There’s a moment that happens in people’s stories. You hear the moment in a lot of people who have been through things like the Healing the Whole Person Retreat. It’s not necessarily in everyone’s story, but I hear it frequently and in every story that has it, it’s always a powerful moment. It’s the moment when a person shows someone the part of themselves that they are the most afraid of and they discover that they are no less loved than they were before.
The most powerful experience I’ve had of this personally was when I made my general confession on an eight-day silent retreat. For those who haven’t heard of general confession, it’s when you bring the sins of your whole life to a single confession. It is important in approaching this idea to be clear that those sins you have confessed before have been forgiven, they are gone, and you are not doing this out of any insecurity in the efficacy of your previous confessions. It’s also important to do it with the guidance of someone to help you prepare and with a priest whom you trust. But the point of this practice is to experience bringing your whole life of sin to Jesus and finding that he forgives all of it. That was certainly my experience. The lightness and freedom I had previously experienced in the wake of confession was compounded by the knowledge that I had just shown him everything that I was afraid of and it did not change how he saw me. In fact, the way the priest received me in that moment of complete vulnerability showed me that I was not just accepted but beloved by the Father.
This and other moments like it, teaching me that I was loved and establishing me in security, are the ones that have empowered me to grow. I can face my sins and weaknesses, and fight to overcome them, not when people point out my flaws but when they show me that I have firm ground to stand on. As the same priest said earlier in the retreat: “If we are secure in his love, we can face reality.”
Christian Picciolini joined the neo-Nazi movement when he was 14, was the youngest leader of the movement and left when he was 22. Since then, he’s helped more than 100 people detach from extremist movements. In his TED Talk, he said that from all the people he’s helped to leave he has found that people join extremist groups because they’re looking for belonging (not because of ideologies) and that they leave because they received compassion from the people they least deserved it from at a time when they least deserved it.
His life is a lot more extreme than anything you or I are likely to encounter, but I think he teaches us something profound about human nature. People are made for relationship; we ache for belonging because that is what we are made for; and finally, undeserved compassion is precisely the story of God with us, and that’s why it’s so powerful. As Picciolini said, “I don’t push them away, I draw them in closer.” If our goal is to bring people into relationship with the God who loves them, it ought to be one of our primary characteristics as Christians that we are the kind of people who love others like this. Who can always see the value of the person as a person. Who, although we are clear-eyed and aware of what is wrong, are never scandalized by people, and are never afraid to wade into the mess with them. Who never allow a problem to be fixed become more important than the person to be loved. I think this is at the center of evangelization. We evangelize by reflecting the Good News in a practical, concrete way for people. This is not manipulation, it’s not relativism; it’s simply striving to love others in the same way that God loves us. He loves us always, even when we least deserve it. We are always the beloved child. Everything else fits into that context. Because love like that transforms people, even human and imperfect love like that transforms people.
An important thing to remember as this plays out in our lives is that it should look different person to person. Love should be focused on individual people, so if there starts to be a one-size-fits-all strategy, chances are, we have strayed from the focus on loving the person. That said, there are some ideas and principles that have helped me to navigate the specific circumstances of loving someone well.
First, be in awe of the human person. Approach every beloved child of the Father with reverence and always strive to see their unique and infinite value. And ask Jesus to help you see their brokenness and sin as he did from the cross.
Second, never make a problem to be fixed more important than a person to be loved. Love is always our central goal, and to love means to will the good of the other. Sometimes willing the good of another person means calling out something that they did wrong or calling them on to the next level of virtue, and neglecting this kind of aid because you are afraid of what they will think is a problem. However, calling someone out before you have a relationship of trust may inhibit them from actually being able to receive what you’re saying. And rushing to check the box of saying the right thing is also a problem. Care more about the person than about their problems. Again, if we are secure in love we can face reality and actually improve and grow. So be someone people can trust will always love them.
Finally, you need to receive this yourself. You need to experience what it means to be a child of the Father, and if you haven’t experienced it, you won’t be able to share it. If you haven’t experienced this or you haven’t experienced this in a while, go to the Father and ask him how he sees you.