A few years ago, I could have shared with you some really beautiful thoughts about loving your neighbor. Seriously, they would have sounded really good and I probably would have made some self-deprecating jokes to make you laugh, then offered some practical solutions for how to love people in your community, your family, your church…
Don’t get me wrong. I would have been totally sincere. I tried so hard to love others well, to be a good person, to bring God’s love to others. And outwardly, I was, frankly, crushing it.
Since I was a kid, I’ve always wanted so badly to do things the right way. I did well in school, went to a good, but not too expensive college, married my high school sweetheart, had some really cute kids spaced at reasonable intervals, started homeschooling, volunteered at church, and helped out my friends when they needed it. It was a life that no one could find fault with, really.
I’m not telling you it was all a lie. It wasn’t. But everything wasn’t as it would seem to a casual acquaintance or passerby. That marriage to my high school sweetheart? Constantly broken and tested by addiction. Those beautiful babies that we had every 2.25 years? They were so little, they needed so much, and I was so tired. All those meals I brought to friends when they were sick or had a baby or lost someone? I can see now that behind my kind actions, I was just crying out, “Love me? Think I’m as kind and good as I want to be?”
The worse things got at home, the more good I tried to do for my neighbors in the world. I tried to make sense of life’s disappointments by reminding myself of others’ suffering and doing things to ease it. I prayed so often for God to show me how I could love others better, as if it would make him love me more… and maybe if he loved me a little more, he would heal the brokenness in my family? Maybe he could heal my husband? Maybe he could take away the paralyzing anxiety and doubt I constantly faced?
I donated to good causes. I signed petitions. I watched friends’ kids while they were at doctor appointments. I volunteered to help with religious education at local parish that wasn’t even mine because it seemed like they needed help. I sent people surprises through the mail so they’d know I was thinking of them. I dropped off diapers at the crisis pregnancy center and dinner at the domestic violence shelter. I made dozens of loaves of bread and deposited them on my neighbor’s doorsteps. And yYou should have seen what I could do with Christmas cookies.
We all see where this was going, right? The bottom fell out. Turns out you can’t bribe God to heal addiction by doing good deeds.
Ok, so now this might be the point where you start to judge me a little bit and think… “Umm… duh?” I know. It sounds ridiculous now. I see it. But how many of us, deep down, are tempted to think that if we follow the formula, if we are kind, if we follow the rules, if we love others, that surely God won’t let us hurt in the big ways? Or that we can somehow love others as a replacement for loving ourselves well enough?
When my husband and I separated, to say I was devastated would be an understatement. I was crushed for all the regular reasons that people are when they face a divorce- betrayal, grief, fear for the future. But as the dust settled and I faced reality, I realized the way I had been loving people was unsustainable in my new life, and I didn’t have much of an identity apart from Christina the helper, the good friend, the one who does things for other people.
Homeschooling, that huge act of love for my children that I took so much pride in? That legally binding parenting agreement said I couldn’t do it anymore. Those charitable donations I loved being able to give freely and sometimes lavishly? My meager income made the idea almost laughable. Those meals I used to love to carefully prepare and bring to people who were going through a tough time? Even if I had enough money in my tiny grocery budget to swing it, having a job to support myself and the kids made it almost impossible to find the time to cook for even my own family.
But this funny thing happened. People showed up for me. A friend from church brought me a meal and a craft for the kids just because. My parents let the kids and I move into their house until I could find a place and were so gracious as to act like it wasn’t a huge imposition to have us there. A sweet teenage girl at our new church started sliding into our pew sometimes during mass and helping me wrangle the kids. I got a package in the mail full of bath bombs and face masks from a friend just to make me smile. People in my mom’s group invited me to family parties and nights out, and never made me feel awkward about not being part of a couple. Deeply faithful Christian friends that I was afraid might judge me for being divorced simply listened, affirmed, and prayed for me. People helped me, they served me, they loved me well. Even when I couldn’t return the favor.
Life has settled down for us and I’ve found a new peace that I’ve never experienced before. I can do some of those same old things again to love my neighbor. I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t feel good. But what I feel now is a mutuality in loving people that I didn’t before. It’s not just about serving… it’s about loving and being loved in return. I used to secretly think that serving others, “loving my neighbor” was about showing God how much I love him and showing him how worthy I was of love. But I was so wrong. Loving others and letting them do the same for me is God showing me how much he loves me. It is an end in itself. When I start seeing life this way, loving others isn’t about service anymore. It’s about living life with an open heart and open hands, allowing God to work through me, and letting him work on me through others.
Christina is a mom of three living in the Chicago suburbs who spends her free time reading novels, baking up sourdough bread, and doing insane things with homemade pizza. After going through a divorce, she teamed up with her friend Patty to create a community of divorced or separated women who may be struggling to find their place in the Church, called Still Here. You can find Christina on Instagram at @breadandwonderment or in the Still Here Community group on Facebook.