One of the 14 part-time jobs I had while I was in college was as a messenger for a high-powered law firm in Minneapolis, MN. It was a fun mix of fast-paced stress and excitement, running from nice office to nicer office throughout the city, jetting around in the company car, and learning to operate the almost sentient, bus-sized copier.
The firm was a partnership of two men, both of whom I only met once, and the contrast between the two (men and meetings) was stark.
The first, we’ll call him “Mr. Smith”, was a kindly man, in the process of retiring from the practice. His office was in the back, away from the front desk, and notably far from his partner’s.
My one encounter with him was brief. His secretary told me I was needed by him and as I rounded the corner to his office, I was surprised to see a relaxed, flannel-clad man, stretched back in his leather chair, surrounded by packed boxes and empty walls. He invited me in with a hearty wave and asked me who I was. After a few pleasantries, he gave me the directions for my delivery, thanked me, and I walked away. Not a life-changing encounter, of course, but also not what I expected from the co-partner of a powerful law office in the tallest building in Minnesota.
My one meeting with the other partner, we’ll call him “Mr. Jones”, was not so warm and benign. In fact, the interaction might be what you would expect to happen in a cheesy, stereotypical 80’s movie about the “have’s” and “have-nots”.
The scene began in the same way, with a summons from the secretary. I reservedly entered the office and surveyed the room. The most immediately noticeable aspect was the massive oak desk, flanked on either side by two shining, golden lions, complete with menacing snarls aimed at me.
Mr. Jones sat, head down, looking at a file that was clearly far more important than me, because, in our whole interaction, he never looked up from it. With a bored-yet-curt “Take this,” he tossed an expensive leather belt to the edge of the desk. He then told me to take it to a department store, have it gift-wrapped, pick out a birthday card for the recipient, write something nice in it, and bring it back to him. He then remained silent. I cleared my throat and asked whom I should write the card out to.
And the conversation was over.
As I quietly retreated from the den, I was pressed by a heavy sadness. I don’t remember what heartfelt note I wrote to the son, but I never forgot the image of a father, staunched behind golden defenses, farming out his parental responsibilities to the peon, turning loving gift into empty gesture.
Without realizing it, we can tend to think of our selves, our lives, and each other in the same way, as objects on par with an inadvertent belt, or even the mindless card attached to it. Worse yet, we can think of God as the distant, unconcerned Father, offhandedly choosing us and pawning us off on those around us.
So much of the emotional baggage and destructive behavior we see around us is a direct result of not having a solid understanding of who we actually are. We unknowingly buy into the incessant messages telling us that we’re either merely bodies made up of atoms bumping into each other, or that we’re good souls trapped in this body for this short time on earth. Both views, however, perpetuate an imbalance.
If this is it, if I’m merely matter, then I actually don’t matter, and it doesn’t matter what I do. If I’m of no consequence in the long run, then I don’t have to worry about consequences. On the other hand, if I’m a beautiful soul, desperately waiting to be liberated from the prison of flesh, then I end up spending my days waiting and wishing for the end to come, the liberation to appear.
However, we are neither of those options. We are not random accidents, nor are we trapped here. We’re not worthless and we’re not potentially, possibly, maybe, kinda good, somewhere down the road. We are already purposefully and intentionally made in the image and likeness of God. We have never ceased to be on His mind. He’s always loved us. In fact, the life we live in these bodies was intentionally gifted to us from the moment of conception. Our Father in Heaven wasn’t surprised by who you are. He wasn’t distracted by other, more important things when you showed up on this mortal coil. He’s never said, “I didn’t see that coming,” or “Nic who?”
We matter. We are good.* We are worthy. We have dignity. Regardless of our behavior, accomplishments, or lifestyle choices. There is a truth at the core of our very existence that cannot help but retain this pristine beauty and dignity. Scripture says of God, “You love all things that are, and loathe nothing that you have made, for you would not fashion what you hate.” (Wisdom 11:24) If you exist, it means He made you, and if He made you, He loves you. This includes the whole spectrum of whom we judge worthy or not worthy, from Osama bin Laden to my great-grandma.
(Strange spectrum, I know)
The clincher is this. If we truly are as good as God says we are, and this intrinsically good existence was given to us simply “for our own sake,” as JPII said, with no strings attached whatsoever, then it is in learning to truly image and return love and gift in like kind that we can finally find fulfillment. Essentially, love is gift. We were made for love, so we were made to give.
If you think you’re trash or worse, then it doesn’t matter in what way you give yourself away to anyone, if at all. If I don’t know how good and worthwhile I am, then I’m a dollar store toy, easily broken and replaced. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that if you don’t know your worth–your true, inestimable worth–than you can never fully love, because you can never know who it is you’re giving away, and the infinite value you possess.
However, once you do know, that’s when the fun begins. Once you know that your Father has never taken His eyes off of you, that nothing is more important to Him than you, that your birth, birthdays, and belts all actually do matter to Him, you can begin to recognize the opportunities in your life to truly give, wishing or needing nothing in return because all of your needs are already met in His eyes.
*Before the rebuttals ensue, please let me clarify that this is not saying our behaviors are in any way necessarily good, nor that we don’t literally murder our relationship with God through mortal sin. That’s actually one of the components of what makes sin so wretched: that truly good people do truly evil things on a consistent basis. However, that’s for another post.