I’m not really a “life verse” kind of person. Years ago, when I was going through a period of severe depression, I held pretty tightly to Romans 12:12: “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.” It helped me immensely to have a bite size reminder that I could repeat in my mind, calling me to the fact that joy is an action, not a feeling. In the last few years I have found similar help from the last line of one of my favorite poems, one I’ve shared here at least once--another short snatch of a thought that I can cling to. Still, the idea that one could choose a single verse from scripture and have it speak to them throughout their entire life in a more meaningful way than any other verse seems improper to me.
And yet, I’ve been struck this week in a very particular way by Galatians 2:20:
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.
And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
I used to sing this verse almost weekly, back when I attended Resurrection Williamsburg. The pastor of that church has a band called The Welcome Wagon, and for years we sang that short refrain during services on Sundays, only to have it be included on their most recent album (and it’s a really good album.) I enjoyed singing the song, but I don’t know that I ever truly thought through the full meaning of that verse.
This week I found myself in the right place to hear it fully for the first time. Prompted to dig deeper into the topic of Christology by an episode of the podcast Knowing Faith, I began reading On the Incarnation, the seminal work of Athanasius of Alexandria, who was an Egyptian bishop c. 350 AD. For an ancient text, it’s surprisingly readable (I have the excellent translation by Sister Penelope Lawson) and it’s been beyond groundbreaking for me. God reveals himself in different ways through different seasons of the Christian walk, but I can say with certainty that he is revealing himself to me through this short book.
For starters, Athanasius begins by discussing who God the Son is from the beginning. Before getting into the Son’s embodiment as the man Jesus, Athanasius spends time talking about the Trinity and the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I know for sure that this is a result of me not spending enough time contemplating it, because I have definitely heard this before, but my mind lit up when I read:
Now in dealing with these matters it is necessary first to recall what has already been
said. You must understand why it is that the Word of the Father, so great and so high, has been made manifest in bodily form. He has not assumed a body as proper to His own nature, far from it, for as the Word He is without body. He has been manifested in a human body for this reason only, out of the love and goodness of His Father, for the salvation of us men. We will begin, then, with the creation of the world and with God its Maker, for the first fact that you must grasp is this: the renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word who made it in the beginning. There is thus no inconsistency between creation and salvation for the One Father has employed the same Agent for both works, effecting the salvation of the world through the same Word Who made it in the beginning.
For the first time I found myself understanding that when Genesis 1 speaks of God speaking creation into existence, and John 1 speaks of Jesus as the Word, they are both referring to God the Son. The reason Jesus is called the Word of God is because it was through him that creation was made and it is through him that it is upheld. (Nerdy side note: I also learned recently of the doctrine of aseity, which basically says that God’s existence is what allows creation to continue, and we do not exist outside of God, and were he to stop upholding us for even a moment we would instantly vanish. Check it out. It’s mind bending.)
It’s difficult to describe what happened inside me when I finally made this connection about Christ being the Word. First of all, the level of intimacy I felt with God the Son skyrocketed (to quote Jen Wilkin: “The heart cannot love what the mind does not know.”) For Jesus Christ to be not only the man who physically helped up the woman caught in adultery, not only a mysterious part of the Godhead, but also to be the power and the means through which everything I see and touch was not only created but is currently sustained pierced me to the heart. For him to be sustaining creation means that he is in and through it all, and even now when I think about it, I feel like I am in possession of a magical secret.
This revelation also clarified a point about the gospel that has always been a little confusing to me. When Christ died on the cross, we are told that his death was transferred to all who put their hope in him--that his one death covered the sins of everyone. And while I’ve always believe this, and trusted in this, something mysterious and primal clicked in my mind when I grasped the concept of Christ upholding creation within himself. If he is upholding creation and is in all of creation, then his death would naturally flow through all things and reorient the foundations of the earth, freeing us from the clutches of sin. Even now I keep second-guessing myself, not because I think this might be untrue, but because it seems like knowledge that is too deep and rich for me to have access to. And at the same time it seems too easy--too perfectly holistic.
In another episode of Knowing Faith on the topic of our union with Christ, this point was driven home more completely to me by the speakers’ focus on the fact that our justification (the process by which God says that we are forgiven and justified in his sight) and our sanctification (the process by which God continually makes us more holy and more like himself) are not dependent on our own selves in any way, but rest solely in our union with Christ. Again, this is a truth I have known my whole life, but one that is easy to confuse or forget. If I am in Christ, whatever I feel about myself or my walk with God is not the basis on which I am judged. My salvation does not depend on whether I feel like I’m growing closer or further from God--if I have accepted what Christ did on the cross, I am united to him. End of story. Cue tears of relief.
And here is where Galatians 2:20 comes in. With this fresh understanding of my union with Christ and his status as the Word that created all things, the idea that “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me,” is both sobering and probably the best thing I’ve ever heard in my entire life. I am literally no longer alive. Christ is alive in me, but I have died, and am no more.
I’ve been pondering my way through this for about 48 hours now, and I think it will be something I continue to ponder always. There’s a strange sense of loss, and a sharp flicker of joyous relief, but mostly the feeling that I’m standing in the shallows of the ocean, letting it wash around my ankles, with the knowledge that I’m going to keep walking into the water until it’s above my hips and shoulders and head; until I am submerged, whether in this life or (more likely) in the next. It’s truly terrifying, but I am filled with the unshakable knowledge that this is the safest place I could be. How can it be that all we must do to be given knowledge of God is to humbly ask?
In his fourth chapter, Athanasius gives a beautiful defense of why it was necessary for Christ to be killed, and to be killed on the cross. He writes:
Again, the death of the Lord is the ransom of all, and by it the “middle wall of partition” is
broken down and the call of the Gentiles comes about. How could He have called us if He had not been crucified, for it is only on the cross that a man dies with arms outstretched? Here, again, we see the fitness of His death and of those outstretched arms: it was that He might draw His ancient people with the one and the Gentiles with the other, and join both together in himself. Even so, He foretold the manner of His redeeming death: “I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto myself.”
Athanasius suggests that Christ died with arms outstretched as a symbol of how he drew his two peoples--the Jews and the Gentiles--together in his death, but I find the manner of his death a powerful symbol also of his union with each believer. This is the God we serve--a God who does not neglect the smallest detail, who created us to appreciate physical representations of unspeakably mysterious truths. Who unites himself to us, sustains us, and draws near to us, both physically and spiritually. All of this is overwhelming, and all of this is absurdly accessible to those who humbly seek the face of God.
Photo: "Homeless Jesus," by Timothy Schmalz.
