Over the past fifteen years my ministry has been identified, more than anything else, with healing our image of God. Teachings on the unconditional love of God, Abba, Father, have aimed at dispelling illusions and myths and helping people to experience the God of Jesus Christ. This, I believe, is the main business of religion. Religion is a matter not of learning how to think about God but of actually encountering Him.
Losing our illusions is painful because illusions are the stuff we live by. The Spirit of God is the great unmasker of illusions, the great destroyer of icons and idols. God’s love for us is so great that He does not permit us to harbor false images, no matter how attached we are to them. God strips those falsehoods from us no matter how naked it may make us, because it is better to live naked in truth than closed in fantasy.
Still, there is a chronic temptation to reduce God to human dimensions, to express Him in manageable ideas. Human reason seeks to understand, to reduce everything to its own terms. But God is God. He is more than a superhuman being with an intellect keener than ours and a capacity for loving greater than ours. He is Unique, Uncreated, Infinite, Totally Other than we are. He surpasses and transcends all human concepts, considerations and expectations. He is beyond anything we can intellectualize or imagine. That is why God is a scandal to men and women—because He cannot be comprehended by a finite mind.
Jesus calls us to stretch our minds and hearts, to renounce human standards of justice, mercy, love, rectitude and fair play. For a disciple of Jesus the process of spiritual growth is a gradual repudiation of the unreal image of God, an increasing openness to the true and living God. In my own life, honoring the First Commandment, “I am Yahweh your God: you shall have no gods except me,” has meant repudiating the god of fear and wrath handed on to me by preachers, teachers and church authorities in my youth, repudiating the strange god who sees all non-Christians as good-for-nothings, who consigns all heathens to hell, who has given any one denomination a bonded franchise for salvation, who rubs his hands together with malicious glee and sends a Catholic to hell because he ate a hot dog on Friday, April 27, 1949. It has meant repudiating the strange god who flinches at gracing certain other churches with his presence; who despises a beleaguered couple who practice birth control; who forbids a divorcee the Eucharist; who ordains that some of his creatures (whether for race or creed or some other reason) shall be denied equal opportunity for employment and housing; who tells married Catholic priests that they are excommunicated and mature women that in America they can be vice president of the country but in the church they must sit down, submit and shut up.
This same spiritual process of repudiating unreal images of God can be found in the writings of the Hebrew prophets and in the work of spiritual formation that Jesus undertook with His first disciples. Because they had fashioned their own image of the Messiah, they resisted the mission of the real Messiah, asking Him impatiently when He would triumphantly reveal His power to Israel. They looked for an unreal messiah of their own making and found a real one of God’s making—but only after they were dispossessed of all their illusions and expectations. Expectations are our subtle attempts to control God and manipulate mystery. We can get so wrapped up in them that when Jesus breaks into our lives in new and surprising ways, we neither recognize Him nor hear His message.
What was the message of Jesus concerning God? What did He really preach? What did He really reveal? Modern Scripture scholars tell us that if we want to be most confident that we are in touch with the original preaching of Jesus, we should turn to His parables—quick, decisive stories that make clear the fundamental points to His teaching. For our present purposes two will suffice:
First, in chapter 20 of Matthew, the parable of the crazy farmer. It was harvest time and the owner of the farm went repeatedly into the marketplace, the hiring hall of his day, to recruit workers for his fields. Given the time of year and the amount of work to be done, those who were still idling the day away with small talk at the eleventh hour must have been a lazy and shiftless bunch. Still, the farmer needed workers and even they were called into the field.
One presumes they took their time getting there, shuffled about and did a minimum of work. Then the surprise: they were awarded a full day’s pay! In this familiar parable as told by other rabbis of Jesus’ day, those who arrived at the eleventh hour earned the whole day’s pay because they worked extra hard. In Jesus’ version, however, the emphasis is not on the diligence of the workers but on the gratuitous generosity of the farmer (presumably the families of the loafers depended on the income for their nightly meal). It was a mad, crazy, insanely generous act. No human farmer or businessman could behave that way and remain in business for very long. Even today, we are offended by this overpayment of loafers, freeloaders. The other workers certainly were. “The men who came last have put in only one hour,” they complained, “and you’ve treated them the same as us, though we’ve done a heavy day’s work in all the heat.” And the farmer’s answer: “My friends, I am not being unjust to you. Didn’t we agree on your wage? Take your earnings and go. If I choose to pay the last-comer as much as you, haven’t I the right to do what I like with my own?”
