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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Say Yes, Do Good with Others, The Trump Presidency: Who Will We Become, Part 6

This is the final installment of a short series of posts leading to Donald Trump’s inauguration. I want to ask the question of Christians who opposed his candidacy: Who will we become as we resist President Trump’s policies that contradict what we believe are God’s political values?

As of today Donald Trump is the 45th president of the United States. We no longer have to speculate what his presidency will look like as it is now a reality. Those of us Christians who opposed his candidacy have to renew our commitment to working against the his policies born out of xenophobic, sexist, and racist rhetoric. There will likely be much to protest, to stand against, and say, “This is unjust and it is not who we as a nation should be.”

As I wrote in my first post of this series, “We may want to define ourselves by what we are not. Finding identity in being a Christian who didn’t vote for President Trump doesn’t tell us anything about our true convictions or hopes. Such a self-definition won’t sustain us for very long, nor will it protect us from the very real sins of wrath and pride.” I want to continue this line of thought. Protest alone, merely expressing what we oppose, will not be good enough. By all means, let us protest. Speak, write, assemble, and petition against unjust governmental actions. And may that protest provoke us to other positive action.

We need a protest born out of solidarity. It is in standing with those who will most be hurt by Trump’s policies that we will grow in compassion. Our quest for justice will have a human face for the quest won’t merely be theoretical, but we will know real people who hurt. When I first learned about the problems of mass incarceration through Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, my understanding and anger were well-informed, but largely abstract. When I began worshiping with inmates at San Quentin State Prison, however, I came to know wonderful men who have been hurt by unjust laws and policies. I no longer advocated alone for an abstract population. In worshiping at San Quentin, I found a community, both in the people with whom I went to the prison and, more importantly, the inmates who welcomed me into their congregation. I can say yes to their dignity and the fact God is transforming their lives.

If we find Trump’s treatment of refugees appalling, let us make an effort to tangibly help. Give money to refugee organizations. Petition our elected leaders on their behalf. Most importantly, look for ways to be with refugee families in our area. Get to know those families and the others who stand in solidarity with them. Say yes to their inherent worth and our shared humanity.

The work will be hard and we will need friends who can encourage us. Most importantly we need to know the people who will be most affected by Trump’s policies. Knowing these folks will inspire us when the work exhausts us. It will be infinitely harder to give up or retreat to abstract argument when we can place names and faces to people who need us to stand on the margins with them, who need us to say yes to the image of God they bear.

When we commit to positive work in community with those on our society’s margins, our “No” to Trump’s policies will be born out of our “Yes” to our neighbors and the work the Holy Spirit is doing.

(I have one final note that is not entirely related to this post. While my posts have focused on calling our elected officials to uphold God’s political values, I want to make clear I do not expect our government leaders to establish God’s kingdom. I believe God’s political agenda, which welcomes to the center those on the margins as well as cares for creation [see: Psalm 146], is a common good. My opposition to Trump as president has not been because his theology isn’t sufficient—that is, I’m not looking from him the same thing I would look from a pastor. I did not want Trump to be president because I thought his policies and rhetoric would not be in the interest of the common good. Further, though I do not think the United States is the “city on the hill,” I do want to see its flourishing as a force of justice in the world. To that end, I did not support Trump’s candidacy because I had concerns his policies and temperament would do real harm to our republic.)

Speaking the Truth in Love, The Trump Presidency: Who Will We Become, Part 4

In a short series of posts leading to Donald Trump’s inauguration, I want to ask the question of Christians who opposed his candidacy: Who will we become as we resist President Trump’s policies that contradict what we believe are God’s political values?

In the previous post I wondered if it was possible for us to allow our current vitriolic political environment—an environment Donald Trump seems keen on helping thrive—actually teach us to become kinder, gentler, and more gracious. I quoted from Fr. Gregory Boyle, who said, “The answer to every question is compassion to begin with.” I wanted to emphasize the Christian commitments of charity toward our neighbors, love of enemies, and kindness in our speech. Now I want to turn to the Apostle Paul’s great exhortation to the Ephesian church to speak the truth in love. (Eph 4.15)

I’ve heard plenty of preachers say Paul juxtaposes truth and love. I think this misses the point. Truth and love are not opposites. Rather the truth may be spoken in ways that are loving, hateful, indifferent, etc. We have to commit to practicing compassion in our speech.

