Category Archives: Sacred Love

I Am Loved!

HeadlineI was a broken person.

At age 36, I already felt like a failure. I had accomplished a lot by earning multiple graduate degrees, taking important roles of responsibility as a pastor, and impressing others in various ways. I had an amazing wife and two beautiful children. But in my heart of hearts, my achievements meant little to me. I didn’t feel very valuable as a person. Instead, I kept thinking about being unemployed. Worse, I was plagued by shame over how far short my life fell from what I wanted it to be—and from what I believed God wanted it to be. Not only was I keenly aware of all the “bad” things I had done in my life; I felt like I, myself, was “bad”.

By the grace of God, I was given an opportunity to attend a seminar on the subject of breaking the silence of shame. I learned that what was going on inside of me was far more serious than I had realized. Feeling guilty about our sins and failures from time to time is normal and healthy, and can even motivate us to make needed changes in our lives. What I was feeling was something insidious. I felt ashamed of myself at the core of my being, and when unhealed shame remains in the soil of our hearts, it becomes toxic.

Such shame often produces “weeds,” easily recognizable as products of feeling so poorly about ourselves. For example, our lives may be marked by persistently negative attitudes, highly visible sins, or other self-defeating, destructive behavior. Surprisingly, though, toxic shame can also produce seemingly “good fruit.”

Sometimes, when we believe that we are bad or fundamentally flawed, we try to “fix” ourselves by whatever means possible. We may even succeed at accomplishing much or creating something beautiful. We may hold a highly responsible position. We may serve others regularly and give generously. Perhaps we go to great lengths to make ourselves physically attractive, or to develop extraordinary skills. To us and everyone around us, our lives may appear to be very successful and fruitful.

However, when our efforts are driven by toxic shame (i.e., desperate attempts to do something in order to feel good about ourselves) and not by the Spirit of God, all our striving will ultimately be unsatisfying. At some point, we may give up out of frustration or discouragement. We may keep pushing and driving ourselves to exhaustion. Or, in spite of convincing everyone else that we are truly extraordinary individuals, we still fail to convince ourselves.

When I heard this teaching, the message pierced my heart. I realized that I could never do enough to truly feel good about myself. I am not ever going to find the solution to toxic shame in my own accomplishments. Instead of putting my trust in what I could do for myself, I needed to trust in God’s love and acceptance of me, despite all my shortcomings.

Photo ©Jill K H Geoffrion, Ph.D., www.jillgeoffrion.com

My two beloved sons today

The image of my holding my firstborn son suddenly flashed through my mind. We were in the hospital, the day he was born. My heart was full, and words gushed out of my mouth that I didn’t anticipate. I looked at him tenderly and said, “Son, there is nothing you could ever do that would make me not love you.” As I basked in the warmth of that precious memory, the same kind of love I felt for my son began flowing within me, filling the lonely, raw, frightened, and empty spaces that were etched as scars throughout my soul.

Our Creator loves us simply because we are his children. He sees all our faults and limitations, and He still loves and accepts us. We belong to Him. And, yes, our moral failures and resistance to God create serious problems that can hurt our relationship with God. Yet, God’s love is so great that He not only reaches out to us with loving acceptance, he also graciously provides a solution for our sin that we could not produce on our own.

With new joy, I recalled the words of the Apostle Paul on this very subject. He explained to the Roman Christians that God’s love precedes all of our attempts to establish our own worthiness. What Jesus did by giving his life for us on the cross shows us how far God will go to to keep us safely in His care forever. Paul wrote, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners (i.e. before we even showed any interest in knowing, loving, or serving God), Christ died for us.” (2)

Headline

Jesus healing the blind man (Mark 8:22-25) Chartres Cathedral, France

In that wonderful moment of awakening, my brokenness was healed. My eyes were opened. My heart was touched. I could hold my head high once again. God’s extraordinary love and grace had replaced shame in the soil of my soul. I now had a healthy, life-giving source of strength for my life—firmly rooted in God’s view of me, and not in my view of myself, or in my ability to earn or prove my worthiness. I was given a solid foundation of love to stand upon that does not crumble every time I stumble, or whenever I fall short of my ideals, fail, or feel rejected.

Several years later, someone who knew me well, asked me, “Who are you? “I hesitated for a moment, surprised by the unexpected question. But suddenly, I knew my answer.

Who am I? I am loved.

