It Hurts So Good: A Story of Unconditional Love


Dear friends,

This is a story of unconditional love.

On Mother’s Day, my mom told me, “When you entered this world, your daddy was there when you came out.” Starting from that primal moment, my dad was always with me, whether in person or across the distance during my many years of living in Ethiopia.

Joe DeCort holding Andrew DeCort as a baby

Throughout my life, dad always made me feel loved, accepted, and secure. This wasn’t primarily because of the things he told me. I don’t remember him ever saying, “Andrew, I will always love you unconditionally.” Dad didn’t talk this way. It was because of who he was and the way he treated me.

When I was growing up, my dad didn’t have many rules. He didn’t care how I cut my hair. I didn’t need to be home by a certain time, and I often got home in the middle of the night. There weren’t places I couldn’t go, and I was free to explore pubs and clubs in Chicago with my friends. Dad raised me with strong values and expected me to be a person of integrity. But there weren’t really forbidden things that he said I couldn’t do, including the usual taboos like smoking and drinking. Dad was fine with that stuff. This is especially noteworthy to me, because dad’s dad died of alcoholism, and dad himself was a chain-smoker early in his life.

Andrew DeCort's 21st birthday

But there was one thing — one that I find rather hilarious as I search my memory like Augustine.

Dad drew the line with ear piercings. I distinctly remember him telling me more than once, “If you ever pierce your ear, I’m kicking you out. Find another place to live. You can’t step foot in my house.” This was one of dad’s extremely rare — maybe his only — black-and-white absolutes that I remember. It wasn’t negotiable. It was stated and known, end of story. Dad’s law.

So what did I do?

I’m sure you can guess. When I was around eighteen, I came home with my ear pierced. Ha! I still vaguely remember getting the piercing at Claire’s in Fox Valley Mall and then sheepishly stepping foot through my dad’s doorway soon afterward with that piece of metal lodged in my flesh.

How did dad respond?

He certainly wasn’t happy. I’m pretty sure he said that my piercing was “foolish” and that I looked “silly.”

But dad didn’t kick me out. He didn’t even require me to remove my earring. His law wasn’t actually his absolute. His love for me was. And when I broke the one rule that he gave me, he accepted me, and our relationship went on, unchanged — helpful, playful, reliable, available, himself as my dad always was.

Looking back, I chuckle. I think it’s silly that dad made ear-piercing his singular rule. Why not drinking or porn or something more “serious”? It’s equally silly to me that I wanted to get my ear pierced so badly that I brazenly violated his singular rule. Why not surrender to this one, simple request?

But this experience taught me an absolutely essential lesson, a lesson that, in all of its silliness, I consider to be my dad’s single-most important teaching in my life: I am unconditionally loved. There’s nothing I can do to make my dad stop loving me or reject me or kick me out of his home. I am accepted and fully belong.

Love, not law, was dad’s absolute. I could tell many, far-more-serious stories to illustrate dad’s unconditional love — stories that include radical heartbreak and real danger. But these stories are not mine to tell.


As I reflect on my relationship with God, I see that my dad became the archetype and embodiment of God’s unconditional love for me. This brings me special pleasure, because dad was many things for me, but he wasn’t exactly a “spiritual mentor.” He never read his Bible by himself. I never “caught him” in the “act” of praying. This wasn’t dad’s spirituality. His way of life was.

I have had many doubts in my faith journey, including the doubt that God is even there. But I have never doubted that our Father in heaven loves me unconditionally. In all of my years of strenuously listening for God’s voice, I have never heard God say to me, “Andrew, my love for you is conditional. If you do xyz, I will no longer love you or be with you. You’ll be out of my family.” Never. Not once.

I recognize now that my dad’s love for me enabled me to trust God’s love for me. I knew this unconditional love was real and alive and secure, because I had experienced it with my earthly dad. It wasn’t intellectual. It wasn’t so much a doctrine or belief in my head. It was an experience in my physical body — as tangible as getting a needle pushed through my earlobe and a piece of metal inserted into “this here flesh” (Arthur Riley).

Dad’s embodiment of God’s unconditional love astonishes me all the more because his alcoholic father was largely absent from his life. I don’t remember my dad ever missing his dad or speaking affectionately about him. And yet, dad managed to love us like God does – unconditionally, with unrelenting availability and acceptance.