My sister and I went to see the movie Isn’t It Romantic over the weekend, which I thoroughly enjoyed. (I’ll pretty much watch Rebel Wilson in anything.) In fact, I actually found the film to be somewhat thought provoking. Light spoiler: at the end of the movie Wilson’s character discovers that she doesn’t need a guy to love her, she needs to love herself. Once she comes to a place of loving and accepting herself as is, she can move forward in the rest of her life.
This message has a lot of good in it. As someone who has often used the love and affirmation of others to cover my own insecurity, I resonate deeply with the idea of needing to come to terms with myself before being able to truly love others. But I’ve been thinking through the idea of loving oneself, and how important it is in culture today, and how this message is far more complicated than it may at first seem.
I do love myself. I can unashamedly say that. Yet the way I arrived at that statement is somewhat counterintuitive, especially with respect to the way self-love is often expressed. In general, there are two kinds of people: those who believe that people are primarily good and can improve themselves (with the exception of the big ticket offenders like Adolf Hitler and Christopher Columbus) and those who believe that all people are bad. For me, the only reason I love myself is because I fall into the latter category.
I know that sounds absurd. How can I love myself while acknowledging that within me resides the ability to do terrible things? More than that, I agree with the Christian belief that people are not only capable of sinning, but inherently bent on sinning from birth. According to the words of Jesus, it’s not just actions that matter but also intentions. He said: "You have heard it said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." (Matthew 5:27-28)
Nobody likes to talk about sin, and for those unfamiliar with the Judeo-Christian worldview, it seems shocking to say that people (including myself and everyone I love) are bad. But I am strongly convicted that it’s not just about outward actions (social rules) but also about heart and mind orientation relative to God’s intended design for the world, and I think this is something a lot of people inherently understand. Recently, I’ve been watching a lot of The Good Place, and the writers of that show have picked up on this same idea by (mild spoiler) placing some of the characters in the bad place despite the outward social “good” they accomplished in life. By revealing that their motives were actually greed, revenge, and selfishness they communicate that these characters’ hearts were corrupt.
How can this crushing weight of intentional and unintentional misery possibly lead anywhere near love? For me it began with the freedom and relief of honesty--honesty I don’t prescribe to anyone. If you believe humans are good, you are free to believe it. But the first step toward loving myself was being truthful about how shitty I am on a profound, core level. Not just the actions I’ve taken, but the murmurs of my heart and the constant self-focus that plagues me every single day. The first step for me was not ignoring my feelings of self-judgment and giving myself a platitude about how good my heart is, but actually recognizing my need for help.
This is the great divide. Once I was in the camp of please-God-let-there-be-someone-who-can-help-me, things fell quickly into place. Rather than continuing to try my hardest to be a better person, as I did through middle school, I was given the chance to look at myself and wait. I’ve been given this chance many times throughout the years, and there are seasons where the painfulness of this honesty is very sharp. Weeks or months when I watch myself doing or feeling something while knowing it’s destructiveness, no longer able to hide behind a false sense of being okay. And yet the truth that comes out of this pain is even more profound than the pain itself.
It’s very easy to say “It’s not about me.” I don’t think I’ll ever truly internalize it in this lifetime. Yet the first thing that happened after the lowness of my self-honesty was the realization that it must not be about me. It can’t be about me if I need someone to help me. Though I continually go back to trying to make it about me, I know at my core that it just isn’t. One of my favorite poems is called “Suspended,” by Denise Levertov:
I had grasped God's garment in the void
But my hand slipped
On the rich silk of it.
The 'everlasting arms' my sister loved to remember
Must have upheld my leaden weight
From falling, even so,
For though I claw at empty air and feel
Nothing, no embrace,
I have not plummeted.
Levertov eloquently reveals the profound truth that it is not I who am in charge of my journey, nor I who am upholding myself. Though I often don’t feel it, God is sustaining me nonetheless. My second glimpse of freedom was just this: that not only am I profoundly flawed, I am profoundly small. My lifespan in comparison to the universe is beyond miniscule. Even if I were to change the course of human history, I am but a blink. And yet, if the Bible is to be believed, I am also known intimately and treasured uniquely by the Creator of all things.
It’s a strange thing to come to terms with--the twin ideas that I both don’t matter and yet matter so much. This is where I arrive at loving myself. Though I don’t always want to love myself--and what it means to love myself is very different than what Rebel Wilson’s character felt in Isn’t It Romantic--I do love myself because I am convinced that God loves me. I have value because he has breathed life into me and chosen to make me exactly who I am.
This doesn’t mean some kind of shameful acceptance of myself--it doesn’t mean cringing and crawling in deference to a merciful God who plucked me out of the fires of hell despite my ugliness. There is a beautiful dignity in the way God allows us to stand on our feet and acknowledge our utter helplessness and his great mercy, while still seeing the value he gives to us. It allows me to begin to get to know myself and others--personality, likes and dislikes, skills and passions--in a way that marvels not at our inherent awesomeness, but at the unique craftsmanship and mystery of personhood God placed in each of us. It allows me to genuinely like who I am, and acknowledge that we as humans are beautiful creatures.
The largeness of the story is what affects me most: that the God who spans time created each of us with loving care, and placed us in time for his purpose. And though, as I’ve already mentioned, it’s not about me, it’s the love of him and his purpose that allows me to love myself, to marvel at the way he loves me when I don’t feel lovable. Rather than gritting my teeth and forcing myself to ignore or endlessly try to improve the things I know are ugly, I am free to honestly confess my sin and rest securely and joyfully in the knowledge that it will not be with me forever, because of the work of Jesus Christ, who loves me. He loves me more than I am able to love myself--a profound thought, indeed.
(Artwork by Bruce Buescher)
I have often wondered what the words of the Eucharist sound like to people who didn’t grow up in the church. It must be odd to come into a Christian worship service--something so sanitary in so many ways--and hear the pastor speaking the communion liturgy. “This is my body--take and eat,” Jesus said to his disciples in Matthew 26. “This is my blood--take and drink.” Those words have become non-calamitous to me, having heard them my whole life, but how strange those cannibalistic words must sound to any who don’t adhere to Christian doctrines. And what is more, how strange they must have sounded to the disciples themselves, who did not know yet that Jesus was going to die, and had no idea how the church would be formed and what this sacrament would mean in the years and centuries to come.
My own relationship to communion has changed over the years. I grew up in a church that took communion once a month, and the first time I experienced it weekly was at my church in New York, when I was 24. It seemed odd to me, at first, to be joining each week in the meal, but I learned, slowly, from that church and from my subsequent two churches here in Boston, to cherish receiving it each week. It seems impossible for me, now, to consider being part of a church that does not include it as a weekly element of worship. As the preacher Charles Spurgeon wrote:
I have often remarked on Lord’s-day evening, whatever the subject may have been, whether Sinai has thundered over our heads, or the plaintive notes of Calvary have pierced our hearts, it always seems equally appropriate to come to the breaking of bread. Shame on the Christian church that she should put it off to once a month, and mar the first day of the week by depriving it of its glory in the meeting together for fellowship and breaking of bread, and showing forth of the death of Christ till he come. They who once know the sweetness of each Lord’s-day celebrating his Supper, will not be content, I am sure, to put it off to less frequent seasons.
