Ben Burkholder

I was born into a farming family as the oldest of three siblings. My father and grandfather were ambitious dairy farmers and had expectations that my brother and I would one day follow in their footsteps. As a little boy, I dreamed of the day when I too would be driving tractors and harvesting the crops. In fact, when my father was outside cutting and baling hay, I would be in the living room of our farmhouse playing with my toy tractors, cutting and baling hay just like my dad.

However, when I was 6 years old all of the dreams and expectations came crashing to the ground when my parents felt God calling them into ministry with New Tribes Mission. As a tow-headed young boy, I remember whimsically walking down the back lane, kicking small stones down the two-track, gazing over at the herd of dairy cows grazing in the pasture, and contemplating what my parents’ decision would mean for me. I realized then and there that the life I had expected to live would no longer be mine, and I was not sure what the future would hold.

“Through all of this, I came to believe that the only way for me to be loved was to be good.”

My parents’ training for New Tribes Mission required us to move every two years or so as they went through the various stages of their missionary training. During the next six years of my life, in the midst of multiple moves and transitions to entirely new contexts, I became adept at distinguishing myself from my peers in a short amount of time. My strategy was simple: be the best well-behaved kid possible. Regardless of the context—whether at school, church, or home—I learned that being a “good little boy” quickly endeared me to whoever was in charge. In fact, I discovered that if I was really good most of the time, teachers and others would often overlook minor slipups that would often get other kids in trouble.

Of course, being the eldest child in my immediate family fed this drive towards being good; which was only exponentially increased by the fact that I was also the oldest grandchild on my father’s side. Somehow—and this development resulted partly from my own self-perception and partly from the way in which family members treated me—I came to see myself as responsible, not just for my own actions, but also for the actions of my siblings and cousins.

As the oldest, I became the example for everyone else. If, for some reason, I departed from the virtuous path, then I might influence my siblings and cousins to follow my footsteps in the wrong direction. As a result, the pressure to be good became incredibly heightened because my actions had great potential in shaping the decisions of those coming behind me. In light of this pressure to follow the straight and narrow, my skill at controlling myself became quite refined.

Through all of this, I came to believe that the only way for me to be loved was to be good. Not only was this strategy of earning love employed with the people in my life, but I also became convinced that God operated in a similar fashion. However, for as skilled as I became at controlling my anger and obeying those in authority, I knew deep inside that all was not well.

I was painfully aware of the places I fell short of perfection. Trying to be good was like building a house of cards. I could erect a magnificent façade, but then a single blow, a solitary misstep, would send it all crashing to the ground. Yet, I knew of nothing else to do; after giving myself a stinging rebuke for letting my internal flaws be exposed, I would simply begin again with renewed vigor and resolve to make the project work the next time. Despite the impressive appearance of my external goodness, I was haunted by the problems I knew dwelt within.

“I had lived my life by the book, as much as anyone is able.”

One poignant memory exemplifies the great divide between how I presented myself to others and what I knew lay within. I attended a local Christian – high school during my parents’ stateside assignment, and every year the school distributed a Christian character award to the guy and girl who demonstrated the most exemplary Christian character. One year, I received the award, and I felt like the biggest hypocrite. In fact, I almost handed the award back because I was agonizingly aware of the many areas in which I was anything but what this award signified. Most poignant was the fact that my teenage lusts had created a secret world of fantasies that no one else knew about but me. As I received the award on this particular occasion, my internal world of fantasy shouted accusations at me, and I knew that what I displayed to others was merely a façade, covering the deeper issues of sin within me. I was not what others thought me to be.

During my late teen years and early college years, my dating experiences further substantiated my belief that I had to be good in order to be loved. My various dating relationships would last about a year. Things would go well for nearly the entire year, and then suddenly conflict would arise, usually linked to one of my character flaws.

Shortly after these conflicts, the relationship would terminate. Each of these breakups brought excruciating pain, which I wished to avoid in the future. With each successive breakup, I became further convinced that the only way to avoid the pain of rejection was to be more perfect, to change my character flaws, so I would not be rejected in the future. As a result, my dating experiences were interpreted in such a way that simply reaffirmed my belief I needed to be perfect in order to be loved by others, even God.

This belief assiduously survived evidence to the contrary. In the latter years of college, I met the woman who is now my wife. Like the former relationships, things seemed to be going along perfectly for the first year or so; we were both enchanted with each other. Shortly after being engaged, however, we experienced a period of heightened conflict where we had some serious arguments, and immediately my fears erupted within me.

