“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” T. S. Eliot
When you go out of your way to care for another person, is it possible to go too far? How might you know that “too far” is? If it’s inconvenient to go out of your way for another person, is convenience the limit and inconvenience where you draw the line? What is it OK to risk when you go out of your way for another person and what is too much to risk? Let’s agree that love calls us to take risks in caring for others. Let’s agree that it’s not always convenient to care for another person as love calls us to care and that there will be times when it’s right in love’s eyes to go beyond convenience and extend ourselves into come degree of inconvenience.
Let’s examine the limit to which love calls us to go and acknowledge love’s power to call us to go farther than we might at first imagine. I suggest that Eliot was correct to note that taking the “risk of going too far” is the only way you or I will discover how far love goes and is ready, willing and able to take us along with it. In my investigation of love’s limitless nature, I’ve become a radical explorer of the nature of love. I confess it. Don’t expect me to argue in favor of setting limits on love’s expression in your life or mine. I genuinely believe that our tendency to set such limits is precisely why the modern world has become as bogged down in fear, violence and suffering as we have. Think about it. If it’s true, as John wrote, that God is love (God = Love, for math fans), then any practice of setting limits on love is the same as setting limits on God. How is that possible?
How could you or I set a limit on God? It’s actually quite simple. We can set a limit on God because God gave us the power to do so. God gave us free will. Free will gives us the power to choose between setting God (love) free to be fully expressed in our lives and in the lives of others or setting limits on that expression. God has already chosen to express the Divine Power of Life and Love in and through your life and mine as fully as we’ll allow. His/Her choice is made in Eternity and stands forever. Our choices are made in the realm of Time and Space and can be made, changed and changed again until we discover a choice we never want to change. The tendency in the modern world, where material values are given greater influence than spiritual ones, is to allow our fears to set limits on the influx and outpouring of love throughout our life experiences. Our fears set very restricted limits to keep us feeling “safe” within our familiar territories. In fact, to make sure we’re feeling safe, our fears tend to gradually shrink the territories within which we are willing to take risks and prevent us from even thinking about “going too far.” Thus it is by fear’s logic we never come close to discovering how far we can go if we were to exercise more courage.
In our ego-trained, fear-based orientation to the modern world, we’ve been taught to take a risk that I believe is now haunting us. We’ve been taught to take the risk of setting severe limits on God and the expression of Divine Love. We’ve been taking that risk for so many generations that it is now the social norm and heavily reinforced by social approval. It’s unlikely that anyone told you or me that we were being taught to place limits on God (Love). The ego is not that honest in its dealings with us. It’s actually quite deceptive and likely to claim that we are being as loving as we need to be or even can be when we do only what is socially approved of. It’s likely to teach us to believe that social approval sets the proper limit on love that keeps us safe from going too far. Too far where? In the ego’s frame of reference, too far out of bounds to risk being thought of as foolish and naïve and subjected to ridicule. Too far out of bounds that we risk losing the approval of those whose opinions of us we value most. Too far out of bounds that we risk being hurt and feeling deeply in our hearts in ways we’ve been taught to avoid. Yet, suppose you or I were to reverse the risk ratio and take the risk of defying social approval and exploring beyond conventional definitions and expressions of love. Might we encounter more of God and Love “out beyond social norms?” Might we enter into the realm of mystic experiences to which Rumi referred when he said:
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I will meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make any sense.”
Damn these unconventional poets! Why don’t just they leave us alone? I suggest that they are heaven sent. I suggest that they don’t leave us alone precisely because God knows that “It is not good for man to be alone.” (Genesis 2:18 NIV) Poets, lyricists, writers of fiction, composers, dancers, choreographers, painters, sculptors and other artists stir our hearts to take second looks at what the ego has taught us and encourage us to consider changing decisions we might have thought were unchangeable. Artists express the divine grace that may soften our hearts and allow us to rethink a “conclusion I concluded long ago.” (A Puzzlement from The King and I)
As a believer in Jesus, I tend to take a look at what his teachings by word, deed and lifestyle say about issues that haunt me. As I realized that decisions I had made under the influence of ego-based teachings were haunting me, I gradually awoke to the reality that Jesus did not usually agree with the ego’s teachings – if ever he did! He was definitely an unconventional person. He did not seem to worry much about social approval, winning popularity contests or catering to the social elites of his day. He was not running for office or trying to win a job or a life-partner’s attention and affections. He was focused on identifying God’s will in all things and then taking the risk of going too far – at least in the eyes of others. Gradually Jesus’ ideas, actions and model of lifestyle came to influence me more and more. To emulate him I began to shed the common excuses given for not going too far. Some said he was God and, since the rest of us are not God, then of course we cannot go as far as Jesus went in caring about others. He intentionally hung out with folks others did not approve of and avoided at all costs. He seemed to not realize that they were of a different class and (supposedly) looked down upon by God. Jesus went so far as to wind up hanging on a cross as a vilified criminal and endured shame, pain and other unsavory features of human life on his way to death. He could have avoided all that. But would he have honored God and Divine Love if he had? How could he demonstrate how far we can go if he had not gone beyond death to return as an expression of the Eternal?
