“Looking for love in all the wrong places.” It may be a well-worn cliché, but like all clichés, it contains more than a modicum of truth.

I think we can truthfully say that at some level, each of us just wants to be loved. And yet there is something about the world, and about our particular situation within it, that conspires to keep this much-sought-after feeling of being loved just beyond our grasp.

In some cases, it’s easy to see where a deep-seated sense of unloveliness might stem from; I’m thinking in particular of all forms of child abuse, whether physical, sexual or emotional. When we suffer such abuse at our most tender and formative age, it makes a profound imprint on our soul that can be very hard to erase or reshape. However, even those of us, like myself, who have experienced no major childhood abuse can be all too familiar with an abiding sense of lack that sends us searching for all manner of substances, experiences and/or relationships to fill the emptiness in our souls. Even those blessed with the happiest of circumstances somehow sustain wounds on their journey through childhood and adolescence – wounds whose pain they later seek to ease with money, success, sex, alcohol, fame, and so on.

To be alive in this world, it would seem, is to suffer trauma.

Christians often tend to offer one of two basic answers to this problem. On the one hand, there are those who believe we basically have to suck it up and await healing and wholeness in heaven. There may be no ready relief in this earthly life, but don’t worry: if you can grit your teeth and bear it long enough, once you make it to the other side you’ll have all the relief you could dream of. (The nasty twist in this tale is that if, in your wounded state, you succumb to the temptation to look for love in one of the many available wrong places, you’re committing a mortal sin and putting yourself in grave danger of hellfire, thus adding a generous helping of guilt to your already heavy burden.)

On the other hand, there are those Christians who believe that God wants nothing better than to restore us here and now to a primordial state of uninterrupted bliss and oneness in which all traces of suffering and lack roll off us like water off a duck’s back. In this view, it’s as though the love we’ve been looking for all our lives is a kind of invisible potion that God will pour into our wounded souls if we’ll only put ourselves into the correct posture to receive it. This school of thought also has a dark side: those who find, for whatever reason and in spite of their best efforts, that such healing constantly eludes them are often left feeling even less loveable, silently and unconsciously concluding that there must be something so grievously awful about them that even a God of love cannot or will not help them. I know this feeling only too well.

I don’t buy either of these schools of thought. Both are inadequate; both typically only make matters worse. The first deprives life of all meaning and even encourages people to stoically endure all kinds of evil for the sake of a utopian fantasy; the second pretends that, through faith in an invisible deity and a gruesome divine transaction that took place two thousand years ago, all of one’s innermost pain and lack can somehow be magicked away and one can thus attain immunity from suffering.

Suffering does not go away if one ignores it hard enough or long enough, nor can it be pretended away.

And yet I do believe in a God who is Love, and I do believe that healing and wholeness is something to be aspired to and sought after. But here’s the rub: I believe that the road to such healing and wholeness inevitably passes through the valley of truth. In this valley, we are forced to confront the truth not only about ourselves – that we are a tangled mess of good and bad, at once capable of great self-sacrifice and of terrible and destructive selfishness – but also about the world and life in it – that, although unbearably beautiful, it is profoundly messed up and shot through with often inexplicable pain and suffering in which we all partake, to a greater or lesser degree.

I am not interested in a God who offers only deferred hope. Nor am I interested in a God who encourages me to believe that suffering is an illusion or an obstacle to be overcome by the spiritually superfit or the more-than-conquerors brigade. No, the God I believe in is not like that: he is the God who sits with me in my darkness and refuses to get offended even when I curse him. He is the God who, no matter how many times I look for love in the wrong places and end up covered in filth and licking my wounds, never hesitates to embrace me. And in his embrace, I somehow begin to glimpse the truth that the way to wholeness lies neither in stoically enduring my brokenness nor in wishing it away, but in accepting it and embracing it.

[ Image: galaxies and hurricanes ]