by Peter Levenstrong
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” – Romans 8:38-39
Of all that is promised to us in the Christian Scriptures, this promise ranks as a hard one to swallow. Not because I don’t want it to be true; but because I don’t believe I deserve it.
That’s not to say that I think of myself as being somehow particularly undeserving. I have as much pride as the next person; there’s no shortage there. Instead, and perhaps this is because I’m an Enneagram One, I always see faults: my own, those of others, and those in the world around me. And, more than anything else, when I contemplate God I feel the utter disparity between the God of Perfection and the brokenness of their Creation.
The perfect and utter steadfastness with which God chooses to love us is almost as unnerving as it is reassuring. I might say it is so unbearably comforting that my mind refuses to accept it as real.
“This can’t possibly be true,” I tell myself subconsciously. “There’s no way that I can possibly deserve this.” Rather than dwell on the infinite grace of God’s love, I find it easier to focus my on ways that I can secure my well-being through mundane (in the purest sense) tasks.
I think about my career, retirement savings, mortgage, son’s education, and other seemingly weighty and worldly concerns that pale in comparison to the importance of God’s love for each and every one of us. Why does my mind like to be so distracted from something that should feel so good, to recognize the infinite and unwavering love that God has for us, for me?
I’ve heard it said that, with any gift, there is an aspect of indebtedness that comes with it. Now, a gift is freely given, or it wouldn’t be a gift. So how can there be any indebtedness? What I suspect is meant is a relational indebtedness, the type that twists a gift into a foundation for a different relationship. This is the reason that American diplomats aren’t supposed to accept gifts from foreigners with whom they have professional contacts.
Sometimes this kind of a relational gift-giving can be a beautiful thing, like when neighbors and friends invite each other over for dinner back and forth, and the cycle of hosting and sharing meals deepens their friendship and the strength of their bond. But when you receive a gift and know that you can’t give back, that sense of indebtedness becomes uncomfortable. It hurts, or maybe it’s just a little bit shameful, and I know I try to do anything other than dwell on those feelings, unless I have to.
God’s gift of unwavering love and compassion for each one of us is such a generous, ginormous gift, that there’s no way we could ever give them back any similar gift in return. And so I find myself trying to turn my eyes away from the glory of it all. But the gift remains, and it is one of the most beautiful, outrageous, and stunning facts of our faith. Let each one of us have the courage to stand humbly in gratitude, face to face with the glory of God’s boundless gift.
Peter Levenstrong is Associate Rector at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. Having grown up non-religious, he enjoys bringing “a fresh pair of eyes” to explore the Christian tradition, and is particularly interested in the intersection of faith and justice. You can find more of his sermons at https://peterlevenstrong.wordpress.com/