Photo ©Jill K H Geoffrion, Ph.D., www.jillgeoffrion.comAuthor’s notes:

(1) Today’s post is a revised, English version of my recent post in French, “Je suis aimé!” (April 20, 2015). The original text was in French, because I shared this brief testimony with the spiritual pilgrims at the annual Cathedral Retreat, conducted in collaboration with the Chemin Neuf Community in Chartres, France, on April 19, 2015. On May 3, an earlier English version was  published on The Full Light website, which offers hope and healing words for those suffering from abuse of various kinds, under the same title, “I am loved!

(2) Romans 5: 8, NIV. I added the words in italics to clarify the meaning of the verse.

(3) Thank you to Jill Geoffrion for the photos above.

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4 Steps to Loving ‘Hard-to-Love’ People

What do you do if you’ve just had it with someone? It may be a family member, a friend, or maybe a co-worker. You may have even been quite close at one time, but lately the relationship just isn’t working. I am not necessarily talking about someone who is actively spewing forth hostility or hatefulness, or someone you have to avoid for your own safety. I’m thinking of those people you simply don’t want to be around, but can’t avoid, or you feel as if you shouldn’t give up completely on them for one reason or another. On your best days, you would still like to be able to love them better or show Christ’s love to them. Loving such “hard (for us)-to-love” individuals is, well, hard! Sometimes the slightest comment or look by “hard-to-love” individuals can stir up a whole rash of negative feelings and even bring out your worst self. Then, there are all those times when your best efforts to try to love them actually backfire, and the relationship deteriorates even further. You’ve figured that you can’t change them, and you also probably realize that it is harder to change yourself than you might like to admit. You may already be at the point of giving up completely.

Tough times on the Camino 2006

Tough times on the Camino

So, what hope is there? Lessons from the Camino In 2006, when my wife, two sons, and I walked five hundred miles across northern Spain on the Camino, a ancient pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, we had a LOT of time together as a family. We were deeply grateful for the unique opportunity to be together for 37 days on this kind of spiritual and physical adventure. On the other hand, our close proximity under these conditions made it impossible to avoid facing unresolved tensions in our relationships. Blow ups, sulking, withdrawing, attacking, followed by more conversation, trying to listen better, many miles to walk and think, praying, and stumbling along under stressful circumstances made the journey a lot harder than we ever imagined. Yet, facing the truth of our relational issues all led to some new insights over time. What emerged were four practical steps anyone can take to improve a broken or difficult relationship that proved to be quite helpful to us then and ever since in many different contexts. Here they are. 1. See—The first step is to open our eyes to see people for who they are, not who we want them to be, or who we’ve caricatured them to be. 2. Accept—We need to let go of any negative emotion we might be carrying from our dislike/disappointment/resentment/frustration etc. arising from the fact that they are not who we want them to be. 3. Appreciate—From a peaceful place of acceptance of another person, we are in a much better place to look for the other person’s qualities and unique gifts and contributions, and to begin to genuinely appreciate something about them. 4. Delight—From an attitude of appreciation, we can now let ourselves actually delight in this or that aspect of their personalities or way of being in the world.

On the journey together

On the journey together

How these four steps transformed my marriage In my own marriage, this four-step process has been extremely helpful. My wife and I share many things in common, but our personalities are quite different, and clash rather easily. Learning to “see” her for who she is has included giving up my ideas of what I thought a perfect wife should be and even who I thought I was marrying! One of the most helpful things I have tried is to consciously set aside my previous expectations for her and start over. I step back and try to see what is real about her. I keep asking her and myself, “Who is Jill?” Not, “Who do I want her to be?” but “Who is she, actually?” (step one) Seeing her for who she truly is leads then to a decision point: Will I accept her as she is? A negative answer perpetuates my unhappiness and the tension between us. A positive answer opens the door to greater peace—not resignation, but simply accepting that this is the person she is without a big, negative emotional charge. (step two)  Then it becomes a whole lot easier to stop reacting when she doesn’t meet my expectations in one way or the other. With this, I have been training myself to say, especially when the old reactions flare up, “Well, that’s Jill.” (That is, “That’s who she is, and I can live with that.”) At this point, the marriage can take a real turn for the better. I’ve decided that I don’t want to stay stuck in disappointment or resentment, thinking about all I might want her to be or to do. Instead, I choose to focus my attention on her unique gifts, her tremendous love for me, all that she does for me and for our family, and the many ways that she creatively contributes to the world. (step three) Then, delighting in her suddenly didn’t seem so impossible to imagine anymore. In my case, I begin to genuinely enjoy many of the idiosyncratic ways Jill gives of herself to love and help me, our family, and many others day after day. There’s nobody else quite like her, and I am now more sure than ever that I wouldn’t want to be married to anyone else! (step four)

