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 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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Imparting Faith: Forgiving My Father and Being a Father

In the Bible, God gives parents a vocation to pass their faith on to their children. This central aspect of my vocation as a father consumes my thoughts more than remembering Elijah’s vaccination schedule, cooking him healthy meals, or offering him adequate educational stimulation. I see too often the gloomy statistics of children walking away from the faith once they leave the home. These statistics concern me because I want my son to experience the love and joy from Jesus I have known. I want him to “take hold of the life that really is life.” (1 Tim. 6.19)

Gary Walter, president of the Evangelical Covenant Church, recently published, “Teach and Love Your Children Well,” in which he encourages parents to consider how to raise children in the faith. He points to University of Southern California sociologist Vern Bengtson’s research that shows faith is best passed on in families in which parents prioritize and talk about faith and model faithful practices. Another factor, creating an environment of familial warmth, is actually the greatest indicator of faith being passed between generations. Bengston’s research shows a close bond with one’s father matters more than with the bond with one’s mother, though that bond is still important. As Walter summarizes, “Dads, when you combine a sincere faith with a quality relationship with your children, you enhance the likelihood of your children owning their own faith.”

Walter’s article made me reflect on my father as well as my role now as a dad. What did I receive from my father and how can I pass the faith on to my son?

My parents created an environment of familial warmth, but for the majority of my childhood, my father was not a model of the Christian faith. He did not tell my brother and I the stories of the Bible. He seldom attended church services—usually Christmas, Easter, and Mother’s Day—and chose instead to work on the Christian Sabbath. He bowed his head at prayers for meals but rarely, if ever, led them. I only remember him reading the Bible when asked to during Advent candle services in the home that my mother initiated. My mom was the spiritual leader of our house, communicating the truths of the faith and modeling the practices for us. She taught us to pray. She showed us the Christian basis for generosity and compassion. The faith I have today is more a product of my mother’s faithfulness than my father’s example.

Near the end of my adolescence I grew jealous of my friends whose dads were spiritual leaders. I longed for a father who could impart to me the wisdom and truths of the Christian faith. I resented my dad for not being a spiritual father figure to me.

In college I read Henri Nouwen’s book The Return of the Prodigal Son, a powerful reflection on Jesus’ famous parable and Rembrandt’s painting of it. Nouwen explores the characters of the younger son, the older son, and the father. The sons must each, in his own way, return home and accept the father’s unconditional love and their identity as their father’s beloved child. Nouwen tells the personal story of coming to the realization that in order to truly find his place as God’s beloved son, he must forgive his own human father for his shortcomings. Nouwen describes this forgiveness, this release as a “return from a false dependence on a human father who cannot give me all I need to a true dependence on the divine Father.” The return to the divine Father “allows me to let my dad be no less than the good, loving, but limited human being he is and to let my heavenly Father be the God whose unlimited, unconditional love melts away all resentments and anger and makes me free to love beyond the need to please or find approval.” (83)

These words helped me to forgive my human father for not being the spiritual father figure I desired. In doing so, I learned to allow my dad to be “the good, loving, but limited human being” he was. My eyes opened to the many ways he did embody the Christian faith in his quiet and radical generosity, his refusal to speak ill of people publicly, the hospitality he and my mom extended to people who needed a meal or a place to stay.

Walter’s article and Nouwen’s book remind me that though God tasks me with passing on the faith to my son, I will not be, indeed cannot be the perfect Heavenly Father Elijah needs. I pray fervently that Elijah will know, love, and follow Jesus. I work hard at telling him the Christian story and modeling faithful practices to him, even at this young age. My wife and I seek to create warm familial bonds with him. All the same, I must remind myself that I will fall short, and one day Elijah will have to forgive me for not being the heavenly Father he needs. This fact is humbling and at times humiliating, but I cannot let it shame me. I have to let my shortcomings draw me even deeper into prayer.