There is a temptation to take off the rough edges of truth and see that as an act of love. Often this means not telling the whole truth or any of the truth at all. Let us be clear. There is nothing loving about such an action. That is in fact deception. Our goal is not to avoid offending people. The fact is the truth is often offensive. People usually need to work through their offense in order to accept the truth. I know this was the case for me as I first learned about racial reconciliation. I took offense to claims that I, as a white male, disproportionately benefit from our racialized society. Friends were able to help me process my feelings of being slighted and see the truth that I do in fact carry privileges not extended to people of different ethnicities. The truth hurt, but living in the truth is better than living in a lie. Jesus reminds us there is great freedom found in truth. (Jn 8.32) I have found freedom accepting the truth of my privilege and I am free to use that privilege for the sake of others.

Speaking the truth in love demands we commit to knowing the truth. Many social and psychological factors work to prevent us from knowing and acting on the truth. The obvious culprits of partisan spin machines and the now popular scoundrel of “fake news” fill our minds with outright lies, half truths, and paltering. Often these sources confirm our biases. We like resources that tell us what want to hear and we want to avoid cognitive dissonance. We don’t want our convictions or beliefs challenged.

Knowing the truth thus requires humility. Christ-followers must take the words of those in power with a grain of salt. However, we will also exercise a healthy skepticism toward voices who say things with which we agree. Those of us who opposed Trump in part because of his propensity to lie must not assume everything he says is false. He has and will tell the truth. When he does we must acknowledge it.

Those who speak in love appreciate where their audience is and understand the same argument won’t work for all people. We cannot expect the same response from someone who is ignorant of the problems mass incarceration as from someone who has worked for prison reform for years. We know how hard we can push at a given moment. The great truth-tellers of the Bible, i.e., the prophets, did not mince words and were even willing to engage in rather harsh speech. But they used this language to wake up their audience and it was always an act of love—love for the God they worshiped, love for the people being oppressed, and love for the oppressors whose actions they condemned.

In his sermon, “Loving Your Enemies,” Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “To our most bitter opponents we say…’One day we shall win freedom but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.'” This commitment to win over even our opponents as we seek justice is a wonderful picture of speaking the truth in love.

Growing in Kindness, The Trump Presidency: Who Will We Become, Part 3

In a short series of posts leading to Donald Trump’s inauguration, I want to ask the question of Christians who opposed his candidacy: Who will we become as we resist President Trump’s policies that contradict what we believe are God’s political values?

During the 2016 presidential campaign it often seemed our political debate brought out the worst in us. Several of my friends took a break from social media as those venues became too caustic. Following the election not much has changed either on the ground or from our president-elect. The dehumanizing insults continue, including by those of us who call ourselves Christian. Donald Trump’s own ungracious words and actions since winning in November don’t encourage us toward Abraham Lincoln’s vision of working for the healing of the nation, “With malice toward none, with charity for all.”

In the midst of this vitriolic environment, I wonder, is it possible to become more gracious, kind, and gentle? We can imagine exiting the bitterness altogether will help us keep our worst instincts check. (Taking periodic breaks from heated discussions is a necessary discipline, especially when we find ourselves obsessed.)

More to the point, is it possible to let the vitriolic environment itself make us more gracious, kind, and gentle? Can we let our engagement with our neighbors with whom we disagree shape us into kinder people?

In the following video from Fr. Gregory Boyle of Homeboy Industries, he shows us we grow in kindness when our kindness is tested.

 

How might we let this acerbic social milieu shape us into gentler people? How do we let Trump’s demagoguery mold us into people who do not react with insults, but instead respond by telling the truth in love? Make no mistake, our kindness will be tested the next four years and the president-elect may in fact be a wonderful teacher of kindness for us.

When we are angry—legitimately or otherwise—particularly at uncharitable and dehumanizing speech we need to pause and ask the Holy Spirit, “What are you trying to teach me through this situation?” Being reactionary and landing a snarky rhetorical punch feels good in the moment, but it does not bring us closer to a more just society. Choosing to respond with kindness may open possibilities insults will surely close. People might not accept the gentleness and may continue to belittle. Take that as a teaching moment and be gentle anyway. Boyle says in another interview at Truthdig:

Demonizing is always untruth. Always, no exceptions. If I demonize Donald Trump, that is equally an untruth… or those who voted for him. It’s not about normalizing. You don’t have to demonize; you stand against that notion: “I won’t ever do it.” And if you know that the answer to every question is compassion to begin with, then all of a sudden you’re gonna go, “Ah, people carry a lot. I want to be respectful about what people carry.”

You want to be clear about things; you don’t want to give an inch, and you don’t want to somehow lose your sense of integrity and what is purposeful and right and just and good.

Being kind, gracious, and gentle does not mean we avoid rocking the boat. God calls us into controversy and to stand with the oppressed. That is, the boat is going to be rocked. Kindness, graciousness, and gentleness are the means with which we struggle for justice.