Tim and Jill dancing on the Camino

Learning to dance together again

Not giving up It may be easy to blame “hard-to-love” individuals for our feelings or attitude toward them.  But Jesus’ teaching on loving our neighbor and even our enemy doesn’t really support that kind of thinking. He simply doesn’t give us much room to blame someone else for our not trying to love them. To love others is our calling regardless of how others behave, not our reward for their approved or desired behavior. So, in the end, from Jesus’ point of view, loving others is not about them, it’s about us. It’s about our commitment to being people of love, who continually ask God to love others through us more and more. It’s about our willingness to humble ourselves and to let God change our hearts. It’s about doing the hard work of learning how to see—accept—appreciate—and even delight in our “hard-to-love” neighbors, so that we may love them as God loves us and we love ourselves. Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Colossians 3:12-14, NIV) If you want more suggestions… Who is one “hard-to-love” person in your life? You may be at a complete loss to know what to do differently or you may feel powerless, but you still would like to learn how to let God’s love flow more freely through you to him or her.

  1. Make a list of their characteristics as fairly and objectively as you can. Who is he? Who is she? Without judging them, try to “see” them for who they are.
  2. Let go of all that you’ve been wanting them to be, and choose to accept that this is the way they are—and who they are likely going to be unless they choose to change. Take a deep breath and release all your pent up feelings as you exhale. Pray for the grace to get to the place where you can observe this person and simply say, “Well, that’s _________________ (so-and-so).” You know you have successfully completed this step when you can mention their name without an emotional charge, and you can think of them without disdain or distress in your judgment of them.
  3. Now, identify their strengths as you perceive them. What do they contribute to the world or others? What potential do you see? What of their life do you genuinely value, even if they are not offering their best side to you personally?
  4. Lastly, from a place of peaceful acceptance and genuine appreciation, is there anything about this person that you actually like or enjoy? Don’t try to force this step, but ask God to give you eyes to see what Christ delights in when he sees this person, and to free you to begin to enjoy some aspect of that person, too.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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“It’s a Question of Love”

The voices. The voices. What do you do with all the voices in your head and conflicting motivations in your heart?

I’m not talking about grappling with audible sounds or crazy stuff. I’m referring to the many competing thoughts, feelings, and impulses that vie for your attention and make it difficult to confidently choose a good course of action. You may sincerely desire to be Spirit-led, but you aren’t sure whose voice is whose in your head.

“What am I supposed to think?”

On top of it, most of us are well aware of the power of self-deception, not to mention the lies and deceits of the devil. We know we’re fools if we think that every thought, “insight,” and impulse we have is sound and reliable, and are fooled if we believe our motives are always pure.

When torn between various inclinations, motivations, and ideas, what do you do? When seeking help from God, how do you differentiate the leading of the Spirit from all the other “voices”? Consider the following scenarios from the social domain of life:

  1. “To Give or Not to Give?” You see a homeless person on the street (or simply get a call from yet one more fundraiser), seeking money. One voice says, “Give.” Another says, “Look the other way.” Another voice judges the person asking. Still another speaks from your heart. What’s moving you? The God of compassion, basic human decency, unresolved guilt, fear, or something else altogether?
  2. “Why Am I Interested in Them?” You feel drawn to someone, but you’re experiencing a range of conflicting thoughts. Are you being moved by the Spirit, responding to a basic need for love or friendship, being driven by your physical desires, compensating for some unmet emotional needs, trying to avoid feeling so lonely, or what?
  3. “Why Am I So Smart?” You’re sure that you’ve got someone or something figured out. Has God given you insight and wisdom, or are you simply a perceptive and astute person? Are you seeing the person or situation clearly, or are you blindly projecting yourself or your desires on to others? Are you making a sound judgment or are you being influenced by unwarranted assumptions?

