A reading from the first letter of John: “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.” About ten verses later, John writes, “We love because he first loved us.” I have recently come to regard this final verse as the foundation of my religious identity. I now believe that whatever love I can offer others is always a reflection of God’s love for me and for each one of us.
For most of my life I spurned God’s love, skeptical that He could care for someone as messed up as I was. This was partially the result of misreading Jesus’ commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Somehow I understood him to mean “love your neighbor more than yourself,” or even “love your neighbor at the expense of yourself.” I am not surprised that I distorted Jesus’ words in this way. After all, we don’t often see Jesus take a break, and the stories of great Christians tend to be about women and men who gave everything they had in the service of others. Until about a year ago, I believed that unless I was constantly putting others’ needs before my own, I was selfish and unworthy of being loved. I began to love and idolize the wonderful person I thought I could be, if only I tried hard enough, and to feel completely disgusted by the un-martyr-like person I actually am.
This need to be a perfect practitioner of charity spread to other realms of my life, so that even morally neutral subjects such as performance in school and my level of extracurricular commitment became ways for me to criticize my value as a person. I also came to believe that eating anything that might compromise my health (perhaps by clogging my arteries with cholesterol, or bringing unnatural chemicals into my body) was a selfish waste of earth’s precious resources and the body God had given me.
My concern with healthy eating ultimately became an eating disorder that plagued me in various forms from when I was 9 until I received adequate treatment in January of 2013. Though eating disorders are sometimes mistakenly thought of as a result of a superficial preoccupation with physical appearance, church history is full of female saints, such as Catherine of Siena, who used bizarre food practices to indicate their dedication to saving humanity.
The problem is, beating myself up for procrastinating from an essay or eating slightly too much became a very time consuming obsession. I was walking on egg-shells throughout my existence, constantly afraid I would mess up. And when I did mess up, which became increasingly often, it was so hard to get back on track, and I took to wallowing in my failures. All the worry and guilt took up a lot of mental energy, and ultimately my effort at self-denial became a rather egotistical occupation.
Another issue was that instead of celebrating my friends, I became strangely jealous, both of their accomplishments and their problems. Everyone else, it seemed, had it all together. Even when they struggled, it was always for some very legitimate reason, such as illness or another person’s mistreating them. When I had trouble, it always seemed to be my own fault. The words of the Psalms, and other parts of the Bible that are meant to be reassuring, always just made me feel guiltier. There was nothing I needed protection from except myself. I had managed to convert a message that was meant to spread love in the world into a vehicle of self-hatred.
One day my best friend told me that God loves me just exactly how I am, regardless of anything I do or say or think or fail to do or say or think. This, he reminded me, was really the message of Christianity. It took me a while to actually believe my friend. How could God love me when I was so bad and so wasteful of all he had given me? I felt sure that my friend didn’t really understand the extent of my depravity. I figured I had him fooled, just as I had the rest of the world, and maybe even God, fooled too.
But my friend was right. God does love us unconditionally, and we are called to respect His love and accept it. After a year of focusing on taking care of myself, and embracing my best friend’s loving kindness, I feel so much more connected to other people. I can admire my friends without feeling jealous, and I have the energy to reach out when one of them needs a hand. Recognizing God’s deep and very real love for me has given me a foundation from which to more activity love others.
Let us pray: Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross, so that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace. Help us to recognize your love, and welcome it, so that we might then radiate love out into the world. Amen.