I recently came back from our family holiday in Polzeath, Cornwall – and it was fun!The highlight, as always, was body boarding in the waves on this famous surfing beach. Being picked up by the waves and propelled forward in the surf alongside other excited boarders as we raced towards the sands is nothing less than fantastic.
And as I looked left and right at others being carried along by the waves, I saw and felt something wonderful. Unconditional joy!It is the kind of joy that leaves everything else behind. Whatever worries or stresses may have been around in the rest of our lives simply fell away as we sped towards the shore. Uninhibited smiles broke across faces, divisions and social barriers fell away. Old and young, fat and thin, cool and not so cool, all united for those few moments in the joy of riding a wave.
It was the wonderful power of unconditional joy and I think that we need more of it in our lives.Many of us lead such complicated lives, juggling different responsibilities and spheres of life. Work, home, faith, aspirations, expectations, joys and sorrows all mixed up inside of us – which mean that we rarely experience truly ‘unconditional’ moments like these. It is the power of the ‘yes-but’ in the back of our minds which impinges on pure, true joy - the potent inhibition inside us that stops us surrendering to the joy of the moment - and we are the poorer for it.
I also think that Christians are particularly bad at this. We are too self-conscious to surrender ourselves to pure joy – there is always the bit of guilt or concern for others that holds us back.Let me give you a trivial example – saying Grace before a meal.
I always thought that saying Grace was about thanking God for what he has given us, but so often any thankfulness is immediately followed by a reminder about all the people in the world who don’t have enough to eat.Now before you think me heartless or complacent, let me say that I do take seriously the needs of the hungry in the world. As a family, we give financially every month to support aid and development. In fact, when I left work recently to be a carer for my wife, it was the one piece of our giving which was non-negotiable, and we have gone without things to maintain it. But why do we have to spoil the joy of sharing together in a family meal by this need to counterbalance our thankfulness with an equal dosage of guilt?
Then there are those times in church worship when the joy of God touches our hearts. All too often, I have held back from embracing that joy unconditionally because of worrying about other people around me who may not be feeling so uplifted! Yet unconditional joy has a unifying power – like the power of the waves at Polzeath – uniting very different people – even strangers – in a moment of pure enjoyment.And there is also a deeper need to let ourselves go once in a while - to get lost in the moment. As I have reflected on my experience in the waves at Polzeath, I have also found myself reflecting on another area of life where the unconditional is so important and yet so rare – Unconditional Love.
As Christians we are called to mirror God’s unconditional love for us. The love that causes the sun to shine on good and bad people (Matthew 5:45). The love that took Jesus to the cross, while we were still sinners (1 John 4:10). The love that runs to meet the prodigal son and throws its arms around him without waiting for apology or contrition.And we often pretend that we offer unconditional love to each other. Yet so often there is a ‘yes-but’ in our love for brother, sister or stranger, than means we hold something back. And in the process, our love becomes conditional and tainted – it becomes dependant on that person meeting our expectations in one way or another.
Conditional love is not God’s love. Conditional love is not empowering, liberating, overwhelming, or transforming. Conditional love does not open our hearts and wills to the love and purposes of God. Rather, it set limits on how much we mean to God. It sets limits on what God can do. It seeks to steer us rather than embrace us.
And as I have reflected, I have come to realise that there is a link between Unconditional Joy and Unconditional Love, and it is this…
Until we are able to embrace Unconditional Joy,
we will be unable to offer Unconditional Love.Or put another way, until we are ready to let go of the ‘Yes-but’ in our joy, we will be unable to let go of the ‘Yes-but’ in our love.
So I am grateful to the waves of Polzeath for giving me a glimpse into the power of unconditional joy – for the strangers with whom I felt united as we rode the waves in those moments of joy – and for the God who loves us without conditions and who longs to fill us with his unconditional joy.