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Rachel Held Evans on Living and Loving Wholeheartedly

Rachel Held Evans on Living and Loving Wholeheartedly

Ironically, many of us who grew up believing in all-the-way faith were also told to check important parts of ourselves at the church door. So I write especially for those who feel fractured by the lie that their faith precludes their doubts, their politics, their biology degree, their cultural heritage, their diagnosis, their sexuality, their intellectual integrity, their intuition, their uncertainty, their sadness, their joy.

I’m not the first to make the observation that to love your neighbor as yourself, you obviously have to learn to love yourself.  To love oneself is not synonymous with self-obsession or narcissism—or perhaps it’s better to say that to love oneself well is not those things. To love oneself well is to regard one’s place in the world with candor and grace, grounded in a humble realization of one’s strengths as well as a clear-eyed understanding of one’s weaknesses. To love oneself well is to be able to distinguish between what one wants and what one needs. To love oneself well means not to diminish the beautiful creature that God made nor to cultivate an outsize image of that same person.

To live and to love like this is not easy. If it were easy, if it came naturally, we wouldn’t need that prayer. If we had done well at holding on to its claims, we wouldn’t need to return to its admonitions—and it probably would have vanished into history. I think it has endured precisely because it is so challenging— so countercultural, so counterintuitive, yet so worthy of remembering.

To live and to love like this points us toward our true selves, which are part of a greater whole. If unholy religion has contributed to our fragmentation, healthy faith can point us toward our restoration. Faith gives people language and stories with which to draw meaning from their experiences, to see their lives as part of a larger narrative of wholeness and healing. At its best, faith teaches us to live without certainty and to hope without guarantee. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for,” wrote an anonymous biblical author, “the conviction of things not seen.” At its best, faith teaches us to take risks.

To live and to love like this is to live and to love in holy danger. Sometimes we can see love as construction material for spiritual cloisters—safe spaces for our hearts, our souls, our egos. In fact, it’s the opposite. Love tears down the walls, and it beckons us out into the wildlands of human existence.

“Keeping people safe,” Ann Patchett writes in her novel Commonwealth, “is a story we tell ourselves.” Perhaps the better story to tell ourselves is that the struggle toward love is worth it. It moves us out of the fragmentation that has marked so many of our lives. And it compels us toward the wholeness for which God made us—and that God embodies. God, too, loves wholeheartedly.

What I didn’t understand until recently was that we aren’t alone in our risk and vulnerability. When God goes all in on us and for us, there’s risk and vulnerability for God too. Religious folks don’t like to think of God as vulnerable. We prefer theology and imagery that depicts God as powerful and in control, a sovereign chess master dispassionately moving pieces across the board. But I don’t believe God’s vulnerability is some kind of cosmic kryptonite that serves to weaken the divine; rather, it is beauty, it is solidarity, and it is strength.

On our best days, Christians believe God’s most significant act of love put God right in the middle of our messy, dangerous world—as a tiny embryo implanted in the uterus of a teenage girl, as a hungry newborn rooting for his mother’s breast, as a man who drank at weddings and cried at funerals, as a human being whose heart broke and soared and skipped beats and, one day, stopped. Because true love can never be coerced or controlled, God does all of this without the guarantee of reciprocation. Divine love, like all love, is freely given and freely received. Even if God promises never to walk away, we can—and we have, over and over.

In my previous books, I’ve written about my own evolution of faith, my wrestling with the church, and my shifts in the understanding of the Bible. You could say that I have had to examine the various fragmented pieces of my religiosity one by one. (Some people might say that they are spiritual but not religious, but I think the evidence of my life shows that I’m still pretty religious, and I’d be a fool to try to argue against that.) Here, I glean from those previous explorations as well as venture onto new fields, because I’m still evolving, still wrestling, still shifting, still examining. What is this abundant life of faith that Jesus invites us into? In the context of the Christian story, what does it mean to be whole?

The pursuit of wholehearted living has enjoyed renewed interest in recent years, but we dare not mistake it for a fad; nor do I want to reduce it to the spiritual equivalent of an Instagram influencer’s lifestyle brand. To live and love fully, to embrace human vulnerability rather than exploit it, to try to make sense of our place in this fragile yet beautiful world, to seek to understand our role in proclaiming God’s love and justice—this has been the work of generations. It’s the quest that creates our greatest works of art and our most profound moments of quiet tenderness. It’s the promise that calls us to greet every sunrise and surrender to every sunset. It’s the best hope of our oldest prayers, both on the days when I believe as well as on the days when I don’t.

Excerpt from Wholehearted Faith by Rachel Held Evans and Jeff Chu. Published by HarperOne. Copyright © 2021 HarperCollins.

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