Our students are often our best teachers. Their actions often expose the ungodly perspectives and habits that have accumulated on us like barnacles on a ship. I encountered two stories while coding interviews from Baylor students that reminded me that I have some barnacles from difficult experiences about loving the unlovable.
If I had been mentoring either student, I would have probably advised them to stay away from this difficult to love person. It would be better just to avoid this messy, deeply wounded person, since they will drain you dry of your spiritual resources. It probably shows my sinfulness and not my adult Christian wisdom.
In the first case, a student shared how an experience of deep unconditional love, the kind of love we experience from Christ, changed her morally:
So, my sophomore year of college I met my boyfriend who I’m still dating. And during that time in my life I was going through a lot of mental health issues. And I’ve historically had an issue with self-harm. And my first semester as a [RA] I was at a very tough point in my faith. And I was stressed. I did not know how to manage my time. I was a mess. And I was introduced to my boyfriend. And he helped me through that journey in so many significant ways as a friend first. And then second semester, we started talking. We went on a couple of dates.
It would be at this point that I, as the older mentor, would have seriously questioned this young man about what he is doing. After all, this woman is deeply wounded (yet aren’t we all) and in need of redemptive healing that you should not feel responsible for providing (yet who will then show Christ’s love?). After all, that’s Christ’s job. Plus, she appears like she could be a very, very draining girlfriend. Instead,
And, on March 3 at three o’clock in the morning he asked me to be his girlfriend. And for me, that moment. At three o’clock in the morning, kind of just solidified for me that I can be at my worst and still be loved. And I have people in my life that are willing to walk through darkness with me and help me come to light, and we’ve been dating for almost two years since…..
Interestingly, one of my favorite quotes from Mike Mason described the love that this young man demonstrated that I tend to habitually avoid the older I get.
To love one another is to be caught in the vortex of their humanity, to spiral down and down and ever downward into the murky, tragic, tangles of the sinful flesh where only pure love can go without being defiled. If hatred often consists in be repelled by mere impressions, by surface characteristics that happen to rub us the wrong way, then love consists in seeing into the very center of the twistedness and sin and self-love that are in the heart of another person, and yet not being repelled, holding on to the grace by which we ourselves are loved and finding in it the strength to descend with another into their darkest place. If we love other people for their saintliness, then we do not love at all.1
Not surprisingly, when someone experiences this kind of Christ-like love it transforms them:
And it’s given me a lot more empathy for others. I always felt that I was like a compassionate person but you never know what someone’s going through, and you never know what life experiences someone has been through, and so always just creating a space for acceptance and being able to listen to others. Like, even just like sitting and listening and not having anything to say back. I feel like it’s given me a renewed sense of what God’s love is and how I can show God’s love to other people.
This young woman had experienced a bit of God’s love through this young man—the love that loves you at your worst and most broken. No wonder it changed her deeply.
In the second example, I encountered a student not experiencing the love but figuring out how to give love to someone who might be considered one of the major outcasts on a campus today. This is the person who would be considered the leper of Jesus’ time—an unclean person that one should avoid:
A friend of mine who I was close to early on at Baylor, and then less so in years after that. We had been close, and then we stopped being close. And then in the time we weren’t close, he was accused of sexual misconduct. And there was a whole inquiry and all that and pretty much every person he was close to at the time just turned against him immediately. And, and that’s something that usually like I would do the same thing, because they are all friends with the person who accused him. Also it was all one group and you side with the victim. That’s what you do.
In many ways this truth, as Rene Girard has forcefully pointed out (see our articles on Girard’s work from issue L:2), is what Christianity has taught us. You side with the victim.
Yet, as a Frederick Buechner pointed out, love for the victim is not always the deepest love. As Buechner wrote:
The love for the less fortunate is a beautiful thing—the love for those who suffer, for those who are poor, the sick, the failures, the unlovely.2 This is compassion, and it touches the heart of the world. The love for the more fortunate is a rare thing—to love those who succeed where we fail, to rejoice without envy with those who rejoice, the love of the poor for the rich, of the black man for the white man. The world is always bewildered by its saints. And then there is the love for the enemy—the love for the one who does not love you but mocks, threatens, and inflicts pain. The torturer’s love for the torturer. This is God’s love. It conquers the world.
This young man was faced with whether to love someone who likely tortured another person against their will—an enemy. Here is how this young man responded to the accused perpetrator of this assault:
I was not privy to the situation until he came to me and was like, “This is all going on in my life. I have no one to turn to.” And I was like, “Alright, cool, I guess we’re friends again.” But then hearing about the story from his perspective, knowing there was another perspective also that I wasn’t getting, and knowing that either someone was lying, or someone was mistaken. And there was no way to know which was the case … I still had to figure out: how can I love this guy who might have done something awful? I don’t know. But he’s still someone who’s made in God’s image. He’s still a sinner like me, and he’s asking for a listening ear. And figuring out how to do that. That was a difficult, difficult thing.
That would be a difficult thing.
Personally, I remember facing this challenge with a man I was advising who was going through a divorce and had recently attacked and hit his wife. In the end, the heinous nature of the act, the frustrating choices he was making, and the weight of health difficulties with my wife, who was in bed for that year while I tried to parent two young children, made me pull away out of sheer revulsion and exhaustion. I felt I did not have the strength within me to love him.
That’s why I would have warned these two young men to stay away from these kinds of draining people. They can bleed you dry of all your spiritual resources and leave you depleted. I do believe I acquired hard-earned wisdom from that particular moment. I had to draw those boundaries at that time to love my family well during that time, and I am glad I learned that lesson.
Yet, it is also something I should not universalize. Looking forward, I hope and pray to have the spiritual resources to love the unlovely like these two young men. I think we all should wish that.