I love Jesus; I love to read; I love chocolate and I love my family and friends. Jesus, my family and my friends love me. People loving each other is supposed to be more like God’s kind of love, very different from loving to read and loving chocolate. I remember when I first began to realize that I wanted to learn to love people the way God does with His authentic/unconditional Love. It was when I was a young mother and some days I experienced moments of regret for my lack of motherly love and patience. I needed help. Loving babies had been very easy for me, but one day I woke up and realized I now had a total of four and they were no longer babies–they ranged from ages three to eleven. Loving older children wasn’t as easy as loving babies. God was going to have to show me how to love His way. I had no idea how that would look, but I wanted to know. The reminders and some “easy lessons” were scattered throughout the next few years.
My first two sons grew into teenagers and I was feeling pretty good about my improved mothering skills. It would be a bit later before I realized it wasn’t my great mothering, but rather it was their own journeys with God that had taken them down a path of little resistance and trouble. So when my third son, Greg, reached middle-school age and began to make decisions that were sometimes a little off the chart of our family’s values, God did some fine tuning of my motherly pride. This authentic/unconditional Loving was going to be put to the test in a very practical way. The result of “failure” could be the loss of a very dear relationship–something I highly wanted to avoid.
Slowly but surely as I listened to God, His love deepened within me as He used the circumstances with my son to teach me to separate people’s behavior from their personhood. When I separated a person’s behavior from their personhood (who they are), I was able to accept their decisions without interference and allow them freedom to learn from their own mistakes without condemnation. It was not easy to go through the pain I experienced in order to learn more deeply what God’s love looks like, but what I learned in those struggles changed my life. My heart’s desire to be a loving mother motivated me to practice and persevere.
As I loved my son in spite of his behavior, while figuring out how to discipline him without rejecting him, I mostly relied on my heart, what I felt God was telling me, and my strong commitment to stay connected. It was not easy. Some days I cried as I struggled about the unwise decisions I saw my son making.
While I struggled trying to discipline by separating behavior and personhood, I had very little support or understanding, because the norm in my community for accepting (loving) someone was often performance (behavior) based. The standards were high and stiff and people could be quick to judge. Even though Greg’s behavior was not always unwise, other parents whose children had not reached the pre-teen/ teen years often frowned at how I handled what was unwise and gave unhelpful advice. I felt like a pioneer.
Pioneering is not very glamorous; it’s a road full of potholes and sorrow. There were times that I felt like I was the only one who really loved Greg and saw his heart and it was not easy to explain how I saw him. In spite of the loneliness I sometimes felt, I held my ground to love him no matter what, while trying to communicate to him that he was not a bad person, even if his behavior was wrong. In my heart, I reminded myself frequently how much worse everything would be if I lost the relationship with him by rejecting him based on unwise behavior.
This struggle to discipline and love Greg without condemnation continued off and on through his early high school. The majority of the time, life with him was very positive. But when the bumps came, I had to hold on to my commitment to love unconditionally. It was not going to help Greg if I communicated that his value changed every time his behavior was unwise.
Sometimes I had glimpses of how important my commitment was to Greg whenever I imagined how far away he might go if I were not diligently pursuing my desire to love unconditionally. It’s easy to love someone who is happy and cooperative. It takes a supernatural element to love a struggling, angry teenager. But as I clung to what I knew to be true of Greg’s heart, looking at him through Heaven’s eyes, slowly but surely I experienced more of how God loves us. Authentic Love was not just an ideal anymore.
As Greg reached the end of high school and went to college, I thought maybe the difficult lessons were finished. After all, I understood that some of his behavior in middle school and high school was typical for the age. It would be easier now that he was older. But the summer day we got a call from a friend saying that Greg was in the county jail, I knew the lessons were not over and this lesson would be huge. Going to jail was not typical for the families I knew and interacted with. My heart ached for my son’s consequences and I prayed to know how a loving mom would handle this kind of event.
As that day unwound, I must admit that I was not completely surprised to hear my dear son was in jail. I’d had a feeling for some time that jail might be somewhere in this young man’s future. As I had contemplated that possibility, I’d had no idea how I would feel, but I did know this: his dad and I had decided that if it ever happened, in that situation our love would be of the tougher flavor—we would not bail him out immediately. It was a long five hours for all of us before Dad went to get his non-streetwise son out of the jail. Spending five hours in the local jail was a very humbling experience for a somewhat sheltered young man. We had much to discuss but the loving part was not difficult at all. I felt sad for the consequences he would have to pay and sorry that it took something like jail to wake him up, but I was rejoicing that I had practiced diligently for this exam and could love Greg no matter what. I believe those five hours, and our lack of condemnation, were a small part of what changed Greg’s life. He did pay dire consequences for his choices, but we never saw evidence that he felt unloved or unaccepted by us. We stood behind him all the way through the consequences, without ever putting him down for his behavior. It also helped tremendously that our community was more understanding this time.
