What Does Love Look Like?

I had a discussion last night with a friend wherein she recounted a discussion she had with someone in her church.  Her conversation was almost identical to myriad conversations I’ve had with well-meaning Christians throughout the years of my journey.  One such conversation went something like this:

“I don’t understand why you won’t talk to your mother.  Don’t you think it’s time to be loving? I think you really just need to love your mother.  Just love her.  Really show her what God’s love is like.  Your grandfather was so critical of her.  I’m sure she just needs a little gentleness.  You need to forgive her.”

Another conversation sounded like this:

“It’s really important to honor your parents.  I don’t think cutting off a parent pleases God.  Whatever your father did, it couldn’t be that bad.  My father has yelled at me a time or two.  I’ve wanted to run off and not talk to him, but that’s rebellious.  You are being rebellious.  It’s not honorable.  Don’t you want it to go well with you?”

If you think these responses are uncommon, then you would be mistaken.  They are, in fact, the most common responses I’ve received from Christians.  Why? I suspect it’s because people assume things.  If I mention “mother” or “father” many people might imagine their own parents.  If their parents fall within the bell curve for normal human behavior, then it might be hard for them to imagine what abnormal human behavior looks like.  Does it look like what they see on an episode of Law & Order? No.  It’s worse.

Let’s address the first common statement about being loving.  Usually, after a statement extolling the virtues of Christian love, scripture is quoted. 1 Corinthians 13 is a favorite.  That chapter of Corinthians is one of my favorites, too, so this puts me on common ground with a person allowing me to begin a conversation.  It’s important to ask some necessary questions.

  • What does it look like to love a pedophile?
  • What does it look like to love a sociopath?
  • What does it look like to love a sadist?
  • What does it look like to love a narcissist or a phallic narcissist?
  • What does it look like to love an addict who just won’t give up their addiction?

Let’s take it further.

  • What does it look like to love a sadistic mother who used to lock you in a room so that she could engage in orgies?
  • What does it look like to love a father who burned you on the face with a cigarette lighter and laughed about it?
  • What does it look like to love a brother who molested you repeatedly as a child?
  • What does it look like to love an uncle who dismembered your kitten in front of you so that you would never tell anyone about his repeated sodomy?
  • What does it look like to love a mother who tried to murder members of your family in front of you?
  • What does it look like to love a parent who tried to sell you in exchange for car repairs?
  • What does it look like to love a parent who verbally, emotionally, and spiritually abused you for your entire childhood and adolescence?

These are very real circumstances for people.  It takes enormous courage to break free from families where this depth of dysfunction and deviancy is in place.  It is precisely the love of God that empowers victims of abuse to experience their own worth and make an attempt to leave what they know even if what they know is Hell.  The love of God is goodness personified, but it’s also raw power.  When it’s present it extinguishes darkness leaving us very vulnerable.  God tenderly exposes all the areas in us that He is chomping at the bit to touch and heal, but we are very fragile whether we know it or not.  We can only do so much at a time.  When it comes to being loved by God and loving others–it’s first things first.  You must know that you are loved.  This is written very clearly in the command to love your neighbor as yourself.  That command was written with an implicit assumption.  It assumed that you had internalized the love of God and would, therefore, extend that love to those around you.  In other words, within the command there is another command to love yourself.  Know your worth.  Treat yourself kindly and with respect so that you can teach others how they ought to treat you.  Let the goodness of God invade your inner life so that His goodness might overflow in your life and touch others.  That is what that command in action looks like.  It all starts with you and God.

So, what does loving people who hurt us look like then? It starts with teaching them how to treat us because that’s exactly what God teaches us.  What did Jesus say? Love the Lord your God with all your strength, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself (Luke 10:27).  Loving others is not a warm, fuzzy feeling.  It’s an act of the will.  In the case of abusers, it’s often an act of getting the justice system involved because natural consequences are part of teaching others how to treat you.  That actually is love in action.  We teach our children about natural consequences because we love them.  We teach other adults in our lives the same thing because we want them to be successful, too.

  • If you molest a child, then the police will be called.  You will not be allowed access to other children.  You may spend time in prison and become a registered sex offender.  This may be the only boundary that will keep others safe and prevent you from acting out dangerous fantasies.
  • If you abuse me verbally, then I will not spend time with you.  You need to learn how to treat others with respect.  This will help you become more successful in your relationships.
  • If you get drunk at my parties and behave badly, then I will not invite you to my parties.  You need to learn about limits and what’s acceptable socially.  This will help you become more successful socially.
  • If you rape women, then you will (or at least you should) go to prison.  You also will have a hard time getting a date.  Violence against women is never acceptable, and you need help in figuring out why you feel empowered when you are victimizing others.
  • If you abuse your children, then they will not want to have relationships with you as adults.  They will not trust or grow attached to you.  You need help in determining why you believe that you deserve the trust and respect of your children when you have not earned it.

Are any of the above statements mean or unloving? No, they are simply natural consequences for poor choices.  Is that unloving? NO! Natural consequences pave the way for a person’s character development, maturity, and sense of self-esteem.  If a person is allowed to feel the consequences of their poor choices, then they are more likely to change their behaviors and learn to make better choices.  This is part of how humans grow and develop into better humans.  That is, in fact, the most loving and merciful thing that can be done for them.  When we protect people from the natural consequences of their poor choices, we are not being loving, Christ-like, or kind.  We are not respecting their boundaries or allowing them to engage in their own process of development.  We are also engaging in codependent behavior and maintaining a false peace which is, in fact, contrary to what God wants.  Take a look at what Jesus says in Luke 9: 3-5:

“Take nothing for your journey,” he instructed them. “Don’t take a walking stick, a traveler’s bag, food, money, or even a change of clothes.  Wherever you go, stay in the same house until you leave town.  And if a town refuses to welcome you, shake its dust from your feet as you leave to show that you have abandoned those people to their fate.”