Two thousand years later the Christian community is still scandalized by divine generosity. In one of his plays, Jean Anouilh portrays the Last Judgment as he imagines it: The just are densely clustered at the gate of heaven eager to march in, sure of their reserved seats and bursting with impatience. Suddenly a rumor starts spreading. They look at one another in disbelief. “Look, He’s going to forgive those others too.” They gasp and sputter: “After all the trouble I went through. I just can’t believe it.” Exasperated, they work themselves into a fury and start cursing God. And at that very instant, they are damned. That was the final judgment, you see. They judged themselves, excommunicated themselves. Love appeared and they refused to acknowledge it. “We don’t approve of a heaven that’s open to every Tom, Dick and Harry. We spurn this God who lets everyone off. We can’t love a God who loves so foolishly.”
A parable in Luke 15 makes the same point. The prodigal son walks down the road rehearsing the penitent speech he will give. The father, rocking on the porch, sees him coming and dashes to meet him. The young man barely gets out the first sentence of his speech before the father embraces him, puts a new robe on him and proclaims a celebration. Hardly an appropriate way to deal with a delinquent son. The boy had been spoiled rotten in the first place; if the father spoils him again, how will he learn?
Haven’t you identified with the other brother in this story muttering to himself: “Wonderful! All this while I’ve been sweating away, fattening the calf that my father is now going to roast for this dingbat. Dad’s really off-the-wall!”
The French Easter liturgy says, “L’amour de Dieu est folie”—the love of God is foolishness. And Jesus says it is a foolishness that is meant to call forth joy. The farmer reproaches those who’ve worked the whole day because they are not willing to celebrate his generosity. The father is appalled when his older son will not join the joyful welcome-home party. “God’s extravagant love,” Jesus is saying, “demands a joyous response from us.”
Both of these parables are a revelation from Jesus of the real God. But Jesus’ image of God assaults our standards of justice and fair play. The very foundations of our religion are being shaken! The depraved good-for-nothing prodigal is preferred to his hard-working brother? Celebration instead of punishment! What kind of lunatic order is this that reverses all rank, making the last first and the first last? At the end all get the same reward?
The parables of Jesus reveal a God who is consistently overgenerous with His forgiveness and grace. He portrays God as the lender magnanimously canceling a debt, as the shepherd seeking a strayed sheep, as the judge hearing the prayer of the tax collector. In Jesus’ stories, divine forgiveness does not depend on our repentance or on our ability to love our enemies or on our doing heroic, virtuous deeds. God’s forgiveness depends only on the love out of which He fashioned the human race.
The God of Judaism forgives the person who has changed his ways, done penance and shown that he is leading a better life. But under the old covenant there is no forgiveness for those who remain sinners: The sinner faces judgment. But the God of Jesus does not judge us, for He loves even those who are evil. In a word, the Father of Jesus loves sinners. He is the only God people have ever heard of who behaves this way. Unreal gods, the inventions of people, despise sinners. But the Father of Jesus loves all, no matter what they do. And this, of course, is almost too incredible for us to accept.
God does not condemn but forgives. The sinner is accepted even before he repents. Forgiveness is granted to him; he need only accept the gift. This is real amnesty—gratis. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the love story of God with us. It begins with unconditional forgiveness: the sole condition is trusting faith. Christianity happens when men and women experience the unwavering trust and reckless confidence that come from knowing the God of Jesus. There is no reason for being wary, scrupulous, cautious or afraid with this God. As John writes in his first letter: “In love there can be no fear, but fear is driven out by perfect love: because to fear is to expect punishment, and anyone who is afraid is still imperfect in love” (1 John 4:18 jb).
God’s love is based on nothing, and the fact that it is based on nothing makes us secure. Were it based on anything we do, and that “anything” were to collapse, then God’s love would crumble as well. But with the God of Jesus no such thing can possibly happen. People who realize this can live freely and to the full. Remember Atlas, who carries the whole world? We have Christian Atlases who mistakenly carry the burden of trying to deserve God’s love. Even the mere watching of this lifestyle is depressing. I’d like to say to Atlas: “Put that globe down and dance on it. That’s why God made it.” And to these weary Christian Atlases: “Lay down your load and build your life on God’s love.” We don’t have to earn this love; neither do we have to support it. It is a free gift. Jesus calls out: “Come to Me, all you Atlases who are weary and find life burdensome, and I will refresh you.”