In 2013, I was invited to speak at a Wheaton College retreat. I gave a long talk about a “theology of ambition” and unpacked thirty (!) examples of Jesus’s countercultural leadership practice. That weekend is deeply memorable to me, and I’ve thought of it many times over the years.

Andrew DeCort at Wheaton College retreat

But I said something there that I had completely forgotten. Soon after dad died, my dear friend Matt Vega sent me a beautiful text and reminded me. Matt wrote,

“I’m so sorry, Andrew. I remember when we were sitting around the living room in Andrew Shadid’s lake home in Wisconsin. We were sharing things we appreciated about our fathers. I don’t remember anyone else’s comments but yours. You said, ‘I never once questioned my dad’s faithfulness to my mother.’ I remembered it because it provided a window into your world where trust and security was a given around your dad… I’m grateful for your dad’s love towards you that made you a gift to me and so many others.”

Matt’s words articulated what my dad did for my mom, for me, and for our entire family. He created “a world” in which “trust and security was a given.” This love was something we could utterly depend upon and build our lives upon, even when we boldly broke his few rules for us.


Dad’s love is why I have come to believe that God’s love for us is unbreakable and unconditional — for everyone, everywhere, always. If dad could love us like this, how much more our Father in heaven? Is God’s love weaker and inferior to a finite human father’s love? This is absurd.

Jesus said this explicitly. He taught that God loves God’s enemies and that our Father in heaven is “kind to the ungrateful and wicked.” Jesus called this God’s “perfection” — God’s Godness.

And Jesus said that the sunshine and rain are the most elemental, everyday expressions of God’s unconditional love for us. It’s not just in our heads. It’s our world, in our bodies, tangibly all around us every day, if only we’d receive it (Matthew 5:43-48; Luke 6:27-36).

Paul captured Jesus’s vision of God in this beautiful statement:

“God demonstrates God’s own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us… Where sin abounded, grace abounded all the more.” (Romans 5:8, 21)

Or as Julian of Norwich paraphrased, “First there is the fall, and then we recover from the fall. Both are the mercy of God!”


So today, I did something silly and extremely special. I feel the emotion rising up in me as I write this: I got my ear pierced again — this time with my beloved sister Elizabeth. I wanted to do this because, ironically, it felt like such an appropriate way to honor dad’s life after his death.

Dad always delighted in being silly and playful, even in extremely serious situations. This practice wasn’t careless or flippant. It was an expression of dad’s undergirding confidence that everything would be okay, no matter what. Lily said this perfectly: “Your dad was extremely serious – extremely serious about not being serious.” Or as my friend Thom said, “Your dad was heavy as a rock and light as a feather.”

Dad captured this way of being human in a simple saying that he loved to repeat when something painful happened to him or one of us: “It hurts so good!”

As I remember my dad’s life, I’m seeing in a new way what a paradoxical man he was. Dad had very few rules, but he was cool when we broke them. His love for us went unchanged. And he could see goodness even in pain, and he remained steady and strong, even when he was literally dying. In my last conversation with padre, when his chest was heaving and he was gasping for breath, he managed to tell me one last joke and gently smiled at me with his eyes closed like the picture above.

So today — thirty days after dad fell out of bed and on the day that my family received his precious ashes — I decided to celebrate my dad’s life by getting my ear pierced again. It felt paradoxically appropriate — silly and serious at the same time.

Like my dad’s unconditional love and the grief I feel missing his physical presence, I wanted to feel this love and grief in my body — to have a hole pierced in my flesh, for my blood to flow, and to carry a tangible reminder of dad’s unconditional love for me everywhere I go from this day on.

And as dad always said, it hurt so goodI!


Padre, I love and miss you and feel you close to me.

Thank you for loving me unconditionally and embodying for me that God’s love is unconditional, real, and worthy of my trust.

Thank you for making love your one law — the only law that we could never break.

Each time I think of you, I will remember this primal, ultimate truth that “love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:8). .

You are always with me, just like God is always with us, even in the holes and blood and the foolishness of being human.


It hurts so good.


PS: Dad’s memorial will be held on June 7th at 6pm at Redeemer Community Church in Aurora. It would be such a joy if you can join us in person or online. I’ll share the details of the live stream ASAP.

Invitation to Joe DeCort's Memorial Service

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