There’s a quote from Jonathan Haidt’s “The Happiness Hypothesis” that has haunted me ever since I read it many years ago:
As in Plato, Christian love is love stripped of its essential particularity, its focus on a specific other person. Love is remodeled into a general attitude toward a much larger, even infinite class of objects. Caritas and agape are beautiful, but they are not related to or derived from the kinds of love that people need. Although I would like to live in a world in which everyone radiates benevolence toward everyone else, I would rather live in a world in which there was at least one person who loved me specifically, and whom I loved in return. (emphasis added)
I have long and easily felt God’s love in the general sense, “stripped of its essential particularity”. I know that God is good, and because God is good He treats everyone kindly and patiently. Of this I have no doubt. But am I loved, in particular? I know the answer is yes, but I have long struggled to actually feel that love.
There’s a song that always makes me tear up, and it’s kind of a weird one and for kind of a weird reason. It’s “Snow” by Ryan Shupe & the RubberBand. The song is about a snow storm sent by God to honor the passing of a prophet:
no it wasn’t a lightning storm
ripping leaves and
the limbs off of trees
and it wasn’t a massive earthquake
the earth buckling from beneath
because he wasn’t quite that sad
and he wasn’t quite that mad
but his messenger died yesterday
and he wanted us to know
so it was just snow soft and white
it was just snow falling so light
it was just snow soft and white
falling so light,
falling last night
The reason the song makes me cry when I hear it is that it’s easy for me to imagine that God has a particular love for someone else, but not for me. I have no idea why this is an issue for me, but it is.
So with that as the backdrop, the theme that came to me from the most recent General Conference was a pervasive and consistent testimony of God’s love, and of God’s particular love.
The talk that spoke to me the most powerfully on this theme was Elder Alan T. Phillips’ God Knows and Loves You. He opens the talk with a story of accidentally leaving his 5-year-old son Jasper behind at a rest area during a road trip. In the last part of his talk he returns to that story, saying:
For the record, Jasper is witty, affectionate, intelligent, and rambunctious. But the key to this story is he is mine. He is my son, and I love him more than he will ever know. If an imperfect, earthly father feels this way about his child, can you imagine how a perfect, glorified, loving Heavenly Father feels about you? (emphasis added)
My eyes brimmed with tears when I heard that. Especially the way Elder Phillips’ had to pause and push through his own emotions to say “he is mine”. I have four kids. I love them each, but I love them each for who they are. My love for my children is particular. Each of my kids is different, and so my love for them is different. And it’s not at all conditional or based on them being good enough. I started loving them before they were born and I first met them, and as they grew into their own very different distinct persons my love for each of them grew to be particular to who they were as individuals. Why then, should God not also love me, not because of any merit on my part, but even so in a way that is specific to me. To who I am. To my struggles, my strengths, my weaknesses, and my quirks?
This moment was the most impactful for me in the General Conference, but overall my favorite talk was Elder Robert M. Daines’ Sir, We Would LIke to See Jesus. It helps that I feel a little “face-blind” myself, so I got his key metaphor. (I have a very hard time recognizing people when I see them in unusual contexts.) Elder Daines addressed the exact struggle that I feel:
You may struggle to see God as a loving Father. You may look heavenward and see not the face of love and mercy but a thicket of rules through which you must wend your way. Perhaps you believe God rules in His heavens, speaks through His prophets, and loves your sister, but you secretly wonder whether He loves you. Perhaps you have felt the iron rod in your hand but not yet felt your Savior’s love to which it leads.
The “thicket of rules” thing isn’t a concern for me, but the “loves your sister, but secretly wonder whether He loves you” is exactly the emotion I feel when I hear “Snow”. And I also strongly believe in the truths of the Restored Gospel and scriptures (I “have felt the iron rod in [my] hand”) but still have “not yet felt [my] Savior’s love to which it leads”. I believe it’s there. I hope. I even know He is loving in a general sense. But love me, in particular? That’s my struggle. So when Elder Daines said “I knew God loved you perfectly but didn’t feel it myself,” I felt like he was talking straight to me.
“The answer,” Elder Daines cites President Nelson, “is always Jesus”.
I like that it took Elder Daines many, many years to overcome his spiritual face-blindness because I feel like my own progress is also quite slow, and it gives me hope to know that he got there eventually (since I don’t feel like I’m going to arrive there any time soon myself).
I was also really encouraged by how he talked about how worship and love of God has to be personal and particular, just as I hope to be loved personally and particularly in return: “we worship our Father, not a formula, and… we’re not finished until we see Jesus as the face of our Father’s love and follow Him, not just His rules.”
He goes on to clearly articulate how things that can seem impersonal, like rules and covenants, are anything but:
When prophets and apostles talk of covenants, they aren’t like coaches yelling out from (red velvet) bleachers, telling us to “try harder!” They want us to see our covenants are fundamentally about relationships and can be a cure for spiritual face blindness. They are not rules to earn His love; He already loves you perfectly. Our challenge is to understand and shape our life to that love.
We try to see through our covenants, as if through a window, to the face of the Father’s mercy behind.
Covenants are the shape of God’s embrace.
And then he finished with one of my favorite verses from one of my favorite Restoration hymns, “Redeemer of Israel”:
Restore, my dear Savior,
The light of thy face;
Thy soul-cheering comfort impart;
And let the sweet longing
For thy holy place
Bring hope to my desolate heart.
I have had an easy and blessed life, and really have no reason to have a “desolate heart”, and yet my heart sometimes does feel desolate as I think about God’s love for others, like in the song “Snow”, and wonder when I will feel that love myself. I know that the obstacle is me. There’s something about me that has a hard time letting it in. Some weird tangle of pride and insecurity that refuses to allow myself to be loved except on my terms and in my control. Which isn’t at all how God loves.
Elder Phillips and Elder Daines gave me a boost of hope and encouragement. For a moment, there was a crack in my self-built, self-isolating wall. A ray of light shone through, and it was beautiful. It took Elder Daines a while to get there. I feel it’s going to take me a while, too. But this General Conference inspired me to keep going and refilled my hope for the day when I at last am healed enough to see and feel that I am loved in particular.