Love or Debt?
“Love keeps no record of wrongs.”
There’s a really good reason for this. People don’t like debt. There’s no need to explain why we don’t like being in debt, but why should we not like holding debt over others? Sometimes we do like it because it gives us power. I guess there’s a sense of security that comes with knowing that this person owes me a favor, and that person owes me money, and those people will do anything for me because they feel bad for what they did to me that one time. That’s quite a savings account.
But do we ever want to be owed love? I made that mistake with a girl many years ago. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it’s clear looking back. Much of my behavior was driven by a sense that she owed me something. I subconsciously believed that because I had been and continued to be so benevolent towards her, that it would have to pay off some day. That’s not really benevolence at all, and it surely isn’t love. It’s debt-keeping. I never gave her a chance to figure out if she might love me or if she was just paying debts.
Love can’t keep records. Not because love and duty are antithetical to one another (they’re complementary in my view), but because we have a deeply felt need to give love even when duty doesn’t require it. Debt-keeping makes it impossible to ever truly meet that need.
Thinking about Shel Silverstein this morning helped me remember a funny occurrence from my freshmen semester at UL. I somehow caught the attention of a quite beautiful fellow freshman at Sidelines, partly because I was reading Falling Up. I guess she found that intriguing enough to approach my table and talk to me. She seemed like a cool person, and we became friends.
And that’s the high point of the story. Seriously, whatever good first impression I made by reading Shel Silverstein in Sidelines that day, I blew it from then on. She would invite me to go out with her to bars and clubs, and I would always decline. I had a self-righteous opposition to drinking, coupled with anxiety and complete social ineptitude in party environments, which made such invitations anathema.
When we did hang out, it was usually just chilling by the swamp on campus or eating in the cafeteria. I was so nervous and inexperienced with dating that I barely talked, and I never asked her out on a date. Not sure what I was thinking there. I guess I thought just hanging out on campus after class was dating. I think I just slowly bored her away. We started hanging out less, and I eventually realized in my slow, non-hint-getting man brain that she was avoiding me.
I know, this all sounds pretty pathetic, right? But this ain’t a sympathy story; I really do think it’s hilarious. I chuckled to myself as I remembered it. That was 13 years ago. I’ve let go of a lot of that old self-righteousness (maybe not all of it), and I’ve developed some pretty decent social skills. But I still bear some resemblance to that odd 18 year-old. It’s like seeing myself in a funhouse mirror, and it’s damn funny.
Building Bridges in My Brain
They say a lot changes in your 30’s. I just had no idea the changes would arrive so promptly, essentially on cue. I’ve been experiencing what feels like a radical shift in my work ethic.
I’ll be honest. I’m lazier than an old dog, I barely know what ambition feels like, and I deflect negative feedback, no matter how constructive, as though somebody just insulted my momma. All my life I’ve managed to keep personal responsibility and personal happiness in different hemispheres of my brain. Regardless of how I’m doing in the Responsibility Hemisphere, it never affects how I’m feeling in the Happiness Hemisphere.
But I think that’s changing now. It’s becoming increasingly important to me to step through the door of my apartment believing that I gave the day my best effort. Did I give my job, my boss, and my co-workers my best me? Did I really stretch myself, or did I just go through the motions? Did I learn anything new? Did I get better at anything?
More important are the relational questions: Did I listen to people when they spoke? Did I speak words of kindness and encouragement? Did I serve and place myself under others, or did I consistently put my own needs and wants first? Was I truthful and sincere? Did I try to get to know anyone better? Was I considerate and aware?
I know some people have trouble turning “off” from work-and-responsibility mode, and I don’t intend to ever get to that point. The fact that I can do that fairly easily is something I really like about myself. But it’s nice to know that my 30-year-old brain has created some bridges between those two hemispheres, and that it will hold me more accountable than my 20-year-old brain ever did.
When I first became a Christian, at a Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship meeting way back in the year 2000, it had very little to do with believing the historical claims that a man named Jesus was God and that he was crucified and resurrected. Not having grown up going to church, this was the first time I had ever heard the message of Christianity laid out. There was no way I could just accept claims like that at face value.
But I did respond positively to the message. Why? More so than any of the historical claims, I was moved by the broader redemption narrative. These are the ideas that truly took an emotional hold on me: 1) That my life, both the good and the bad aspects, had significance beyond my own little world. 2) That my moral shortcomings were not just minor failures here and there but a continual state of being. 3) That abundant grace was being offered to me.
That’s the narrative that won me over and changed my life immediately. It took about a year’s worth of thinking, reading, and conversing before I decided I could accept the historical claims about Jesus of Nazareth. Seeing the marvelous way in which his life fit into that redemption narrative really completed my conversion process.
I’m recounting all of this to note that for me, and I think for most others as well, conversion is not what it often seems to be on the surface: assenting to the doctrines of Christianity so that one can go to heaven after death. The stuff about Jesus being God and dying for my sins and coming back to life was peripheral to what really engaged me in the message, and I barely understood it anyway . And believe it or not, the idea of going to heaven was also of little relevance. I was 18; I was not concerned about afterlife insurance. I was responding to the opportunity to place my life into a context of redemption, right there in that present moment, with immediate implications for my worldview and my lifestyle. I would guess that more people are like me than not. In other words, when someone converts to Christianity, it likely has a lot more to do with a deeply felt need for that kind of redemption narrative than it does with any of the particulars about Jesus or the hereafter.
