“To love means loving the unlovable. To forgive means pardoning the unpardonable. Faith means believing the unbelievable. Hope means hoping when everything seems hopeless.”
~ Gilbert K. Chesterton
G.K. Chesterton was an English writer (1874-1936), philosopher, lay Christian theologian and poet among other things. He has been called the “prince of paradox’ – in that he was fond of making statements that contradicted themselves – yet may be true. I believe that this quote is one of his paradoxes. Whether it is true or not, its value lies in the fact that it provokes critical thought. Chesterton is defining what it is to love, to forgive, to believe, and to hope. Each of the four definitions is a paradox unto itself.
It might be an interesting exercise to explore the concepts of “unlovable”, “unpardonable”, “unbelievable”, and “hopeless”. Do these absolutes exist in reality? Is there a human being who has no redeeming quality at all, and therefore, cannot be loved? What act would be unpardonable? Would my answer be the same as yours? If not, can that concept exist anywhere but in the abstract? As I think about something that might be described as unbelievable, let us teleport a man from ancient times into our modern society and introduce him to any example of our modern technology. For him, it would all be “unbelievable”. Finally, is any situation absolutely hopeless?
One can debate these questions – and it might even be fun – for a while. I think that if you sat down with Chesterton and began such a discussion, he would just smile. My take on this, is that he’d be thinking, You really missed the point! Really? Then what is he getting at?
“Love means loving the unlovable.” He’s using this absolute to underline the New Testament scripture where Christ challenges his followers to love their enemies. Wow. Now that’s a very tall order!! How many of us can do that? This begs the question, what kind of love does Christ ask us to extend to our enemies? It’s no secret that “love” is one of the most overused words in the English language… I love my family, and I love pizza. Hmmm. But I don’t want to go off on this tangent either. I believe that Chesterton is saying that real love, true love, is never easy. The divorce rate in our society is ample proof of that! He’s challenging us to work at loving others who often disappoint and hurt us.
“To forgive means pardoning the unpardonable.” Again, a paradox to challenge us to really think about the values we Christians espouse. We all see lots of people going to church on Sunday who wouldn’t know the first thing about the practice of forgiveness. And yet, Christ told us to turn the other cheek. In order to be a good person, I have to let bullies have their way with me? And I just stand there and take it? I don’t think so. I would never counsel a child or anyone else to allow themselves to be used as someone else’s doormat. You can stand your ground without lashing back. You can forgive in your heart – you must! Failure to forgive will cause the hurt and resentment to fester inside and poison you. Again, this is not easy.
“Faith means believing the unbelievable.” We live in an age of science and the great technology that flows from it. Most of us know enough about electrical wiring to understand why a light goes on when you flip a switch. What about a small child? See the wonder in his eyes! He doesn’t understand it, but he flipped a switch and turned on the light. Would he believe it if he didn’t see it? Christ admonished St. Thomas who doubted that Christ had risen from the dead. Impossible! Christ said, “Blessed is he who has not seen, and yet believes.” Real faith is a challenge. Do we have what it takes?
“Hope means hoping when everything seems hopeless.” Sometimes we’re afraid to hope. We’re afraid to be disappointed. I often think that when we are faced by a personal crisis or that of a loved one, that we misplace our hope. We hope for a cure when faced with a terminal disease. Or we don’t – because of fear. I know there are those who have defied medical science and beaten diseases diagnosed as terminal. Was that real hope in action? Was that intervention by God? I don’t know. I think real hope is refusing to give in to the fear and facing whatever consequence may be awaiting us with confidence and courage. That is not easy either.
Christian leaders and theologians down through the ages have urged the faithful to build devout lives around the practise of faith, hope, love and forgiveness. Chesterton is quite consistent with this tradition, even though his approach is unorthodox. I have always embraced these concepts, and my life experience confirms their value in living a good life – living well. I believe in the values espoused by Christianity, Judaism, Islam and other great religions, I just have a problem with the religious organizations and the hypocrisy of many of their followers. So I choose to live my life free of their rules, worship my God in my own way and serve my fellow man with the gifts I have received.
Many great philosophers down through the ages have given us recipes for living our lives well. And not one of them ever offered us an easy button.