Last Christmas, my dad, Joey Bonifacio, gave me a book entitled King’s Cross by Timothy Keller, to Joseph, he gave a book on the Coca Cola company. For a moment I thought he had mistakenly switched his gifts. Everyone knows that religious books go to Joe and the business books go to me. I was even tempted to trade with Joe. Just goes to show how UN-interested I was in reading more about “churchy” stuff.
But as I started reading the book, the words started speaking to me in a new way, and as I read the verses included, it came to me so fresh and alive, not the way a manual instructs us, which is what everyone told me the Bible was: a manual for life, but something more. All of a sudden the pages seemed like letters, infused with passion, stained with tears and love, full of emotions of pain, of pleading, of hope, of faith, of rejection, of anger, of mercy, but most of all, of love.
It wasn’t a manual. It was a love letter.
It wasn’t a book of examples on “how-to-live”. No. It was collection of romances and adventures. It was God telling His lover, “You have to see the view from up here. Come up. Come up.”
All of a sudden, it hit me. I had been going about this whole thing wrong, and no wonder I kept failing. No wonder fear came over me so quickly when there was a threat. No wonder my anger rose so high when I felt offended. No wonder I fell so frequently to temptation. No wonder I became so proud with achievement. No wonder the condemnation lasted so long.
I had a system of beliefs, a religion, but I was missing the important ingredient that made this particular religion special. I was missing the Love of Jesus. This is why we say Christianity is more than a religion, it is a relationship.
I had not fallen in love.
That is why church, religion, spirituality, or whatever you want to call it, didn’t satisfy me. It couldn’t. I’m hard to satisfy as it is with my constant need to go deeper, to try more, to experience, and this empty religion wasn’t just unsatisfying, it was frustrating.
And of course it is. It’s like playing a game you’re never going to win – and getting punished every time you lose.
No one falls in love with losing every day.
What do we fall in love with?
We fall for beauty.
And what is beauty?
It is an assemblage of graces, of excellences, or an assemblage of properties in the form of the person or any other object, which pleases.
I like how Marie-Henri Beyle (better known as Stendhal) put it, “la promesse de bonheur” or “the promise of happiness.”
We fall in love with people, with things, that promise us satisfaction. Those who satisfy our eyes we call them beautiful. The music that pleases our ears we call beautiful as well. There are beautiful feelings, beautiful moments, beautiful scenes, beautiful tastes, and beautiful memories, all pleasing to experience.
Yet these were not the experiences I associated with Christianity or church. With family and friends, yes, but not religion.
A good indicator that we are simply being religious is this: We feel safer because we break less rules and we feel more satisfied with our personal performance, yet we are less willing to open our hearts to receiving and giving love.
So I took an honest look at my religion, and it was this: I was a spiritual slut. I knew that good behaviour brought blessing, and blessing brought comfort and security. So I worked my best to deserve the blessing. I exchanged myself for the benefits. I also knew that bad or wrong behaviour resulted in shame, in missed destinies, in pain, in being ostracised, in loss of trust, so I just dealt with my bad things as quietly as I could. I would read the Bible to see what I had to do to look as pretty as I could, so that I could walk the alley, attract me a blessing, and avoid the cops when I did wrong. Religious people make amazing cops by the way, yet so blinded by our own planks.
I don’t think a prostitute goes home satisfied. Neither was I.
Fortunately, God knows where to find the soul again, as the author, Victor Hugo, put so well. He really does.
This Is Who He Is
I probably have two more blog posts for the rest of 2012, this one and one for New Year. My simple encouragement for us this Christmas is this:
Fall in love.
How? That’s a good question. It’s a great question. No one can be forced to fall in love. We can neither force ourselves. We truly have to fall. (Which is why I find it so silly that people think we can process love into people. We can process the motions of loving acts but love cannot be manufactured. It has to bloom.)
How do we fall? How do we fall for anything?
Gaze at His beauty.
And what makes Him beautiful? What are His graces and excellences? Let me share the little that my small mind can conceive.
Here is a person who had His life completely at its best. Full comfort. Full satisfaction. Full fellowship. All power. All authority. Yet He offered His life for breaking, that my broken life may be offered love. He doesn’t want me standing in the alley. He wants me walking down the aisle. He doesn’t want me performing for tips. He wants me dancing with Him. He doesn’t need me to read four chapters a day. He wants to remind me of His love. He doesn’t need me to do anything for Him, how arrogant of me to even think that the Creator is hostage to me, but He does want me so badly, that He laid down His life for mine. And He loves me so much that He promised, “You may walk away from me, but I will never walk away from you.”