When you visit a home for the mentally retarded, like Jean Vanier’s L’Arche, the Ark, in Mobile, Alabama, you see people who have no worth in our productive society. They don’t do anything. They are just there. Yet you never doubt that God loves them. The handicapped make us realize our handicaps. They strip off the masks we wear, the roles we play that give us a sense of earning our position with God and others. They challenge us to let go of everything we have taken literally, all our lives, to find our own symbols of the Holy One, to open ourselves to the mystery of the gracious God within us.
The unearned love of God can be disturbing. The idea of reward without work might put a brake on our dedication to the Gospel. I mean, why struggle to do good if God loves so recklessly and foolishly? It appears to be a sensible, valid question.
But those who truly know the God of Jesus are not likely to ask why they should be laboring for the kingdom while others stand around all day idle. They want life and they have found the fullness of life in God Himself. . . . The rest of us may ask why we should bother to live uprightly if God is going to be so generous, but not those who have found the God of Jesus. Only when our inner vision is blocked by resentment, outrage, anger, or envy do we find ourselves threatened by God’s love. The last prayer of Jesus on the Cross, ‘Father, forgive them. They know not what they do,’ is a testament from one who knew what God is like.1
The love of God embodied in Jesus is radically different from our natural human way of loving. As a man, I am drawn to love appealing things and persons. I love the Jersey Shore and Clearwater Beach at sunset, Handel’s Messiah, hot fudge sundaes and my family. There is a common denominator or, better, a common dynamic in all of them. I am attracted by certain qualities that I find congenial. When I love as a man, I am drawn by the good perceived in the other. I love someone for what I find in him or her.
Now: unlike ourselves, the Father of Jesus loves men and women, not for what He finds in them, but for what lies within Himself. It is not because men and women are good that He loves them, nor only good men and women that He loves. It is because He is so unutterably good that He loves all persons, good and evil. . . . He loves the loveless, the unloving, the unlovable. He does not detect what is congenial, appealing, attractive, and respond to it with His favor. In fact, He does not respond at all. The Father of Jesus is a source. He acts; He does not react. He initiates love. He is love without motive.2
Jesus, who lives for those in whom love is dead, and died that His killers might live, reveals a Father who has no wrath. The Father cannot be offended, nor can He be pleased by what people do. This is the very opposite of indifference. The Lord does not cherish us as we deserve—if that were the case, we would be desolate—but as He must, unable to do otherwise. He is love. Hard as it is for us to believe—because we neither give nor receive love among ourselves in this way—we yet believe, because of the life-death-resurrection of the Carpenter-Messiah, that His Father is more loving, more forgiving, more cherishing than Abraham, Isaac or Jacob could have dreamed.
What this says simply is that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is gracious. His love is gratuitous in a way that defies our imagination.
It is for this reason that we can proclaim with theological certainty in the power of the Word: God loves you as you are and not as you should be! Do you believe this? That God loves you beyond worthiness and unworthiness, beyond fidelity and infidelity, that He loves you in the morning sun and the evening rain, that He loves you without caution, regret, boundary, limit or breaking point?
I am not asking: Do you believe in love? That is abstract ideology. Agnostics and atheists can say that. What I am asking is: Can you say with conviction what the apostle John writes in his first letter: “I have come to know and believe in the love God has for me”? The last four words—“God has for me”—turn an abstract proposition into a personal relationship. This love is the content of our faith: It is a magnificent summary of all we believe. “The love God has for us” constitutes ultimate meaning and brings the peace and joy the world cannot give.
To believe means to realize not just with the head but also with the heart that God loves me in a creative, intimate, unique, reliable, and tender way. Creative: out of His love I came forth; through His love I am who I am. Intimate: His love reaches out to the deepest in me. Unique: His love embraces me as I am, not as I am considered to be by other people or supposed to be in my own self-image. Reliable: His love will never let me down. Tender . . .
Tenderness is what happens to you when you know you are deeply and sincerely liked by someone. If you communicate to me that you like me, not just love me as a brother in Christ, you open up to me the possibility of self-respect, self-esteem and wholesome self-love. Your acceptance of me banishes my fears. My defense mechanisms—sarcasm, aloofness, name-dropping, self-righteousness, giving the appearance of having it all together—start to fall. I drop my mask and stop disguising my voice. You instill self-confidence in me and allow me to smile at my weaknesses and absurdities. The look in your eyes gives me permission to make the journey into the interior of myself and make peace with that part of myself with which I could never find peace before. I become more open, sincere, vulnerable and affectionate. I too grow tender.
