When I give my son a timeout I usually make it a point to say something along the lines of, “Even though I’m disappointed in these actions, I love you no matter what.” Months ago my son began asking me, apropos of nothing, “Daddy, do you love me forever, no matter what?” At first I worried I had been overly harsh with him and he questioned whether I truly loved him. (My spiritual director joked I should have been suspicious and asked him, “Why? What did you do?”) But I noticed my son asked me this question with a smile on his face.
I realized my son delighted in hearing that I loved him no matter what and he simply wanted to hear it again. He enjoyed the affirmation of love that cannot be won or lost. Being five years old he doesn’t have the wherewithal to hide many of his emotions and his smile beamed uncontrollably when I would again proclaim my love for him. Once I understood what my son was up to with these questions, I looked forward to them. These encounters with my son prompting me to tell him I love him forever made me think about our relationship with God, who is unconditional love itself.
Before I go further, let me give a disclaimer. I hesitate to share this story as I am fully aware of Stanley Hauerwas’s rule about quoting children in theological matters: “Beware when you hear a Methodist minister quote his twelve year old. When that happens you know you’re fixin’ to hear some bullsh—.” Despite Hauerwas’s best warnings, I venture forth.
When I read Scripture I see God loving people and creation fiercely. More than that, I see God delighting in loving us. To be sure, this love is deeper and more powerful than any other love we can imagine—and it comes with the cost of great sacrifice—but I believe God finds pleasure in lavishing love on us.
I wonder if it is possible to make a spiritual discipline out of my son’s question. Why not go to God and ask, “Do you love me forever, no matter what?” This question does not emerge from distrust or unbelief, but from deep faith. We know beforehand that the answer will be “yes.” The power of this “yes” cannot be overstated. Being God’s beloved is our identity and it affects all our actions. Henri Nouwen writes, “As the Beloved I am free to live and give life, free also to die while giving life.”1
When my son acts out of assurance of being loved, his best self appears. He becomes more generous rather than greedy. He expresses empathy. He freely extends welcome to others. He finds ways to help people without counting the cost.
Gregory Boyle gets at this idea when he writes, “At Homeboy Industries, we seek to tell each person this truth: they are exactly what God had in mind when God made them—and then we watch, from this privileged place, as people inhabit this truth. Nothing is the same again. No bullet can pierce this, no prison walls can keep this out. And death can’t touch it—it is just that huge.”2
Asking Jesus, “Do you love me forever, no matter what?” and prayerfully waiting to hear his absolute, “Yes!” might make justice, grace, and community more of a reality. We live in a world starving for these things, a world dying to confidently experience God’s limitless love.
When we are confident of God’s delighting love for us, I believe our best selves will appear. The hoarding, withholding, and anger that stem from fear subside. The selfish demands of being first and receiving recognition fade away. Instead when we know God takes pleasure in our existence and enjoys loving us, compassion takes root. Then the Holy Spirit empowers us with the ability to extend such free and inexhaustible love to others.
Let us ask God this question to which we already know the answer.
- Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son, 39.
- Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart, 192-193.