What a beautiful person. What a promise of Happiness.
I’m convinced I didn’t fall sooner because I was too busy looking at everyone else and at the mirror. I wasn’t looking at Him.
You Just Know
I used to ask people, “How do you know if you’re in love? I’m not talking about emotions or feelings. How do you know that you are truly crazy madly in love?”
Some would give me classifications that didn’t seem to stand under scrutiny, but there was one answer that always baffled me, that I thought was extremely stupid and useless, “You just know.”
Now I think I understand what that means, and I believed it is this:
Once and for all you’re convinced that you love this person.
For us, lovers of Christ, it is this, once and for all we are convinced that we are loved. Period.
(You may read my exploration on this thought in another post I wrote entitled You Are Loved.)
As I look back, I realize how proud I was, and pride makes us foolish, thinking I was earning His love when I was really pushing away His embrace. I was trying so hard to make myself beautiful For Him, when I was already beautiful To Him. When I reflect even deeper, a lot of that was driven to prove myself to myself and to others, that I could deserve something beautiful.
When talking about this with my dad, I asked him, “Do you love mom?” He said instantly, “Yes. What kind of a question is that?” I followed this up with a “I don’t believe you. Why were you impatient with her the other day?” He looked at me sensing a point, and the point was this:
It’s not so important whether I think my dad loves my mom. What is important is that he knows he loves her and, equally important, is that she knows he loves her. It’s not so important that their friends think they’re compatible, or the church gives its approval, and especially not the opinion of strangers.
This is what is important: Does my dad love her? Does my mom know it, does she feel it because my dad has done everything he can to communicate that?
Sometimes we burden our relationship with God trying to convince everyone we’re “Christian” through our behaviours and achievements. We’re trying to show people we deserve blessings and a good life. How much of our effort is really geared towards securing ourselves and the approval of others? How much of our time and energy truly goes to enjoying our Lover?
I saw a read a great reminder to stop living this way from the author Paulo Coelho who wrote, One is loved because one is loved. Don’t ask a stupid “why me?”
Do we love God? Do we really know that He loves us?
Or are we still trying to deserve it? Are we still asking, “why me?”
I hope this Christmas, you will let Him show you His love. That you will not miss His gift to you looking at all the other gifts. That you will not miss His presence amidst the presents or lack of. That you will not close your eyes to the dark circumstances and miss His star. I pray that you will stop trying to deserve a beauty you’re already free to enjoy. Most of all, I pray that you will fall in love this Christmas with He who loves you most.
“Love is the foolishness of men, and the wisdom of God.”
– Victor Hugo
“Therefore the Kingdom of Heaven is like a certain king, who wanted to reconcile accounts with his servants. When he had begun to reconcile, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. But because he couldn’t pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, with his wife, his children, and all that he had, and payment to be made. The servant therefore fell down and kneeled before him, saying, ‘Lord, have patience with me, and I will repay you all!’ The lord of that servant, being moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt. “But that servant went out, and found one of his fellow servants, who owed him one hundred denarii, and he grabbed him, and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’ “So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will repay you!’ He would not, but went and cast him into prison, until he should pay back that which was due.”
– Matthew 18:23-35
We humans are a funny lot – that’s putting it mildly.
We want others to be patient and bear with us as we grow, yet we are quick to criticize, quick to show anger, quick to pronounce judgment.
We want to be accepted for who we are yet condemn others for failing to be a certain person for us.
We want the friendships that make us better, sacrificial friendships, yet we dispose people who have offended us or threaten us – proving their value to us was based on how they made us feel.
We want to be treated as important and be served yet do not show compassion to those who need it most when they need it most.
We want complete forgiveness while selectively being unforgiving.
We want true unconditional love yet we burden others with our conditions – conditions that change depending on how we’re feeling.
We want our record of wrongs to be erased yet we engrave their sins, even their past sins against others, on our stone hearts and hard minds.
We do these and we call it justice, we call it wisdom, we call it survival, we call it discernment, we call it practicality, we even call it obedience sometimes. Yet at the center is fear, self-preservation and the preservation of the chosen ones (those we are comfortable with loving and forgiving). At the center is hurt or the avoidance of hurt. At the center is pride and selfishness – I am more important than him or her. What I think about him or her is more important than him or her. My protection is more important than him or her. My comfort is more important than him or her. My feelings are more important than him or her. My opinions are more important than him or her. My success is more important than him or her. My relatives are more important than the relatives of others. My friends are more important than the friends of others. My children are more important than the children of others. My beliefs are superior to the beliefs of others. My choices are better than his or her choices. My sins are not as bad as those of others.
