When my oldest son came home from the hospital after suffering severe brain damage, I struggled to comprehend and accept the fate that had such a devastating impact on our entire family. In fact, to say I struggled is a gross understatement. It literally took years to comprehend the extent of his brain damage and many more years for me to surrender my efforts to change it.
Instead of accepting the child I had been given and loving him despite his handicaps, I continued to cling to the hope that someday the door to his inner thoughts would open and he would once more be able to communicate with his family and the world around him. His only consistent attempt at communication was through crying, but I was determined that would change. Although Justin could bare weight when held in an upright position and step with his right leg when prompted, we could not get him to attempt to use a foot switch as a means of communication. The same was true with his right arm. He could use his arm and the back of his hand which was turned in sharply at the wrist to swipe at his nose when it obviously itched, but we could never get him to consistently attempt to operate a simple switch to turn on a tape player or a message board though we tried a variety of switches and incentives. It seemed his muscles could respond instinctively, but he either could not purposely control them or could not cognitively think through the process of attempting to control them. I could never really determine to my complete satisfaction which was the case or whether both were equally true, but I could not give up the hope that somewhere buried deep within was some remnant of the child I once knew. However, my persistent need to change him – to improve him – was often like a poison that fueled frustration and anger.
One day I was particularly frustrated with him after desperately trying to get him to respond or communicate. Hoping that he understood me, I had spent several minutes patiently talking to him and attempting to explain what I wanted him to do. He had seemed unusually alert and appeared to be listening so I took advantage of the opportunity to give him several options for responding to simple yes or no questions. I offered suggestions for any possible means of communication that he might be able to control – an eye blink, twitch a finger, or wiggle a toe, but Justin’s responses were inconsistent and my failure to make any progress made me want to cry. I desperately wanted to break down the wall that seemed to separate us.
However, my efforts were of no avail and the thought that perhaps he understood what I was saying and was just simply not trying hard enough to find some way to communicate was causing my frustration to morph into anger. I began angrily scolding him and Justin began to whimper at my sharp tone. While anger and frustration were rolling off my tongue, Jennifer came up to Justin and gently touched his arm and said, “Justin, please try to do what Mama says, she just wants to know you love her.”
It was as though her words flung open a shutter that had blinded my eyes to the motives of my heart. I thought I loved my children unconditionally, but even my four-year-old daughter knew differently. Their response to me and the measure by which they obeyed was their payment for my love. This was one of those countless times during the years that I cared for Justin that the Lord used him to open my eyes to the wretched condition of my own heart. I stood there silenced and dumfounded by the wise words of my pre-school daughter; I realized I did not really understand unconditional love.
Unconditional love – it is almost synonymous with grace; this love without restraint, conditions, or limitations seems to go hand in hand with the unmerited favor of grace. And grace – I’m just really just beginning to learn it – how to offer it and how to receive it. But that day, years ago, I learned an important lesson: I couldn’t offer what I didn’t know I had, didn’t know I needed, and wasn’t grateful for what was given. I couldn’t offer unconditional love. All of my love came with conditions. In many ways my offering of love was my way of manipulating and controlling others – especially my children. I loved because they loved me in return.
But how do we offer love to those who can’t love in return? How do we offer unconditional love to those who are incapable of loving? How do we love those whose hearts are handicapped by a life of pain or those whose hearts are paralyzed with fear or those who are so blinded by self – like I was – that they can’t see to give what they haven’t opened their hearts to receive? I think by remembering what we have been given.
That day I knelt and asked for the gift of unconditional love. I wanted to be able to love my son unconditionally and I knew I didn’t. I thought I needed some great spiritual gift to give what I knew I couldn’t, but in the midst of that prayer, I realized I had already received unconditional love – I had already been showered with grace in abundance. I had received it hundreds, thousands, millions, of times ….I had received it once.
Christ died once for all of my sin. He offered me unconditional love and died so I could be saved by grace. He loved me so unconditionally that while I was a sinner – while I AM a sinner – while I did and do love self more than I love Him – he gave His life for me. And it was that receiving of love – that receiving of grace – that overflowed out of my heart and towards my children.
Once more my eyes opened to see myself in Justin; I was just as incapable of loving God or returning any good for the unconditional love and grace I was given as Justin. It was the recognition of the unconditional love – the grace – that was given me that moved my heart to extend kindness and love to my son. It didn’t matter whether he could communicate and just wasn’t or whether he couldn’t; I loved him anyway with a love that responded in kindness. I also began to understand something else that day that would be confirmed in my life over and over; forgiveness for imperfection was far more of a motivating force to compel me to continue to try than judgment and the same was true for my children. Grace doesn’t make us lazy or complacent – it inspires us to obedience and love. In all my trials -in all my trying – when I remember I am loved unconditionally – when I remember grace – it moves me forward despite my imperfections. I will be imperfect over and over again – but it is in knowing that I am loved –knowing that I am forgiven for my imperfections– that is what compels me to move on and continue loving even if I love imperfectly. Grace is not surrender to imperfection, it is surrender to gratitude, and it is gratitude for grace that moves us to love – unconditionally.