It was late one evening this past April that I finally began to understand how God loves me. I was in the wings, partly watching my friend dance her solo onstage in the ballet Coppelia, partly warming up for mine that came next, and partly begging God to get me through my dance because I was pretty sure I couldn’t do it on my own. It was one of the harder dances I’ve done because it required perfect placement and a lot of control on my part. My body was worn out from rehearsing every night that week, I had a bruised toenail and generally unhappy feet from being on pointe so much, and I was developing a rather painful strain in one of my inner thigh muscles. I found myself wondering how, when I was younger, I had never seemed to be quite this acutely aware of how my body was feeling. But more than that, I wanted to be able to dance and to do it well, and to infuse my beautiful solo – ironically entitled Prayer – with meaning.
So as the music began and I entered, I was still praying – mostly, “God, give me the strength to do this again.” Before each difficult section, I prayed again. And something pretty amazing happened – beyond the fact that God answered my prayers and sustained me physically. He also sent me an unexpected gift. One performance, the lyrics of a Third Day song popped spontaneously into my head:
I trust in Jesus, my great Deliverer, my strong Defender, Son of God
I trust in Jesus, blessed Redeemer, my Lord forever, the Holy One
I trust in Jesus, blessed Redeemer, my Lord forever, the Holy One
During another performance, it was part of Isaiah 30:15 that came to mind: “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” Focusing on that was a huge and surprising help to get through Prayer, and more than that, it was above and beyond what I had asked for. It was God showing me that His love goes farther than I’ve dared to believe.
I wonder – is it a coincidence that both the song and the verse that God gave me had to do with trusting Him? It’s really hard for me to trust and not try all on my own to ensure a good outcome – especially when it involves trusting a God I know and love, but can’t see. But every time I do trust, such as on this occasion, He more than comes through. And it’s been this way that I’ve started to understand His love for me.
I think we often have a fuzzy, neat, and nice idea of what love is. It’s good feelings and comfort and warmth and ease and all the things we would wish for ourselves. If God loves us, that must mean that He will provide us with everything that we consider good, and keep us safe and healthy all the time, and in general give us a pretty easy life. After all, isn’t that what we would try to do for the people we ourselves love? God must be the same.
But I’m beginning to understand that that’s not quite true. I do believe that God loves to bless us, that He wants to give us abundant lives (John 10:10), and that every good and perfect gift comes from Him (James 1:17). But there’s also this truth that I’ve seen throughout the Bible, and perhaps especially in the book of Job: if God designed human beings to be in relationship with Him, then our greatest good is realized by being close to Him, and the closer we get to Him – even inch by inch – the better off we are. Therefore, I believe that God’s love entails that He gives us whatever it takes to bring us the closest to Him, and that might look different for each person. It might mean blessings and prosperity and material abundance for the person who would turn to God and praise Him through that. But for someone else, it might mean He takes away something they depend on or something that comes between them and Him – health, wealth, strength, security, comfort, people they love – if that’s what it takes to bring them back to Him. In our limited perspective, we might call that unfair, but that’s because we can’t see the big picture. We haven’t grasped that anything that brings us closer to God is good – even if it’s not something we could possibly like, enjoy, wish for, or have fuzzy feelings about.
God has blessed my socks off over and over again, and given me incredible opportunities I couldn’t have imagined. I am deeply grateful to be the recipient of so many gifts. But it isn’t so much through these tangible ways that I truly understand how God loves me. I’ve come to understand that His is not a soft, easy love that only gives to me and demands nothing of me. No – He loves me hard. He gives me a beautiful challenge I don’t think I can handle, and then He steps in with love that is strong and pressing, but tender and caring, and then He walks with me through every step of the way.
The reason I came to see this through my exhausting week of performing Coppelia is that ballet doesn’t come easily to me. I love it, and always have, but I wasn’t born with a “natural” ballet body and I haven’t always studied ballet quite intensively enough to truly get it in my blood. Sometimes I just feel clumsy and awkward and start to doubt myself as a dancer. Other times, I get so worn out from dancing, and my muscles get so tired and shaky, that I don’t understand why I ever thought I could do this as a career, day in and day out. Still other times, I look in the mirror and am so easily dissatisfied with what I see that I get discouraged and depressed. This is not an easy path to take, and there have been days when I just want to quit and study something “normal” like history or nursing.
This is why I can sometimes feel God’s presence and love the most closely and deeply when I’m on stage, giving my all to fight for something that I’m honestly not sure in the moment that I can do anymore. I’m reminded that God’s power is made perfect in my weakness. I don’t like being weak. I hate not being able to do everything. I wish ballet came naturally to me and didn’t involve so much effort, uncertainty, and self-doubt. But the reality is that I am weak, I’m not invincible, and the gift of dance that God has blessed me with is not an easy one.
Maybe if God loved me in our typical fuzzy human way, He would have seen me struggling with my gift and taken pity on me. Maybe He would have used others to gently counsel me to focus on one of my other interests, or to not seriously pursue my dreams of dancing in the future, or to assure me that it was okay to give up or not seriously try every day. Maybe He would have patted me on the back and given me something easier to love.
That isn’t at all what He’s done. He has seen me struggling and He has stooped down to help me, to give me the physical, emotional, and mental strength to get through and keep pushing. And when I don’t have any strength left, He Himself has sustained me. He’s given me Scripture in the middle of performances. He has placed numerous relentless encouragers in my life to tell me that for no reason should I quit, hold back, or doubt myself, but to believe that I am meant to do this. He pushes me onward, encouraging me to climb higher, try harder, and be more. His love doesn’t say, “It’s okay that you can’t”; it says, “Keep going – you can.”
It is precisely because dance is hard for me that I can better understand God’s love. He loves me too much to leave me where I am. That’s why He died to ransom, redeem, and restore me. That’s why He gives and takes away the things in my life that He does. He is in the process of transforming me into something better, something that looks a little more like Him every day. When I understand that, I can welcome with open arms everything that comes my way because I know that He has a purpose planned for it, that it will help me grow, and that it will bring me closer to Him. And that is how He loves me: hard – not necessarily for my immediate happiness, but for my ultimate good and the purpose I was created for.
Guarded in this kind of transforming love, I don’t have anything left to fear. It banishes my doubts, gives me hope, and fills me with the strength I need to step out on stage once again and dance for the only One Who is right there with me through every moment.