It’s a Question of Love

Amid the din of conflicting internal voices and our incessant tendency to want to serve ourselves, Jesus’ teaching on the priority of loving God, others, and ourselves offers a simple but extremely practical guideline (Mark 12:30-31). Make a habit of always asking yourself, “What about the Rule of Love?” As the Apostle Paul taught, always think about how you can put love into action by “look[ing] not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4). That’s love. Thinking about the impact of your words, attitudes, and actions on those your life touches, and choosing to put their best interest even ahead of your own. The rule is to make love the guiding principle in all you do.

Now, back to the hypothetical scenarios mentioned earlier. How would you apply the Rule of Love in the three situations? Here’s how I might do it.

  1. “To Give or Not to Give?” My suggestion: If you want to give, give. If you don’t, don’t. But regardless of whether or not you give something, love calls for treating the person with respect. If you choose to not give money, at least let your smile communicate that you see them as a fellow human being, loved by God. And if you do give (in this scenario or any other charitable endeavor), remind yourself that God has given you an opportunity to give to serve God’s purposes in ways that bring glory to God not yourself.
  2. “Why Am I Interested in Them?” Relationships are trickier. So many factors influence our interests in others, and every relationship is different. Here I will only make one suggestion. Remind yourself that you can best love others when you have experienced the love and grace of God for yourself, and when your relationship with others is not a substitute for the love you can only know in God. The less you “need” to love someone or be loved by him or her, the more free you will be to truly love others in ways that are life-giving rather than life-imprisoning or even destructive.
  3. “Why Am I So Smart?” There’s a difference between “judging” someone, behavior Jesus forbid; and “making a judgment” based on your perceptions and evaluation, our human responsibility for survival and good citizenship. Judging is prejudicially thinking you can know someone’s motives or evaluate their choices. Making a judgment, on the other hand, is carefully determining what is good, right, and true in a given situation. When you must make a judgment, remind yourself that love cares more about building up others and restoring broken relationships than “being right” and securing your identity or status vis-à-vis someone else’s.

I keep going back to the Rule of Love especially when I’m in the midst of a complicated or confusing social situation. I do so, not because I’m so loving or spiritually mature, but because on my own, I’m not.  I need help. I need a simple way to get the right perspective, quickly.

The Rule of Love may not give you a complete answer in every complex or confusing situation. Yet asking and praying with the question, “How are my actions an expression of God’s love for those God wants to love through me?” is what Spirit-led living is all about in its purest and simplest form. The more you ask yourself this question of love, the more you will be able to discern the Spirit’s voice amid all the other voices, and feel confident about how to proceed.

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love… Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. (1 John 4:7-8, 11-12, NIV)

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“What kind of love makes a marriage flourish?”

On July 8, I had the privilege of giving the Charge to the Couple during the wedding ceremony for my son Tim and his bride Stella. Since so many people we know and love around the world could not witness this incredibly joyful experience, I am reproducing the Charge here as this month’s essay. So many longtime couples who were present at the service told me that the message was not just for a bride and groom, but for longtime couples as well.

Stella and Tim on their wedding day

Charge to the Couple

The Rev. Dr. Timothy C. Geoffrion

What does it take to make a couple’s love stay strong? What kind of love is needed to not only make a marriage last, but to enable it to blossom and to flourish continually?

As you may know there are many different kinds of “love” in human experience: love for family; love for friends; romantic love; erotic love; and the kind of love that Greek writers called, agape. And when we speak about love between a husband and wife, there are also many different ideas about what marriage means: Should we think of marriage in utilitarian terms, a contract between a man and woman to produce a family and secure a couple’s well-being in old age? Is it a romantic saga wherein a strong hero rescues the damsel in distress and cares for her valiantly for the rest of their lives? Is it about passion, a union that allows for the fulfillment of every dream and desire? Or is it really about a treasured friendship between a man and woman, who simply want to be together and to spend the rest of their lives in each other’s company?

There is not one right answer to these questions, and these options are not mutually exclusive. What matters the most is not so much what answers you come up with, but that you are willing to find answers that work for both of you. In other words, marriage is not simply about trying to meet your own individual needs or to gratify your own desires, but to develop a relationship in which you work with each other to create something beautiful and good for both of you.

What kind of love do you have and will you seek for each another? What kind of marriage do you envision, and do you intend to create?

We read in Genesis 2 (verses 18-24) that from the beginning of time, men and women have left their parents in order to cling to each other in marriage. The writer is not talking about an impulse or even sexual desire, but a deep level of attraction that draws a man and woman to want to create a union between them that is like no other. But no matter how powerful the mutual attraction, this kind of love is only the beginning point for a marriage.

