The Shame of Love

In those daysJesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son, with you, I am well pleased.” Mark 1:9-11

Notice how in Mark, God speaks directly to Jesus: “You are my son, the Beloved, with you, I am well pleased”. Compare with Matthew’s account where God says “This is my son, the Beloved,” as if speaking not to Jesus but to a wider audience. For Mark God’s address to Jesus is deeply personal: You are my son, the beloved!

At Jesus’ baptism, God claims Jesus as the be-loved one. At our baptism God likewise claims us as be-loved.

Now I know I am loved by God, but do I experience myself being loved by God? My answer is mixed and equivocal – a yes and no. I know that God loves me. Looking back on my life I can see that God has deeply loved me. Looking to my future I know that God will always love me.  Yet, in the present moment, I often feel very detached from the direct experience of God’s love.

The real challenge of my spiritual journey has been – and remains – to experience the reality that God loves me with an unconditional love in the present moment – a love that has nothing to do with how much or how little I love God in return.

There’s love and then there’s shame. It is tempting for me to put my lack of a sense experience of being loved in the present moment by God down to two sources of shame. Firstly, there is my inability to love God as much as I feel I should. If I loved God more I might feel more of God’s love for me. Secondly, I feel myself to be both unworthy of and certainly ungrateful for God’s love. Despite my longing to more powerfully feel God’s love of me, the sorry truth is shame leads me to shy away from the experience of being loved. Being the one who does the loving – no matter how imperfectly – is easier than being the one who is loved. The lover is always in control while the beloved has no control over being loved. There’s a paradox for in being loved unconditionally exposes me to my sense of shame.

In his poem Love III, George Herbert describes my experience of shying away when God tells me he loves me. I too want to cry out with Herbert: I, the unkind the ungrateful? Ah, my dear, I cannot look on thee. It’s as if I want to tell God: thank you, but no thank you! To be beloved of God is too intrusive and potentially demanding, too intimate an experience. Being loved exposes me to my vulnerability and shame. Between humility and humiliation – there lies the finest of lines.

We are in a continual negotiation around the shame of loving and being loved. As the lover, God pursues us and has no intention of allowing us to set the comfort level for intimacy.

In Love III, George Herbert describes our struggle with the shame that causes us to shy away from the fullest experience of being loved by God.  

 I, the unkind the ungrateful? Ah, my dear, I cannot look on thee.
 Love takes my hand and smiling did reply, ‘Who made the eyes but I?’
 Truth Lord, but I have marred them, let my shame go where it doth deserve. 
 And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
 Ah, my dear, then I will serve.

 You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat,
 So I did sit and eat.  

Yet, in the end, we must capitulate in the face of God’s relentless pursuit to love us. 

I’ve had the courage to speak honestly and in very personal terms because my experience is not an isolated one, unique to me. We all know that when it comes to God’s love, it is not about earning and deserving but believing and receiving. Yet, so much of our identity is predicated on being worthy – which is just a way of dressing up the fact that we want to remain in control. If we are deserving of God’s love, we tell ourselves, it can only be to the extent of having somehow, earned it. What a ridiculous notion!  

The truth is we are be-loved. We are all be-loved because God’s love is a gift – gifted to us without strings. Capitulation to being loved is the only healthy response we can make.

As we move into Lent, let us look more deeply into our own experience of temptation and struggle. In particular, let us face the greatest temptation of all – to allow our shame to come between us and the experience of being loved by God. This is for many of us hard to do and comes only with the practice of prayer and the discipline self-examination – the purpose of which is to let: our shame go where it doth deserve.

Mark ends this section with Jesus returning from his time of preparation in the wilderness to find John has been arrested. The time he says has come, the Kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe the good news! For us Lent is a time remind ourselves that for us also, there’s no time to lose!

[We will be familiar with Love as part of a series of metaphysical poems written by the 17-cenutry Anglican priest, George Herbert. Less familiar to some may be that in 1911, the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams took love together with four others of Herbert’s poems setting them as his Five Mystical Songs within which the poem Love is the third in sequence. You might like to listen here.]

Love (III)
George Herbert - 1593-1633
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
            Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
            From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
            If I lacked anything.
"A guest," I answered, "worthy to be here":
            Love said, "You shall be he."
"I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
            I cannot look on thee."
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
            "Who made the eyes but I?"
"Truth, Lord; but I have marred them; let my shame
            Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?"
            "My dear, then I will serve."
"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."
            So I did sit and eat.

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