As I reflected on all of this, it suddenly became clear what my paradigm had violated. It stood incompatible with this fundamental truth – that love is a gift, always.
Love Is A Gift
For if love is truly seen as a gift, gratitude would always follow, no matter the degree of love – big or small. Therefore the existence of a baseline, a certain threshold of decency and expectation, could not righteously exist in a relationship. It was a fallacy. It infringed on one another’s agency.
And how so? By expecting a certain level of goodness, no matter how small, that pressure robs the other person the opportunity to show they would do it of their own free will and choice without the existence of that pressure, to show that it is in fact a choice of love, that it is a gift. What right do you have to rob them of that opportunity?
And furthermore it robs the receiver the ability to see the truth of the act, that it is indeed a gift and not something owed, which robs the person of the joy and appreciation they could otherwise have in these acts of love in their behalf, no matter how small.
The removal of such a threshold, or to say that a loving relationship cannot rightly include any degree of expectation, conversely requires you to honor the full extent of another person’s agency. And this feels right. They are free to choose good or evil, love or hatred, and it is their fundamental right to be able to choose those with equal validity.
When they choose hatred, you would not therefore feel cheated, because you did not feel entitled to the opposite choice in the first place. Do you see on the other hand how this allows you to see the true nature of the gift that goodness really is when it is given? That love is truly a gift? Because you had no expectation that it would be given. It allows you to appreciate the true nature of goodness, and to experience the full joy that it entails.
This is not to say that if your partner, child, parent, or sibling chooses hatred that you would feel happy about it. No, you can see hatred for what hatred is, it is simply that you recognize that they have the right to choose it. What you get to choose is how to respond.
Perhaps further boundaries are necessary to build with consistent patterns of hateful behavior, or ultimately you may have to break off that relationship entirely if they have no intention or apparent ability to build something of goodness with you. Yet if they do choose good, and you also choose good, wow, what a rare a special thing to be celebrated, whether those elements of love are big or even something smaller.
Feeling Owed – A Comforting Delusion, An Act of Hatred
Seeing this, I could now understand the motivation that perpetuates this type of behavior, the incentive or advantage that comes from feeling owed a degree of goodness from one another, despite its negative consequences. In practice ‘allowing’ another person full space and freedom, recognizing their inherent right to choose evil and do evil against you, is a very vulnerable place to put yourself. It does not feel safe. It’s a hard pill to swallow to say I choose this relationship with you, knowing that you have equal right to choose hatred and evil toward me if that is what you want.
Instead I think in our weakness, it is very human to want to believe we have some level of control in our relationships, that there is some measure of safety or protection against evil and wrongdoing. If the other person owes us basic decency, or owes a certain degree of goodness because of their commitment to us, then we can therefore rightly pressure and demand that it be given to us.
It is a comforting delusion to believe we have any real control over what a person will or will not choose toward us in the first place. It might feel safe, but it is certainly not a loving way to treat another person, to essentially want to hold their will hostage for your own personal assurance and anxiety reduction.
While it may be an understandable impulse, it is definitely a self-serving impulse at the expense of the other person. In other words, to feel owed and hold expectations for particular behaviors in any relationship is inherently hateful.
The Truth of Agency
The truth of agency is this – that no person owes another person anything. I was speaking to a friend about this concept, and that the expectation of common decency from one another is a fallacy. Thinking through the concept, in a flippant way he said something to the effect, “There have to be certain lines, surely I don’t have to sit here and be grateful that you are not killing me right now, or locking me in a prison.”
In the context of the conversation it was a light-hearted and funny comment, but then I replied, “Why not?” continuing, “It hasn’t always been that way in the history of the world, maybe that is something to be grateful for.”
Let’s take this back to God. We’re coming full circle, if you have made it this far I applaud you! If you have checked out a little bit, go ahead and take a quick mental pause, and prepare your mind to be at a little higher state, I think this principle could make a difference in improving your quality of life, or at least it has for me.
Does God Feel Owed?
I believe God understands and lives by this same principle – that if He were to feel owed or hold expectations it would likewise be hateful, infringe upon our agency, and God would cease to be God. So let us go straight to the heart of it, the Atonement performed by Christ in our behalf. For surely if there is anything that we can be indebted to in our existence, it would be this.
Do we owe God or Christ our goodness, our loyalty, because of the great sacrifice made in our behalf? I am arguing that in fact no, we do not owe God or Christ anything, despite any type of sacrifice made in our behalf, or even despite the gift of creation and life that allows us to make choices and express our will in the first place. Why?
It would be unrighteous of God to expect anything for it. And this seems right, for wouldn’t it cheapen the gift being offered if it came with strings attached? Such an idea feels so ungodly to me.
I believe the reality is that Christ is beyond just a grown man, but has reached the stature of the fullness of God. And as such He made His own choice, an informed choice, a choice of His own free will and doing. In other words, as an act of love, it truly was a sacrifice that He freely gave – no strings attached. We do not owe Him anything in return.
Yes, it might not be loving to ignore it, it might be terribly ungrateful, and even hateful depending on your understanding of the gift being offered. But then again, that’s your right, equally valid to choose hate and evil as it is to choose good.
God Wants Us To Be Free
Accepting the gift of the atonement, being grateful for it, and loving God back is not something God feels “owed” in return. Therefore if you do choose to accept God’s gifts, that too is an act of love (even if small in comparison), not a requirement, and therefore something God appreciates and something you can be proud of for choosing.
I believe God wants us to be free, free to be whatever we want to be. The music that you will play in your life with the strings you have organized is entirely your prerogative. There is something deeply sweet to me and refreshing about this idea. In the next post I’d like to explore this in more depth – and the implications it has on how we approach obedience.
If we do not owe even God, what are the implications in our human relationships – friends, spouses, siblings, child to parent, parent to child? Understanding this truth, if you answered yes to any of the questions at the beginning of Part I, how might you approach those situations better now?
The Difference In My Life
For me, coming to this realization, I gained a desire to truly honor the agency of everyone around me by not feeling owed any degree of goodness – and honoring their right to choose good or evil toward me as they desired.
Surprisingly, it moments of hatred toward me, I have felt much more free to call it out – because acknowledging the behavior that in my view was hateful did not imply I thought they should or were required to change that behavior if they didn’t want to, I simply expressed how I viewed it and asserted my right to choose how to respond.
And it moments of love, my gratitude has grown in orders of magnitude and my happiness in the same measure, and without a self-constructed and artificial threshold of expectation I have found great joy and gratitude in small things that I never knew there was joy to be had in.
By viewing and treating others this way, something unexpected happened, I began to see something change in me unintentionally. Suddenly I began to see the good that I chose in a new light – I began to appreciate the things that I did good, or the times that I showed love to others. I didn’t have to do that, I don’t owe the world my best, I don’t owe the world anything.
I began to have far more compassion on myself in my weaknesses, more patience for myself for when I might reach the better place I want to be at one day. Because I don’t owe anybody my progress either – to have to be a certain type of person.
And wow, I can’t tell you the massive weight this lifted off my shoulders, a heavy burden that I didn’t even realize I was carrying for most of my life. I have so much more joy in who I am, and what I am doing in life. I can appreciate the here and now and bask in the music that I am able to play now without any type of pressure to run somewhere else faster than I have strength. And that has been wonderful.