From the Song of Songs (2:8-14), we were drawn to the amorous feelings of two lovers. Passion is indispensible in bonding a husband and wife to each other, and can lead to tremendous satisfaction in the marriage relationship. However, eros, as the Greeks called this kind of love, is neither a superior nor an inferior form of love to other kinds. Eros brings joy like nothing else, but it is certainly only one dimension of married life; and no marriage can survive only on it. More is needed.

In reading Paul’s interpretation of agape love, we realize immediately that he’s talking about a kind of love that is more than an ideal and more than a feeling. He was not writing about marriage, but the relevance to a married couple is immediately obvious. Listen again to how he characterized agape.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.

It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.

Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.

It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a)

C.S. Lewis wrote about agape love in his popular book, The Four Loves. He describes agape as a “selfless love…that is passionately committed to the wellbeing of the other person”. [1] That’s well said.

Such love is not devoid of feelings; it’s just not dependent on feelings. Agape is a steadfast commitment to treating each other in the right ways, to believing the best things about each other, to being there for each other. Agape leads to sacrificial service for the sake of the other person, and for the sake of relationship that one has with the other person.

Right now you may think that you really know each other. But you don’t.

You may think you know what married life is going to be like. But you don’t.

Right now you may think that you really love each other. And (don’t worry) you do, but you do not yet know how much your love needs to still grow in order to endure for the rest of your lives.

You are about to embark upon an adventure that will be filled with many surprises, twists, and turns. Some will be wonderful, and some will be harder than you can imagine. For some things you have been well prepared, but for others, you are going to feel completely over your heads.

It’s simply not possible to prepare for all that is ahead of you, but you can commit yourselves to love each other no matter what. When times get tough relationally, you need to be committed to stay together, and to work through whatever you need to work through. No matter how much your love may falter, agape love insists on remaining faithful and not looking elsewhere or to someone else to meet the needs that are reserved for the marriage union. When you don’t understand each other or don’t know what to do, you need to seek whatever help you need, and to do your best to treat each other kindly and respectfully while you’re figuring it out. That’s agape love at its best, and where it’s most needed.

In other words, agape within marriage refuses to give up on the other person or the marriage. What this means then is that you need to be each other’s best fan. You need to believe in the other, even if no one else does.  You need to focus more on what it is right, than what is wrong in that person. And you need to hang in there, even when the going gets tougher than you ever dreamed it would.

When I think back to my parents’ marriage, I remember distinctly that their relationship was rocky at times. They weren’t the best match for each other, and sometimes it was painful to be around them when they were arguing. Yet, one thing never wavered. And that was their devotion to each other, and their commitment to their marriage. I believe it was that kind of love that saw them through so many painful and disturbing experiences that had to endure. It was that kind of love that gave me security as a child.

And when I married, guess what? It turns out my wife and I were actually quite different. Yet it was our common commitment to our marriage, our common commitment to Christ, and our willingness to seek help from God and others when we didn’t know what to do that have helped us through the hard times. And today, having gone through a lot of ups and downs, our love is stronger and more vibrant than ever. Even after 30 years of marriage, we are still discovering new ways we need and appreciate one another; and new ways for us to serve God and live life that bring us more joy and satisfaction than ever.

I am certainly not saying that we are the “super couple.” I am saying that by being committed to one another, “for better and for worse”; by continuing to seek to grow, as individuals and in our marriage; and by being willing to admit that we needed help at times and by seeking that help, that we have experienced so much growth over the years. And God, who is the author of agape, is key to all of it.

When your life is rooted in the love and grace of God, and you learn to treat each other with that same love and grace; and when you seal your marriage relationship with an unbreakable commitment and devotion to one another, then your marriage will be strong and life-giving for both of you. You will feel secure, and you can relax in the safety of each other’s commitment; and from that place you can dare to be yourself, to experiment, to learn, to grow, and to create freely and fully as you build your life and family together.

For your marriage to be strong and healthy, you will need to discover what love truly means to each of you, and what kind of marriage you want to create with each other. That will take time. That will take openness and honesty. It will take compromise, understanding, graciousness, and a willingness to change and grow. But you can do it. With the help of God, the love and support of family and friends, and true humility and agape love, there is so much that you can look forward to you in your married life together.

