A common mantra in the Church goes like this: “God loves you right where you are, but too much to leave you there.” I’ve said it too. It’s true.
It's well intended, but sometimes I wonder if our mantra actually risks communicating an unwillingness to love people right where they are.
I talk to others a lot about accepting people right where they are. It’s at the core of the guest services training I do with churches and organizations. It’s what I teach. And yet, I’m embarrassed that I am still learning to practice this no-strings-attached, unconditional acceptance of other people – right where they are. I “believe” it; but admittedly, I too often still have expectations that, honestly, risk reflecting a lack of acceptance.
“God loves you right where you are.” What if we stopped there?
What if we listened and sat with people in their pain, in their chaos, in their painful consequences, in their confusion? What if we entered their journey; empathized with their pain; validated their feelings as real feelings? What if we demonstrated “God loves you right where you are” with our honest, unconditional acceptance of them?
The sad truth is that too often, we’re so eager to move people from where they are, we risk not giving them space to experience God’s love – right where they are. We want change for them – NOW. And even though our intentions are good, our mantra often reinforces what people already believe: God loves me when I do what’s right. When I change. When I move from where I am.
What is it that makes it difficult to put a period at the end of the statement: “God loves you right where you are?”
Maybe we’re afraid we’ll communicate that we’re condoning behavior or an attitude or a sense of hopelessness. Maybe we’re afraid we’re reflecting “tolerance” as a trite politically correct nod to “acceptance.”
Most of us know nothing of God’s unconditional love, meeting and loving us right where we are – until another human being genuinely loves us just like that – unconditionally. Most of us have only ever known “love” from someone else when we do the “right thing,” meet their expectations, make wise choices and win their approval. Most of us have never experienced unconditional love from another human being. Too often what we hear is: “I love you, but I’ll really love you when you change.”
Although I was raised in the church, it wasn’t until my mid-thirties that I experienced unconditional love.
I’d just been released from the psychiatric ward of a Seattle hospital. After two weeks of painful truth-telling about myself – to therapists and wounded peers, strangers until they sat with me in my pain. My first assignment out of the hospital was to find four people I trusted back home. People I trusted enough to sit with – one at a time – and tell them everything about myself. Not only the story of my depression and suicidal ideation, but the story of me. My fears, thoughts, desires and hurts. My shame. Everything. The stuff I’d hidden for years, convinced that if anyone knew, they wouldn’t accept me. So, hesitantly, I sought out these four people: my wife, Laura, and three friends: Rusty, Doug and Drex.
For two hours plus, I sat with each one of them, beginning first with Laura. I confessed; I revealed; I told the truth about myself. All of it. I wept; I felt remorseful; I wept some more. While I trusted each of them, this was a new level of trust. It was vulnerability I had never practiced. I desperately needed their acceptance. And I honestly couldn’t predict the outcome of those conversations. Would they accept me right where I was?
It was high risk. Would they hear the truth and walk away? Would they need time to process and decide if they could continue relationship with me? Would they forgive me? Would they love me?
Laura was the first. The first to hear me – and the first to accept me right where I was. Period. She wept with me. She entered my pain. She sat with me. She held me. She told me: “There’s nothing you’ve ever done that could make me love you less, and there’s nothing you could ever do to make me love you more. I love you.”
That was enough. My wife covered every exposed area of my life with grace. With unconditional love. I was overwhelmed. In the best of ways.
And there was more.
Rusty, Doug and Drex each demonstrated the same mysterious, unconditional love. They sat with me, cried with me, hugged me and told me the same thing Laura had said: “There’s nothing you’ve ever done that could make me love you less, and there’s nothing you could ever do to make me love you more. I love you.”
Right where I was. Their love didn’t come with any demand for change. They didn’t use the mantra: God loves you right where you are, but too much to leave you there. Instead their message was clear: I love you right where you are. And I’ll love you if you never change.
It was then – in those gifts of human love, unconditional love, that I first understood God’s love. His unconditional love. His amazing grace.
Grace meant I didn’t feel the pressure to do. I didn’t feel the expectation to be different. I didn’t experience a conditional equation of “if you do then I will.” Grace allowed me to be right where I was. Without judgement. Without rejection. Without disappointment or demand.
I found God’s unconditional love in the face and embrace of my wife, Laura.
I discovered God’s grace in the acceptance and hugs of my friends, Rusty, Doug and Drex.
They were, they are, Jesus with skin on. They taught me that to experience genuine Love is to experience Jesus. To experience Jesus is to know unconditional love.
Thank you, Rusty, Doug and Drex. You listened to my story. You gave me courage to tell you the ugly, unspeakable parts of me. You showed me grace. I still thank God for you.
Thank you, Laura. I’m forever indebted to you. And yet, because you continue to show me true love, I don’t feel obligated. Instead, I feel deep gratitude. I love you. Right where you are.
I want to practice an abbreviated mantra to what I’ve heard and repeated. I want people to experience grace from me. Grace that says: “I love you right where you are.” Period.