Several years ago, Edward Farrell, a priest from Detroit, went on a two-week summer vacation to Ireland to visit relatives. His one living uncle was about to celebrate his eightieth birthday. On the great day, Ed and his uncle got up early. It was before dawn. They took a walk along the shores of Lake Killarney and stopped to watch the sunrise. They stood side by side for a full twenty minutes and then resumed walking. Ed glanced at his uncle and saw that his face had broken into a broad smile. Ed said, “Uncle Seamus, you look very happy.” “I am.” Ed asked, “How come?” And his uncle replied, “The Father of Jesus is very fond of me.”
If the question were put to you, “Do you honestly believe that God likes you?”—not loves you, because theologically He must—how would you answer? God loves by necessity of His nature; without the eternal, interior generation of love, He would cease to be God. But if you could answer, “The Father is very fond of me,” there would come a relaxedness, a serenity and a compassionate attitude toward yourself that is a reflection of God’s own tenderness. In Isaiah 49:15, God says: “Does a woman forget her baby at the breast, or fail to cherish the son of her womb? Yet even if these forget, I will never forget you” (jb).
One spiritual writer has observed that human beings are born with two diseases: life, from which we die; and hope, which says the first disease is not terminal. Hope is built into the structure of our personalities, into the depths of our unconscious; it plagues us to the very moment of our death. The critical question is whether hope is self-deception, the ultimate cruelty of a cruel and tricky universe, or whether it is just possibly the imprint of reality.
The parables of Jesus responded to that question. In effect Jesus said: Hope your wildest hopes, dream your maddest dreams, imagine your most fantastic fantasies. Where your hopes and your dreams and your imagination leave off, the love of My heavenly Father only begins. For “eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9 kjv).
Shortly after I was ordained, I took a graduate course at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. The professor was an old Dutchman who told the following story:
“I’m one of thirteen children. One day when I was playing in the street of our hometown in Holland, I got thirsty and came into the pantry of our house for a glass of water. It was around noon and my father had just come home from work to have lunch. He was sitting at the kitchen table having a glass of beer with a neighbor. A door separated the kitchen from the pantry and my father didn’t know I was there. The neighbor said to my father, ‘Joe, there’s something I’ve wanted to ask you for a long time, but if it’s too personal, just forget I ever asked.’
“‘What is your question?’
“‘Well, you have thirteen children. Out of all of them, is there one that is your favorite, one you love more than all the others?’”
The professor continued his story: “I had my ear pressed against the door hoping against hope it would be me. ‘That’s easy,’ my father said. ‘Sure there’s one I love more than all the others. That’s Mary, the twelve-year-old. She just got braces on her teeth and feels so awkward and embarrassed that she won’t go out of the house anymore. Oh, but you asked about my favorite. That’s my twenty-three-year-old, Peter. His fiancée just broke their engagement, and he is desolate. But the one I really love the most is little Michael. He’s totally uncoordinated and terrible in any sport he tries to play. The other kids on the street make fun of him. But, of course, the apple of my eye is Susan. Only twenty-four, living in her own apartment and developing a drinking problem. I cry for Susan. But I guess of all the kids . . .’ and my father went on mentioning each of his thirteen children by name.”
The professor ended his story, saying: “What I learned was that the one my father loved most was the one who needed him most at that time. And that’s the way the Father of Jesus is: He loves those most who need Him most, who rely on Him, depend upon Him and trust Him in everything. Little He cares whether you’ve been as pure as St. John or as sinful as the prostitute in Simon the Pharisee’s house. All that matters is trust. It seems to me that learning how to trust God defines the meaning of Christian living. God doesn’t wait until we have our moral life in order before He starts loving us.”
Again, though, that nagging question: Won’t the awareness that God loves us no matter what lead to spiritual laziness and moral laxity? Theoretically, this seems a reasonable fear, but in reality the opposite is true. You know that your wife loves you as you are and not as you should be. Is this an invitation to infidelity, indifference, an “anything goes” attitude? On the contrary. Love calls forth love. Doing your own thing in complete freedom means, in fact, responding to her love. The more rooted we are in the love of God the more generously we live our faith and practice it.
It is this love that enables us to love ourselves without excuses and without questioning. We love ourselves as we are because faith has convinced us that God does so. We no longer worry about our spiritual growth (which is just another form of idolatry anyway). In living out being-loved, we move beyond the oppressive demands we impose on ourselves, beyond the idealistic claims of the ego that tells me who I should be, must be, ought to be. My friend Sister Mary Michael O’Shaughnessy has a banner in her room that says, “Today I will not should on myself.” I don’t have to be somebody else—Mother Teresa, Saint Francis, or Billy Graham. As my spiritual director Larry Hein says: “Be who you is, because if you is who you ain’t, you ain’t who you is.”