Benediction. May your love become deeply rooted in the love of God. May it blossom beautifully and richly. May it flower so gracefully and fragrantly that it becomes the greatest most precious gift that you give to each other, your children, your family, your friends, and all those whose lives you touch.

Amen.


[1] Cited in Wikipedia, under “Agape,” July 6, 2012.

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“Jesus, Help Me!”

Jesus at Saint Suplice, Paris

Getting hurt, or hurting others, can happen so easily. It might occur by accident, through neglect, or, sometimes, even on purpose. None of us is immune from being hurt by others, nor are we capable of never hurting someone else.

However, we can learn how to minimize the damage we do to one another. We can learn strategies and spiritual practices to bring healing sooner rather than later.

Simple, heartfelt apologies often go a long way to heal the pain and alienation arising from our hurting one another. However, when we don’t acknowledge and deal adequately with what’s happened, the wounds can fester. We judge, accuse, blame, and can get stuck in our alienation and rage—and the problem gets worse.

Wars, suicide bombings, character assassinations, vindictive acts of revenge, and all sorts of other hateful, seriously damaging behavior often stem from not knowing how (or choosing not) to resolve conflicts peacefully and constructively.

In this week’s article, I offer some simple guidelines and suggestions for how you can deal more effectively with the hurts and broken relationships in your life (regardless of who’s at fault), from a spiritual and practical point of view. (Of course, if you want to best equip yourself, I also strongly recommend that you attend a full day conflict resolution workshop, seek help other professionals, and consult the growing amount of literature on inner healing and nonviolent, conflict resolution.)

Above all, you must take responsibility to do all you can to address the relational breakdown, while recognizing that you cannot control what the other person chooses to do or not to do. At the same time, without abdicating your responsibility, seek all the help you can get from God by asking the Spirit of Jesus to reveal his presence in your heart and mind as follows.

Situation 1. You are at fault, or you have wronged someone else.

• Imagine that you are looking directly into Jesus’ eyes as you explain what happened.

• Prayer: “Jesus, please listen to how I think and feel about this situation. Please show me where I have been wrong, and how I have hurt [this person]. How can I keep from making the situation worse? What can  I do to make it better?”

• Constructive response to the one who has been hurt : “I am sorry that I have hurt you. Can we talk? How can I make this situation right?”

Situation 2. You have been wronged by someone else.

• Imagine Jesus holding your hands or with his arm around you, compassionate, caring, and helpful.

• Prayer: “Jesus, please give me courage and strength to acknowledge how I have been wronged. How may I respond to this situation in ways that best serves your purposes and honors God? Please give me an ability to forgive and even to love [this person] regardless of their response to me.”

• Constructive response to the one who has hurt you: “I have been deeply hurt. I need to talk about what has happened for my sake and the sake of our relationship. I want to seek healing and reconciliation where possible. Can we talk?”

Situation 3. Both you and the other person are clearly at fault.

• Imagine you are standing with Jesus, and the look on his face is one of compassion, integrity, and willingness to help.

• Prayer: “Jesus, please help me to find a balanced perspective, fairly assessing both the part I have played and the part [the other person] has played in the relational breakdown. Please give me courage and strength to face my own failings, to stand by my own perspective of how I have been wronged, and to know how to go forward from here. ”

• Constructive response to other person: “Please tell me how you have been hurt by me. Please listen to my feelings and experience, too. Let’s be honest with one another, forgive one another, and find a way to rebuild our relationship.”

Situation 4. No one seems to have sinned or deliberately done wrong, but there is great regret, hurt, and/or grief.

• Sit with the wise rabbi, who clearly has the ability to give needed guidance under painful and difficult circumstances.

• Prayer: “Jesus, please help me to sense your strong, gracious, loving presence. Please help me to forgive myself for what went wrong. Please show me the way forward and walk with me.”

• Constructive response: “I’m sorry for whatever ways I hurt you. I did not mean to cause you suffering. What can we do to make this situation right, or at least go forward from here?”

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.  And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6, NIV)

The Point: Asking Jesus to make his presence better known to you in the midst of the unresolved relational pain or conflict is different from asking God to fix the problem. By all means ask for relational miracles and for God to change the heart and mind of everyone involved. However, don’t abdicate your own responsibility. Ask Jesus for wisdom, grace, strength, courage, and opportunity that will enable you to do everything within your power to make things better or right…with God’s help.

Prayer: “Loving Lord Jesus, you are the Prince of Peace. Please give me the grace to face my pain and the pain I have caused others, and show me the way forward from here.”