I’m not sure I would put it quite as strongly as Spurgeon does, but I deeply resonate with his closing sentence--having known the sweetness of celebrating it every week, I would mourn to lose this element of gathering with other believers and worshiping together.
Yet what makes the Lord’s Supper so important--so sweet? Besides the fact that it was given and commanded to be a part of the Christian life, there are so many answers to this question. In middle school I wrote a paper about Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli’s disagreement over the “real presence of Christ in the Eucharist” (can you say homeschooled Presbyterian?), and there have been debates and disagreements over the correct administration of the Lord’s Supper, the purpose of it, what actually goes on during it (are the elements a symbol? The actual body and blood of Christ? The essence of the body and blood?) and so on.
For me, the true beauty of the Eucharist is the way it unites the spiritual with the physical, and the way it connects individuals to the body of Christ. Christianity has consistently pushed back against the claim that the body and the reality of our physical self is bad; the Old and New Testaments are littered with evidence of the fact that we are body and soul, inextricable, beloved and intentionally so. From Christ taking on a human body to the way God gave explicit details in the Torah about how women on their periods should be cared for, it’s clear that the body is not an afterthought--it is who we are. Some of the earliest Christian writers and thinkers uphold this; as Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons wrote in AD 183:
The blessed Paul declares in his letter to the Ephesians that "we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones" [Eph. 5:30]. He does not speak these words of some spiritual and invisible man, for a spirit does not have bones or flesh, but of that dispensation of an actual man, consisting of flesh, nerves, and bones—that same flesh which is nourished by the cup which is his blood and receives increase from the bread which is his body.
C.S. Lewis echoes this idea of being nourished by the bread and wine in his writings on the Eucharist:
Yet I find no difficulty in believing that the veil between the worlds, nowhere else (for me) so opaque to the intellect, is nowhere else so thin and permeable to divine operation. Here [during the Eucharist] a hand from the hidden country touches not only my soul but my body. Here the prig, the don, the modern, in me have no privilege over the savage or the child. Here is big medicine and strong magic…the command, after all, was Take, eat: not Take, understand.
What these writers are getting at is what I feel instinctively in my bones when it comes time for communion: here is life, here is the body, both in an individual sense and a corporate one. When I stand and wait in line to receive the bread and wine, I stand in a line with believers before me and behind me, stretching symbolically through time and connecting me with the millions of others who have whispered “Amen,” and “Thanks be to God,” as I do when the server says to me, “This is Christ’s body, broken for you,” and “This is Christ’s blood, shed for you.” The reaction of my physical body to the good taste of the bread and the sharp tang of the wine grounds me again and again, each week, in the reality of my faith, and the fact that, as Lewis says above, there is no one who is greater or lesser in the body of Christ--we are all brought to the same table and instructed to eat and drink, for we cannot feed ourselves.
At my previous church, the bread used for communion always left a fine layer of flour on my fingers. At the time I was teaching 50 hours a week, living in the midst of the most challenging moment of my life to date. Each week I would come eagerly and thankfully to the table and rip off a big piece of bread. I would sit and eat it, crying in my seat while believers around me joined in singing and eating and drinking. I would rub my fingers and look at the flour stains, asking that God would let the substance sink straight down into my bloodstream and sustain me through the week ahead, until I could come again to the table.
The way the Lord’s Supper sustains is a profound thing. The bread and wine are symbols of the way we feed on and are given life by the Lord, but they are not just symbols, for God meets his children in a special way through the table. The Westminster Confession states that communion is a way in which God “[seals] all benefits thereof unto true believers,” and is “a bond and pledge of their communion with Him, and with each other, as members of His mystical body” (Chapter 29, article I.)
Contrary to what I thought as a child, coming to the communion table has nothing to do with how I feel about myself, whether good or bad. It is for the church in all seasons of life, but especially in those that drain us to our last drop. There is nothing that compares to the sweetness of simply coming with nothing and receiving, as we all do, week by week, and eating the bread of life that humbles and upholds us. This simple and profound act that uses and dignifies our physical selves is one to be mystified at and thankful for until we finally come face to face with the one who instituted it--who served the first loaf and poured the first cup with his own gracious hands.
I don’t generally spend a lot of time thinking about what comes after this life. Despite my Rich Mullins addiction, and his ever-present theme of the “somewhere” that will follow the world as it is now, I tend to feel more connected to the present, to struggle with the concept of time outside of how we currently understand it, and to view life as a finite thing that will give me approximately 80 years (if I’m lucky) to accomplish all I want to do.
Yet as I get closer to turning 30 and become more reflective about what I’m doing with my life and my career, I find myself thinking about the Christian promise of the new heavens and the new earth much more than before, and I have been considering it through the very personal lens of my own art.
I had the chance to listen to not one, but two sermons over the past two weeks, one in Pittsburgh and one in Boston, that focused on the idea of the restoration and renewal that God promises his creation at the end of time as we know it. I think it’s useful to Christians to spend the bulk of their time focused on the tasks we’ve been given in the here and now, but in listening to these beautiful, impassioned sermons--one with an emphasis on how we should be active caretakers of our current, injured earth, and one with an emphasis on the hope we hold onto--I realized that I need to spend more time considering what comes after the end of what we know. The way I live my life now, down to the choices I make and the way I see myself and others, is actually impacted far more by my understanding of the end than I thought.
The first verses of Revelation 21 are familiar:
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
There are many other passages in the Bible that speak of God’s care for creation, and his restoration of the earth when he comes again. Theologians throughout time have expounded on it. C.S. Lewis wrote about it in many of his writings, famously comparing the new earth in his Chronicles of Narnia series to the same earth we have experienced, but better and more real than we could have imagined. “The dream is ended: this is the morning,” he wrote.
As I’ve begun to really consider this idea, it’s taken on a new tone. Because it’s so hard to conceptualize something I don’t understand, or because culture says ridiculous things (like that we’ll be floating on clouds) it’s hard to truly get excited about what’s to come. But scripture does give us some solid truths to hold onto. We know that there will be no more sickness or death, and that we will have new bodies that do not grow weary (2 Corinthians 5). We know that we will be without sin (Romans 8:29-30), and will be with God himself (1 Corinthians 13:12).
As I dwell on these promises, the ramifications of them overwhelm me. All of the perfection in this earth that we have crushed under our corporate human heel will be restored. The earth (and the heavens...which is beyond my comprehension) will be exactly as God intended them--every part in harmony. The limits of my ability to explore and engage with creation will be gone. My body will be able to do the things I long to do, without the boundaries of time as we know them. We will live in agelessness.