Greg returned to college and the years passed. My son was growing up; I had “let him go” and we had a decent relationship. He finished college, but my tests on the subject of authentic love were not over: he and his girlfriend, Chris, decided to move in together. So once again, what does a loving mother do but rejoice that she has had plenty of practice in how not to react to unwise behavior and bad decisions! I would need to accept their decision without interference, and allow them freedom to learn from their own mistakes without condemnation. This test did seem a bit easier. I’d had plenty of time to study for it.
Finding it easier did not mean I felt good and happy. I had a knot in my stomach when Greg and Chris told me their plans. I told them once that I thought it was unwise and then I shut my mouth. I loved both Chris and Greg and I was very sad to watch their decision, but I had learned the importance of keeping quiet and being careful that whatever I said would not sound like condemnation. The hard part came when I upset the community again–I treated Greg and Chris the same way I would have if they had been married. Greg’s actions, and now mine, sent some people back to their roots of evaluating worth based on behavior–and my support disappeared once more.
Because of my decision to love the wayward couple the same as if they were married, I had to walk a path filled with disapproval and misunderstanding. I heard questions like, “How can you help them find furniture for their apartment?” “Why are you not telling them that they should move apart?” If I tried to explain, I received more disagreements. Walking this lonely path was not easy. It hurt. But the rejection just made me more determined and showed me that I was on the right path.
The right path was not without its painful hours and days, both from having little support and from having to watch Greg and Chris walk out their decision. I hurt for them because I knew that their decision was unwise and would have repercussions that they could not foresee. I hurt when I had to watch some of those repercussions as Chris lost respect for herself because she had gone against her own core values. I hurt for Greg because he did not yet see that it is not good to live only for oneself. But regardless of my feelings of sorrow and sadness, I never lost sight of my deepest desire–to keep the relationships– and love like God does.
In my pain for them, I continued loving and relating the same as I always had. Sometimes I wondered if what I was practicing even mattered. Then I would remind myself that I was not loving Greg and Chris to get a result; I was loving them because of who they were and because it was like me to love like this. The deepest longing of my heart was to stay connected in spite of what they may be doing. I knew of several families with excommunicated children, driven far away from their families by their parents’ condemnation and contempt for unwise behavior, relationships lost for years. That would be an unimaginable horror to me. What I desired was to be there for Greg and Chris no matter what, and when, like the Prodigal Son, they decided to return to their values, I wanted to be there to support them. I also hoped that God’s kind of love through me would somehow teach them more about the depths of what it means to be loved unconditionally–and that someday they would be able to pass that on to others.
It took almost six months for Greg and Chris to reverse their decision to live together. After much pain and struggling, and breaking up for a short time, they agreed to become engaged and wait until marriage to live together again. They came back to their root values, rebuilt their relationship on a stronger foundation, and married a year later. That wonderful day was almost twenty years, and four beautiful daughters, ago. Their happiness today is evident to everyone and an inspiration to many, as Greg and Chris have definitely passed on the love they received.
It is most evident and inspiring to me because, as I so hoped, I did not lose the relationship. It was one of my greatest blessings and joys to live with them in an apartment in their basement for ten years, where I enjoyed Chris as one of my closest friends.
Chris has often told how she felt during that time that I loved her in spite of disagreeing with her behavior. “I wanted to be with you more than anyone else (except Greg). Your love without condemnation taught me that I am valuable and loveable. It marked me as worthy and precious. It cemented what I had been hearing taught in our small group: that who I am is not what I do. That is what I live by today.”
Chris’s words confirm to me that nothing quite touches us more than not being rejected because of behavior. This kind of authentic love brings hope and freedom and a place to belong. It makes a safe place to learn from mistakes, instead of having to live dishonestly by either hiding or pretending that everything is fine, or rebelling more. It is true that we speak to unwise behavior and try to help others see a better way, but these lessons of love that I learned as a mother taught me deeply that one of the greatest gifts I can offer to another is authentic love which separates behavior from personhood, accepts decisions without interfering, and allows freedom to learn from mistakes without getting condemned.
My next post will be “Greg’s Story,” taken from Chapter Nine of my book, Handbook to Joy-Filled Parenting. You will want to cry and laugh as you read Greg’s rendition of his five hours in jail as a teenager. When he wrote it out for the parenting book, I loved hearing his viewpoint. God’s ways are certainly mysterious.