God’s Delighting Love: Asking the Question When We Already Know the Answer

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.

References:

  1. Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son, 39.
  2. Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart, 192-193.
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The Joy and the Hope, First and Last, or: Delight as Perspective Change (with Help from a Priest and Some Homies)

In this journey to rediscover delight, I have been blessed with a great gift, Gregory Boyle’s beautiful book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion. This book has come to me at the right time. My wife read it with a friend of ours who died last year and it shaped them both greatly. She’s been recommending it to me ever since. I am so glad to have picked it up.

Boyle is a Jesuit priest who has served in East Los Angeles for decades and founded Homeboy Industries, a ministry that “assists at-risk and formerly gang involved youth to become positive and contributing members of society through job placement, training and education.” He tells powerful stories of pain, redemption, but mostly of finding God’s presence in the midst of the barrio. The chapter, “Gladness,” is actually all about delight and how it appears in the most unexpected places. In one story, Boyle watches one of the homies who works at Homeboy Industries lean into another homie’s chest and take a deep breath. The first homie, embarrassed, asks,

“Uh, G … uh, did you see me … right now … you know … smelling Mario?”

I admit that I had.

“Damn,” Frankie huffs and puffs, “I mean, it’s just that … well … he be smellin’ GOOOOD. I mean … all the homies … we be likin’ his cologne.” Breathe it in, breathe it out. The Lord is everything I want. A yes that means yes. You want to be there when the poetry happens. Isaiah has God say: “Be glad forever and rejoice in what I create … for I create my people to be a delight.” God thinking we’d enjoy ourselves. Delighting is what occupies God, and God’s hope is that we join in. That God’s joy may be in us and this joy may be complete. We just happen to be God’s joy. That takes some getting used to. (157-158)

Later in the chapter Boyle shows how delight is often a choice, an intentional perspective. He says it much better than I could.

The Vatican II Council Fathers simply decided to change the opening words of their groundbreaking encyclical, “Gaudium et Spes.” Originally, it read, speaking of the world: “The grief and the anguish …” Then they just decided to cross out those words and famously inserted instead, “The joy and the hope …” No new data had rushed in on them, and the world hadn’t changed suddenly. They just chose, in a heartbeat, to see the world differently. They hadn’t embraced, all of a sudden, Pollyannaism. They had just put on a whole new set of eyewear. (162-163)

This year, I want to breathe in the goodness, the life around me. I want new eyewear to see the world differently and not allow the grief and the anguish to dominate my view. The joy and the hope, first and last. Joy and hope informed by pain, but still, joy and hope, first and last.

Seeking Delight

As I thought about what I wanted to cultivate in my faith in 2012, I set out reflecting on 2011 and yet found my mind going back to 2005. That year acts as something of a watershed in which a series of extremely difficult circumstances began to shape the way I viewed and related to God. 2011 continued on that path as we lost dear friends and family to illness. It was not an altogether bad year and very good things happened like the marriage of close friends, a new call for me, and my wife and I feeling more at home in the Bay Area. Still, the loss and pain have dominated my thoughts, which is not surprising since I tend to see the glass as half empty.

Grief and confusion have been companions for much of the past six years. Some of my most consistent prayers have been questions like, “Where are you God?” or “Master of the universe, what are you doing?” (That last prayer was lifted from Chaim Potok’s novel, My Name is Asher Lev.) I do not think it was a coincidence that I was in seminary in 2005, studying the prayers of lament and complaint found in the Bible, notably in the Psalms and Job. The fact that the God of the Bible is not only open to, but welcomes our laments when things go bad, saved my faith as friends and family died, as marriages dissolved, as we struggled in our communities of faith, and as the world endured tsunamis, earthquakes, famine, and war. Through my lamentations, I experienced Jesus’ presence in ways I had not previously.

As a result of the parade of hard experiences, I became more comfortable with the darker side of faith: the side that struggles to hold on to God in the midst of storms, that reallizes doubt is often just as present as certainty. I knew the “cost of discipleship” in ways I had not previously understood. In many ways I am grateful for this season and what God revealed to me in the midst of pain, grief, and doubt. This is not a lighthearted gratitude, however. Following Jesus during this season has not been necessarily delightful, but my conviction that Jesus is our best hope for the world has strengthened.
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