Is Jesus being cruel here? No.  Is He being unloving? No.  He has given the disciples a commission to go out and heal people for crying out loud! They are essentially fulfilling their calling, doing what Jesus has asked of them.  If a town didn’t want it, then the disciples were to shake the dust from their feet and move on.  Keep going.  Were they to stay back and plead? How about sacrifice their own identities for the well-being of the town? Did Jesus say that they were to deny themselves in order to be like Him? NO! Did he suggest that they stand around and be verbally spat upon or stoned for the good of the Kingdom? No, He didn’t.  He told them to offer up His peace.  If it wasn’t accepted, then move on.

God is loving.  Far more loving than any human being, but God’s love is not codependent or enabling.  He desires our freedom and wholeness.

So, what about the issue of honoring our parents? How do we honor parents who have abused us? I actually spent a long time in therapy working this through because it was deeply important to me to honor my parents.  Why? Because I absolutely love God, and I wanted to honor Him.  I came to the conclusion with guidance from a seasoned pastor that to honor your parents means to forgive and bless them.  For many of us, this takes time.  It’s a process, not an event.  There are people in the world who have suffered extraordinarily at the hands of their parents, and it is wrong to make assumptions about why a person might cut the parental bonds.  It is not rebellious nor sinful to leave a parental relationship.  Furthermore, it is not for anyone to judge.  That very difficult decision is between God and the person making it.  He is the only person to judge such a thing.  For the sake of argument, could it ever be a pure act of defiance to cut off a parent? Sure.  That is, however, not what I’m discussing here.

Statistics say that 1 out of 4 women has been sexually assaulted.  For men, it’s 1 out of 6.  Let’s put those numbers in a context so that they become more meaningful.  How many victims of sexual abuse knew their perpetrators? Recall the scandal that hit the media a few years ago about pedophilia in the priesthood in Boston.  So, let’s try that first Christianese statement again except let’s change the context.  You’re now talking to a male adult who was once the victim of repeated sexual abuse by his parish priest:

“Well, Jim, I just think that the Lord would have you love him.  He just really needs to be shown the love of God.  Just love him to pieces.  Keep going to church and live out the love of God.  You’ll get over it.”

Does that sit right with you? It shouldn’t.  We’ve just victimized the victim, ironically, with the love of God.

Let’s try this on for size:

“I know that your father molested you when you were young, but we are called to honor our parents.  It’s not right for you to confront him.”

The commandment to honor our parents does not give parents a free pass to treat their children like chattel, and it does not mean that adult children can’t seek justice and healing outside the parameters of the parental bonds.  This must be made clear.

What is really being communicated when well-meaning people say things like this? They are primarily communicating ignorance and a lack of empathy.  They are also communicating that they have not experienced the love of God in the way that perhaps the person to whom they are speaking requires.  Great suffering is shocking.  We need to be prepared to be shocked, and we also need to be prepared to allow people to figure things out.  We also need to be prepared to not know the answers.  Get very comfortable with saying, “I don’t know why either.”  The church at large has spent an inordinate amount of time re-victimizing victims by misinterpreting Biblical texts.  She has preached the message of forgiveness without truly understanding what it means to be restored and healed.  She has preached self-denial without understanding relationship or God’s sense of justice.  It has largely been a message of “keep the peace”, but it’s a false peace.  There is no life, wholeness, forward progress, hope, or a real future where there is no truth.  If the church is keeping a false peace, then there is no room for truth because keeping a false peace is all about denial.  God has never done denial nor should we.

The good news here is that there is a place for everyone is God’s Kingdom because God doesn’t look upon us and see us as sinful or broken. When he looks at each of us, He sees something good.  He sees you where you will be.  Not where you were.  He is God of the future.  Not a god of the past.  So, for those of us who have been defiled, shamed, and beaten, there is hope for healing and wholeness.  This isn’t a gossamer notion or an illusion.  It’s a reality.  For those of us who are trapped in the sticky web of religion, boxed in by a god cast in our own image or the image of someone far more nefarious, there is hope, too, because God is the ultimate iconoclast.  He loves to reveal Himself and His nature as something beyond anything we could ever imagine.  Whoever you are, it’s these encounters that change us transforming us from who we were into who we really want to be–an integrated, healed human bearing the image of God Himself.

And what is God like? Well, Moses got a glimpse when God passed before him:

“The LORD passed in front of Moses, calling out, The LORD! The God of compassion and mercy! I am slow to anger and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness.” Exodus 34:6

This is a far better starting point than the false loves we’ve met along the way.






3 Comments on “What Does Love Look Like?

  1. Reading the list of things you experienced was crushing. Im very grateful you’ve endured, and for a purpose. Suffering is never without meanin.

    It is good that you keep disrupting the crusty established nice-isms and flawed wisdom the church when it comes to survivors relating to their abusers. I appreciate how Dan Allender says the opposite of mistrust is not trust, it’s care. We can hope and pray for the best to happen to our enemies while simultaneously being very loving to them, ourselves, and our families by not associating with them. The bridge back to relationship, if there’ll ever be one, is by the abuser’s own sorrow and repentance over their crimes.

    Here’s one member of the church who agrees with you 🙂

    • Thanks so much for your comment, DH! I do like Allender. He’s has made great contributions to the larger conversations going on. And, for the record, that list of crimes against people wasn’t everything I’ve endured. Some of it, yes, but not all. Thank God…but I’ve known others who have endured terrible crimes and been expected to just swallow it all in the name of “forgiveness and charity”. Over the years, I’ve learned what that really means, and it’s not at all what most people think…Thanks again for visiting!!! Best, J

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