It is always true to some extent that we make our images of God. It is even truer that our image of God makes us. Eventually we become like the God we image. One of the most beautiful fruits of knowing the God of Jesus is a compassionate attitude toward ourselves. Faith in the God of Jesus nurtures free, confident people. The God of love fosters a loving people. Jesus’ experiences of God made Him the person He was. It freed Him from all self-concern and enabled Him to relate to people with warmth, ease, sympathy and liberating love.
This is why Scripture attaches such importance to knowing God. Healing our image of God heals our image of ourselves. Yahweh laments through the prophet Hosea, “My people know me not. It is love I desire, not sacrifices; knowledge of God, not holocausts” (see Hosea 6).
And John declares, “Eternal life is this: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3 jb). God’s love becomes flesh and blood in the person of Jesus. In Him it receives hands and feet, a face and a voice. The purpose of the incarnation was to convince us of the faithful love of God: “The reason I was born, the reason why I came into the world, is to testify to the truth.” Truth in the Bible is the reliability of God’s love. John in his prologue gives us the key to the life of Jesus: “We saw his glory, the glory that is his as the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14 jb).
Paul, who understood the mind and heart of Jesus better than any man or woman who has ever lived, prays in Ephesians 3:16–19: “I pray . . . that Christ may live in your hearts through faith, and then, planted in love and built on love, you will with all the saints have strength to grasp the breadth and the length, the height and depth; until, knowing the love of Christ, which is beyond all knowledge, you are filled with the utter fullness of God” (jb).
My brothers and sisters, this is the message. Some might quibble about the details, but there would not be, I think, much debate among contemporary Scripture scholars that this is the essence of the Good News of Jesus Christ. In healing our image of God, Jesus frees us of fear of the Father and dislike of ourselves.
The old religious image of a vindictive, mean, and jealous God gives way in Jesus to the God of faith who cherishes people, all people, and has made his abode with them. Jesus presented a God who does not demand but gives; does not oppress but raises up; does not wound but heals. A God who forgives instead of condemning, and liberates instead of punishing. Woe then to those who demand, oppress, wound, and condemn, and punish in His name. It can only be said that they do not truly know him.3
Do we know Him? Do we know the God of Jesus Christ? Maybe we think that there are other things more important in the Christian walk than knowing God—like loving God, praising Him, thanking Him, keeping the commandments, living a good life. There are many things that make up a truly Christian life, but all of them are rooted in authentic knowledge of God.
Perhaps we think that because we are Christians and read the Bible and know a great deal about God, therefore we know God. Nothing could be further from the truth. It does us little good to memorize chapter and verse, to master the language of the Bible, if we have nothing to share in that language, no experiential knowledge of God in our lives.
Maybe that doesn’t happen because we pray so little, so infrequently and so poorly. For everything else we have plenty of leisure time. Visits, get-togethers, movies, the Olympics, concerts, an evening with friends, an invitation we can’t decline—and these things are good because it is right and natural to come together with friends. But most of our lives we are, as Søren Kierke-gaard notes, “so busy” with other things that we don’t have time to wait patiently to hear the voice of the God of Jesus within us. An appointment with the barber or hairdresser is inviolable, but when God lays claim to our time, we balk.
The most important thing that ever happens in prayer is letting ourselves be loved by God. “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). It’s like slipping into a tub of hot water and letting God’s love wash over us, enfold us. Prayer is like sunbathing. When you spend a lot of time in the sun, people notice it. They say, “You’ve been at the beach.” You look like you’ve been out in the sun because you’ve got a tan. Prayer—or bathing in the Son of God’s love (Son bathing?)—makes you look different. The awareness of being loved brings a touch of lightness and a tint of brightness, and sometimes, for no apparent reason, a smile plays at the corner of your mouth. Through prayer you not only know God’s love, you realize it; you are in conscious communion with it.
Begin with five minutes of silent prayer, becoming aware in faith of God’s indwelling presence and humbly asking the Spirit to speak to your heart through Scripture, personal reflection and the insights of others.
Let one of the group read aloud 1 John 4:16–19. Then focus on the following questions for personal reflection and group interaction.
1. Describe the God you believed in during your childhood and teenage years.
2. Has anything changed in your perception of God, or are you still limping along with the understanding of God provided by your parents, pastors and your local faith community?
3. At this stage of the journey, are you too busy to spend time with God? Parents with small children surely qualify here. Have you lost the desire for holy loitering? Describe your prayer life.