Unconditional Love is Not a Quid Pro Quo

My friend Maria Scaperlanda shared a blog post by a young woman she knows who is doing volunteer work in Honduras.

On her blog, the woman shared a small experience that helped deepen her understanding of God’s unconditional love.
The woman had needed to find a plunger and went door-to-door to her neighbors until she found one to borrow. What happened next had an enormous effect on her. Shortly after returning home with the plunger, the girl from whom she borrowed it came to her door asking to borrow some sugar.

Sounds normal, but this is the point where our omnipotent, omnipresent, omni-everything God humbly lined His heart up with mine in such a fashion that let me glimpse at His daughter standing in my doorway the way He sees her daily. She simply asked for a cup of sugar the way any normal human person would. “Since I lent you my plunger, you need to lend me a cup of sugar.” Logical, equal, fair. But her request didn’t seem fair. Her words placed a condition on our friendship that disqualified a favor done out of desire into one done out of obligation. This interaction left me unsettled somewhere deep in my heart, almost sad that she expected me to need a reason to do something nice for her. I wanted to do a favor for her because that is the nature of friendship, not because I owed her.

It was a silly moment to cause so much turmoil in my heart and mind, but here I am a week later feeling as if I have been punched in the face with an inkling of understanding of God’s love for us. Sometimes, even without knowing it, we approach God with the same “Since I…you need to…” concept of relationship. Since I prayed everyday this week, you need to give me good grades”. “Since I sacrificed a whole year of my life serving orphan babies in Honduras, You need to make me Saint Jordan; Patroness of sarcasm and cheesy blog posts.” The thing is, God already wants good things for us, but He doesn’t need our reasons for giving them. He has His own reason; we are His dearly cherished creation. That’s it….

Before this moment, I understood in my mind that God’s love is unconditional. But I had never felt in my heart the sense of distance from a friend who did not trust that I would love her without reason. Perhaps God feels this same distance from us when we place in front of Him our deeds and reasons and accomplishments, and not our bare hearts ready to trust His capacity to love.

You can read the whole post here.


You Are Special, No Matter What

At UST Law School, we begin each fall and spring semester with a weekend vocation retreat for interested students. As a follow-up to the retreat, a different participant “volunteers” (i..e, with their consent, I assign each person a week) to send the rest of us an e-mail of “Spiritual Nourishment.” The messages take various forms – sharing of a reading, a poem or a prayer, some incident in the life of the person that has brought them some insight, some issue someone is dealing with – and usually also include some thing or things for which the writer is grateful.

This week, the student who distributed our weekly Spiritual Nourishment, Sam, shared an internal struggle that had been causing him some difficulty but that he had finally worked through. Since the issue he raised is not one unique to him and his realization was one we all need to attain, I asked his permission to share his thoughts, a request he graciously granted.

Sam started by talking about his battle with pride over the years, which reared its head in many different capacities, causing him to always “try to appear intelligent, clever, attractive, funny, talented, fun, and so many other great things.” When he reflected on why he was driven to want to be better than other people, he concluded that what he really desired was to feel special. He wrote:

So I thought that my problem was this desire to feel special. I have tried to drive that desire out of me, but it doesn’t seem possible. There is something intrinsic in me, something I can’t get rid of that is at the root of that desire.

This seemed to be an impossible dilemma. My pride was caused by my desire to feel special. So to get rid of my pride, I needed to get rid of my desire. But it is impossible to get rid of that desire! This is the struggle I have lived in for the past weeks.

When it finally came to him, he realized how simple was the answer to his struggle. As with so many of us who are parents, an experience with his baby gave Sam insight into how God looks at us. As he watched his baby one evening he realized that no matter what she does, he believes “she is the most beautiful baby ever” and that his love for her “has nothing to do with what she can do, it has nothing to do with how she compares to other babies. I am her father, and my love for her is unconditional.” And that realization had a profound impact. He wrote:

Then I remembered that Christ instructed us to call God our Father, and told us that God loves us as a father loves his children. It doesn’t matter how good we are at sports, how smart, attractive, funny, or whatever, we are. God loves us because He made us. And that is the answer to my struggle.

I had been working to tear this desire out of myself, thinking it was the cause of my pride. But the cause of my pride is not the desire to feel special. The cause of my pride is that I attempt to fulfill my desire with something that is not able to fulfill it. …[T]he fulfillment of that desire has nothing to do with how I value myself, or how other people value me. The only thing that can fulfill that desire is an unconditional love… What I really desire is God’s love.

We all want to feel special, and that desire manifests in many ways – some healthy and some not so healthy. My hope for you is the same as the hope Sam expressed in sending his message to us – that his experience “reverberates with some of you and can help as a reminder that you are special, no matter what!”

God Dwells in Him?

Earlier this week I gave an Advent Evening of Reflection at St. Edward’s in Bloomington, MN. The theme for the evening was Preparing a Dwelling for the Lord. I started by talking about our need to deepen our understanding that God already dwells within us, that we are the dwelling place of the Lord. One consequence of the Incarnation is that God dwells, not merely near, among or with God’s people, but in God’s people.

There is an important implication of recognizing God’s indwelling that I also spoke about: if I recognize that God dwells in me, then I also must recognize that God dwells in you, in everyone. During the open question and answer/discussion period we had after some individual reflection and small group sharing, someone said that as she sat with that idea, it occured to her to wonder: then God must also dwell in, e.g., a Hitler.

As hard as it is for us to understand in human terms, yes, God dwells even in the worst of us, even in those of us who lives don’t reflect that indwelling. Part of understanding God’s limitless, unconditional love is understanding that nothing we do – not even the worse we can do (and Hitler is often the example we use to represent the worst) – will make God withdraw from us.

It is not just the really evil people who give us pause when it comes to recognizing God’s indwelling. Someone else made the observation that getting more deeply in touch with this reality helps in dealing with our ordinary relationships. It is not always so easy to remember, when we are in the midst of some conflict with a family member, for example, that God is in that person as well. I shared with the group a quote from Carol Houselander, who writes

It is very easy to believe in the indwelling presence of Christ in the souls of imaginary people, to believe in it in people whom we don not know. But it is very difficult to believe it in the case of our own relations and our intimate friends….Somehow it is difficult to believe that the Holy Spirit abides in people who are not picturesque.

This Advent period offers us a good time to reflect on where it is difficult for us to be aware of God’s dwelling within us as well as where it is difficult for us to see God’s dwelling in others.