And more than this, the restoration of relationship will be overwhelming. I think of those I love most, who move through life burdened and heavy with their own and other’s sins. One day I will be with my husband, my mother, my friends, and each will be the best of themselves, no longer touched by suffering, physical or otherwise. All the things I admire most about them will be prominent, and all the ways they fail will be gone. Each will be as they were meant to be: strong, joyful, and free. I will be with those who lived and died long ago, not just the famous Christians that I know of, but the faithful of a thousand generations. And I myself will be unhampered by shame--I will finally be able to rest, and to give freely of myself without fearing the darkness of my soul.
All of these things are just side effects, though, of the true reality--that we will be face to face with God, welcomed into his presence. Privileged to worship him without ceasing. And this is where his plan strikes me as so very beautiful--because he has created us so that worshipping him means not just adoration with our lips and bodies, but also with our own created selves. He has made each of us uniquely, with skills and desires, and the new heavens and new earth will be filled with people who are doing exactly what God created them to do, and doing it right and well.
This is what has been so pivotal for me right now, in this time before the fulfillment of these promises. The understanding that I do not have--as it’s so tempting to think--a single life here on earth to quickly do everything I want to accomplish, but rather that life extends into the next world. I am not limited to the amount of places I can visit in 80 years, or the achievements I can crank out before I die.
As an artist, this is especially poignant. It’s so easy to feel frustration when I can sense inside myself the wealth of stories that are as of yet untold, the seemingly endless number of ideas and projects I long to have the time and resources to do. But as I consider the new heavens and the new earth, it strikes me that the stories will not end. They will only expand and continue to become richer and better, because God has put them into me, and it brings him pleasure when I create. I will carry them into the restoration of all things.
I don’t know what each individual role will look like when the skies open up, but I know that the imagery of a city is God’s intentional way of indicating community and the continuation of work. In a world where there is complete restoration, I look forward to the chance to explore my art and my stories to their fullest, and to present them as worship. For now, dwelling on this has given me a sense of deep peace about the finite amount of time I have here on earth--and, oddly, a greater thirst for adventure.
With these beautiful things to look forward to, I don’t need to waste time worrying if I’ve reached my potential or achieved everything I wanted, but I also don’t want to waste time trying to achieve whatever the status quo is. What could be better than caring for and enjoying the earth we have now, while letting anxiety about the passing of time slip through my fingers? We have the life we are given now, but if we are in Christ, we also have the endless bounds of the life to come, where we will be strong and free--where the stories will not end, and where even our worship will be made whole.
In my last post, I talked about how I have been working my way through the Old Testament, and how doing so has been reorienting not just my understanding of what the Old Testament holds, but also my perception of myself and my knowledge of God. It’s not that I never studied the Old Testament before, but for whatever reason, it’s been completely different this time. I find myself wanting to know everything about all the stories in it. I think I’m finally understanding a little bit of what David wrote in Psalm 1:
Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither--
whatever they do prospers. (Psalm 1:1-3. Emphasis added.)
I want to be like that tree, constantly watered. I want to meditate on these things day and night.
The thing is, the more time I spend in these books, the more I have been convinced that the way I view myself is radically flawed. Which, having grown up in the church, is something I have intellectually known my entire life. I know it’s not about me--I know I am a creature and God is God. But I don’t live like I know these things, so clearly I haven’t truly internalized them.
Over the summer I listened to a couple podcasts that gave me the opportunity to think about the way culture, and I myself, view God, and I’ve come away with the conclusion that to me and to many others, God is often treated as if he’s very small. I know I’m not the first to say this, but as I continue to study the Old Testament, the main thing that I keep coming back to, over and over, is my perception of how big God is.
A few years ago I read Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton for the first time, and it was life-changing. I felt like I was being given permission to feel the way about God I’d always wanted to feel about him, with a deep sense of his mystery. I’ve always felt in my soul that if God is who he says he is--a God infinite and all-knowing--I shouldn’t be able to understand everything about him. Rather than lacking faith because I have unanswered questions, my doubts have tended to come because of things like unbearable monotony or cheap plastic light switches; how could these things be found in a world made by a majestic God?
But that’s a whole other post. My tendency, along with Chesterton, is to have my faith strengthened by knowing that there are some things I just cannot understand about God because of who he is. He would not be God if I could justify everything he did or explain his comprehensive plan. In my study of the Old Testament, I am feeling that again, along with a renewed sense of gratefulness that he has given his people as much of an understanding as he has. He did not have to meet us personally, or give us his word. But he did.
In addition, I am seeing a new rest come into my heart from this shifted perspective. When God is big, and I am a creature, there is abounding peace. It’s not on me to try to explain the reason behind everything, or to justify the wicked or the good. I can find my place in doing the work before me, and allow the Lord to give me rest. I can be sheltered under his wings, as Psalm 91 so eloquently reminds me.
All that is the rosy side of these discoveries, and it’s not lost on me that there are some things that go against the grain along with them. It’s these things that many of the people I listened to this summer are reacting against--things that, to us, in our culture and time, seem problematic or inconceivable. “I’m not the only one who feels that the story of Abraham obeying God’s call to kill his son Isaac is problematic,” one podcaster said.* (The story is found in Genesis 22. Spoiler: he doesn’t actually have to kill him.)
I am the last person to say that we should a) not think deeply about the commands of the Bible and examine our beliefs or b) not spend our time working to uncover injustice and build the kingdom through our hands and our words. But I think there is a fundamental shift between the person who says “God must be good on my terms, and if he is not, I cannot believe in him,” and the person who says “There is a God who revealed himself to the world, and I want to learn what he has revealed, whether I like it or not.”
To me, this seems clear. The starting place is deciding whether you believe the Bible is the word of God, and if the answer is yes, things have to fall in line not behind what we want to be true about God, but what he has actually revealed. The work of the Christian is not spilling ink over reconciling how God and the Bible can fit in with our cultural narrative, but in studying who God is and how he has designed us to live and function. In talking about this recently with my brother Joshua, he said: “Culture will always affect our interpretation of scripture and the lens we bring to thinking about God, but it shouldn’t dictate the starting place. God defines truth, and we figure out how to understand and live into it, not vice versa.” Sometimes, this will go against both what the world says is good, and what we ourselves want.
A friend recently asked why God lays out so many strict ways of doing things, particularly in the Old Testament. It can sometimes seem that God has set up these standards just so we can fail in trying to live by them. But the answer that came to my mind after living alongside the Old Testament men and women for a season is not simply that Christ makes a way for us to live according to the standards inherent in God’s character by taking on our punishment himself, but that God’s way is the best way to live. That is what I truly believe. Hannah wrote a beautiful little post recently about a book she and her daughter read together that highlights the way God designed each of the animals to exist in perfect harmony with how he made them. It’s the same for humans; he created us with a specific purpose in mind, and the laws in the Bible are all designed to reorient us to this original purpose.
