Mother listened and shook her head: “My dear, it’s your illness that makes you talk like that.” “Mama, my joy,” he said, “it’s not possible for there to be no masters and servants, but let me also be the servant of my servant of my servants, the same as they are to me. And I shall also tell you, dear mother, that each of us is guilty in everything before everyone, and I most of all.” At that mother even smiled, she wept and smiled: “How can it be,” she said, “that you are the most guilty before everyone? There are murderers and robbers, and how have you managed to sin so that you should accuse yourself most of all?” “Dear mother, heart of my heart,” he said (he had begun saying such unexpected, endearing words), “heart of my heart, my joyful one, you must know that verily each of us is guilty before everyone, for everyone and everything. I do not know how to explain it to you, but I feel it so strongly that it pains me… “You take too many sins upon yourself,” mother would weep. “Dear mother, my joy, I am weeping from gladness, not from grief; I want to be guilty before them, only I cannot explain it to you, for I do not even know how to love them. Let me be sinful before everyone, but so that everyone will forgive me, and that is paradise. Am I not in paradise now?” –Fyodor Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov
above all, love each other deeply, because love covers a multitude of sins – I Peter 4:8
for to be able to love a man in spite of his weaknesses and errors and imperfections is not perfect love; it is rather to be able to find him lovable in spite of and together with his weakness and errors and imperfections - Søren Kierkegaard in ‘Works of Love’
This is probably the most difficult aspect of the task and yet this is also perhaps the highest expression of love one could give to another. The task of Christian love is to love your neighbor as yourself, all men, without distinction, even in their sin and imperfection. We’ve already seen how difficult this task has turned out to be for the existing individual and now it has become even harder, at least for myself. We are all sinners. We are, everyone of us, totally equal before God. No one is better than anyone else in the world, because before God we all become nothing and worldly distinctions fade away. This is a truth that we do not readily accept because it is just so contrary to how we naturally think. We have barriers that we have built in ourselves that we must tear down before we are able to love in truth.
We have a self-love (a self-love in the wrong way) that is an impediment to us understanding our fundamental equality as human beings; it is a self-love that wants to assert our worth above others; it is a self-love that thinks we deserve credit for our actions before God. This is a misunderstanding of the God-relationship. It is not a mutual benefit relationship: we deserve nothing, yet God provides. The temptation is to think of the God-relationship in worldly terms and this is a misunderstanding. Christianity calls for the individual to become nothing before God, because that is his true self; all else is an evasion, a lie. This is a terrifying thought because it demands transparency and complete openness. Before God, your worldly distinctions, your mask that you have worked so long to create and to perpetuate before others: these distinctions have no merit before God, because we are all equal before Him. Your status in the world all that you have is meaningless because as God has given He can take away from you. He can demand all from you in an instant: how would you respond? Your self-love responds in anger because you feel that you deserve better or that God was unjust or unfair in the lot that you have been given in life. But the truth is that you are worthy of nothing, yet God provides. A man sins against you. In your self-love you judge that person for their sin. A man is trapped by a sin and this is revealed to you. In your self-love you judge his imperfection. But who are you judging? Is it not yourself that you are judging? Who are you to decry the sins of others when you yourself are in sin? You are doing nothing but compounding sin upon sin and falling further away. The God-relationship is not the only place that suffers. In your relationships to others, if your view towards them is one clouded by self-love, then you are not loving in truth. Others become ways for you to build yourself up or to gain some advantage from the relationship. You are attempting to place yourself above others but we are all equal before God. Who is it that you are really loving? Is it not yourself then? Relationships to others are only understood in relation to how you are affected by them. They become wholly conditional and dry up as soon as the well of esteem and prestige from others dries up. Your commitment is to a source that is finite and subject to change. Others will always in one way or another disappoint you; they will fail to follow through for you; they will fail to build you up in the way you would like them to: and therefore you live in despair. Your stock is placed in a conditional ‘love’ that is subject to change at any moment, for God can demand all from you in an instant.
