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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Theology’s Task: Making the Familiar Strange

In a paper from last year, the American theologian Stanley Hauerwas reflects on how to write a theological sentence, riffing on Stanley Fish’s book, How to Write a Sentence: and How to Read One. Hauerwas writes, “a theological sentence that does its proper work does so just to the extent it makes the familiar strange.” This is a truth worth exploring. I will riff on Hauerwas’s riff on Fish.

So often we think we must make the good news more respectable. We try to make the story of God palatable both for people who have not yet come to the Christian faith and those who are already the Church. In doing so, we run the risk of removing the shocking and radical nature of the gospel itself. Christian commitments to forgiveness, for example, often run counter to our common sense. Rather, our task is to talk about God (i.e., do theology) in such a way that the familiar becomes strange. That is not to say our talk about God must be unintelligible, intentionally obscure, or unnecessarily offensive.

Hauerwas’s paper offers several solid examples of proper theological sentences making the familiar strange. I appreciate the essay greatly because Hauerwas refuses the temptations to turn Christianity into only a set of ethical practices or philosophical ideas. Our lives must reflect our beliefs and the Christian story must mean something true. One sentence from that essay has haunted me since reading it. Hauerwas recasts the common challenge, what difference does believing in God make in the lives of Christians? He crafts a sentence that cuts deeper: “We live lives that would make sense if the God we worship did not exist.” This sentence stops us in our tracks. It immediately requires reflection. If the God I worship did not exist would my life make sense? Do my values and actions correspond more to the dominant culture around me or to the values of Jesus Christ? Are my commitments to my socioeconomic class more important to me than my commitment to God? Hopefully reflecting on Hauerwas’s sentence will lead to our repentance.

My church is currently looking at the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans for our sermon series. As we have read and reread this very famous work, I am once again struck by how Paul is an excellent theologian. So much of what he writes makes the familiar strange. Take his descriptions of the Christian life in Romans 6. In this chapter he describes being united with Christ as joining in Jesus’ death and being enslaved to righteousness. Even stranger, Paul sees such death and slavery as good things. This kind of God-talk shakes us from our stupor and makes us reconsider our commitments. In contrast to much contemporary Christian talk that turns Jesus into a motivational speaker helping us improve our marriages or deal with stress at work, Paul’s shocking images make the familiar strange. A familiar idea would be Jesus wants to make us better versions of ourselves. But Paul makes that familiar idea strange when he writes Jesus wants to kill our old natures and bring about altogether new lives. When contrasted to the truth of the gospel, the idea that Jesus is a self-help guru is certainly strange. Jesus has no interest in making us more comfortable. He wants to give us real life, which requires our death and resurrection.

Or consider Paul’s exhortation in Romans 12.1: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (NRSV) This verse has been repeated so much its strangeness can be lost on us. Let us stop and appreciate the twists Paul writes. Living sacrifices? That image alone could make us stop us in our tracks. How does a sacrifice continue to live? If Paul’s statement is true, if real life can only be found in offering our lives in worship to God, the idea of a living sacrifice makes our pursuit for self-fulfillment strange. Paul does the work of a real theologian. He takes what we assume to be given and brings it under the light of God’s love, revealing our givens for what they truly are: strange assumptions.

In the tension between the world and the Church, something has to give. It depends on where we stand. If we accept the world as normal we will see the Church with its commitments to God and sacrificial love as incomprehensible. If we agree with Paul that true life can only be found in giving our lives to God and others we will reject the familiar selfish demands — self-fulfillment, self-protection, self-satisfaction — as strange.