“There are many other voices, voices that are loud, full of promises and very seductive. These voices say, “Go out and prove that you are worth something.” Soon after Jesus had heard the voice calling him the Beloved, he was led to the desert to hear those other voices. They told him to prove that he was worth love in being successful, popular, and powerful.
— Henri Nouwen, Return of the Prodigal Son
I have recommended Nouwen’s book many times over the years, especially to many people who struggle to see themselves as the beloved of God. You might sum up their struggle something like this: “That quote seems great but impossible. I haven’t earned it. My discomfort is related to the luxury of it. I am unworthy of something for which I did not work. I’m not saying that in regard to my salvation. I know I cannot work for that. I feel it in regard to the favor. To declare victory over my need to work for the favor of God seems premature.”
Every human, regardless of their outward struggle in this unjust and unpredictable world, has an inner struggle with being loved – by others, by God and by themselves, usually in that order. I think the end of the struggle often begins with accepting love from another. And many people see accepting God’s love as a logical possibility as a result of human love. The problem with real liberation usually comes with loving ourselves — such love may seem unseemly or downright impossible, given all we know about ourselves.
The sound of genuineness
We may love others like the Lord loves us long before we love ourselves that way. Our first steps into love may be more faking it than making it. But such steps of love are better than no steps. In Howard Thurman’s famous commencement address to Spelman College in 1980 he said:
You are the only you that has ever lived; your idiom is the only idiom of its kind in all of existence and if you cannot hear the sound of the genuine in you, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.
It is good to be at the beck and call of your mates, your friends and your church. But it is best to answer their call from the genuine, the “I am” of you, the image of God in you, the spiritual gift in you, the conviction of the Holy Spirit in you.
It is good to listen to God’s voice, saving you in the word and work of Jesus, drawing and pushing you toward fullness. But it is best to respond genuinely, not just as an obedient child, but as a friend and partner, a lover.
Nouwen makes a point of reminding us that Jesus went into the wilderness to face the inner voices which told him he was not the one God named Beloved. He needed that time and space because it takes contemplation to overcome the resistance we feel to genuine self love like God loves us. When I meet people for spiritual direction, their freedom often comes by telling the story of their inner journey. They often see how their past has trapped them and begin to imagine a future path to fullness.
Hate may be a surprising prelude to beloved
We sometimes think our present path is so despicable or hopeless we have a hard time imagining a future of living as God’s beloved, collaborating with our acceptance into the Family. In Jesus and the Disinherited, my favorite reread of 2020, Thurman says,
Hatred, in the mind and spirit of the disinherited, is born out of great bitterness, a bitterness that is made possible by sustained resentment which is bottled up until it distills an essence of vitality, giving to the individual in whom this is happening a radical and fundamental basis for self-realization…From within the intensity of their necessity, they declare their right to exist, despite the judgment of the environment. Hatred makes this sort of profound contribution to the life of the disinherited, because it establishes a dimension of self-realization hammered out of the raw materials of injustice.
I think Thurman would be fine if you related to this truth even if you are not descended from American slaves who still have a lot of glory to hammer out of the raw materials of injustice. It could easily be said that the best elements of Christianity unique to America is their ongoing work. You may or may not share their injustice, but you undoubtedly feel your own share.
I hope we are careful with one another as we help each other navigate to the self love which is often a final hurdle before freedom — the “love your neighbor as yourself” love that means you are beloved enough to love. Hatred of others and even oneself may be a beginning point for some people, but it is a self-defeating end point.
“Hate has no boundaries, and behaviors such as hypervigilance, suspicion, negativity, resentment, and bitterness will eventually spill over into other relationships,” even our relationship with God (see Adensanya). Eventually we need to forgive “the other,” God and ourselves. That’s moving toward “genuine.” Most of us won’t be able to meet such a demand at the beginning of our journey; there is hurt under that hate. We’ll need to be seen and heard, hopefully by a loving other, certainly by God and usually, finally, by ourselves.
Last week Gwen and I watched American Skin, which could serve as a parable for much of what I am trying to say.
The movie is a story in which hate propels an action against injustice, and in which people struggle to find forgiveness instead of vengeance, mutuality instead of constant warfare. It provides scant hope that the system is going to become less violent any time soon. But it beautifully shows how individuals and small groups, like your church, can experience another way. I think hating the “Great Other” of American racism makes sense. But I know loving God and loving my neighbor as myself makes more.
Devalued people devalue others. More tragically, they devalue themselves. They listen to the voices of condemnation and destruction that tell them they must fight for the right to be beloved. Each of us is on a journey toward liberation from that hell of violence with which we often collaborate. If some hater scares us, maybe we should light a candle of hope in their honor. Maybe that tiny spark of self-realization in their hate will grow into glory under God’s loving care. I think such an act of love might meet the definition of what Thurman calls “genuine.”
If we are tired of running into the same victimization that has plagued us for what seems like forever, maybe we can see that fatigue as the last gasp of control before we give up our struggle to be proven worthy and trust in God’s name for us. If we have experienced the love of others and understand the love of God on our behalf in Jesus but still run into our self-condemnation, maybe we can see that experience as a sign we are very close to more of the freedom we crave — at least we see and hear ourselves! Now we can turn into another step of trusting the One who calls each of us, “My beloved child,” and love that child ourselves.