Love one another as I have loved you. (John 13:34)
Unconditional agape love. That’s how God loves us; that’s how we’re called to love one another.
To be honest, that’s hard.
Consider that line from that Billy Joel song: “I love you just the way you are.” Think about the people that you love, whether it’s your romantic love interest, children, siblings, parents, friends… Consider whether you can truly say, “I love you just the way you are.”
Because that’s how God loves us. Just the way we are. We do not have to be perfect for God to love us. God loves us just the way we are. And there is tremendous freedom in that.
Spiritual teacher and mystic Anthony de Mello, S.J. (1931-1987) wrote a beautiful parable on this in The Song of the Bird.
I resented them and I agreed with them, and I wanted to change, but simply couldn’t, no matter how hard I tried.
Then one day someone said to me, Don’t change. I love you just as you are.
Those words were music to my ears: Don’t change, Don’t change. Don’t change . . . I love you as you are.
I relaxed. I came alive. And suddenly I changed!*
De Mello concludes by asking: Is this how you love me, God?
Notice that the focus is not whether or not a person should change (to be healthier, happier, or more whole). But rather, change is not a condition for genuine, authentic agape love.
That’s beautiful, but really hard to live out.
Sometimes, in order for us to have agape love for one another, the nature of our relationship has to change. It’s hard to be in a romantic relationship–and have unconditional love–for someone who is unhealthy. It’s hard to be in a close friendship–and have unconditional love–for someone who is unhealthy.
We love them, and we want them to change. We love them, and we want wholeness and fullness of life for them.
But we are called to love them unconditionally. Not change them.
It’s hard. Not impossible, but certainly, understandably difficult.
Difficult, but beautiful and true.
Here’s the deepest beauty of it: it’s the only way to truly live and truly love.
One of the greatest mistakes I ever made could have been prevented if I spent time with this truth. If I asked myself:
- Do I love him just the way he is?
- What if he never changes?
- Do I love him just the way he is or do I love his potential?
- Do I love him just the way he is or do I love the person he’s becoming?
Because if I was to be honest with myself, the answer was no. In that case, the most loving thing I could have done was to step away from the demands of the relationship so that I didn’t need him to change. So that I could love him just the way he was.
Actually, I need to ask myself this in all of my relationships–with my spouse, my children, my siblings, my parents, and my friends.
This truth–this unconditional love–has the power to transform our relationships, especially when the people that we love know that we love them unconditionally.
If it’s too hard to hold this truth with a relationship, maybe we need to re-evaluate the relationship.
When re-evaluating a relationship, sometimes it make more sense to walk away–even if only for a period of time–particularly when it comes to dating relationships or friendships.
There are other relationships that demand honoring a deeper commitment, such as Sacramental marriage and parent-child relationships. Re-evaluating these relationships with a deeper sense of unconditional love will mean different things for different people. Perhaps it means working to find something to love about that person. Perhaps it means “tough love” and boundaries.
There is no single answer. There is no easy answer.
There is only the call to love one another as Christ loves us.
Because, as it’s been said, “the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13).