I guess you could call me a list maker. Currently, I have eight running to do lists on my phone, all of which I update on a daily basis. I have lists outlining who I need to send thank you cards to, work projects I need to conquer, personal goals I want to meet, and even a list of adventures I plan on tackling with friends. I like the feeling of being organized and knowing where to find information when I need it. But perhaps more than a need to be organized, I like that rush you get when you finally scratch an item off your list, banning it from your memory entirely, leaving no loose ends behind.
Recently, I’ve found that I’ve translated this to do list mentality to other areas of my life…areas outside the realm of projects and items requiring action steps. I’m discovering that much like my reminders of who I need to send thank you cards to, I’ve looked at seasons of my life and even certain friendships as to do list items as well, anxiously trying to check them off my list in order to move on to the next.
But life doesn’t really work that way. And honestly, God never intended for life to be a series of check marks. In fact, I’m beginning to see that perhaps, He never even intended for every chapter to end with a period. Maybe, just maybe, we were never designed to fully close some chapters. Maybe certain chapters are meant to stay open.
If I dive straight to the core of the issue, it all boils down to control. Lists give me a sense of control. I dictate what makes it on the list and can pull an item from the list at any time. Seeing this freedom (or false sense of it), I began organizing my friendships and relationships into to do items in my head, adding a friend when I wanted to, pouring all of my heart and soul into him or her, and then cutting them loose when I felt the friendship was through. Relational list making became a defense mechanism. Rather than choosing to extend and receive love, I neatly categorized my relationships, holding the control in my fists as tightly as I could muster.
But here’s the catch: lists offer a false sense of control.
I could ditch a project to do list tomorrow and the world wouldn’t come crashing down. The project just wouldn’t get accomplished. And you know what, sometimes that’s ok. Categorizing friendships in a list also offers pseudo control. Those relationships never fully blossom into what they could be because I put a lid on their potential. In doing so, I assessed what I assumed the other person was willing to invest in me relationally and kept them boxed into a neat relational category in my head, closing myself off from potential hurt and pain. Do you know what’s utterly heartbreaking about that? I’ve missed out on some incredible relationships because I never allowed the friendship to become all that it could be. I boxed it in. I checked it off. I held onto the cards of control…a control I never really had in the first place.
“By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as He is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because He first loved us. If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from Him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.” 1 John 4:17-21
I love how Eugene Peterson translates the 1 John passage: “God is love. When we take up permanent residence in a life of love, we live in God and God lives in us. This way, love has the run of the house, becomes at home and mature in us, so that we’re free of worry on Judgment Day—our standing in the world is identical with Christ’s. There is no room in love for fear. Well-formed love banishes fear. Since fear is crippling, a fearful life—fear of death, fear of judgment—is one not yet fully formed in love. We, though, are going to love—love and be loved. First we were loved, now we love. He loved us first. If anyone boasts, ‘I love God,’ and goes right on hating his brother or sister, thinking nothing of it, he is a liar. If he won’t love the person he can see, how can he love the God he can’t see? The command we have from Christ is blunt: Loving God includes loving people. You’ve got to love both.”
When I read those five verses, it’s like a light bulb went on in my head. I’ve been living entirely wrong! John contrasts both love and fear, stating that they can’t co-exist. You can’t simultaneously choose to love others, yet live in fear. It’s impossible. So in essence, my to do lists and false sense of control over my relationships revealed the lack of love in my life—the lack of God’s presence.
1 John 4:17 clearly states God is love. This is the character of the God I serve; it’s His very nature. Later on, John bluntly declares that we can’t even claim to love God if we don’t love others. Let’s break this down, shall we? God is love. Fear is the opposite of love. Therefore there is no fear in the nature of God. Simple, right? Let’s go a step further. Both love and fear are an outward expression each of us choose to live by each day. So if love is the very nature of God, then love is the outpouring of God’s presence in my life. Fear represents a lack of His presence and lack of trust that He will show up like He says He will. Ouch.
There’s one more aspect of this thing called love in 1 John 4 that has become engraved in my mind: to love, we must be loved. Love is a reciprocal act—love is found in both giving and receiving. And that’s where vulnerability comes into the mix. When we choose to extend love, we don’t know if it will be offered back. And that’s downright scary. That alone drives us—me!—to trying to control and categorize relationships, building barriers around our hearts attempting to escape as much pain as possible. But caged love isn’t love. It’s like eating pre-packaged cookie dough. Sure, it tastes sweet and is close to the real thing. But it’s nowhere near as good as that homemade cookie dough your Grandma makes each Christmas. There is a distinct difference. When we stare vulnerability in the face, we must choose fear or love, and risk receiving nothing in return.
My Heavenly Father modeled this for me. God saw me before I even knew Him, and risked vulnerability. He sent His Son to die for me, taking the ugly stench of my sin and replacing it with a clean, white slate. He chose love. He chose to love me regardless of if I would choose to accept His love. He loved me regardless.
That is exactly how He has designed me to live. To stare vulnerability in the face and choose to love—to risk receiving nothing in return and being ok with that. To ditch my façade of to do lists and fully live! I can’t choose both fear and love. I must choose. But here’s the best part: I’m already equipped to love. To love, I must be loved, and I already am. The greatest act of love known to mankind has already taken place! God sent His Son for me! Because of that love, I can extend love…even if no human ever gives it back. I am loved, so I can love.
Emily Cummins is a University of Florida & College of Central Florida grad who is passionate about partnering with people to become who they were made to be. Emily is the Online Campus Pastor at Church of Hope in Ocala, Florida. She’s passionate about storytelling, good cups of coffee, and jamming to country music. And most importantly, she’s passionately pursuing becoming the woman God made her to be.