How to Love for the Unloveable

Excerpted from
The God Impulse
By Jack Alexander


When we are on the receiving end of mercy, we experience the ultimate sense of safety. What does it look like to feel safe? A friend of mine tells the story of when he was just a little boy. Occasionally, his parents would take him to dinners and get-togethers and sometimes, if the party went late, my friend—all of five or six years old then—would curl up on the carpet and fall asleep. Later that night, the boy would open his eyes and see that he was in the back seat of the family’s car, trees sprinting past as the moon raced beside. He’d shut his eyes again and soon feel the car crunch into their gravel driveway. The engine would stop. The car door would open. And then he’d feel the big, strong hands of his father pull him up and out of the seat and swaddle him in his arms. His father’s walk felt like a rocking chair as they made their way inside.

For my friend, that’s what safety feels like: To be five again and feel your father’s arms wrap around you. To be carried home. Sometimes he would simply pretend to fall asleep, just to feel those arms again. My friend was lucky. Too many of us have not had this experience. My father died when I was nine years old. Too many nights I remember hearing my mother crying over her unimaginable loss. Eventually, my mother remarried, but my stepfather was cold and strict, more likely to dole out harsh words than grace me with a hug. Worse, they would fight constantly, often about money. I unpack more of my story in my book The God Guarantee, but here I simply want to emphasize that my home was filled with stress, anger and recriminations. That safety? That warmth my friend felt in a father’s arms? Those things weren’t much a part of my life. They were mysteries. At the time, they might’ve well been myths.


We live in a place of pain. Spin the globe and point, and you’ll find it. Hunger in Sierra Leone. Human trafficking in Thailand. Murders in Mexico. Poverty in Atlanta. Sad stories stuff our newspapers and fill our Facebook feeds every day of the week. How many children go to bed hungry and scared every night? How many adults? The need is overwhelming. The hurt is felt in every ghetto and borough, every neighborhood and street. Yes, some of us are better off than others. If you’re reading this now, chances are you’re not doing too badly by the world’s sad standards. You don’t worry about where your next meal will come from. You have a place to live. Perhaps you’re successful. Comfortable. Maybe you’d even describe yourself as happy. But we all carry the scars of old wounds. And no matter what station we’ve reached in life, we all can feel scared, insecure and alone. I know I do. I can have positive outcomes in life, but I still feel insecure and unworthy sometimes. I feel scared. Part of me will always feel like a frightened little boy longing to be held. Maybe we all yearn to feel those strong arms around us, brushing away our fear and protecting us from danger. How we need to be lifted up out of our sorrow and pain. How desperately we yearn to hear someone tell us that we’re loved. That we’re safe. That everything will be all right. What do we need to feel when we’re hurting and hungry? When we’re lost and frightened? Even when we’ve made mistakes? We need those arms. We need to feel safe and protected—even when we deserve those arms the least. Those arms are a metaphor for love. When we feel like we deserve love—when we feel worthy or successful or particularly cute, like my friend was when he was five years old—most of us may be able to find those arms easily enough. It’s simple to find love when we’re lovable. But ironically, we most need that love when we’re not lovable—when we’re feeling wretched and ugly, when we know we’re unworthy and when our failures are laid out for the entire world to see. That’s when we most need those arms to hold, comfort and protect us. And that is so often when they’re difficult—sometimes impossible—to find.

In India, many believe a huge group of people are literally unworthy of being held. They’re called “untouchables,” and even contact with the shadow of an untouchable is thought to make you unclean. I’ve spent years trying to help them. Many others have too. But among many of their own people, they’re considered truly unlovable. India’s not alone. In every country, every stratum of society, we find people who others treat as unlovable, untouchable. The poor. Addicts. Sons and daughters who’ve shamed their family name. Friends who’ve hurt us. Sometimes we salve our guilt by writing a check to a needy cause, but rarely do we look those we’re “helping” in the eye. And other times, if we’ve been hurt or made angry by a personal “untouchable,” we do nothing at all—except maybe cross to the other side of the street. But they don’t need our money—and they certainly don’t need our scorn, as much as they need something else: love. Pure, generous love. And what do you call love given to the unlovable? Those arms wrapped around the untouchable? I call it mercy. And you know what? God does too.

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Excerpted from The God Impulse by Jack Alexander, Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, Copyright 2018. Used by permission.