While others’ struggles with faith have originated from their doubts about theology or the historicity of the Bible, my struggles with faith center around my efforts to understand why pursuing God should be of central importance in my life. Thus, the most important moments in my faith journey are moments when I realize something new about why God is worth pursuing. I’ve approached this question by asking two other questions:
How can an understanding of God’s love address personal suffering?
This answer to this question informs my approach to the second question:
What is truly unique about how the Christian faith motivates people to live the life I strive to live, which is a life full of integrity, kindness, and service?
Throughout my life, I’ve come to realize that my failure — to understand God’s deeply personal and limitless love — insidiously governs my reactions and actions, and that this failure results in self-imposed suffering which, without God, I cannot absolve myself.
I suffer because I rely on outward affirmation for inward validation and peace. My striving for others’ attention and approval leads me to engage in an exhausting and endless audition to be known, acknowledged, and deserving of others’ love. This striving stems from a belief that it is the intelligent and capable people around me whose opinions about me can create opportunities I believe to be integral to a meaningful, happy life. Thus, I absolutely fear being unseen and unappreciated, and often feel insurmountably jealous when people choose others over me. I experience this jealousy because I know that humans’ love is a zero-sum game: people are all limited in their time and capacity to love. When Person A spends time with Person B, A isn’t giving me the attention and affirmation that Person B is receiving. I also incorrectly project this onto my understanding of God’s love — I often resent seeing God “love” and “bless” others more than he “loves” and “blesses” me.
Not only does this striving for outward affirmation hurt myself, but it also strains my friendships with people whom I want to love dearly. I become jealous of the people who ARE acknowledged and well-liked, and refuse to wholeheartedly love my friends when I am consumed by my jealousy of them. And what’s worst is that I can’t stop myself from being jealous of people even though I know that my jealousy is destroying my relationships with them.
The suffering I’ve described results from two things: 1) my belief that others’ approval can provide for me emotionally and be the ultimate provider of meaningful opportunities to actualize my passions, and 2) my not internalizing the personal and limitless love offered by God.
So what have I learned about God’s love this year, and how has that changed my reliance on others’ approval?
God’s love is deeply personalized:
- When reading the Bible, I’ve received comfort and guidance that is very specific to how I receive love and affirmation. This has enabled me to trust that God knows my innermost thoughts and cares to speak to me in a way that helps me understand Him. Not only does God know my innermost thoughts, but he also most thoroughly knows my abilities, effort, and passions, and He desires for me to have opportunities to actualize them fully.
- The realization that God’s love is personal helps to absolve me of my dependence on others to affirm me and provide for my future: I feel so much less anxiety knowing that my life is in the control of an all-knowing and all-powerful God, and is not solely dependent on the opinions of those around me.
God’s love is limitless
- God’s love is NOT like humans’ love — his love for __ or __ or __ does not detract from his love for me. God loves me in the unique ways in which He knows I need to be loved, and this is absolves me of the anxiety and jealousy I suffer when I look around and see all the different ways in which God is blessing those around me. Furthermore, not only does it enable me to not resent God when he blesses others, but it also motivates me to participate in His work of extending His love towards everyone.
Before understanding God’s deeply personal and limitless love, I strived desperately towards other sources of affirmation and provision and found them to be insufficient. My belief in this love has begun to heal me from my oppressive obsession with others’ opinions of me and the jealousy that can arise from seeing others be more “loved” and more “blessed” than I am.
This healing has also informs how I tackle the next question: What is truly unique about the Christian faith in terms of its teachings and how it motivates people to live moral, admirable lives?
I think that most religions tackle the big questions in life: who are we? How do we relate to a higher being? What is a good life? Although many different religions can inspire similar actions and values, I think what is most distinct about Christianity, and what gives Christianity the most power in compelling one to live morally, is what Christianity claims to be the fundamental intrinsic motivation for those actions.
Christianity claims our complete inability to earn God’s favor, and that God’s love for us is not predicated upon our ability to do so. The more I understand about His omniscience — especially despite the parts of me that are so unlikable — the more I am absolutely floored by the fact that the one who sees the depths of my wrongdoing still chose, chooses, and will continue to choose to love me. I believe that Christian “rules” are not arbitrary restrictions but are manifestations of His love, and Christian “rules” are derived from His intimate understanding of our weaknesses and His desire to protect us and guide us to live maximally fulfilling lives.
Thus, God desires for our obedience to be a natural response to the love that he shows us. While other religions preach that one must continue behaving well to continually earn God’s favor, Christianity 1) centers around a God who wants to love us in all the ways we hope to be loved, and Christianity 2) hopes that our knowledge of Him compels an intrinsic desire to live a life full of integrity, kindness, and service, as enabled by his commands.
So, in conclusion, I am still a Christian because I’ve come to more fully realize two things:
1) God’s love powerfully addresses my personal suffering. Thus, I want and need to internalize it so deeply that it governs all my reactions and actions.
2) The Christian faith provides the most compelling motivation to live a morally upright life because it teaches that abiding by God’s commands is a natural response to God’s love, a love that I’ve only begun to understand, and will strive to better understand throughout the rest of my life.