I wonder sometimes why it’s so hard for me to feel loved, or to love someone else. Sometimes, when the intimacy level rises in some way – say, between me and my wife, even just in some subtle way in a conversation – I can perceive an almost imperceptible unease that comes over me. I think about how undemonstrative my parents were in many ways, and wonder if that’s the cause. Predictably, my next thought is a question – “Am I perpetuating this situation with my own children?” I’m not that demonstrative myself.
Some people just seem to rejoice in God’s love so easily. They feel it. It warms their hearts. It encourages them. How is that? Sometimes I secretly suspect that they’re just faking it. I’m usually all “up in my head.” I can give you all the proofs that God loves me, but I’m talking about feeling it. Sometimes I just suppose that if I were just less stiff-necked towards God, I would feel it then – but would I? Is this a common problem?
Anyway, in a time of silent prayer, I was listening for God to somehow give me something on this. It was real quiet. Then, I have to admit, I seemed to have sort of an epiphany as my love for my four sons came to mind. First, let me compare that parental love to married love.
In married love husband and wife become “one flesh.” Their interests are joined. As is often said as a wedding, “You’re joys and sorrows will be shared alike.” According to the Bible, their lives of active love lived for the each other should rise above the ups and downs of life. We’re called to love our spouses unconditionally, as God has loved us in Christ. We’re called to love each other (to take care of each other) as we care for ourselves. We must be reminded, exhorted and commanded to love in this way, which says something about us and the nature of man. Doesn’t it? We’ve chosen to live with one person from all the people who inhabit the planet – because we love that person – and we still have to be reminded, exhorted and commanded to love them. (And statistics and our experience prove the necessity of such divine insistence.) But here is what I want to consider – the “feeling” of love by married people. We know that feelings come and go, and that we can’t trust them to govern our choices. We know that acting in loving ways will often lead to loving feelings, and we know that feelings can be valuable to us in understanding ourselves and even what God is saying to us. But I’m talking about something else. I’m talking about how either spouse’s “feeling” love for the other is often conditional or contingent. It’s counter to instinct (It’s instinctive for me to love myself.), and it’s counter to the nature of things in a fallen world (which again is for me to focus on myself and my needs). I suppose this is just two ways of saying the same thing.
And this is where my love for my sons, and your love for your child or children come in. It seems to me that this love is quite different. I don’t have to be exhorted or commanded to love my sons, in fact the Bible assumes I will. Parents just love their children. (Take this like a Biblical proverb. Of course there are exceptions, but this is a generally true and reliable guide.) You might have a child who merits a bumper sticker proclaiming his greatness, or one you’d rather not talk about because he’s in rehab again or prison. You might have a child that is your best friend, or idolizes you, or you might have one that won’t come for holidays and wants nothing to do with you. No matter. In either case, if you’re a typical parent, you love that child more than anything in the world.
A parent’s love for a child differs from married love in just that way – and I’m talking now about active love (doing loving things) and feelings of love. A parent’s love isn’t conditional or contingent. There is nothing your child could do that would make you stop loving them. It’s not something we struggle to do, or need to be reminded to do. It’s something we can’t stop doing. Our acts of love flow out of these feelings of love – feelings that are rooted in instinct and the nature of things. (Even my natural inclination to put myself first, and my sinful selfish egocentrism fail to overcome this love of mine.) In almost all cases, parents love their children no matter what. It’s that simple. When the Bible says “as a Father has compassion on his children” it’s appealing to this obvious reality.
When I try to explain my love for my children in words, it sounds like this: I love them so much that it hurts. Probably until they have children of their own, and maybe not even for a long time then, they can’t even fathom it. I would do anything for them, including gladly giving my life. They mean more to me than anything in this world. I know I will always love them like this, and that nothing they could ever do or choose to be could change that. I wish them only the best, and one of the most painful things for me as their father, is wanting so much more for them and not having the ability to help them.
Well, this is the epiphany I mentioned earlier. It dawned on me. This painful love of a parent for his child is the way God loves me. I think this is the most powerful analogy that he makes – the parent-child analogy – not the husband-wife analogy to describe his love for us. (I’m aware that the church is the bride of Christ, and that God married his chosen people Israel, but the way these analogies work is different, and I don’t think they help as effectively with the question I’m raising.)
Am I “feeling” the love of God for me? I can think about Christ’s laying down his life for me. I can meditate on the significance of the bread and wine in the Last Supper. I can think about how fearfully and wonderfully made I am, or about how the Biblical story is all about him being “God with me” – and in this age, “God in me.” I can meditate on all these truths (and more!), and I should. But for me, what hits me on the most visceral level, is thinking that the way I love my sons is the way God loves me. There is no ought, no altruism, no struggle in that love of mine. It’s an incredible, unparalleled force of nature in the truest sense – and I mean that in this way, that God has created me in such a way that I will love my sons. That I will love my sons. And why would he do that? For the survival of the race, no doubt, but more importantly, so that I would understand his love for me. My feelings of love for my four sons reflect God’s desire that I would fathom my heavenly father’s love for me. That’s why I’m that way. God loves his children. I’m created in his image. I love my children. My feelings of love for my children – those instinctive, most powerful of all feelings – mirror how God feels about me. To this I can relate. This actually does help me to “feel” it and understand it in a unique way – and in a new way, maybe I can believe. It makes sense to me. I know these feelings of a parent. I know how powerful they are. I know how indestructible they are. They are “loyal love” feelings. These are God’s feelings towards me.
So, I’m “feeling” it more now, and each time I look at, or pray for, or think about my children, I’ll be feeling it again.