how I finally learned what love is

The air was cool for Minnesota summer, and a fire crackled and snapped over wet logs in the fire pit in front of me. I was about to tell a story I had only told once before, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that the words still felt almost fake as they churned inside of me, bringing a new sensation of reality to the term word vomit. It just didn’t feel right. In a way, it felt selfish, what I was about to do. At a cursory glance, everything about my life seemed to be just as it should, if not better, but I was about to confess that for the majority of my life I had felt like I had to earn love and wasn’t quite sure what it actually meant to be loved.  

I mean, honestly, I’m 19 years old, have a college diploma hanging on my bedroom wall, my family is great to me and always has been, my friends are some of the best you could ask for, and I have everything I need, among other things, but I couldn’t escape the voice of God trying to convince me, for the umpteenth time in however many years, that there was no possible way for anyone to ever earn someone else’s love. But along with that, He also seemed to whisper that the reason was that you didn’t have to. His love, as well as anyone else’s authentic love, doesn’t need to be earned. That seems like such a simple, basic concept, but it’s one I’m honestly still processing and learning to be true.

 

I don’t know exactly when it started to why, but what I do know is that for most of my life, I’ve harbored this nagging voice constantly telling me I have to be smart enough, nice enough, Christian enough, musical enough, x enough, y enough, or z enough in order for people to like me, and by extension, love me. For most of grade school, and I suppose parts of college as well, I partially satisfied that voice by assuring myself I would be the smartest, and I guess that’s why I have a college diploma framed on my bedroom wall before my twenties. Beyond that, I fed that voice’s hunger by also telling myself I would have the most friends and be the best Christian person I could be, but all of those things have come under attack in the last few years as God has started breaking down those walls to show me what He’s really about, and what He’s about is unconditional love.

 

For about as long as I can remember, I believed it was my job to keep my friends around and stay in their good graces as well as God’s. In grade school and to this day, I was always the person wondering and freaking out about why someone hadn’t texted or messaged me back yet. Depending how long it had been, I would start thinking back to anything I had done recently, or even further in the past, to make them not want to talk to me anymore. Or if someone canceled plans with me, I would wonder if it was perhaps my fault that they didn’t want to get together anymore. With every little thing I was questioning myself, trying to find something I had done or maybe even just something about myself that had caused it, and this vicious cycle continued to perpetuate itself, only exacerbated by the fact that a handful of my former friends did just up and disappear off the face of the earth one day.

 

But the fact of the matter was that I was trying to earn and maintain the love of everyone around me, and it was eating away at me inside. By junior year of high school, I was having anxiety attacks on the regular, paralyzed by this gripping fear and panic that trapped me in my own mind, going through all the different reasons someone might’ve decided they didn’t want to be friends with me anymore or didn’t like me anymore, until the fated person or people messaged me back or rescheduled our plans or whatever it might have been. Then, everything would be fine, until it happened again. It created a constant fear and terror that the people I cared about and loved would all of a sudden decide one day that they didn’t want to have anything to do with me anymore, even if I had just seen them a few days before, and it was a mentally and emotionally draining.

 

At the same time, I was coming to grips with a lot of other things going on in life, and it was about the same time most mainstream churches were really cracking down and getting brutally honest with what they thought about LGBTQ topics. All the while another tempest was brewing inside of me, I was also sitting in church listening to pastors essentially telling me I was deformed by the Fall, doomed to a constant state of constant lust, and that the only way for me to be right with God was to relegate myself to being alone forever, and that’s if they were being kind about it. On social media, other evangelical Christian leaders were telling me I was an abomination, an insult to men, a spawn of the devil, just another step away from a pedophile, and a myriad of other things I could choose to repeat but won’t. It wasn’t much help that my youth pastors talked about people like me and treated me directly like I was spiritually sick, as if who I was could somehow be cured if I just prayed enough and had enough accountability, whatever that was supposed to mean (in my head, it sounded like weekly updates on what it was like to be gay that week, which I didn’t really understand the purpose of).

 

Combined, the world started to look like a really dark, bleak place to be. Already struggling with the idea that the people I loved and cared about most might just one day cast me aside, the message that I was either inherently bad by nature of existing or destined to be alone forever really supercharged my drive to prove that I was okay and that I could be good, and my need to earn the love of others only skyrocketed. I became convinced that if I was just good enough, if I was Christian enough, and if I could make a relationship work that I’d be able to prove to myself, to God, and to everyone else that I actually was good and that the way I was could be good and that the way I loved could be good, that I wasn’t all of those bad and awful things the church had told me that I was. And if I did all of those things, I’d also be able to convince God and everyone else to love me.

 

But all of those things crumbled to the ground as soon as this most recent season of life started, with college ending, me not going to church because it still stings too much, and me still being very much single. Suddenly, everything holding me together had disappeared and I was starting to feel it. But the thing is that God always seems to make the biggest breakthroughs when you don’t have anything left to give, which oddly enough, also happens to be the point right after He’s already taken away all the false hopes and defenses we’ve built up for ourselves.

 

Having stripped away everything else I thought I was hanging onto, what He taught me and is continuing to teach me is that you can never ever make anyone love you, at least if you’re talking about real love that is. And unlike normally, the same rules apply to God. You can’t make Him love you, and even though that sounds scary and out of your control (because it is), it’s actually the best thing He ever could’ve said, because the truth is that you don’t need to make Him love you. He already does, and He always will.

 

Maybe part of the truth is that my learning of this profound, but also incredibly basic idea was hindered due to the fact that 97% of the boys and men I encountered made fun of me and directly, straight up, no punches pulled told me I wasn’t good enough up or I was too different until my junior year of high school (when I finally met some real ones, mind you) or the fact that the church told me I was worse, dirtier, inherently flawed, and more sinful for so long, but I think another part of the truth is that God needs each of us to learn the insanely beautiful truth that we are loved by others and loved beyond compare by Him, without any restrictions, loopholes, conditions, or exceptions, on our own, in our own way, before we can really believe it for ourselves.

 

So, if you took the time to read this, just know that you are loved. You are so loved. Full stop.