A Desperate, Anxious Love
As a new mother-priest, I am finding that I have to actively restrain myself from talking and writing constantly about my daughter, since she is just about all I think about now. But, since Father’s Day is coming up, I feel like this is an appropriate week to say a few words about parenthood.
I know the image of God as “Father” is fraught in our church, both because it reinforces the misconception that God is only masculine and because many people have had difficult relationships with their fathers. But, for me, there has long been something very special about the God as parent metaphor.
When I was in college, I had a moment when I suddenly had a lot of doubts about God’s existence. Like many young people coming of age, I found myself wondering if religion was all just a delusion, if I was revering something real or just clinging to a family heirloom. One day, I decided to try on the idea that God wasn’t real and that all the religious stuff I learned in church was just baloney. I wanted to ask this question: If I start off with the assumption that God isn’t real, is there anything that would convince me otherwise?
And—I remember this so well—on that day when my faith was hanging on by a thread, there was one thing that kept me from letting go of my confidence in God. It was the thought of a parent’s love for a child. I had this image in my mind of a mother with her little infant child, and I imagined what that love is and what it feels like to be the recipient of that love. And I realized that, even if all that religion teaches is false, the love that I have known in my own family between parent and child is real, and it is bigger than anything material that I understand. It is truly super-natural–something transcendent. And that little thread of experience is what kept me believing that God is. If God is that kind of love, I can believe.
When I was young, I had the good fortune to experience that love from a child’s perspective. Today I experience that love as a parent. Now, I am the mother holding my little infant in my arms and just feeling an overflowing of life and love. But, now that I am the parent, I have many moments when I am no longer sure that this kind of love is divine.
Because I have always imagined divine love as this logical, mature, level-headed kind of love—almost an unattached Buddhist sort of love that is free of anxiety, that does not cling to its object, but declares that all is well no matter what becomes of its recipient. But the love I feel for my daughter is not anything like that. Instead, it is this messy, desperate, anxious sort of love. A runs-to-the-crib-every-half-hour-to-make-sure-she’s-still-breathing kind of love. An anxiety-dreams-about-her-suffering kind of love. An absolutely-terrified-to-let-her-out-of-my-sight-because-she-just-means-so-very-much-to-me-and-everything-would-be-horror-and-grief-if-I-lost-her kind of love. I feel like my parental love is an overbearing, far too emotional, too attached kind of love. Surely God’s love–transcendent love–isn’t so desperate. Surely God can keep God’s cool even when we are teetering on the edge of self-annihilation.
But then I remember this one image that Jesus used for God in Luke 15. The one about the shepherd who had 100 sheep but noticed one day that one of those 100 was missing. And that shepherd left all those 99 other sheep to the dangers of the world so she could run frantically around the wilderness searching for that single confused sheep. That illogical, dangerous, unthinking love is the kind of love God has for us, according to Jesus.
So maybe God really is as desperate for us as a father or mother is for a child. Maybe divine love is as anxious and overbearing as my love for my daughter. When we teeter on the edge in life—when we get lost from our path—perhaps it is true that God really feels so messy and distracted to leave all the cares in the world to search after us.
So what would it mean to be the object of such a love? Today, I encourage you to go and live your life with this assumption: that you have a divine Father/Mother whose love for you is so irrational, so emotional, so desperate that God would go to the ends of the earth to find you. And make that assumption about every person you meet too. And see if that changes anything.
So he told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until she finds it? When she has found it, she lays it on her shoulders and rejoices. And when she comes home, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.