By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.
I was teaching a Catholic Vision for Leading Like Jesus course near the end of a diocese’s two-year Ministry Formation program when the question came from one of the students.
“What’s the hardest part about teaching people to lead like Jesus,” the woman asked.
“Getting them to accept that God really loves them unconditionally.”
I blurted that out so fast there wasn’t time to give the matter any thought. But in the next few seconds as I considered what I said, I knew I had spoken the truth.
Getting people to accept the fact that God really loves them – warts and all, sins and all – is incredibly difficult. No, actually it’s impossible without some sort of intervention on God’s part and some sort of openness on the person’s part.
Ya gotta believe. Ya gotta believe it’s possible. Ya gotta believe it’s happening. Ya gotta believe there is nothing – nothing – you can do to separate you from the love of God.
So many people struggle with that most basic tenet of our faith.
If you are a parent, it should not be too hard to accept this truth if you can connect just a couple dots. You almost certainly love your kids unconditionally – meaning there is nothing they have done or could do that would get you to stop loving them.
If they have short-fuses – and especially if these fuses were hereditary – you might argue with them a lot. If they are undependable, you might have quit counting on them for much of anything. If they are addicts, you might have quit trusting them.
If they have made a complete mess of their lives you might cry and plead to the heavens for them to change. You might admit that they have broken your heart.
But quit loving them? Never!
It’s like that with God and us – only in spades to infinity. He never stops loving us. Never. He doesn’t even hesitate, as we might have been tempted to do now and then.
Sadly, way too few Catholics – and Christians of every shade, for that matter – seem to really believe this, to cherish it, to celebrate it, and to express our gratitude for it by responding in kindness to God and His creation.
I know I don’t appreciate it as often and as deeply as I should.
Father Ron Rolheiser talks about that moment in the high priest’s courtyard when an overconfident Peter denies ever knowing Jesus – three times. Here is the account from Luke:
Peter said, “My friend, I do not know what you are talking about.” Just as he was saying this, the cock crowed, and the Lord turned and looked at Peter; and Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.” He went out and began to weep bitterly. (Lk 60-62)
Father Rolheiser adds an important note of explanation: “Whenever the gospels tell us that Jesus ‘looked at’ someone, generally that means that he look at the person with love and understanding, with a look that blesses.”
Really? When I’ve read or heard that account I’ve always pictured the Lord looking at Peter in a very stern or disappointed way.
Imagine Jesus being able to hear Peter betray him and yet look at him with love and understanding. Amazing. And worth reflecting on during this period of Lent.
Father Rolheiser adds: “The tears we weep when we are loved despite weakness are very different from the ones we weep when we feel judged and humiliated by our weakness. To experience love when we don’t deserve it is the one grace that cleanses us of sin and gives us strength against sin.”
It’s a grace that’s worth reflecting on because it’s a grace that God gives to all of us. It’s there for the taking. But we have to make the effort to take it, to cherish it, to embrace it. What better time to start than now in Lent?
Father Rolheiser says “we struggle ... to admit we’re sinners and to recognize that we’re still loved. But appropriating both of these truths is the key to knowing Jesus and knowing ourselves.”
Most of the Catholics and other Christians I know are convinced we are sinners. But many of us struggle with recognizing that we are still loved.
Before Lent ends try to take a few minutes to reflect on the fact that God loves you – no matter what you have done, no matter what you continue to do, no matter what you have failed and will fail to do.
God loves you.
Grab that thought. Hold that thought. Cherish that thought. Embrace that thought.
And then do all that over and over again. It will please God and heal you.
And it will provide the most solid foundation possible for you to grow as a Jesus-like Leader.