“Who are you at the core?” my therapist asked me years ago. I shrugged and said, “I guess I’m a sinner in desperate need of God’s grace.” That’s what I had heard other people say. Smart people. Scholarly people. Religious people. Even the Apostle Paul said something along those lines. But for me, this was much more than trying to muster a spiritual answer; much more than an acknowledgment of my shortcomings and a posture of surrender. It was a toxic self-view. Each day, I woke up in a mental prison cell where there was always something more for me to do to improve my relationship with God or something that I wasn’t doing. It was an existence that was rooted in incompleteness, performance, and criticism. I’m not saying that this is what I was taught to believe, but there is no doubt about it: my perfectionistic tendencies and my insecurities led me to clinging to a type of treadmill theology, where I was always desperately trying to please God but going nowhere at all. Overall, it was a very unhealthy self-view where I was more in touch with my “fallenness” than the fact that I was deeply loved and accepted, even without doing anything, like a mother's love for her child in her womb. And this self-view affected how I viewed others, as is usually the case.
This was the saddest part of all. I viewed people on the outside of my personal experience and understanding of God as “lost” or “unsaved” (it was a nice ego boost to think that I had all the answers). I viewed people who didn’t believe what I believed or didn’t live the way I tried to live as “living in sin,” even if their way of life was rooted in love and selflessness yet didn’t align with my personal doctrine. Ironically, I felt the burden to convince others to experience the God of the Bible, even though my spiritual experience was miserable as hell.
There is nothing healthy about self-deprecation.
There is nothing healthy about looking down on others. My therapist eventually gave me a book titled Life of the Beloved by a Catholic priest named Henri Nouwen, which would end up sending me on a different path, deeper into my own unchangeable “belovedness” and union with the divine—which I believe are the two most important themes in the Scriptures, both culminating in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thanks to that journey, spirituality for me is no longer about performing; it’s about awakening more and more to what is most true. Spirituality is no longer about converting or conforming others; it’s about waking up with them to the mystery of our own belonging. Interestingly enough, the more I have plunged into the discovery of my inherent belovedness and union—the true self—the more I have been able to see my false self—my blindspots, my insecurities, and my flaws, which I might have called my “sinfulness” years ago. Perfect love always casts out fear. Love always leads to transformation. And just as my previous unhealthy self-view led to an unhealthy view of others, the more my self-view has transformed into something that is rooted in love, union, and wholeness, so has my view of others, even those who disagree with me or live differently than me. I believe that all are deeply loved. Yes, we are all the same in the sense that we have struggles; but deeper than that, we are all the same because we are loved. That's just a snapshot of my story.
So why am I writing about all of this now? I’m writing about this now because I’m convinced that most of the polarization and divisiveness in our society—especially in religious circles—would dissipate if each person had a healthier theological starting place: one that is rooted in love and union. By the way, you don’t even have to believe in God to have a similar starting place. It can be a sociological starting place where you believe each person has wholeness and worth. When you start viewing people as loved and whole, you start learning from everyone instead of trying to change them. Those who are vastly different than you suddenly become the people who you have the most to gain and learn from. Those on the outside of your personal experience suddenly become your teachers. Yes, I think that there is a place to talk about doctrine and beliefs and politics. But posture matters. Especially when it involves the suffering of a minority group on the margins of society, whom Jesus made a point to serve. Especially when it involves suffering at the boot of a religious or governmental Empire. Jesus's posture toward suffering was always one of love and compassion.
And truly viewing yourself and others as loved, in my experience, changes everything. It is the first step toward non-dualism. It is messy. It is gray. It requires leaving behind your preconceived notions and stepping into the unknown, which can be scary. Yet as this happens, you become less about opinions and more about people. You become less about doctrine and more about belonging and transformation. Truly viewing each person as a potential reflection of the divine in your own life can create a posture of openness and curiosity, where you listen better, learn more, and, in doing so, affirm the value and worth of those who have an experience that might be foreign to you. You can affirm the value and worth of others and still disagree; but you aren’t going to affirm the value and worth of others with a closed-minded or condescending posture. Maybe, just as something so foreign and provocative as God dying on a cross blew up the religious and societal constructs of that day, the things that we are most opposed to are reflections of the cross blowing up the constructs in our lives—opening us up to something that is more freeing and more messy, which I call divine grace. Maybe Belovedness is knocking at our door—inside of us through the Spirit, on our hearts and our egos, and outside of us through our neighbor who we never dared to know.
By Stephen Copeland
This essay was first published on copelandwrites.com.