I can speak for me, and no one else, but the only time I have found true peace on this earth was not by pursuing what’s right by my own or by the world’s ever-changing standards, but by coming to the knowledge of my place as a creature--something that so many of the people whose stories are recorded in the Old Testament also had to learn. With this knowledge I can laugh at the days to come, like the woman in Proverbs 31, I can rightfully weep at the destruction and evil of the world as the author of Lamentations did, and I can be like that tree David wrote of, planted by streams of water. More than anything, I want to be like that tree: still, strong, fulfilling my purpose, and continually renewed by the goodness of my maker.
*I’m keeping the names of these podcasts/podcasters private for this post, because I’m not here to condemn or stir up controversy, but if you’d like to know who they are you can send me a message.
Like most people, this summer completely overwhelmed me. It felt (and honestly still feels) like the world was tipping sideways, sliding toward a precipice of anger and confusion waiting to swallow us. The news is always bad; people are grieved and shocked and dying and selfish.
In June, my friend RachelAnn told me about a podcast by a woman named Jen Wilkin, which is a recording of a study she led on the biblical books of Joshua and Judges. At the time, I was sold because RachelAnn mentioned that Wilkin spoke on the character of Rahab in a way that was different than any teaching she’d heard before. I, like a lot of women in the church, tend to think of the Old Testament as a bit of a barren wasteland for women--a place where the true heroes are the men, and the stories about women are mostly just those illustrating abuse or suffering.
I couldn’t anticipate, at the time, how deeply this study would affect me. I didn’t know how it would not only completely upend my perspective on the amount of time and attention given to women in the Old Testament, but also transform my anxiety about the world. The one thing--the only thing, I think--that could reach me in a place of true grief over the state of the world and the state of my own heart was a careful study of wickedness, and the God who moved the authors of Joshua and Judges to record it.
I began with Joshua, and true to RachelAnn’s words, I was struck by the story of Rahab and her courage and faith. It’s been years since I read this book, and I felt as if I was reading it with new eyes. This post is partly an encouragement to listen to Jen Wilkin’s study, because it’s extremely thorough in scholarship and timely in its nature, but it’s also just a reminder that all of scripture is precious. I admit that I spend the bulk of my time in the epistles and the gospels, but after living in Joshua for eleven episodes, I am hungry now for the words of the Old Testament. The care God took with the Israelites as he brought them into the promised land, the way the stories are recorded, and the steadfastness of God’s promises are life in a time when we are all feeling uncertain and, to be honest, a little abandoned. Patience is probably my least present virtue, and to read about the many times God had his people wait, and wait, and wait was both crushing and freeing to me.
But really, the book of Joshua felt like a warm up to the book of Judges. It was important in content and context, but when I began the episodes on Judges I felt the true surgery begin. This book is both beautiful and horrible. It tells of a people who are constantly doing “what is right in their own eyes,” with no true leadership and no desire for the good of others. For large chunks of the book God is silent, allowing events to unfold. I felt my heart resonate with the squandered land, the injustices, the exploitation. It all seemed so familiar.
In her lectures, Wilkin kept saying, “If you want to know how the Israelites are doing, look at the women. How are the vulnerable being treated?” She guided us through the beginning of the book, where women have the status to negotiate for what they want (the story of Aksah), places of leadership (Deborah, who also presents qualities of God in such a way that she points to the character of Christ) and the ability to fight for those less capable (Jael). But by the end of the story we are seeing a people who have begun to abuse the vulnerable (as in the truly horrible story of the Levite’s concubine) and care so little about the value or interests of women that they give their blessing to the abduction and rape of hundreds (the wives of Benjamin.)
I knew these stories; I had read them before. But they always seemed disjointed. Now, with the background from the study of Joshua, and Wilkin’s careful contextual analysis, they were transformative. I went to see Rachael Denhollander (the first accuser of convicted sexual offender Larry Nassar) speak last Spring, and her talk was all about how important it was when she came to truly believe that justice and forgiveness are inextricable, and that it was through her study of the Old Testament that she found healing in the fact that God is a God of justice. I didn’t understand it at the time, but I think I can understand a piece of that now, even though I have not gone through what she has gone through. There is a simmering anger I feel, and I think a lot of us feel, at the continual abuse of women, and of people of color, and of the marginalized, and the only way I know to find peace from the anger is by seeing that God cares even more about it than I do.
There were a million personal applications along the way that made the Joshua and Judges study especially helpful for me, but the overarching message is this: God is not overwhelmed by evil, even though we are. And through the many stories about women that are found in Judges (and now I recognize, are found in the entire Old Testament) he is showing us that he sees. When I cry out in my spirit about the endlessness of pain and the triumph of evil, the book of Judges is saying, “He sees.” He does not always help in this world, which is hard for me to understand, but he always sees, and it always matters. And he will always have the last word.
Wilkin ended her study by referencing the book of Ruth, which ironically, although Ruth is my namesake, has always sort of mystified me. It seemed like such an odd little book to be placed right between the chaos of Judges and 1 Samuel. But when I read it with fresh eyes full of context, I just cried. It’s so clear to me now why it’s there--right there, immediately following some of the worst evil found in the scriptures. Because in it, as Wilkin reminds her listeners, we see a picture of sacrificial love from both Ruth and Boaz, a story of courage and tenderness and selflessness, that is so deeply in contrast to the stories we just read. Ruth, like Boaz, points to the character of Christ, and through their descendents God brought about the birth of the savior that is the true triumph over the chaos we still feel.
Most remarkably, Wilkin points out that the story of Ruth runs concurrent to the rest of the book of Judges--not after it, but at the same time. While all this chaos is happening, while women and the vulnerable are being abused, while people are taking what they can and rejoicing in the suffering of their enemies, God is faithfully, quietly at work. That is a true hope to cling to, and one that has radically altered my feelings about the world I live in right now. We do not control the hearts of our fellow people, and most of the time we can’t even do much to fix the horrible things that have been done. But we have the courage to continue to live and to work because God has never abandoned his people, and he never will.
I was recently listening to one of my favorite podcasts, “Three On the Aisle,” a show in which three NYC theater critics discuss a range of topics. While I always find them extremely well informed and very interesting, I was especially excited about the topic of this particular podcast: “Problematic Shows and Those Who Love/Hate Them.”
