In elementary school, we learn two things about success.
First, we learn that we are defined by success. If we write the right answers, we’re defined as “smart.” If we behave according to a given set of rules, we’re defined as “good.” If we kick or throw a ball in designated places, we’re defined as “athletic.” And if we trigger approval in our peers, we’re defined as “popular.”
And second, we learn that “success” is a definable goal. Nine out of ten correct answers is enough to be smart. Behaving in view of the teacher is enough to be good. Scoring more points than the other players is enough to be athletic. Being liked by certain key people is enough to be popular. It isn’t always easy to meet the goals, but we basically know what they are, and once we’ve met the minimum standard (or when we meet it consistently), there is no more to discover beyond that. We’ve already done enough.
As we grow older, we realized that all of this is considerably more complicated, but most of us never get over this early programming.
I suspect that God looks at the whole thing very differently.
There’s a Psalm talks about Divine love as love that lasts eternally: Give thanks to the God of gods. His love endures forever. God’s love is not conditional; we can earn neither more nor less Divine love, regardless of our knowledge or behavior or talents. This is really hard to wrap our heads around, but if we’re going to have a conversation about “enough”—and we need to—then this is the place to start.
There’s no scorecard. You’re not doing better some days than other days. God doesn’t love somebody else more than you, and God doesn’t love you more than somebody else. Nothing you can do but just sit there and be loved.
I don’t know about you, but this makes me feel squirmy. What do you mean, I can’t screw it up? I happen to know I can screw anything up. And what do you mean, I can’t earn it? Earning things is what I do. Half my identity is tied up in competency. I don’t like being powerless. I want a scorecard. Being loved unconditionally is just plain weird.
Every now and then, I close my eyes and try to see myself just existing in God’s love. For some reason, when I do this, I’m floating in outer space without a spacesuit, but perfectly comfortable and weightless and breathing and everything, if perhaps flailing around a bit because I’m not used to it.
Okay, so . . .
We, ourselves, are always enough, and we get into trouble when we imagine otherwise. Think about it: if we imagine we can earn God’s love, if we imagine it’s possible to earn God’s love, then by definition, there has to be such a thing as faithful enough to earn God’s love.
But there’s no such thing as faithful enough.
I’m going to swing over into systems theory again. Have you ever noticed that when things grow—grow in size, grow in numbers, grow in enthusiasm, grow in knowledge, whatever—there tends to be a point where they stop growing? This happens so consistently that we begin to think it’s some kind of law, that there’s a limit put in place by the universe, and systems theory tells us that usually, there is not! We ourselves put a limit in place without knowing it, and then because we don’t recognize the limit as a limit, we stand around baffled because the thing has stopped growing.
And the most common limit to growth is our internal definition of what is “enough.”
This will be easier to understand with an example. I know a Quaker meeting where there were very few young adults. A few Friends felt this was a serious concern, and they started holding young adult lunches and providing religious education and midweek worship and a conversation group for young adults online, and in a year, the meeting went from four young adults to more than thirty. How the community rejoiced!
Shortly after that, the meeting stopped growing. Friends were tired; it took a lot of effort to put all this support in place, and besides, the sense of crisis was gone. Now, the meeting had young adults. One might even say it had “enough” young adults. So the targeted effort disappeared, and so did some of the young attenders, and certainly new ones stopped showing up.
What might have happened if Friends in this meeting had sat down and articulated their assumptions about what was “enough”? Might they have realized that their underlying motivation wasn’t quite right? That it isn’t about having enough young adults in the meeting, it’s about building the Beloved Community. Of course, the number of young adults in the meeting isn’t the issue. The issue is remembering that there’s no such thing as faithful enough. The issue is remembering that there’s always a beyond, always more to do in being faithful.
Now, even as I type that, I feel a little tug in my heart. I very much want to argue with myself. What do you mean, there’s always a beyond? Always more to do? I can’t just work infinitely!
Don’t freak out, I remind myself. You are always enough.
The issue is not that I do a certain amount of work and stop. Stopping to rest, or even stopping altogether, is not a bad thing. The question is what has caused me to stop. If I’ve stopped because it’s God’s will that I care for myself, or if I stop because it’s God’s will that for now I go no further, then I’m really not stopping at all; I’m simply continuing my pattern of behaving faithfully.
But if I stop what I’m doing because I have an internal definition of what is enough, then I’m essentially putting limits on what God can do. The moment I say, “Wow! Look at all these new people!” or “Wow! Look how passionate everybody’s become about peace work!” or “Wow! Look how much the kids in First Day School have learned about discernment!” and I feel a sense of finality—of enough—and I slow down or stop—I am being unfaithful, because it’s never enough. Maybe God had more for us. There’s always a beyond.
So what does never enough look like in the Beloved Community? I suspect it looks like a gathering of Friends that stop asking queries that start with do we and are we and start asking queries that start with how can we and end with even more faithfully than we already do?
Instead of: Are meetings for worship and business held in expectant waiting for divine guidance?
Why not: How can we hold meetings for worship and business in expectant waiting for divine guidance even more faithfully than we already do?
Instead of: Do our children receive the loving care of the meeting?
Why not: How can we give our children loving care even more faithfully than we already do?
And instead of: Are we careful in our choice of ways to use our time and energy?
Why not: How can we choose to use our time and energy even more faithfully than we already do?
Can we put down the scorecard? Can we accept the unconditional love of God? Can we turn ourselves over completely to God’s goodness, just being faithful, celebrating every day, never stopping, walking forward, following, always?