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“One Way Love”

Jesus carrying his cross

Over the past few weeks, I’ve written about the power and importance of love when loving doesn’t come easily or we’re not sure what to do—“Simply Love Them” (Dec. 21), “When Loving Gets Tough” (Jan. 4), and “A Harder Kind of Love: Forgiveness” (Jan. 11). Perhaps the most difficult kind of love to offer, though, is what we do for others with no expectation of return.

I’m not talking about anonymous giving or unrequited romantic love, but the arduous, self-sacrificial love shown to those who cannot, for whatever reason, return our love or show appreciation. They may have dementia, be mentally disturbed, or even be our enemies. In such cases, our loving is entirely one way, and we may easily feel overwhelmed or utterly inadequate to rise to the occasion.

In 1988, I first knew something was seriously wrong with my mother. It took three years for us to have a firm diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, and nearly fifteen years before her breathing finally stopped. In between, each day on the long journey felt like a little death, as everything I knew and loved about her kept slipping away from me bit by bit.

Watching her slowly degenerate, lose her dignity, cease functioning, and become completely incapable of communicating with us was horrifying. The sense of loss cut like stab wounds, inflicted over and over again.

Alzheimer’s is a wearisome, disturbing, and heart-wrenching disease. Usually, long, long before the victim succumbs to death, loved ones have the responsibility of caring for someone who no longer knows them, let alone is able to offer them the same kind of love and relationship they have known.

So, what does it mean to love under such circumstances?  Warm feelings are often replaced with shock, anger, revulsion, depression, or all of the above. Natural motivation to reach out can wane over time as weariness sets in, especially when nothing comes back. I’ve seen heroic spouses, children, or siblings carry on year after year, but so many others cannot seem to handle the horror of the disease or the pain of the gradual loss, and they disappear.

My nearly fifteen-year journey with my dying mother taught me many things about such one way love that may help you, too:

• It’s OK to be angry and upset. Don’t minimize your distress or rush to look for silver linings. If you really loved the person from your heart, seeing their demise or struggle will be extremely painful. To feel and express your emotions is human, and may provide the energy you need to find ways to cope with the tragedy.

• Don’t try to be a hero. Get support, get a break when needed, and get help. My father probably shortened his life trying to care for my mother too long in his own home. For most of us, providing love for sick or troubled people can be the most taxing and troublesome ordeal of our lifetime. Don’t try to do it alone.

• At the same time, don’t run away. Resist the temptation to cope by neglecting the aging person. You will be sorry later on if, when the loved one is gone, you didn’t do what you could have done to be there for them.

• Separate your own anguish from that of the one who is sick or dying. They have their own psychological, emotional, and spiritual grappling to do, you have yours. Let the pain and cognitive dissonance you are experiencing be a catalyst for your own growth.

• Choose to love them in action, even when you don’t feel love. Insist on their proper care, whether you are one of the actual caregivers or not. Advocate for them continually. Check on them frequently. Look after them as you would a newborn baby who poops and cries a lot, yet is too young to even smile in return.

• When the one you are committed to rebuffs you, hates you, acts violently toward you—as can easily happen in cases of dementia or other mental illness—the example of Jesus may help. When he was rejected and literally crucified by those he sought to love, his attitude was gracious and kind. His prayer was, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

• It’s OK to ask your questions of God. My mother’s illness made no sense to me, because I was living under the false assumption that faithful Christians serving Christ’s purposes would somehow be spared from such tragedies. Being honest with my questions and seeking better answers was extremely helpful to me. Re-thinking my assumptions about God and about the meaning of life and human suffering have helped me to mature and to draw closer to God than ever.

“We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” (Romans 5:3-5, NIV)

The Point: Hanging in there with those who are no longer able or willing to love you in return can be one of the hardest tests of your commitment to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Yet choosing to do so can make all the difference in the world to the kind of person you become, and to the beneficiary of your love as well.

Prayer: “Loving Lord, thank you for the depth of your love for me. Please teach me how to draw more fully from your love, so that I can persevere better in loving others. Help me to release my own expectation and desire for reciprocity or reward from caring for hard-to-love people, and to look to you instead for the comfort, peace, hope, and love that I need and crave.”

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A Harder Kind of Love: Forgiveness

Rwandan women learning to forgive

If loving others can be really hard sometimes, forgiving those who hurt us deeply can seem almost impossible at times.  Yet, forgiving others is not optional for Christians, and is perhaps the greatest expression of agape love we can show.