The critics presented more questions than solutions, and as is to be expected, their opinions were colored by their own personal preferences. When discussing whether Carousel (problematic because of the ways it seems to justify, and in some ways glorify, a wife-beater) should still be performed, one of the critics, Elisabeth Vincentelli, claimed that it was simply too beautiful to cease performing it. They had similar opinions on My Fair Lady, though they did not shy away from discussing the problems they saw in both shows.
As I listened, the question rattled around in my own brain, and it has continued to do so. Should shows that are considered “problematic” be performed? As the next logical step in that train of thought, I asked myself, “Who is deciding what is problematic?” And then, of course, the inevitable question which is always where I seem to end up these days: “What is the real purpose of theater?”
The only way I could begin to answer that question was to start with what I know theater is not: it is certainly not for an elite few who have the jurisdiction of saying what is problematic and what is not. I have recently been brushing up on my theater history, and one of the things that has struck me most profoundly is how many times theater was recognized for the revolutionary force that it is, and an attempt made to either stamp it out or control it. In each attempt, it eventually came back with more to say and a farther reach.
I have not been shy with my opinion that mainstream American theater has reached a breaking point, and is at a crossroads. It can no longer continue along the trajectory it’s been following and be relevant to the population, and like the melodramas of the early nineteenth century, traditional realism and big-production stage theater will eventually become a relic. Of that I have no doubt. But considering what the next trend will be is much more interesting, and I think it starts with the very questions Three on the Aisle was addressing.
A few months ago I read a fascinating article by American Theatre about the dearth of conservative theater. It highlighted a number of problems, including the fact that some artists claim they have been ostracized because of even the most tangential associations with conservative politics in their shows, and in the case of one woman, a festival she ran in an attempt to provide an outlet to playwrights who couldn’t get their work done anywhere else (even though she herself was very politically liberal.) I’m not going to harp on this topic, though I do feel this is something theater artists need to take a long, hard look at amongst their own ranks. I’m much more interested in the larger point of the article, which was that most conservatives feel no compulsion to go to the theater because they know they won’t see themselves or their opinions reflected onstage.
I believe being approached with new ideas and opinions is one of the essential and sacred tasks of the theater. But I also believe that the core human need and desire with any type of theater, through any age of history, is and has been to find connection. To not see oneself, or a reflection of some part of oneself in a performance is to be completely unmoved by it. Think of the shows that mean the most to you; I know my own most beloved shows are those in which I have found a deep and profound connection to the characters and the journeys they travel.
I am not trying to make a political statement, but I know for a fact that if there is a large percentage of the population that does not feel they can attend the theater because their stories are not being told, we as theater artists are failing. To be honest, I’m not even sure how we got here, because I know plenty of people who identify in other ways (as people of color, those who identify as LGBTQ+, women) who also feel that their stories are not being told. So whose stories are we telling?
Back to the topic of this piece. Should theaters tell the stories of people they do not agree with? Should plays that seem problematic to some, or to many, be performed? For many (most?) theater artists, the answer is probably no. It seems unethical to ask artists to be part of narratives they do not support.
I often feel that I walk a very fine line between worlds, and for a long time now I have been fascinated by the fact that I have friends and colleagues on all sides who sincerely feel that they have been marginalized and squeezed out of the conversation. Friends who are extremely liberal who feel silenced and judged by the society at large. Friends who are very conservative who feel that they couldn’t even consider a career in the arts. (And to be honest, they probably couldn’t.)
I am not sure what the solution is, but with all my study of theater history, I am beginning to wonder if the problem is not necessarily what is being presented, but how it is being presented. Maybe if, as in Shakespeare’s and Moliere’s times, audiences were allowed to express an opinion, more people would be compelled to participate in performances. Maybe if, as with Commedia dell’Arte and medieval mystery plays, people were a part of the action, they would feel more agency in the dialogue. Maybe if we just lowered the effing ticket prices.
I am a bit of a theater revolutionary--not necessarily in content, but in style. I’m ready to chuck the whole thing out, and start again with workshops and devised plays and shabby theaters and day jobs. But I know what that means for a lot of people, and I wouldn’t wish disaster on anyone. I just wish people in American could see their own bodies as vessels of story, their own narratives as worthy of communal performance and a little bit of reflection. I hold desperately to the idea that if we can just stop doing such shiny theater, maybe they will.
I would never ask an artist to work on something they do not agree with. But I do know that feeling ignored is a large part of why so many of the political trends we’re seeing today are happening, and any kind of true change only comes about by extending a loving opportunity to everyone--even those we don’t understand or particularly like. Theater’s primary purpose is not to give voice to the right ideals, but simply to give voice. Scary as that may be.
For those inside the theater world, the state of contemporary theater is hotly debated. For those outside of the theater world...it is not. In fact, outside of popular shows such as Hamilton and Wicked, it’s safe to assume that the average American, especially age 35 and under, has very little idea about what’s going on in the world of theater.
Since the rise of films, this has been a losing battle for American theater. After all, why pay $50 to see a play, when one can pay $10 to see a movie? (And, for that matter, why pay $10 to see a movie when one can watch Netflix on a large screen TV?) In a culture that largely values realism above other forms of representation, movies and television present a much more complete and immersive experience of reality. Live theater, for all its ingenuity, will always be less realistic than a film.
Over the past 70 or so years, theater’s--and in particular Broadway’s--response has been to attempt either greater realism (look at how detailed and realistic our set is!) or greater feats of spectacle (as in Julie Taymor’s infamous project, Spiderman, Turn Off the Dark.) In some cases, such as a much more successful Taymor project, The Lion King, this has resulted in beautiful and moving pieces of theater. However, the ultimate result of this quest to compete with cinema and television is not the success of live theater, but rather the death of it. In order for theater to be relevant to the culture of America and to engage the average American, there needs to be a dynamic shift in the way theater is understood.
Before contemplating the solution, it’s important to understand the depth of the problem. On the surface, it may look like simply a lack of ticket sales and a marketing problem, but the sickness of the American theater runs much deeper. Let’s start by considering content. A survey of shows currently running or soon to open on Broadway reveals a number of musicals based on movies (such as Frozen, Aladdin, and Mean Girls), a handful of shows that are star-vehicles (such as Jimmy Buffet’s Escape to Margaritaville and Springsteen on Broadway) and a large number of revivals (such as My Fair Lady, Hello Dolly, and The Iceman Cometh.) There is a sprinkling of new shows, but the majority of the shows are revivals or plays that producers know will sell tickets based on fan popularity.
In addition, the prices of tickets are enormous. With shows like Hamilton setting a precedent of prices in the hundreds, if not thousands of dollars per ticket, people attending shows on Broadway expect to pay at least $100 for seats in the back of the theater, with the average ticket price in 2016 at $303. While prices in regional theaters are nowhere near Broadway ticket prices, across the nation the starting cost of a ticket is somewhere between $30-40. With an average American income between $27,000 to $50,000 even that is a pretty prohibitive number to make seeing a live theater show a regular occurrence.
