I’ve learned a lot about unconditional love from an atheist.
Yes, an atheist.
No, I’m not saying that you should become an atheist to learn about unconditional love.
I’m saying that God works through everyone.
This particular person has been a good friend of mine for many years. We met through a mutual friend when I was in college. Their relationship ended, and I chose her in the breakup. It was a good choice. Her hilarious sense of humor and purple hair were a fresh addition to my fairly conservative life.
I have always known she was an atheist, as it came up in conversations while I was learning the basics of the Catholic faith. We continued our friendship during the years that I started to take my faith more seriously and integrate it more deeply into my life. Today, I can clearly see the things she’s done for me were not just out of friendship, but out of actual love — the pure will for my good. Nothing more. Nothing less.
No matter how ridiculous I was, she accepted me. No matter how bad the choice was, she never judged me. No matter how judgy I was, she loved me anyway. No matter how hard the truth was, she told it to me.
Over the course of our 18-year friendship, she has shown me how to love and continued to love me, Without terms, without expectations, and without demands.
She has always respected my faith. She has never told me I’m wrong for my beliefs and has never challenged me no matter how strongly she disagreed. Most times faith-based conversations come up because I start them. Usually, it’s an area of my life I’m struggling with or something I’ve overcome and I talk about how my faith is affected by these things. She always listens attentively and politely and has never had anything negative to say. If I have questions about what she believes she is happy to share them with me, but she never forces anything on me nor do I on her. There are no arguments and no debates. Just acceptance.
The only times she has ever spoken up were times when I confused my obligation of serving others with putting myself in situations that could cause me to be taken advantage of. For example, if someone was unhealthy to be around and I felt it was my duty to learn to accept them by making excuses for their behaviors, she was always there to gently tell me that it’s okay to set up and enforce a boundary to prevent myself from being harmed emotionally.
Until I had my children, she was the only person who loved and accepted me and never left me. Growing up in a home with people who were incapable of healthy love left me with a lot to desire. When she came along, she loved me in a way that I longed for, and one I assumed I wasn’t worthy of. I was most surprised by the fact that her love wasn’t driven by faith, expectation, or wanting something. It was just love.
It’s amazing to me how God works through her in this way. The comfort of knowing that she is always there and will never leave me is probably the single best thing about her that makes me feel loved the most. God brought her in long before I was ready to see the value of her gift, I think because I so desperately needed that light in my life. I still need it to keep moving forward with my faith. God shows me how this kind of love is an example of the love he has for all of us.
She makes me want to do better and work harder with others because I want to love that way too. She’s one of the greatest gifts to my faith that I’ve ever been given, outside of my faith itself, because she represents a quality that I’ve always struggled with (loving and accepting) and she does it with ease, humility, and grace.
Authentic Catholics have a tough battle with the misconceptions people have about what we believe. We can miss amazing opportunities when we are not open to others simply because they are not the same as us. The faith I know and love teaches us to love everyone. Anyone who comes in and out of our life deserves some form of love.
But, this wasn’t always what I thought or how I acted. There was a time when I stayed away from anyone who was different. I didn’t learn to live and love until I stepped away from that box. Had I dismissed my friend the second I knew she was different from me, I would have missed out on one of the greatest people I’ve ever known. I would have missed the opportunity to take her examples and apply them to myself for others in my life.
Embracing others despite differences can be a wonderful blessing. However, I wasn’t the one embracing her, she was the one embracing me. She always has been. So, you could say, in a way, that I was evangelized to the concept of real love, by her, an atheist. Without terms, without limits, without expectations, without demands. Just as God intended it to be for all of us.
See how God works through everyone?