The masks we create for ourselves also prevent us from loving one another in truth. The demand is openness and transparency before God, yet we don’t want to give up these masks because with it on we do not feel the threat of eternity. We pride ourselves in our ability to fool those around us, even thinking God is fooled, but we are only fooling ourselves. One becomes inauthentic. You are only evading your true self and making excuses so you don’t have to take responsibility for yourself. You fool yourself thinking you can hide, but there is no where you can run to. An account for your actions will be demanded from you: will you deny yourself? Because isn’t that the defense, to deny that you are the choices and experiences that have created you? The task then becomes to resist the urge to flee from yourself and to face the truth, no matter the difficulty. You cannot run forever and eventually an account will be demanded of you: are you using your time and life experience wisely? The mask leads us to believe that we have hidden ourselves from everyone else, like Adam in the Garden. But God’s interest is in the individual and He can pick you out from your hiding and before Him there is no mask clever enough that can cover you. We create personas for ourselves and create parts to play so that we can be who we think others want us to be. In the world, you are judged by how great of an actor you are before men; if no one suspects anything, then you have won. Before God it is reversed: being an actor puts you further from God, where acknowledging yourself as a sinner and imperfect brings you closer. There is no love for the other when the mask is involved. The mask pervades through all relationships and prevents authenticity. You are just suffering from more self-love. You don’t give enough of yourself away, only just the amount so that the mask still stays intact; however, you think you fooled the other into thinking the mask has fallen. Yes, that is how good you are at keeping the mask in place. You know the limits and just how to exploit them. When you think others think you are being open and true, you think you have won; yet, before God there is only the truth. One is terrified of this thought, one may even think that God is being unjust, but it is we who are mistaken in this thought. You have nothing to lose (because you have and are nothing) and only the world to gain through the God-relationship, because He has overcome the world.
So we see how self-love, in its many forms, is a barrier to loving others in truth. Dostoevsky writes that we are to become guilty before all and take the sins of others upon ourselves out of love and compassion. Isn’t this a beautiful thought? We are all sinners and we are all equal before God. In love, let us share the burden of sin amongst one another so that we become as equals and are able, in strength, to bear the burden of sin as a body of believers in Christ. Worldly distinctions call us away from this equality, but in distinction there is no true love. True love is only in equality before God, who is Himself love.
Our love for others must not be a conditional love: it must be unconditional. The barrier of self-love teaches us that we love others to our advantage, but this is a conditional love and it is subject to change or variation. Love in truth, however, is unconditional because it is resting in an eternal source. Loving another in their sin and imperfection does not occur if the love is dependent on external characteristics of the individual, because we are all sinners and humans, so there will be disappointment if our source of love is solely in the conditional, for no one will be able to live up to our expectations. In conditional love, we are only loving the mask. Instead, love them in spirit for their inwardness, see beyond the mask and play-acting, love them for who they are in truth. This is Christian love. It is our mutual brokenness that bonds us together as we become guilty before all and bear one another’s burdens. We are all equal before God and there is no mask.
This is not easy, for we naturally base our love on the appearance of the mask. We are unwilling to look beyond it, nor is the other so readily willing to remove the mask before you, and this is the condition in which we find ourselves. Loving becomes a difficult enterprise that demands much of us if we are unwilling to completely remove the mask be who we are in truth before God and others. Only Christian love loves the neighbor in truth, because it is an eternal love not rooted in the conditional, but the unconditional. One can only take part in this joy once he has the blessings of eternity within himself first. Only through experiencing the eternal love and forgiveness of God’s love in our own lives are we able to love one another in truth. This is the as yourself of the task. But this is self-love in the right way, in the way God intends. The self-love comes from becoming nothing before God and others and becoming guilty for all and before all. All other self-love is pride and vanity; self-love in truth is acknowledging the other and the mutual condition of sinfulness between you as equals before God. This is where the beauty of friendship is so important, at least in my opinion. Friendship is not false superficiality, true friendship is mutual openness before one another and expressing love unconditionally no matter the sins or faults that we may perceive in the other. You have no right to judge for you are no better than the other. The mutual brokenness is humbling but also a source of great comfort. You understand that you are not alone in the world, that there are others that face the same problems as you, even though it may be in a different form. The other is also one before whom you must be held accountable. You can only bear the burdens of others if you and the other are willing to remove the mask before one another, because true love does not love the mask, it loves the spirit. You have a partner is your walk with Christ; you learn from one another, especially the mistakes of one another; you learn that the burden of life is much easier to bear when you have an other that shares it with you.
if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring them back, remember this: whoever turns the sinner away from error will save them from death and cover a multitude of sins – James 5:20
We are all no different. We are all sinners. I say all these words to you, but I admit I fail at this in practice, for I am a sinner after all. I have been slowly learning the importance of being open and transparent before myself, God and others. I have been noticing my defense mechanisms and my natural inclination to hide behind the mask. Luckily, God has provided (and is providing) with a wealth of friends before whom I can remove the mask at long last and be accepted for who I am. I am the sum of my choices and life-experiences. This very existentialist idea has truth behind it. Us not accepting these aspects of ourselves is an evasion; we become inauthentic. Authenticity demands responsibility and acceptance of who we are in truth before God, for God has given us this life and provided us these experiences for a purpose. every good and perfect gift is from above. Our denial of ourselves essentially means we deny that God gives good and perfect gifts, which is a misunderstanding. Do not hide from yourself any longer (and as I speak to you, I speak to myself first of all) become who you are in truth, remove the mask, and humble yourself before God and others. Only in this is love and equality among men possible.