God loves us—and we’re supposed to love him back. How do you actually do that?
When I was little, I pored over the stories of the saints, especially the martyrs. I was morbidly fascinated by stories of little 6-year-old Conchita of the Drooping Veil who loved God so passionately that, whenever her wicked pagan stepmother would torment her and put tar in her hair and report her to the governor for being Christian, she would simply smile and pray for them all, because she just loved God so much. (Please don’t look Conchita up; she is just an amalgam, but you get the idea.)
I was enthralled. I was captivated by the exoticism of the setting (saints all seemed to live in a time when people wore robes and carried things around in clay jugs, which sounded amazing) and the exoticism of the spirituality itself; but even more compelling was how every story carried a clear message: This is what I was supposed to be like. I was supposed to imitate this girl in my own life, right now.
I was savvy enough to figure out that a lot of the details of the story were adaptable. You could wear shorts and a shirt with a purple unicorn on it, like my own favorite shirt, and be a saint. You could pursue holiness by not fighting with your sister or by cleaning the living room like your mother said or by putting your whole allowance in the basket at church instead of spending it on nail polish. I understood that.
We may be created to love God, but that doesn’t mean it happens on its own.
The part that was not clicking was the part where St. Conchita loved God. And I, myself, did not. And boy, did I feel bad about it.
It actually shows some pretty good self-awareness that as a kid I even realized I didn’t love God, and loving him is the main point of the stories of the lives of the saints. It wasn’t my fault that these stories were presented in a grotesque and melodramatic way that made them seem foreign to my own life, and it also wasn’t my fault that I didn’t automatically and naturally feel a great love for my creator and savior by the time I reached the age of reason.
It would have been nice if someone had told me how to go about learning to love God, though. Because I have discovered that, for most people, it is something that they have to learn. We may be created to love God, but that doesn’t mean it happens on its own.
In many ways, coming to love God is like coming to love anyone else: It’s a process. You wouldn’t expect to genuinely love some famous, powerful guy you saw on TV. You might admire him and be interested in him or feel some kind of unhealthy attachment to him. But before you could truly love him, you would have to know him. And to get to know him, you would have to talk to him, spend time with him and see what kind of person he is.
If we want the rewards of loving God, then we must submit to being loved by him.
These are all things I set about to do with God. I realized that I didn’t love him because I didn’t know him. I had heard about his attributes, and they seemed pretty good, and I had read and educated myself about what Catholics believe about God, but I hadn’t internalized the connection between the goodness of God and the good things in my life. So I started deliberately retraining my mind to recognize God in everything that appealed to me. If I saw something beautiful, I would remind myself that God made it that way, just because he wanted to. If I experienced something pleasant, I would remind myself that God was the source of it, and that without him, no such thing would exist in the world. And eventually, God began to inhabit that space of all the happy things in my life. Predictably, he did begin to seem more lovable because of this.
I also didn’t love God because I didn’t spend time with him, and that needed to be fixed. Mind you, this has been a 40-plus-year project, and it’s been somewhat uneven to say the least, but I have been working on praying more consistently and more honestly. If you want to know someone, you have to talk to them and listen to them or at least spend time with them. True for anyone, true for God. And still true if you aren’t feeling like you love this person, and you aren’t feeling happy, and you can’t think of any particular reason you should be grateful, and if in fact you’re furious or in despair or full of hate. The honesty is the main thing, and the willingness to say what’s on your mind, rather than refusing, or hiding. Sometimes honesty just means showing up and offering just how profoundly you have nothing to say. But you do have to show up.
Finally, I didn’t love God because I didn’t trust him, and this was because I didn’t really believe that he loved me.
God is dying to show us his love. He died for us and is now alive, and he wants us to dive in.
Here is where God really cracked me like an egg.
I said above that the main point of the stories of the saints is how much they loved God, but that is not actually true. The main point is how much God loved them. That somehow got left out entirely from the stories I enjoyed, so it is no wonder they didn’t entirely make sense to me. They are, as many atheists will point out, kind of barbaric, nonsensical stories. Why would anyone leave their family and walk willingly into the slavering jaws of a lion just because they allegedly love some imaginary, all-powerful Sky Dad?
You wouldn’t! There is a huge piece missing there, and it is the part where you don’t just love God but you know that God loves you. In fact, I would say that you cannot really love God until you see, even for a brief moment, how much he loves you. It was not the saints’ great love of God that allowed them to do whatever hard thing was before them. It was realizing they were poised over an ocean of love, and they were dying to dive in.
To paraphrase Tim Kreider, if we want the rewards of loving God, then we must submit to being loved by him. Sometimes being loved is a mortifying ordeal; sometimes it is a blessed relief. But the rewards of loving God, even learning to love him, are vast. There may be nothing better in life than loving God. There is no thrill of exoticism there. Just the opposite: There is the quenchless joy of—and here analogies fail. There is the joy of a flower that blooms again and again. Of a fathomless pool that never darkens or chills as you descend.
I said that I loved saints’ stories when I was little. Here is the secret: I am still little. We all are. God is little, too, and will meet us in our littleness. And he is also unspeakably vast and has so many good things to show us. He is dying to show us his love. He died for us and is now alive, and he wants us to dive in.