My imperfections had been exposed once again! Would she reject me like everyone else who had gotten this close? I remember my fiancée turning to me at one point in the midst of our conflict and saying, “I’m committed to you. Nothing is going to happen to us. I love you.” These words shocked me. Someone was willing to stand by me although they knew my imperfections. This experience of being loved in the midst of failure was a reprieve, but I was not about to let it influence my strategy for living life. Even if I could experience this unconditional love in my marriage, I was not about to believe it could exist elsewhere. That would be far too risky.

After college, my new wife and I went off to seminary where God began to undercut this belief of mine. During the first years of seminary, God seemed distant to me. I had expected Him to show up in spectacular ways by providing for me and making His presence keenly felt. I had, after all, given up more lucrative career opportunities to come to seminary. I had lived my life by the book, as much as anyone is able. Wasn’t God obliged to be there for me in the ways I wanted Him to be?

“The problem was that I had never let God love all of me.”

My demands of God paralleled everything I did with people. By being perfect and doing the most exemplary thing (going to seminary), I believed I deserved God’s love and favor. God, however, refused to play my game. Instead, I found myself working for minimal pay at a retail store, putting in 30 hours a week in order to make ends meet, and even then it seemed we were falling behind at a rapid pace. To make matters worse, I wasn’t really sure God was even with me anymore. It seemed like He had simply abandoned me, leaving me furious that He was not where I needed Him most.

Throughout my time in seminary, God continually challenged my belief that I needed to be good in order to be loved. During an elongated retreat, I spent a significant portion of time thinking about how I had lived my life trying to earn love from others, subtly hoping that I could be loved in spite of my imperfections. While my parents had loved me during the vicissitudes of life, I knew that I had angered and disappointed them. They could not embrace certain places in my heart, nor was I willing to tell them when I did fail.

As I contemplated the vast amounts of people from whom I had tried to earn love by being perfect, it suddenly dawned on me that none of these people could actually love me unconditionally. My friends and family were human with finite capacities. They could never love me completely because they too were looking for love and security just like I was. This realization stunned me. Like trying to squeeze water from a rock, I had spent my entire life trying to get unconditional love from a source that could never produce it! I was, to borrow the colloquialism, barking up the wrong tree.

This meant that the only person who could love me unconditionally was the infinite God Himself. Acknowledging God as the only possible source of unconditional love forced me to confront my experiences with God, especially the manner in which I was interpreting them. It became apparent that I was heavily dependent upon my life experiences to interpret God’s feelings toward me. In other words, if things were not going very well, I assumed He was distant or disapproving. If things were going well, then it seemed like God was happy about what I was doing.

“In Christ, I found myself loved completely and entirely just like I had always wanted.”

All of this mirrored how I interpreted my relationships with other human beings. In seminary, my professors challenged my beliefs by questioning whether God’s love can be quantified by the various experiences we have in life. Moreover, they questioned the assumption that our feeling about God’s nearness represents God’s actual proximity or even the state of our relationship with Him. The Spirit, after all, is within each believer. How much closer can He get?

As these false assumptions were cast aside, I was confronted with God’s love in a new dimension. Now, the concept was nothing new to me; I had always believed that God loves me. The problem was that I had never let God love all of me. I assumed He was like everyone else and only loved the good parts of me. Ironically, only after I forsook the project of making myself lovable did I become intimately acquainted with God’s love for me. It was only then that I could experience God’s unconditional love for imperfect people, something that is seen quite clearly in Romans 5:8: “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

God’s love flows, not towards people who have it put together or who manage to keep their house of cards intact, but toward those like me who have failed, the sinners. What is more, this love cannot be severed (Rom 8:31-39), and it exceeds our human capacities for comprehension (Eph 3:18-19). In letting myself be loved in my sin, I discovered a gushing river that had been directed at me through Christ. In Christ, I found myself loved completely and entirely just like I had always wanted. In order to receive it though, I had to relinquish the hope of becoming perfect, a small price yet a costly one, when one considers how long I have lived my life with such a fundamental belief.

As I sit here, reflecting on my spiritual journey with God, I realize that I cannot claim to fully have realized the depth of God’s love. In fact, I am facing the temptation right now to act like this is a neat little lesson that God taught me and that I have since moved on. Inside, however, I know there is more for me to learn. All I can claim right now is that I have tasted of God’s love, and it is marvelous.