Thoughts on Adoption, Unconditional Love, Part 1

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Want a crash course in adopting? I could sum it up in one phrase: Unconditional Love is terrifying. So terrifying, that it causes confusion and agony for a traumatized child. We learned really early on that the more we repeated how unconditional our love was for C, the more we emphasized that there was NOTHING she could do to earn it or take it away, the more the situation got worse.

For a foster child who has made their way through life by being their OWN parent, manipulation is a second language. They don’t even know they are manipulating, after a certain point. They don’t even understand that they are twisting love into leverage.

Unconditional love becomes translated as the ultimate manipulation, made even more terrifying because they’ve never experienced it and don’t know how to handle it. When normal children encounter something new, they respond according to their personality, but they use it as a learning experience and change as a result. Traumatized kids take something new and scary like unconditional love and try to fit it into a box that they already have within their experience. And, since manipulation and trauma are 90% of their experience thus far, Love becomes the most uncomfortable and unsettling thing out there.

So, we adapted. Learned how to communicate with C differently. Instead of saying, “It doesn’t matter, we’ll love you regardless”, we eased off and said things like “If you do this and this thing, we will be closer”, or, “If you do this, we will love each other more.”

Holy batman, right? As a parent, try imagining for ONE SECOND that you would ever tell your kid, “I will love you more if you do these three things.” It’s inconceivable to me. Makes me want to vomit. But the minute we started operating this way with C, things would get relatively better.

This particular aspect of our dealings with C has taught me so much about our relationship with God. It’s well-known to me that the main critique of Catholicism and Orthodoxy is that we are “works-based” and trying to earn our Salvation, messing with the concept of the gospel. I work at a Christian school where kids say things on a routine basis about how “Catholics aren’t even Christians because they don’t believe in Faith or the Bible”.

Please, hang with me. TRY to think of it along the lines of our relationship with C. When we set out “works” for her to accomplish, it didn’t change the end result any. We still loved her unconditionally. The things we outlined for her weren’t about whether or not we loved her. They were about drawing us closer together as a family, mercilessly tearing down all the sin and manipulation that was keeping us apart.

I can’t speak for the Catholic church, but since I have been a part of the Orthodox church for 7 years next month, I can safely say that I have NEVER heard of good works in relation to “where we go when we die”. All the structure in the church, all the good works we strive for, are only made to bring us closer to God. It’s no secret. You could, perhaps, mishear a homily in an Orthodox church because of preconceived notions, but I promise that if those weren’t in the way, you’d hear the message loud and clear– the Orthodox church does NOT believe that we can earn our salvation. The Orthodox church wholeheartedly believes that good works have a unique and irreplaceable role in bringing us closer to Christ.

Take a few for example:

Going to church several times a week: I’ve seen many a protestant raise their eyebrows on this one. Sundays are all that’s mentioned in the bible, right? I can’t even begin to describe how much healthier my soul feels when I go to church even TWICE a week. It’s like going from eating all McDonalds to organic home-made dinners. It doesn’t mean that I’m trying to earn my salvation, reminiscent of Awanas where the Blue Jewels on the crown were for church attendance.

Forgiveness: I was always terrified by that verse in the Bible about how if you don’t forgive, Christ won’t forgive you. But it makes so much sense. Resentment is like hard water deposit on our heart– we get crusty, and pretty soon the pipes are clogged. We cannot feel or accept Christ’s forgiveness if we are not forgiving others!

Confession: This is a super controversial one for Protestants, because only Christ can forgive sins. However, if you listen to the specific word-for-word prayers that the priests use at the end of confession, it’s similar to what the officiant says during a wedding: “By the power vested in me by the state of ___, you are now man and wife”. Only God makes a marriage valid. And only God’s forgiveness makes a confession valid. But the Church knows that saying things out loud to someone else actually makes a difference and actually has the power to heal and draw us back into communion with Christ! How many times do we say in our own head, “Wow, I shouldn’t have done that, I’ll do better next time” and we never do?

The message I was given regarding works in the Protestant world was, “we do good works out of our love for Christ”. But which comes first? I honestly believe that good works come before love.  We DO things to grow closer to God, and as a result, we feel closer and love him more. DOING things help us love a person better.

The difference? Our good works do not help GOD love us any better. He already loved us so much while we were yet sinners that He sent Christ to die for us. But they do help us, because we are not God, and cannot love Him the way He loves us.

Long and short: when we asked C to do “works” for us, it wasn’t to change whether or not we loved her. We asked her to do them because it was the only thing that would heal our relationship and draw us closer. Likewise, the more we labored over her, the more work we put into our relationship with her, the more we loved her.

I think that God works the same way with us.

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