This is the human heart. This is my heart.
And this is so far from God’s.
If our stronger faith, our learning, our wisdom, and our better decision-making have made us more judgmental and less patient then we should search our hearts.
If our obedience to the law has made us more condescending and suspicious of others then we should search our hearts.
If our relationships with good people have made us less forgiving, more disdainful and less welcoming of bad people then we should search our hearts.
If our blessings and answered prayers have made us forget the prayers of others then we should search our hearts.
If our higher positions have made us look down at others then we must search our hearts.
If our kindness to others, our generosity, and our good works have made us less forgiving of the unkind and selfish then we should search our hearts.
Our hearts are never stagnant, never just in one place, it is either beating towards someone or moving away. We can check our own growth by very simply asking:
“Am I more patient today?”
“Am I more kind today?”
“Am I less envious today?”
“Am I less boastful today?”
“Am I less proud today?”
“Am I more honoring of others today?”
“Am I seeking the interests of others more than my own today?”
“Am I less easily angered?”
“Am I less bitter, more forgiving, and not keeping yesterday’s wrongs on record today?”
“Am I not holding on to evil, but rejoicing in the truth of God’s love today?”
“Am I more protecting of others today?”
“Am I more trusting today?”
“Am I more hopeful today?”
“Am I more persevering today?”
For me, the answer is usually a resounding “NO”. That is the honest truth. Yet when I turn the question back to God and ask:
“Has He been more patient with me today?” YES. He has given me another day with Him.
“Has He been more kind to me today?” YES. I’m breathing His air. Living on His planet. Enjoying His sunshine.
“Is He less envious?” Was He ever envious? He has never zapped any of the girls I liked. In fact, He loves them more than me.
“Has He boasted less today?” He never has. His works boast of His greatness and those who know Him boast of His love, yet all He ever tells me is how much He loves me.
“Has He been proud towards me?” NO. On the contrary, He made Himself lower than me by taking my sins once and for all.
“Has been honoring towards me.” YES. More than I deserve. He has taken a dishonorable man like me and honored me with His loving kindness.
“Has He been self-seeking?” NO. He has been seeking me. He has been self-giving.
“Has He been easily angered with me?” NO. He has been forgiving. He has been patient with my continuous faults. He has been gracious.
“Has He kept a record of my wrongs?” NO. He has taken them upon Himself and paid my price. He has erased my debt.
“Has He rejoiced in my evil?” NO. He has brought the Truth of His love: the Gospel, the Good News, that Jesus died for my sins.
“Has He protected me today?” YES. He has protected me from my sins, from my wrong choices and the wrong choices of others. He has used my hurt to build my character, to strengthen me. He has protected me with His love.
“Has He trusted me?” YES. More than I deserve. I have let Him down, yet He continuous to entrust me with time on this planet, with relationships with people, those He loves most, with His purpose for me.
“Does He still hope for me?” YES. He continues to work in me to realize His plan and purpose in my life.
“Does He persevere with me?” YES. Despite my stubbornness, He doesn’t give up. He is faithful. He perseveres in His love.
The greater our understanding of God’s love, the greater the love we will show others.
In The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, the servant owed the King the equivalent $3,000,000,000 USD. Yet the King forgave all His debt. This shows the absurdity of God’s love – the love He wants us to show others.
The servant had a debtor, someone who wronged him, someone who owed him, someone he felt he had the right to collect from, and when that person couldn’t pay, he condemned him to prison. How much did this person owe the servant? The equivalent of $1000.
He had been forgiven $3,000,000,000 yet he could not forgive $1000.
Again, this is my heart. I have banished others to the prison of my bitterness for $1000, maybe even the $1,000,000 offense against me. Yet, God has forgiven my $3,000,000,000 debt.
I don’t want to get what I deserve. I want to get better than I deserve – and I have in Jesus. I must treat others better than they deserve.
We humans are a funny lot – we are a selfish lot. Because of this we cannot embrace fully that His wisdom is summed up in His love. Proof of this is our inability to love – especially those who threaten us, the ones who need our love most.
We humans are a funny lot – we are a selfish lot – we are a rotten lot – we are a proud lot – yet we are loved – so we are forgiven – so we are redeemed – so we are blessed – again, how great have we been loved – so we can love.