The title of this reflection seems a little bit ridiculous and oxymoronic, but this is one of the hardest things to do as human beings, and much harder as believers. God loves us, yes! We know that we are loved by Him, yes! However, these two understandings are usually somewhat of a head knowledge or an intellectual comprehension. It is, indeed, very hard for us to allow ourselves to be genuinely and personally loved by God. It is extremely hard for us to allow God to love us as we are instead of as we think we need to be in one way or another. Even though what seems to be impossible or ridiculous at first is actually the greatest thing that we could have ever experienced in this world if we allow ourselves to be loved by God — as we truly are deep from within.
To be honest with you, I struggled for the longest time to understand what it means to be loved by God. Like many, I know that He loves me through His loving acts of creation, redemption, and continual sanctification. Nevertheless, this love of God was always “out there” because He was Someone I grasped to be present, but, also, many times, nebulous and distanced from my own personal life. I tried my best to obey the teachings of the Church, read the Sacred Scriptures, and pray, but I really never had a personal relationship with Him. I kept hearing my Protestant friends telling me that I need to have a personal relationship with God but they never could tell me what that really means… so rationale never convinced me.
I knew that God exists but I did not understand why this personal, intimate, and loving relationship was really needed! I thought that if I obey the commandments, live a good life, and “pray” as much as I can, that was a good enough life as a Catholic. God was, then, an important part of my life but remained far away because I did not understand my relationship with Him.
In all honesty, I struggled with the relationship with God because I was struggling with the relationship with myself, my family, and those who were close to me. A lot of my fears and insecurities made me close myself off from being vulnerable, transparent, and open to love and receiving the needed love from others. Furthermore, this personal and intimate relationship that is supposed to be opened was not a part of my upbringing and culture. Therefore, I struggled to find a way to relate to the people around me as well as trying to understand, accept, and love myself.
Since our Vietnamese culture emphasizes a lot on duty and responsibility, I, for the longest time ever, defined my faith as how I fulfilled my duties as a Christian and keep up with my responsibilities as a believer. I kept all the commandments and teachings as much as I can, and I frequented the Sacrament of Reconciliation, but there was never a personal or intimate relationship with God. I kept up with all of my filial duties and responsibilities but never really understood and embraced matters out of love. I, too, struggled as a teenager trying to understand my faith because I also struggled with my own relationship with my parents. For the most part, I was transferring my own relationship struggles with myself and my parents toward my relationship with God.
Like many young Vietnamese immigrants, I never had a close relationship with my parents like what is often portrayed on television. I know they loved me and sacrificed a lot for my brother and me, but I never was able to have a heart-to-heart relationship with them as a child and teenager. As a firstborn son, a lot was expected of me so I always tried to live up to my parents’ expectations with steadfast commitment and responsibility. On top of that, I struggled with scrupulosity and perfectionism for the longest time ever because I was afraid to make a mistake. I became afraid to make mistakes because I did not want to disappoint my parents or be scolded by them. Hence, I even set for myself a very high set of standards that I, myself, could never meet.
That mentality affected me in a very negative way because I was never happy with myself and others. No one seems to ever live up to my ridiculous expectations and standards, myself including! I lived like this for a very long time… until 2008 when I went to a required spirituality enrichment and formation program hosted by the Institute for Priestly Formation in Omaha, Nebraska. I was skeptical but went along with it because I did not want to show any resistance. I thought I knew about prayer, especially because of my time as a religious. I thought I learned all about the consecrated life and different styles of prayer throughout my novitiate year as a Redemptorist. Nonetheless, that summer changed my whole life on a dime.
I was assigned to Monsignor John Esseff as his spiritual directee. I heard many rumors about him and his gift of soul reading. To be honest, I thought it was gossip and a made-up thing. I remembered coming to him for confession one day, and after I finished confessing my sins, he told me that he felt I still had something heavy in my heart that I have not confessed. I was sweating bullets and thought to myself, “What is he talking about? How can he know?” I was confused at first, but all the sudden, I began to cry uncontrollably. I could not control it… then, I told him, “I hate myself.” I could not believe that I said it either!
That moment changed my life forever. I finally voiced up what I did not want to recognize and acknowledge personally. Throughout that summer, through the wonderful guidance of my spiritual director and the program, I learned how to be transparent, vulnerable, and honest with God. I learned how to listen, acknowledge, respond, and receive His love for me. I learned to personally open up myself to Him in prayers and allow myself to receive His love without personal expectations, demands, and conditions. It was hard to let go of all of my own preconceived conditions, understandings, projections, demands, and expectations that I had for God and just to allow Him to love as I am instead of what I thought, think, or would like to be.
To love God and love ourselves seems to be a simple thing to say, but it is the hardest thing to learn and put into practice! To personally love Him and allow Him to love us in all of our blessings and imperfections, to accept ourselves as we are in all of our brokenness, is the hardest action and desire to will and desire. It is hard because we have to let go and shed ourselves from all that we have come to know and conditioned for ourselves to simply love and receive love from the heart. This is what God desires of us for He is love.
God is love because within Himself is pure, unconditional, and equal love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God the Father is the Lover, the Son is the Beloved, and the Holy Spirit is that love that unites and makes them distinctive. Love is not just a character or quality of God, it is His very existence! Therefore, this love within God Himself outpours and gives life through the acts of creation, redemption, and continual sanctification and transformation. Through the power and working of the Holy Spirit, we are reformed and transformed each day to be more Christlike as to love others and our Heavenly Father. The love of God changes us because we are changed by the love that is so pure, perfect, and life-giving… if we really understand it, there is nothing else that we can do except to receive and give ourselves totally and completely in return to this wondrous, personal, and intimate love that comes from Him who loves, knows our hearts, cares for us, and wills our eternal good.
To love is to allow ourselves to be more Christlike so that we can receive and respond, as well as to acknowledge and reveal the love of God to others who are struggling and in need of Him. If the love of God is not with us, we have not really given anyone anything substantial or life-giving. It cannot happen until we have truly, personally, and intimately received, understood, and embraced the Creator and His love for us deep within our heart of heart. It is important for us to remember that the desire to change hearts has to begin with us. Once our hearts are changed and conformed to His loving will, we are able to radiate and shed His life-giving love to others without many words, excuses, demands, expectations, and other typical human causes. Simply put, true love begins with us by how we love God and allow ourselves to be loved by Him.
May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you.