However, the recycled material and high ticket prices are not the only symptom of an ailing American theater. As the 2010s have worn on, there has been more and more talk about the changing theater practitioner, and who it is that is actually making the art. The Guardian released an article in 2016 in which it cited a study done by the London School of Economics and Goldsmiths College that found that only 27% of actors come from a working class background and that the “profession is heavily skewed toward the privileged.” Dames Helen Mirren and Julie Walters have warned that “acting is becoming the preserve of those with wealthy parents.” This point hits especially close to home for me, as a theater director who has often felt the frustration of not being able to pay the thousands of dollars for a workshop or training that also requires one to take weeks off of work. Combined with the expense many theater artists are paying for undergraduate and masters degrees, working a 9-5 job to pay off school loans is often essential. The connections and important training to be attained by learning with the theater elite seems to have become the provenance of the rich.
It is at this point that an understanding of theater history becomes essential, and contrary to other forms of art, I would argue that theater has historically been the provenance of the poor. There have certainly been celebrity actors as far back as Greek theater, but the true purpose of live theater has always been as either a mouthpiece for new ideas, or a way to interact in community.* There is no space for theater to become exclusive to the wealthy. Even Shakespeare, for all his masterful wordplay and heightened language, considered the peasants who thronged to his shows and made sure to access their experience, writing with an eye as much to the common person as he did the king. Sophocles, exposing some of the most complex emotions known to man, included a chorus to help the audience along. And in both cases, the theater was widely accessible to whoever wanted to attend.
Taking it a step beyond Shakespeare and Sophocles, I believe theater at its best--in its most important form--has always been done on a small scale. To me, the most compelling examples of live theater include Commedia dell’Arte--troupes that began in Italy and traveled around Europe performing in marketplaces, encouraging audience engagement; the sacred theater of the Middle Ages, in which whole towns would take turns reenacting the events of scripture together with the priests; or Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed, in which the audience became “spect-actors” and were required to create alongside the performers in order to incite lasting social change.
At the root of all these forms of theater is the human impulse to create and to make sense of the world, and this is what has been taken away by the spoon-fed spectacle of contemporary American theater. At its core, theater should encourage its audience to speak, to share the same room with living bodies who are presenting something in a way that can be engaged with. Theater is shouting back at the clown, it is challenging oneself to dialogue instead of simply imbibe. It is all the things that were lost when Richard Wagner turned the seats in his theater to face the stage, shutting the audience out of both the process and the product.
Coming back to this idea of small, tangible, process-oriented theater is the only thing that can make it relevant again to a culture that has lost interest. Theater as an industry has not only denied the concept of communal theater, it has even denied the idea that the theater maker is in charge, and placed control in the hands of the producer. While that may be well and good for other forms of entertainment, it does not work for theater (the short term gains of Hamilton, of course, excluded) and in the long run this kind of businesslike view is stifling and killing the art.
What does saying goodbye to this way of doing theater look like? It means much lower ticket prices, which in turn means no more massive theaters, no more elaborate costumes and excessive sets. It means no more trying to compete with the scale of films, which is a losing battle anyway. It means no more trying to attract audiences with a cheap appeal to star-power or expensive lights. It means the end of actors going into the business in order to become rich and famous.
But it also means the advent of audiences who find themselves engaged and called upon, and in an era when the only audiences that are attending live theater are beginning to die off, this is desperately needed. We have realism in its most complete form on our TVs. We need something else in our theaters; we need a communal experience to break people away from their screens. Moving American theater in this direction means changing the perception of what an actor is (read: we are all actors) and focusing less on a polished product and more on facilitation. It also mean helping people understand their physical bodies and their role as members of a community in a much more profound way.
The movement has already begun; Broadway is dying, and small, engagement-focused theaters are on the rise. And yet, imagine what kind of outpouring of life-giving theater could occur if the money that’s being dumped into the dying remnants of the 19th and 20th century beast that is American theater was instead poured into creative initiatives in our schools and communities. It’s time to stop living under the illusion that the theater we’ve been ingesting and supporting is salvageable, and start engaging in theater as it should be.
*Though I believe this is largely true for theater in other cultures as well, it should be noted that I am speaking primarily about the Western theater tradition, which includes European and North American theater.
Like many Millennials, I sometimes think about Hamilton. When I do, it’s almost always the very short phrase from the song “Satisfied,” that goes, appropriately: “I’ve never been satisfied.” That’s it--just one short phrase, musically repeating in my mind.
When I met my husband, the phrase in my mind extended to include the further lyrics: “You’re like me. Never satisfied.” I remember thinking throughout our year of dating that one of the truest and most immediate similarities between us was our underlying drive. I don’t think he saw it right away because I tend to mask mine more, but I knew it immediately, and it’s what made me first know to hold onto him. I felt instinctively that this mutual lack of satisfaction made us fundamentally compatible. After all, it’s what made him choose to pursue architecture and music, what made me move to New York and Boston and become a director, what keeps us both up at night, typing and painting away. But it’s more than that.
This lack of satisfaction is my truest and oldest companion. I remember lying awake at night, staring at the twin red lights of electric towers over the distant rooftops, trying to make up a reality that would satisfy me. I pretended the towers housed magical twin sisters, spinning beside their lights. It would be years before I read my first George MacDonald story, but my heart already knew his same obsession with, and was utterly convinced of, the unseen.
It was with unimaginable relief that I read the words of C.S. Lewis, years later, from his famous passage in Mere Christianity that describes his desire for something that nothing in this world can satisfy:
Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.
I was suddenly able to give a name and direction to the longing I’d always felt, and suddenly able to find cohesion in the writers I held most dear—McKillip and LeGuin and Chesterton and Tolkien and all the others who so firmly believe that there has to be more. These days I lump Lewis and Chesterton with others like Christian Wiman and St. Augustine in a fellowship of those who, like me and Hamilton, will never be satisfied; who understand the fundamental unrest of living in a world that marries the depressing mundanity of gas stations with a God whose glory is inconceivable. But more on that later.
My lack of satisfaction has always been a point of angst for me, and I struggle with the question of how much I am allowed to feel this way. I went through a very long period as a teenager, as I started to get serious about my faith, in which I felt guilty for the fact that I was so restless. It is indeed a fine line, because it’s so easy to confuse drive and a spiritual awareness of the already-not-yet with plain old malcontent. I do feel that my impatience and tendency to always look to the next thing are often excuses for a heart that seeks fulfillment in every place besides it’s true place--as St. Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in [God].”
