John Elliott Lein

Writer, Artist, Designer and Theology Nerd

Love As Overflowing Cup, Not Obligation

LoveJ. Elliott LeinComment

Last week I was thinking about the "love yourself" portion of "Love your neighbor as yourself". I couldn't get the topic off my mind.

First, what it's not about

"Love yourself" does not mean that you deny your failings, or see yourself as sinless. It means that you are able to recognize your inherent worth and value as a human being. You are able to trust that you are loved regardless of what you might do or think or feel.

Too often our identity and understanding of ourselves is based in shame and guilt. When "who we are" is summed up as "worthless sinners", then condemnation is all we expect from God, from others, and from ourselves. This internal narrative of condemnation and judgement is then naturally shared out by judging others.

If we believe that our identity is one of shame and guilt, that there is nothing inherently good in ourselves, then we believe that condemnation and judgement is how God relates to us and therefore how we should relate to those around us. The constant dialog in our heads is "you are not worthy to be loved". It destroys our spirits, corrupts our thoughts, damages our relationships, and separates us from the always-giving love of God.

This internal judgement overflows outward in our interactions with other people. Judgemental people are the opposite of hypocritical – the judgement they give out is matched by the judgement they internalize.

Is love an obligation?

Hospitality is an attitude and set of actions that can be learned and required of ourselves and others. It's not 

When our giving is primarily about obligation (often out of guilt and shame) rather than love, our efforts can be distorted.

I'm reminded of Mother Teresa's charity work. She is rightly venerated for her incredible self-sacrifice into poverty and provision for the most abandoned and hopeless of humanity. Yet as I've read more about her life and work, I've come to wonder if this fatal flaw is at the core of her efforts.

In her posthumously-published private writings, she confesses that she rarely felt the presence of God. She felt abandoned and alone, and unloved. Her work seemed to be motivated at least partially by a need for penance, not necessarily in passing on love. There have been some controversial discussions around her disallowing pain medication for the dying and suffering, and allowing individuals to die instead of have life-saving surgery. Her glorification of suffering could have come from her personal feeling that she was unworthy of love.

If we only love others out of obligation, is that "love", or is it action motivated by guilt?

Maybe if we can work on accepting all of ourselves as loved, even embracing our shadow side, we can begin to truly love others from which our loving actions will naturally overflow.

Just my thoughts for today. What do you think?