Much has been made of “unconditional love”. “The Episcopal Church welcomes you” is an aspired-to incantation of the incarnated, unconditional love of God. Multiple parishes (including All Saint’s, Pasadena) go a step further with, “Whoever you are and wherever you find yourself on your journey of faith, you are welcome . . .” I think that is quite nice. Of course, the “unconditional love” of God doesn’t show up in any of Church Councils or Creeds, but scripture points to it. The idea that God’s love is offered always to us (in spite of who we are or what we do) is thoroughly orthodox, with only those spurious Calvinist heretics believing otherwise.
There’s a little problem with this, though. If God loves unconditionally, then we must, also. God is expecting us to follow suit, for at almost every Mass we hear, “Walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us . . .” This is the kind of love that we try to incarnate into the world with all those signs and bumper stickers that show the radical welcome of the unconditional love of God. We must love as He loves. We must walk in that love.
What might it look like to walk in that love? I think St. Paul showed this unconditional love of God when he wrote, “I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some.” (1 Cor. 9:22) Here, St. Paul became like those to whom he was sent: to those under the law, he submitted himself to the law (even though he didn’t have to) and to Greeks, he became a Greek (even though he was a proud Pharisee). By loving unconditionally, he lost himself for the sake of the Gospel — for the sake of unconditional love.
But, I’ve always wondered, did St. Paul ever get mad at this? Did he ever silently clench his fists in frustration as he chameleoned himself throughout the Mediterranean? Did he ever stand at the precipice of a group of Greeks and think to himself, “I can’t do this anymore! There is nothing left of me. I am depleted. I am ceasing to exist!” Was he ever tempted to turn at the threshold of that house and run like hell to the nearest plane to India in order to find himself again? Did he read all the new self-help books, try a few diets and patronizingly talk about how he can’t “love anyone else until he loves himself”?
Did this frighten him like it frightens me?
Of course, I’m nowhere near his level, but in the little weensiest-tiniest bit that I try to be a few things to fewer people, I clutch onto myself as my white knuckles scream, “you can have it all — but not this!” When every single aspect of my life is crushed in a vain attempt to love just a few unconditionally, is it wrong of me to say, “You’re scaring the shit outta’ me, Jesus! Can’t I just have one nice thing or must you crush that, too?”
When does love say, “I can’t!”? When does true, unconditional Godly love say that you have come so far, but may come no further? What conditions do we set for unconditional love? When does love turn and walk out the door? When does the pain become so much that we cry out, “No more!” on the threshing floor?
So, would anybody really blame him, if standing at the entryway to a meeting of those Greeks, St. Paul changed his mind and ran because he just couldn’t do it anymore? And, who would blame you if you loved so deeply, for so long and so unconditionally (yet it was always returned with abuse) that you packed your bags and fled into the night? Who would blame you? Would you blame me for holding back, for getting off the threshing floor before the winnowing fork thew my crushed soul up into the air, while the rest went to the fires? Would you blame me?
Indeed, love must have a breaking point. It must. It has to, because our attempts at loving infinitely will always be limited by the fact that we are finite.
The breaking point of love is the human heart. When we love, the heart will be stretched so thin and for so long that it will break, and the soul will cry out with a desperate languishing anguish when it breaks. In love, our welcoming of others should cost us something. The price that love demands is the heart.
Perhaps, loving unconditionally means that with a broken heart, we love, anyway. Perhaps, we must lose ourselves and choose to love, regardless. Perhaps, in our struggle to love unconditionally when our finite little hearts are crushed, then — and only then — do we begin to touch the ineffable love of God, for love is a supernatural thing. Unconditional love is a frightening miracle. Or, as Mrs. Anstruther put it in Charles Williams’ Descent into Hell, “Salvation is a terrible thing — a frightening good.”
Love should kill you — anything else is a lie.