I did not grow up in home filled with love. Instead I grew up in a home dominated by the mental illness of one of my parents. As a result I never learned how to love or how to be loved. My dominant parent was always happy to love in us those traits and interests which mirrored his own, but anything outside of that small category was not only not appreciated but generally despised. Not surprisingly the children in my family who were least like my father grew up feeling very unloved and unaccepted in their own family.
Some years later when I found myself the mother of two small children who had appeared in rapid succession, I was pretty clueless about how to love them, but I was desperate to learn. I made it my mission as a mother to know my children, to truly know who they are as people and to love them for who they are even if who they are is not like me.
It didn’t take long before they both demonstrated interests and traits that were completely unlike my own. And I was faced with my first real challenge to my commitment to love my children for who they are.
My daughter has a gift—a profound gift—with animals. I used to call her Ellie Mae Clampett. She was constantly rescuing animals, insects, reptiles, you name it. She built hurricane sanctuaries; she repaired broken wings; she nursed injured stray animals back to health. And she never had a bigger smile on her face than when she was telling me a story about an animal.
The problem was that not only did I not share her love of animals, I despised them. My father was very anti-animal and he had cultivated that trait in me. But when I looked into her pleading eyes, and remembered my commitment to love her, I always said yes; and soon our lives—and our home—became filled with animals of all kinds.
I knew that I couldn’t just tolerate her love of animals. If I was going to truly love her, then I needed to truly know her and that meant trying to understand her love of animals. So, I sat—for countless hours—and listened to her as she explained to me about each animal: their injuries, their personalities, their comical mishaps. I held her and comforted her as she sobbed upon their deaths. And the more that I began to understand the love she had for these animals, the more that I began to love her for that gift, and I even began to share in that love myself.
Very slowly, imperceptibly, I began to change. I grew from tolerating her animal stories to truly delighting in them; I shared her compassion over injuries; I cried over deaths.
One day, she came up behind me and saw me speaking affectionately to our cat. She laughed and said, “Mom, look at you. You love Mittens. You actually love our cat! What happened to you?” I spun around and embraced her and replied, “You happened to me. I loved you and it changed me.”
It occurs to me that this transforming nature of love is a picture of what happens to us when we learn to love God. For to truly love anyone is to also learn to love that which he loves. The more that we love God, the more that we delve into his character and try to get to know him for who he truly is, the more that we contemplate that which he loves, the more we learn to love those same things ourselves. Truth, beauty, goodness, holiness, righteous…we begin to love these virtues ourselves when we love the God who loves them.
But it’s more than that too. The more that I have learned to love my daughter, the more that I have become like her, in the best ways. Loving her best traits is shaping me into a better person. Likewise, if we want to be like God, then we have to start by knowing him, by determining to love him for who he truly is, by committing to love that which he loves, and then by being transformed by those same things.
It doesn’t happen quickly. Sometimes it takes a lifetime. But if I can truly love having a cat curl up on my chest while I read a book, then anything is possible. But I didn’t set out with the goal of loving animals. If I had done that, I think I would have failed. Instead, I determined to love my daughter, and that made all the difference.