However, true rest is not a possibility yet, and though the call of the Christian is to quiet her heart and seek contentment in the Lord, it is a lifelong battle. Recently, I have been thinking carefully about this never-ending restlessness and how it is as natural to me as breathing. Whereas in the past I have constantly told myself to stop seeking, and to find rest, I am wondering if perhaps, as so many of my favorite writers and musicians and artists and thinkers have shown, this restlessness, if approached thoughtfully, is actually a good thing.
It is certainly a good thing when it comes to being a creative. In fact it is impossible to create without it. The hallmark of an artist is not someone who finds placid contentment in the things she sees, but one who has a constant desire to interpret, comment on, or question the world. At a recent talk I attended, I heard poet Sarah Chestnut speak about the “I must” impulse of the artist—the constant voice that challenges one to create, not for renown or gain but simply because there is a fundamental urge to do so. I believe this impulse is God-given, and as creatures made in his image, it must be part of his character as well.
I am now beginning to believe that this quality does not stop with artists, but that it is something all Christians are called to. By the very fact of being sojourners, we are not permitted to find full contentment in this world, and Lewis goes on to say this in the rest of the Mere Christianity passage:
I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others to do the same.
This sentiment is echoed consistently in the words of Christian thinkers from Bonhoeffer, to the apostle Paul, to my personal favorite, Rich Mullins, who was a poet of constant yearning. My soul has been encouraged time and time again by these and many others who have gone before, and it is time I stopped feeling frustration with my lack of satisfaction, and started embracing it as the Holy Spirit reminds me that this world is not my home.
Of course, the temptation remains to confuse the feeling with dissatisfaction in what God has given me, or a desire to fulfill my yearning with the work I do on earth, rather than in the only true satisfaction: God himself. But if God is who he says he is, and the world we see only a microscopic crack in the wealth of his character and glory, and if it really is true that we have been offered the ability to know him and become like him, how can we cease to be constantly searching, desiring, and creating in our thirst to drink from his bottomless well?
It was this that Bruce and I spoke of on our second date, sitting in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, surrounded by Monet paintings. Though I didn’t know it yet, I think that was the moment my heart became his. As Lewis says, we are all called—not just husbands and wives, but every person in the church—to remind each other of the holy lack of satisfaction that is, ultimately, a wild and important gift.
I keep hearing a tiny voice in the back of my mind. At first, it was just a whisper, mumbling incoherently as I came closer to understanding some kind of truth. But during the last week it has grown so loud and insistent that I can hear it speaking to me clearly:
You can’t buy love.
And, more importantly:
You can’t buy love when it’s already been freely given to you.
I’ve only been married for 45 days—a tiny drop in the ocean of experience many other people boast. But I don’t consider what I’m about to write to be specific to people who are married; rather, I think that marriage has been the means through which I have begun to realize this reality. For others, it will be through different means: a friendship, a sacrifice, a family member. For me, these 45 early days of marriage have started to show me something I should have realized long before.
I noticed first the feelings of insecurity. As I got used to spending so much time with another human—sleeping in the same bed, eating breakfast and dinner together, having to make eye contact on a regular basis—I noticed how unaccustomed I was to having someone observe me so completely, and then I realized that I was constantly wondering how I was being perceived. I began to observe, watch, and try to know what Bruce was thinking about me. If he responded with silence to something I said, did it mean that he thought I was foolish? If he wasn’t complimenting me, did it mean he didn’t find me desirable? I craved affirmation that he was happy, that he was content, that he was satisfied. I needed to know, because if that was not the case, then it meant that I was not doing a good enough job.
And then the voice, thankfully, intervened, and said very sharply, It’s not always about you. Lesson one: relax, and stop narcissistically believing that the way another human behaves is a direct consequence of your own actions and words. While relationships often do contribute, the self-centeredness of my belief that I am the sun around which Bruce’s world revolves is idiotic and appalling.
But the problem runs much deeper, and as he and I have begun to settle into a rhythm of being together, I understand that marriage is merely the magnifying glass through which I can see in large print what was only a tiny scribble before. That I, through the years, have somehow become firmly convinced that I am capable of buying, or bribing, love from my friends and my family, and now from my lover. That if I take care of them, and counsel them, and love them hard enough, they will return the favor. And I will know that they love me because their love will look like mine.
I’ve been looking around me in the last few weeks, now that this has become so clear to me, to see if I am alone in this. I have found that I am not. It seems to me that we are all constantly trying to purchase each other’s love, whether it is through my own type of nurturing, or through any of the thousands of ways each individual creates currency. Financial security. Intellectualism. Being a trendsetter. And I feel so small and so sad as I look around and see how tired everyone is of trying to buy one another’s love, and not being able to, and feeling like failures as each one’s definition of love goes unfulfilled.
The reality is that Bruce will never love me like I think he should love me, and I can’t buy his love—because he has already given it to me for free, and the way he loves is different than the way I love. I can’t purchase something that has already been given as a gift, and when I worry about the fact that his love doesn’t feel like I imagined it would, I am limiting the bounds of love to my own very narrow definition of it. And, more importantly, I am neglecting to consider how he desires to be loved, and instead trying to wrap him up in my own conception of what love should look like.
I asked him how he wanted to be loved the other day. The answer was remarkably simple—he described things like acts of service and allowing him to have time to create. Things that I am more than able to do, and as I have made an attempt to stop showering him with words of affirmation and physical touch (my love languages), I can feel us drawing closer. He has his own discoveries to make about how to love me well. We both have much to learn, but I see now that the first, most important step, is to stop seeing myself as the expert, and to allow love to be free and explorable. It is both harder and much easier than I imagined it would be.
Had I realized this truth years ago, I can see how it would have benefitted my friendships and family relationships. I can see how I have smothered people, or unfairly accused others of not appreciating my service and love. I can see how selfishly I have spent time placing myself at the center of everyone else’s worlds, and allowed the inevitable insecurity to overshadow how I see myself and how I see others. And, because it always comes back to this, I can see how the way I have treated other humans is just a pale reflection of how I have treated my relationship with God. I am constantly trying to buy a love that has been given to me freely; constantly trying to earn God’s favor, when all he wants is for me to calm down and let him show me how wide his love really is.
Ultimately, the freedom and security I crave is found there—in the reality that I am already loved more than I know, and I can’t do anything to lose that love. That is a concept I pay large amounts of lip service to, but if I truly let that sink into my soul and marinate long enough, how could that not change the way I see myself and treat others? I couldn’t buy that love if I tried, but it has been given to me. There is nothing I can do to make God love me more, and nothing I can do to take away his love for me. I am overcome.
Whatever relationships God has placed in our lives, may we stop trying to buy love, and start seeking to honor and discover the depth of the love given to us by God and by his people.
~ Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl, ND Wilson
~ He Held Radical Light, Christian Wiman
~ An American Childhood, Annie Dillard
~ On the Incarnation, Athanasius of Alexandria