It was full of news and funny stories and questions about how I was doing. And he ended it with the five letters with which we had always ended our communication (a nod to the silliness of junior high) – LYLAB. Love you like a brother. He didn’t chastise me or challenge me in the letter. It was just a letter from a friend. I knew he still did not agree with me, but I wondered if maybe he did really love me, no matter what I was doing.
Around the same time, I received a note from my grandmother. My family was thoroughly white-washed. Real issues and outward sin were strongly avoided and hidden. My grandmother had never driven a car or written a check or paid a bill or flown in a plane. She was a very simple woman and her note was equally simple. She said "I am praying for you, and you are always welcome in Nanny’s house.” I wept at the thought of being welcomed into my sweet Nanny’s home, free from condemnation (and full of the sweet smell of her fried chicken). Her note, and the letter from my friend, began to soften the protective barrier I had built around my heart.
Months later I was still doing life. I had developed new friends who were loving, accepting, helpful, caring and fun. But while my old, legalistic religion had left me feeling empty, my new ‘free’ religion left me feeling empty, too. I was still missing something. I may have been saved from hell, but my life as I was living it was no more abundant than it had ever been. I was not afraid. I felt no guilt. I felt no shame. But still, I felt empty.
Ironically, as the guilt and shame in my life subsided, I began to seek God in a different, more open way. In that process, He opened my eyes to something that my behavior-focused heart had never seen before. I read a book that did not focus on behavior at all. Instead, it showed me in vivid detail and imagery the magnitude of how much Jesus loved me. I am not sure I had ever really believed that truly unconditional love was possible. The Bible suddenly began to give me hope for life, rather than fear of death. My friend’s letter and my Nanny’s note had sparked that possibility in me, but as I began to really explore Christ, I saw true unconditional love. I saw how He understood me, and how He wanted to connect with me. I saw Him interacting with all sorts of outcasts who were in the middle of their sin. I saw Him standing up for them while they were still dirty. I saw Him unafraid to be seen with them, even while the religious people questioned Him and condemned His friends. And I saw Him loving me right where I was.
He did not threaten me with hell because of my behavior. He did not repeatedly point out my sinful flaws. He did not ‘convict’ me of my sin. He just loved me. And as I sat with Him and as His perfect love began to heal deep, hidden hurts in me, I sensed that He was calling me to go home. In my newfound place of safety and honesty with Him, I argued with Him. How could I do that? How would that work? I wasn’t sure I felt anything for my wife. How could I go back to the Christian world that had almost destroyed me? With each question I threw at Him, He calmly answered me, deep in my soul, with three words: "I LOVE YOU. I LOVE YOU. I LOVE YOU.” And as He reaffirmed his love for me, I began to see that He was not sending me out alone, but was willing to walk with me, every step of the way. He didn’t offer to walk with me if I checked off a list of behavioral modifications. He simply loved me. As it says in Romans, His kindness led me to repentance.
As His love wooed me home, I began to see things in my life that needed to change. It wasn’t behavior modification done out of fear or under pressure…it was me responding to His love. Some things were obvious immediately. Other things surfaced as I grew deeper into relationship with Him. Things continue to surface today – things I just never noticed before. Something will surely surface tomorrow. Yet He continues to love me – flaws and all.
Sometimes, even after all I have received, I forget the power of Christ’s love. I, too, love manipulatively – hoping that my love will cause someone to do something different in their life. My love for people often has an ‘if-then’ motivation. If I love them, then they will…fill in the blank. I think many people manipulate under the guise of love. But God has not called us to love to get a result. He simply calls us to love – to love with no strings attached. Our love does not change people. HIS love changes people.
It is so hard not to focus on what the "love” might accomplish! Even as I write this, I want to pen those hopes. But I will seek to simply love others because He calls me to love them, and trust that God will do His part in His way and in His time – as He has faithfully, patiently and lovingly done in me, and as He faithfully, patiently and lovingly continues to do in me. Who is God calling you to love today?