I just wanted to clarify some common misconceptions about Christian conversion. Recalling these aspects of my own story helped me to better understand my own conversion, so I thought I would share in case it might help others as well.
I often wonder what would happen if Christianity would stop defending itself. If it turned the other cheek. If it loved its enemies. If it blessed those who curse it. If it did good to those who hated it. If it gave its shirt to those who took its coat.
Would Christianity die?
And if it died in this way, would it ever rise again?
Go ahead and warm yourself, Peter; it’s a cold night for all of us. A catastrophic failure of friendship has thinned the air. The chill embraces you and me both, yet it has been his will that we should not die of its kiss. The wind nips at your ears, but go ahead and cusp your hands over them. He wants us to hear him say, “Father, forgive them … ”
I know what it’s like to let down, and to be let down, and without forgiveness we’ll keep falling farther down. Self-forgiveness is the hardest won, and many refuse its warmth. They can’t even approach the fire; it burns from fifty feet away, straight through the silvery frost that now engulfs and impales.
But not so with you, Peter. With me neither. It doesn’t feel great, and these flames will haunt us the rest of our lives. But let’s stand here anyway, together. If for no other reason than it’s what he would have wanted.
The Sacrament of Bachelorhood
I am 30 years old and a bachelor. I’ve never really dated. In grade school I was geeky, shy, and fearful of anything remotely risky. I hated roller coasters, didn’t want to drive a car, and contented myself with crushing on girls I didn’t stand a chance with. These were crushes that lasted years and consumed my thought life at times, but actually asking a girl out remained a fantasy until my college years.
During the course of my college career (2000-2007), there were only two occasions in which I really took an interest in a girl and told her how I felt. I got really close to them, and they were extremely special ladies that I would have been quite fortunate to date. However, in both instances, things went awry before the relationship ever really developed into anything “official.” Also in both instances, my own insecurities and hang-ups about dating probably had much to do with why things didn’t work out.
Despite these instances in which I very much longed for a relationship and went through quite a bit of pain when it didn’t happen, I have mostly been thoroughly happy about life without romance. The thought of being a lifelong bachelor causes me no anxiety, and it even appeals to me in many ways.
Oddly enough, when it comes to asking a girl out, I now fear her saying “yes” much more than saying “no.” Assuming that a successful relationship will eventually lead to marriage, i. e. completely devoting myself to another person for the rest of my life, that’s a dreadful thought. I believe I could do it, but an even more dreadful thought, to the point of being nearly incomprehensible, is asking that of another human being.
I suppose my aversion to marriage is rather Augustinian in nature then. It’s difficult to imagine feeling worthy enough to request lifelong commitment and devotion from someone. Especially someone who is remotely like I am, someone who doesn’t feel incomplete without romance, which is the type of someone I would want to marry. I sometimes wonder how anyone can do it.
But … I’m open to it. Perhaps just barely, but I want to be open to it. Why? Because I think the Roman church got it right when they deemed matrimony one of the sacraments, meaning that it is a means of receiving grace. No one is capable of perfect, lifelong devotion. No one is worthy of asking it of someone else. Thus, I guess it is one of the most tangible and life-altering experiences of grace that a person can experience in this life. Its benefits are not entirely earned, and its blessings are best received with humility and gratitude.
I also guess that bachelorhood comes with its own graces, at least for those that are happy with it. Christ, after all, was a bachelor. As such, I may find myself abler to identify with him, and freer to model my life after his. I also thoroughly enjoy healthy doses of solitude, which, from my observations, is hard to come by in married life. For the time being, I gladly accept this bachelor life as grace in the fullest, until circumstances warrant accepting a different grace.
Christ of Personality
Jesus had a personality, you know. Reading the Gospels, you can see it in the intimate moments he shares with followers like John, Peter, and Mary. You can see it in his frustration with the disciples when they completely miss his point. You can see his beaming pride when they do “get it.” You can see the delight he takes in defying expectations. You can see his indignation at those who use religion to justify unloving acts. You can see his heart break for those who just don’t know the love of God the Father.
And there’s even more that we don’t see and can only wonder about. Things that a modern novelist or biographer would likely include when describing someone, but the Gospel writers just didn’t have a purpose for. Like, how did his face look when was thinking really hard? Or what did he do with his hands when he was nervous about something? How did he handle interpersonal conflict? In what ways did his tone and demeanor change in varying social contexts? What kind of humor did he prefer? How did he react if someone made a joke he found offensive?
There’s a lot in the New Testament about reflecting the image and likeness of Christ. Many Christians affirm these exhortations by expressing a desire that “when people see me, I want them to see Christ.” And so do I, but I want them to see me, too. I want them to see my likes, my dislikes, my passions, my frustrations, my humor, my quirks, my loves, my inconsistencies, my convictions—and all of these things working together to create a one-of-a-kind manifestation of Christ’s love that is myself. This does not rob Christ of glory but rather reveals how wonderfully near he is to each one of us.
Jesus became human, and in doing so took on a distinctly human personality, shaped by his beliefs, his DNA, his upbringing, and his environment, just as ours are. He sanctified something that was already holy to begin with, for it was by God’s own design that each person would be a unique expression of his beautiful and loving character. There is a way in which we can be more like Christ by being more like ourselves, and the world can look at you and see both you and Christ simultaneously. And I think Christ prefers it that way. That’s just his personality.