Under the ugly
God's unconditional love for us is like that of a parent's love for their child.
Age three. More challenging than I expected. We now have the big emotions of age two combined with negotiating skills, opinions and zero logic. This sort of conversation happens daily:
“Clare, what would you like for breakfast?”
Ten minutes of oatmeal-making later, just as I add the last raisins to her bowl, she looks up and says, “Oatmeal? I don’t want oatmeal. I only want waffles.”
“Clare, you asked for oatmeal” (sternly).
“No, I SAID waffles! I only love waffles. Oatmeal is yucky.”
We try not to give in. Let anything slide with your three-year-old, and watch out. She’ll sniff you out like a hound on the parenting trail and make you pay with something dark and thunderous. Of course, if you stand your ground, the same thing will happen. So the only real question is whether you want to pay now or later.
What has surprised – and sustained – me in this intense season of parenthood, however, is the rapid climate change that happens minutes after each stand-off. I will still be fuming and tight-jawed when she looks up at me, touches my arm, and says, “Mama, you still love me?” A brave question. The tenderness, the humility of it is teaching me to change gears quickly, to be able to say, although I am still angry, “Yes, baby, I love you no matter what.” That feels like ministry.
In her classic book, Living Confidently in God’s Love, Hannah Whitall Smith tells about a conversation she once had with an “intelligent atheist.” He said to her, “The Christians I meet seem to be the most uncomfortable people anywhere around. They seem to carry their religion as a man carries a headache. He does not want to get rid of his head, but at the same time, it is very uncomfortable to have it.” This struck a little close to home when I first read it, shortly after my angry twenties. All through that decade of raging against God and the church, I still called myself a Christian, not sure where I stood but certainly not happy. Although I didn’t have the humility to recognize it, the words of my heart under all that anger were the same as my little daughter’s: “God, you still love me?” All the theology in the world couldn’t help me over that hump.
Paul hints at the importance of this heart/mind connection with a paradox in Ephesians: “I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power . . . to know this love that surpasses knowledge” (3:17-19). He wants the people of God to know the unknowable, to enter the grand, impossible mystery of God’s love. It is a knowing that goes far past knowing; it is a knowing that engages the depths of us, our souls.
And that is how it goes. Somehow, somewhere along the line, I began to sense joy in the eyes of God as they looked at me. I began to believe that my heart, not my behaviour, was God’s chief concern and desire.
What if the Church was packed with Christians who believed, in their very deepest selves, that God looked at them with tender love and intense joy, the way we look at our beloved children? What if every person in every pew was whole with the love that surpasses knowledge? No truth proposition can have any real effect on us if we doubt our heavenly Father’s complete acceptance right now, in this sinful moment, without any effort on our part to make ourselves better.
This is where Christianity belongs to a toddler – because its core of power is found in our falling and our tantrums. In my daughter, I hear my own raw cry for love. God answers my heart’s deepest question as I answer hers: “Yes, precious girl, I love you even now when you’re screaming and throwing things and willfully disobeying me. You don’t have to be a good girl for me to love you. I love you no matter what.”