A few years ago, I started to notice a trend in media. In the movie A Wrinkle in Time, the main character has a big speech at the end which completes her arc. After being emotionally validated the entire film, she shouts that she deserves to be loved. In the movie The Greatest Showman, in the song "This is Me," the main singer sings "I know that I deserve your love. There's nothing I'm not worthy of."
These are other examples have been floating around for awhile and they have made me uncomfortable every time I have encountered them. There seems to be something fundamentally wrong with this world view. For as long as I can remember, I have always known this:
I do not deserve to be loved.
There are many things in this world that I do deserve. I deserve justice under the law. I deserve to be treated with respect as a human being. I deserve my rights that come to me from nature. I deserve all that I have earned by my labor.
But love? How in the world can I say that I deserve love?
The term "deserve" implies a debt that is owed. If I am a worker for hire, then I deserve the pay that is given to me. If I give money to the worker at the window at McDonald's, then I deserve my McNuggets and fries. I am owed these things because of what I have done. Sometimes I am owed things simply because of who I am. As a citizen, I am owed the protections of law enforcement and the criminal justice system, regardless if I pay for those services through my taxes.
But you cannot look at love in this way. Love is too big and too wonderful to be reduced to some kind of economic transaction. If this is what we turn love into then it ceases to be real love.
Above all, love is a gift. It must something that is freely chosen and freely given. Love is at the heart of human existence. It is the greatest dimension of our reality.
Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors, love our enemies, and love each other. But I cannot recall Him ever telling us that we are to love other people because they deserve our love. In fact, love seems to be most real when it is given to those who are least deserving. St. Paul says, "But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8). Jesus did not love us because we deserved to be loved. In fact, His love for us is even more profound because He loves those who do not love Him back. He did not wait for us to become deserving of salvation before we He saved us.
I think one of the reasons that Jesus commanded us to love each other is because He understood that love is undeserved. We are not supposed to wait until people are worthy in our eyes of our love. We must love them. GK Chesterton once said "There is the great lesson of Beauty and the Beast, that a thing must be loved before it is lovable." The Beast is not entitled to the love he is seeking. But it is in the free gift of love that he is transformed. It only works because he has not earned her love as something that is owed. The transformation occurs because the love that he receives is undeserved.
Author Brad Meltzer once wrote that when it comes to our best friends, we don't see them as equals, we see them as our betters. There is a part of us that cannot believe that they have chosen to be our friends and we feel undeserving. This is the exact right attitude when it comes to real friendship and love.
Do not misunderstand: saying that I do not deserve love is not say that I am not good or not capable of being loved. Sadly, people in abusive relationships still cling to their abusers because they become dependent on their affections. Their abusers brainwash them into thinking that no one will ever love them because they are worthless. Being worthless and not deserving love are not the same thing.
I am not worthless. As a human being I have value because I am made in God's image. But even beyond that, Jesus looked at me and said that I was worth dying for. In His eyes, I am worth His life. My value is unfathomable: my life is worth the life of Christ. And that is the worth of every human life.
But returning to the point, if I thought that somehow Christ owed me salvation, I would miss the point of love entirely. Things that are deserved are not things that are free gifts.
My amazing wife of nearly 20 years made a vow to love, honor, and serve me all the days of her life (she added the "serve" into her vows herself). She made a permanent commitment to me for life to love me. But I would be a fool to ever think that she owed me her love.
Thinking someone owes you love will kill love.
If I begin to think that her love as something that I am owed, I will be filled with a horrible sense of entitlement. Because of our commitment we can make claims on each other. But I am well aware she never needed to make that commitment. I'm not worthy to be her husband. With this knowledge, I am filled with awe and gratitude for every second that she gives me. My parents got divorced when I was a child, so I know that even marriage in this world is not always treated as permanent. Every morning I am so grateful that she is still with me. The moment I think that her love is something that she owes me, all of that would evaporate.
How can I be filled with gratitude for something that I am owed? Am I in awe when the McDonald's worker hands me my Happy Meal? Perhaps I can be grateful in a general sense in the same way we are grateful for any good thing in our lives. But this is something quite distinct from the absolute free gift of love that someone gives you.
It is the same way with our friends. When I think of my pals, I am filled with gratitude and awe. How in the world did I become so blessed to have these people in my life? Circumstances may have caused our lives to intersect but our continued friendship is a free choice. I am not owed their friendship and yet they freely give it. Like marriage, there are obligations in friendship that aren't always pleasant. As the wise man once said, "It ain't easy havin' pals." But we are not forced to these duties of friendship from without, but compelled to these from within. Inside, I just want to demonstrate my gratitude for these undeserved friendships.
And this is also the way it should be in our families. Providence chose who would be our parents, our brothers, our sisters, and our children. Growing up, we are thrown together in close quarters where we see all the good and the bad. And once through all that, I am in awe that we can forgive each other and keep those bonds of love. If anyone of my family members were to keep a record of my wrongs, it would be vivid indictment of my life and why I do not deserve their love. But love does not keep a record of wrongs. Love forgives. And forgiveness, like love, is not something deserved, but an act of mercy.
I am repulsed by the idea that I deserve someone else's love. There is a horrible sense of entitlement that underlies that way of thinking. This would turn my heart into a black hole that would ravenously suck in all the affection and attention from others that I thought I was owed. It would shift the center of my universe to my own ego. I would lose the awe and gratitude that comes when I am the recipient of the free gift of gratuitous love. Going back to Beauty and the Beast, Gaston believes he is owed Belle's love. The Beast knows he doesn't deserve her love. And that makes all the difference.
One my observations is that it seems that those who claim that they deserve love are the ones who focus on all the love that they don't have. Their eyes are on those who do not love them rather than on the ones that do. I do not deserve love and yet, I am so loved. I am surrounded by the love of my friends, my family, and above all, the gracious love of God. When it comes to love, I have an embarrassment of riches.
And the richness of this love is all the sweeter because it is not something that I deserve.