by Kim Reisman
In January, I was in Delhi, India, teaching at the World Methodist Evangelism North India Regional Evangelism Seminar. While there, I had the opportunity to visit the Taj Mahal in Agra. What an experience! This beautiful and extraordinary monument to love is well worth its distinction as one of the world’s wonders.
The Taj Mahal is awe-inspiring. And of course, as is so often the case when I visit a new place, I learned something unexpected and meaningful in my experience there.
The story of the Taj Mahal is fascinating: this amazing structure has been described as one of the most magnificent tributes to love in the world. The story begins in the 1600s, when Mughal emperor Shah Jahan determined to honor the memory of his wife with a tremendous mahal, or castle. She was his third wife and the only one to bear children. His first two wives both died in childbirth. When he built this magnificent castle, he honored the memories of both of these women by building gates to the grounds at the east and the west.
The Taj Mahal is stunning for a variety of reasons. Its symmetry is stunning. Everything about it is perfectly balanced. It is inlaid with precious and semi-precious stones, all hand-carved and embedded in marble in intricate floral patterns. The craftsmanship is so astonishingly smooth that from a distance it appears that the flowers have been painted rather than inlaid. And it is a brilliant white.
That’s because it is constructed out of a uniquely translucent, nonporous marble found only in India. Because it is translucent, it almost glows as the light moves through it. Because it is nonporous, nothing can penetrate it or stain it or discolor it, so even after many centuries, it is as white as it was when it was first constructed. All that has been required is for it to be washed with soap and water.
The Princess is buried at the center of the Taj Mahal in a lower area that isn’t accessible to the public. Directly above her grave, in the exact center of the castle, is a gorgeous tomb made of translucent marble with ornate inlaid gemstones and remarkable carvings. Everything revolves around this center point.
All the detailed symmetry that marks the castle – from the way it can be seen perfectly centered through the majestic entry arch at one end of the gardens to the shrines on each side and all the carving and inlays – it all revolves around this central, ornate tomb.
As I listened to our guide describe this perfection of detail and symmetry, and remind us that it was all created as a tribute to love, I found myself reflecting on the way we think about love and create images and expectations of how it should look and feel. So often those images are idealized and seemingly perfect – like the Taj Mahal: beautiful to look at, romantic and exciting to think about.
That idealized image of perfection and beauty can color not only our understanding of love, but also our expectations of God, ourselves, and others. Rather than expecting God’s love to be perfect, we imagine that we must be perfect. We imagine that the only way God will love us is if our lives are in complete balance, with no hint of damage or stain.
And when we are faced with the possibility of sharing God’s love with others, we often lay that same expectation of perfection on them. It is as though we believe others must have their lives in perfect balance before we are willing to share the good news of God’s great love with them.
And here is the point at which the Taj Mahal made its impact on me. In the midst of all this beauty, perfection and symmetry, there is one thing that is not in balance – the tomb of the very man who determined to build this flawless shrine. He is buried to the left of his beloved wife, the one thing out of kilter in the midst of seeming perfection, symmetry, and balance.
When it comes to love, there is no such thing as perfection. Even the greatest love will have things that are out of kilter, things that cause hardship, challenge, and pain. It is not perfection that makes a love great, it is its willingness to persevere through the hardship, challenge and pain.
When it comes to God’s love for us, God’s love may be perfect, but we do not have to be. God loves us in the midst of our brokenness and became human in Jesus Christ in order to share that burden with us.
When it comes to sharing God’s love with others, we do not wait for others to have it all together. In the same way that God loves us in our brokenness, we extend that same love to others, meeting them exactly where they are, not where we think they need to be.
The Taj Mahal is truly a magnificent wonder. Its beauty radiates through its intricacy and detail. But an outer image is never the best judge of an inner love. For though our lives may not be in complete balance and we may feel damaged or stained, it is through God’s great love that wounds are healed and true beauty shines. And it is only when we release our expectations of perfection that God can begin his good work of restoring all of us to our original, intended beauty and wholeness.
Kimberly Reisman (@KimsNextStep) is executive director of World Methodist Evangelism. An author, pastor, teacher, and theologian, Kim is a frequent speaker, focusing on evangelism, spiritual formation, women’s ministries, leadership development, and the intersection between faith and culture. She is an elder in the United Methodist Church and has written numerous books. She has a PhD in theology from Durham University in the United Kingdom.