Wednesday, May 23, 2012

He First Loved Us (1 John 4:19)

Do you remember that time I totally had that major crush on that guy I nicknamed "Methuselah" here on the blog and had a series of posts related to him? Well, I'm gonna need to conjure up another pseudonym for another person in my story. Let's call him "Habakkuk." Like Methuselah, Habakkuk is another man I liked, and this time I really fell pretty deeply in love with him a couple months ago. As with my telling of the Methuselah saga, it is easier for me to write about the feelings and experiences a few months after the fact so as to give proper time to digest and process each experience fully (it's also harder to share when things are so fresh in the mind). My story with Habakkuk is a bit more complicated than my Methuselah story because unlike Methuselah, Habakkuk is another SSA guy like me.

I knew I was physically attracted to him, obviously, the first time I saw him. I still am and probably always will be. But that's nothing new. I've dealt with that before. However, once I got to know him I soon discovered how well I connected with him in pretty much every possible way--socially, spiritually, emotionally, etc. It didn't take long for that initial physical attraction to blossom into something much deeper. Part of me soon wanted very much to be in a relationship with him. And those feelings started me on an intense journey of self-discovery which would ultimately transform my relationship with God.

I knew all along that I needed to tread carefully since he was also SSA and seemed to be connecting with me almost as much as I was with him. Luckily for me, he wasn't as attracted to me which I'm sure helped things a lot. I actually don't feel much of a need nor a desire to lay out the details of how our friendship grew. I think I'll just skip ahead to a critical conversation I had with God.

We had just had a very emotional night, discussing the feelings we'd had and I confessed to him that I'd fallen in love with him and was so sorry. We talked about needing to have some space for a little while. It was a very painful discussion that I didn't take very well, breaking into tears several times. I knew what the right thing to do was and was doing it. We hadn't done anything wrong, and in fact were each showing great courage in that moment doing what was right. Things have gone much better since that night and I'm happy to report that my relationship with Habakkuk has been one of the healthiest, most meaningful friendships I've ever had. But later that night I had a discussion with God that changed my life.

Have you ever been angry at God? It is a strange experience. When we are angry with God, we are still expressing faith that He exists, and yet we aren't expressing much support of what He does. It feels wretched and shameful, yet self-sustainably indignant at the same time. I haven't felt that way very many times in my life (this might be the only time logged in my memory in fact!). But that night amidst the many confusing and conflicting emotions I felt, I did in fact feel a very genuine anger towards God. I've had too many experiences confirming my faith to me to doubt His reality, but my desires for Habakkuk made me angry at Him that night. For a moment it simply didn't seem fair that the gospel forbade me to have a relationship with someone I'd fallen in love with. Whenever I feel shame, my typical first reaction is to run from God. Not so with this anger: I got on my knees and confronted God in prayer.

On my knees, sobbing, I asked God why I couldn't be with this man. Why can't I date, marry, and build a life with him? Even in my indignation, God answered. He answered swiftly, softly, and directly. The thought came to my heart and mind almost immediately: "Well, you CAN build a relationship with him IF you love him more than you love Me." It was a very gentle response. Disarmingly gentle. He even filled me with an understanding that I could be very happy temporally in a relationship like that, but that I would always KNOW that I'd done so at great cost. There are many paths to happiness in THIS life, but if I chose that one it would be at the forfeiture of a celestial glory and I would make that choice knowing full well of that consequence.

I love the writings of John the Beloved. He is one of the most profound writers in all of the scriptures, and his extensive writings on love in his first general epistle have long been among my favorite scriptures. However, there was always one verse that I never understood, and which in fact troubled me quite deeply until this experience. In 1st John 4:19 we read:

"We love him, because he first loved us."

It is a short thought wedged between two other verses which are each among my favorites and which have never confused me in the least. But this one was certainly a conundrum. It always seemed like a very silly reason to love God. I guess I was always reading it as meaning we loved him out of some sense of debt because He loved us first so we owed it to Him or something. And that didn't sit well with me. But now there I was, angry at God and met with a feeling of calmness and love in return to my indignation. He gave me a pure love that opened my understanding and I couldn't help but feel a desire to return it. I suddenly realized that His ability to love us first despite our weakness and imperfection is WHY He is worth loving so much and that the love He sends first is often the conduit to a transforming power enabling us to truly love Him deeper. The love He first sends us inspires us to love Him in return. It is an unconditional love, and therefore bears no gravity of debt demanding repayment. He made it very clear that He didn't require me to love Him and that if I chose to love Habakkuk more that was entirely up to me. And yet that love itself changed me deep down. How could I NOT love Him more? I learned that day that I loved Him because of the love He had first for me.

I should add also that my story here doesn't account for the fact that Habakkuk would have also had to have loved me more than he loved God in order for us to have ever had a relationship. And I knew him well enough to know how much love he has for God and that even if I DID love him more than I loved God, he would never feel that same way. (That is one reason I've felt so safe with him.) I do still love him very deeply, but I love God more, and that love for God has transformed the love I have for my fellow SSA brother into something purer and better. I love him even deeper now than I did then, but in a holier way. Perhaps that's why the Great Commandments--to love God and to love our fellow men--are ordered in the way they are. When we love God first, it enables us to love others more purely than we ever could if we placed them ahead of God.