Is it true that Jesus was so different from you or me that we can excuse ourselves from taking the risk of going too far in following in his footsteps? What if he were actually the same as you and I? Suppose whatever identity with God Jesus had and has we have too? Suppose the fact that we’ve avoided going too far is actually the only reason we don’t know how identified with God we are! Suppose that when Jesus prayed that his followers would know oneness with God as he knew oneness (John 17: 20-23) that he meant precisely that and that his prayers are answered once we quit setting limits on God (Love). Might God be ready, willing and able to show us our oneness with the Divine once we say “Yes, here I am, send me?” Are we afraid to be sent “too far” and never come back to where we’ve been? Are we afraid that an encounter with God will change our outlook on life and our choices forever? The ego is afraid of that outcome. We need not be. In our heart of hearts we are hungering for such an outcome.
Radical nonconformity to the ways of the world includes taking the risk of going too far in the ego’s eyes. Yet it also opens the door to risking that Love will flood in and never stop sweeping us away into greater and greater adventures as well as ever increasing capacity to share Divine Love with others. Might our hunger for adventure and love never be truly satisfied until we take this risk?
How radical is love as Jesus’ followers believe it to be? Let’s check out the oft-quoted follower whose writings appear in the Bible as letters written by Paul. Let’s quote him not for ideas he clung to about how to set limits on God’s Divine will but for ideas about “going too far” in embracing God’s will.
Here is how this eloquent writer spoke about love:
“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. I f I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-10 NIV)
Regardless of how eloquently Paul spoke or wrote, he admitted that words lacking in love’s true essence were hollow, pointless and powerless. He acknowledged that all of the partial understandings he might gain about the truth about love would dissolve in the presence of “completeness” or wholeness perfected by God. Paul took the risk of going too far in following Jesus beyond Paul’s (Saul’s) previous life of social conformity and of meeting the expectations of those higher up the ladder in his religious institution. His daring risk-taking brought him into conflict with the very authority figures he’d once tried so hard to please. He became an outsider to the social club within which, earlier in his adult career life, he’d worked so hard to qualify for membership. Traditionalists scorned him as a maverick who’d lost his way instead of honoring him as a master student of their long-awaited Messiah’s Most Excellent Way.
Today many traditionalists selectively quote Paul’s writings when he espoused the preservation of beliefs and practices prevalent in his day, beliefs and practices he’d not yet realized were interfering with the evolution-revolution Jesus had set in motion. Yet, it remains worthwhile to glean wisdom and guidance from Paul’s experiences in his transformation from Saul who had once persecuted followers of Jesus into Paul who himself followed Jesus. The man who had persecuted became one of those he’d previously persecuted. Pretty radical change of heart and mind!
How did Paul address this issue of radical nonconformity in going too far? He addressed it directly by writing: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2 NIV) It’s instructive that Paul tied “going too far” with demonstrating God’s will. Might that be the point of your life as well as mine? Each of us in our own way may have the divine opportunity to prove that God’s “good, pleasing and perfect will” is to share Divine Love for all of us with all of us, without exception or exclusion no matter how much pressure socially conformist thinkers place upon the question of the limits of God’s love. If God loves the previously-hidden but now more-boldly-emerging nonconformist maverick in each of us, then going too far to be true to ourselves as children of God is not possible. Even the sky sets no limit on how far we can discover we can go – if only we let go and let God be God as we let ourselves go far afield beyond the limits of social approval to belong exclusively to God.
The sky does not set limits. It invites eagles to soar and not have to seek safety near the ground. Love likewise invites us to soar to the heights above life’s storm clouds and risk having gone too far. Our wings will not melt off, for they are not attached with wax. They sprout from within the energy field of the divine love that radiates through us as it lifts us ever nearer to the heights of heaven. Some call this falling upward.
© Art Nicol 2015