It goes without saying that I have loved my children since they were born. I would go so far as to say that I loved them even before they were born. I would categorize this love as close to unconditional. There were times that I was frustrated with them. There were times when I doubted their love for me. They were normal teenagers and we went through all the struggles of parenting, but even when they were rebellious, it seemed to only draw me closer in my affections for them. I would say the only human that loved them more unconditionally than me was Laura. Mothers seem to have the purest form of unconditional affection for their children. It may even be stronger for their grandchildren.
As a pastor, I have seen people in all manner of circumstances. I have seen drug-addicted and alcoholic parents. I have seen criminal children and rebellious actions of all kinds. I have seen all manner of abusive situations. I witnessed people with means and people in poverty. I have seen all sorts of religious zealots and those that claim they hate God. I have seen people I admired and people I had a hard time understanding.
The common denominator among all these people is that, with very few exceptions, all of them that were parents loved their children. They may not have known how to parent effectively—they may have even made mistakes that made them bad parents—they may have even scarred their children trying to be good parents—they may have been so frustrated with parenting that they wanted to give up. But, when you talk to them personally, it is very easy to tell that there is nothing they love more than their children. Most of them would even swear to be willing to die for their children. As I said, there are exceptions, but it is exception not the rule.
So, what’s the point Karl? I know that parents love their children. The point is this. One of the most basic assumptions is that God is better than us. If He is not, then we have little need for Him. If he is the same as us or worse, then he might be a good friend, but He has no use to us as God. Many of the Scripture writers portrayed God as a parent. We often use the term Father, so let’s go with that. If God is a Father, and He is also described as love, then His love for His children must at least be better than mine.
We often have a somewhat distorted view of God’s love. We assume that God is doing something He does not want to do. If we assume that we are originally bad, and He can’t hardly stand to look at us, then it’s almost like something or someone must talk him into loving us. It’s like the kid that no one wants on their sports team. Someone urges, “Come on, he’s not that bad—I’ll vouch for him. Give him a chance.” If we would be honest, that is how we often feel about God’s love. We make incorrect assumptions based on misinformation and unusual ways of reasoning.
We inadvertently think that God loves some and not others. On one hand, we sing and preach about God being love and God loving everyone, but then we imagine that God has favorites among those He loves. We imagine our denomination or belief system being righter and God favoring us a little more. We imagine that our nation of origin is better than most and we label others as evil or sub-human so that we can secretly imagine God smiting them. Thus, we approve various forms of violence and condone different levels of hatred.
During the civil war, this played out in a very real way. The United States arrived at a place in history where a mother could realistically have a child of both sides of the war. As often is the case, both side of the battle could claim, “God is on our side and they are the enemy!” Imagine the mother’s thoughts as the battle raged. Would her love be any stronger for either of the children? Now imagine that God is looking down on the whole world. He sees religious battles over belief systems that are all at least partially wrong. He sees countries that have all different sorts of problems and all different sorts of feelings toward one another based on religion or possessions or just plain ignorance. He sees all the people that die on the battlefield and all those likely to be killed by collateral damage. Just like the mother that saw two of her sons on the battlefield, God sees his children and He loves them all.
Another sad assumption is that God loves us because we give him a reason to. We imagine that we are somehow useful enough to be considered lovable to him. I admit that I get trapped in this practice way too often. I was taught that I should do something for God because we have a duty. I unconsciously looked for approval that I did enough or did something significant enough that God would truly love me. It kept me with just enough shame to always need to be doing something for God. I think that works out well for church leaders—it keeps the volunteer pools full. It’s not that we doubt God loves us, we just sort demote the intensity and permanence of his love.
God loves us because of who He is and not because of anything we do. He is obligated by His nature alone. We understand this partially because our nature as parents drive us to love at least somewhat unconditionally. We get a sense of other-centered, self-giving love when we watch our children raise their children. We see them love without expectation and without restraint. Just like a mother’s love is free and unencumbered, the love of the Father, Son and Spirit flows from their love for each other freely to us. It is their nature to be especially fond of us because that is not only what they do—it is who they are!
My children had different responses to my love at different times in their lives. As a parent, my best move was to love them the same even when they responded wrongly. The best parents understand and practice this. It is important to understand that our response to God’s love cannot change the nature of His affection for us. Our response only changes our experience. We are already embraced by the love of God that cannot be separated from us. Our actions simply change the way it feels, not the actual composition or expression of it.
Thinking back over the years, I realize the amazing growth spurts in my spiritual life have been when my understanding of God’s love changed. When I consider my children, I find this to be true of them also. When their realization of my love for them changed, then their experience also changed. As much as possible my love remained constant. God’s affection for us is the most constant thing in the universe. May we come to know it more fully!
*Image is “A Mother’s Love” painting by Natalie Holland