If you are struggling with your feelings toward a hard-to-forgive person, here are 10 points to consider that may help.

1. Forgiving others doesn’t mean that you are saying that what happened to you wasn’t terrible or wrong, or that you will enable their abusive behavior by not calling them to account. Rather, forgiveness means that you no longer want to stay stuck in your anger. You want to stop being fueled by harsh, resentful, or vengeful feelings. Holding on to your anger isn’t going to make things right; it’s only going to make you sick.

2. Forgiveness means that you stop hoping something bad will happen to “pay them back” or “to make them suffer” for what they did. Instead, you begin praying that God will work in their hearts and minds for good, remembering that “God’s kindness leads to repentance” (Romans 2:4) and that Jesus said, “love your enemies, and do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27).

3. When you forgive others, you stop holding the offense against them. You decide that you are not going to demand that they “give” you something (an apology, repayment, suffering, or some other kind of “payment”) before you will treat them with agape love, as described in 1 Corinthians 13. Instead, you choose to be patient, kind, and unselfish; and you refuse to punish them by treating them rudely or vindictively, because you want to be a person of love, regardless of what they have done or have not done.

4. Forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean that you will put yourself in a position to be hurt by them again. You need to know whom you are dealing with and what to expect from this person, so that you can set boundaries for your own well-being and that of others who may depend on you for safety. Limit their power to hurt you by not expecting kindness, goodness, or fair treatment from those who cannot or don’t want to love you in return.

5. Forgiving others will set you free from being a prisoner to the past, if you begin to discipline your thinking:

• Stop ruminating over what has happened. It’s not helping you.

• Stop trying to make sense of senseless behavior. It’s not possible.

• Learn whatever you can from what happened, and then stop going over and over the failed or dysfunctional relational dynamic. Such internal churning will wear you down, and give you nothing in return.

• Maintain at least a neutral attitude toward the person who refuses to apologize, or is unwilling to seek healing in your relationship.

6. Remember, the future lies before you. Grieve what was lost or taken from you and accept that you do not have the power to change what has happened in the past. Then start looking forward.

7. Forgiveness, then, means moving on:

• Use your energy to focus on what brings you life and joy.

• Cultivate and enjoy your relationships with those who truly love you, enjoy your company, appreciate you, nourish and sustain you, and treat you well.

• Focus your attention on your calling and purpose in life to serve Christ with your unique set of gifts, abilities, resources, and opportunities.

8. Ask the Holy Spirit to release you from your attachment to your hurts and disappointments. Ask God to release the poison from your heart and mind. Seek freedom and healing so that you will not be so controlled by the actions of others, and so that you can focus your energy on developing truly loving relationships.

9. Pray for the ability to be compassionate and gracious toward them; and to genuinely desire good for their life. For those who offer a heartfelt apology, set them free by accepting their gesture.

10. Accept that no matter how hard or impossible it may be to “feel” forgiving toward someone, forgiveness is ultimately a matter of obedience to the Holy Spirit, who tells us to forgive others as we have been forgiven.

After the genocide, “Nehemiah” wanted to kill as many people as possible. After his parents were killed by workers on their farm, he sought to slake his thirst for revenge by joining the army.

One day the man who killed his father came to him asking for forgiveness.  A revolver was holstered at his waist. This was his opportunity.

But he couldn’t do it. By this time, Nehemiah had become a Christian and left the army. He was teaching children and working as an evangelist.

When his elder brother heard that he passed up the chance to get revenge, he was livid. “Why didn’t you kill him?” he screamed. Jill and I asked him the same question.

His answer was simple, but sincere: “God has forgiven me for so much, how could I not forgive him?”

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 4:32-5:2, NIV)

The Point: Forgive those who have wronged you, rejected you, or let you down, for your sake as well as theirs. Imitate God’s love by forgiving others as you have been forgiven. Choose to act toward them in ways that fit with your faith and values, in obedience to the Spirit, regardless of how they may act toward you.

Prayer: “Loving God, thank you for the immensity of your patience, kindness, and generosity to me, in spite of my reluctance to repent at times and resistance to your call to love others as myself. Please set free from my anger, hurt, and desires for revenge. May your will truly be done in me and through me that I may rise above my own limitations to increasingly become a person of love, without exceptions.”

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