I remember the precise moment I first made the realization. One of my three daughters was a freshman in high school — and she was in that give-me-money-and-no-one-gets-hurt stage of adolescence. You know, the sullen sneer, the flick of the hair, the disdain that asked if we could PUHLEESE get a less embarrassing car. One Saturday, she walked down the stairs, made some pronouncement that should have made us bolt out of our chairs, salute, and run to fulfill her wishes. Silly us. We didn’t.
More than once I thought my wife and I should be done with the charade and simply don maid and butler outfits. My wife’s voice is now in my ear reminding me to say that our three girls may have had their moments but most of the time they were (and are) wonderful human beings and a lot of fun. What’s not to love? They are so adorable.
But this was one of “those moments.” My daughter (I can’t say which one or I will be in more trouble than I already am) stood on the bottom stair, glaring at us with all the respect that week-old road-kill deserves. After she ran out of the house, I turned to my wife and said, “I don’t like her, Janet. I love her but I don’t like her right now, in this stage.”
Admitting this felt liberating. I had named the un-named truth. I had pointed a finger at the hairy elephant in the room: my lack of heartfelt affection and the accompanying guilt. Saying it, naming it, did a strange thing for me. It helped me see myself more clearly, and it moved me to address the situation. I knew just what to do. I threw her belongings into the street and changed the locks.
What I did was make a helpful distinction: We don’t always like what we love. And though we can act lovingly without heartfelt affection, we are fooling ourselves to think that a begrudging love is what we should settle for, or that it is, in fact, some kind of admirable “martyr-love.” It may be the best we can do at times but it is not the best we can do.
So, given this love-like dilemma, I’m asking, do you like God? Odd question, eh? Perhaps that’s part of what makes it worthwhile.
Asking “Do you like God?” may help us see how restricted our view of God’s love really is. “Of course, I like God,” you say. “How could I not? I love God.” Although this answer may very well represent a depth of commitment and affection that needs no challenge, it just might reveal a view of “love” that looks a lot like “duty.” For many of us, to love God is to do the expected, “right” things. It’s to read the Bible, go to church, pray, and blah, blah, blah. Sounds like Golde in Fiddler on the Roof. Her husband Tevye asks, “Do you love me?” and Golde lists a dozen things she’s done for him. He’s not satisfied. When love is reduced to duty, who is? In a marriage, if love is mere duty, the union is often in trouble. When my “I love God” is no more than an expression of duty-bound routine, I may need to take a look at what I mean by love.
But, you say, isn’t duty-love better than no love? Certainly! I would rather that Janet be patient even when she feels like slugging me in the chops. She would rather that I walk the dog than wait for some “pure motive” for canine-responsibility. At the same time, I know this isn’t the highest good.
I see moral choices this way: Doing evil and enjoying it is the worst moral end. For example, I could relish every syllable of a tasty bit of gossip. One step up is doing evil and hating it. I gossip but immediately regret it and wish I had more discipline. Next is doing good and hating it, the worst form of doing good. I keep the gossip to myself but only because of what you might think of me if I told you. Inside, I’m dying to let it out. Doing good out of habit is a step up. I hold my tongue because I know I should. Christ’s followers don’t gossip. End of discussion. But surely doing good because we like doing the good, because we enjoy it, is better yet. What if I chose not to gossip because I enjoy the way trustworthy speech affects my community? Wouldn’t it be better if I actually prefer open and healthy conversation?
So, if “liking the loving choice” is true for the way I act in my community, wouldn’t it also be true in my love for God? Wouldn’t liking God be a terrific way, in fact the best way, to love God?
Asking “Do you like God?” may help us see our lack of affection for God. Do I like God? The question reminds me of Annie Dillard’s discussion of writing. A young person asks, “Do you think I could be a writer?” The writer answers, “I don’t know. Do you like sentences?” Dillard then says that an artist should like the “stuff” of his or her art, the words or the paint. Though the analogy may seem absurd, “God” is the “stuff” of spiritual life. If we don’t like Him, we may be more similar to the art critic than to the artist. We talk about God but we don’t like Him enough to enjoy talking with Him directly.
But if I’m honest, I don’t always like God — I get mad at Him about my neighbor’s lingering disease, my friend’s depression, and my chronic insomnia. And I don’t always like the silence of God. I wish He were more talkative, more straightforward, more flashing-lights-in-the-sky-that-I-couldn’t-miss. David often seems to say as much: “To you I call, O LORD, my Rock; do not turn a deaf ear to me. For if you remain silent, I will be like those who have gone down to the pit” (Psalm 28:1).
At the same time, I know that when I like God, His world, His providence, His activity in my life, I love Him more deeply too. I want to like God — just as I wanted a more palpable affection to return for my daughter. How did this liking return? I hung out with her. I praised her good qualities. I looked for her in the activities of my day. And that’s how affection returns for God too. I can work on liking God more, even though I may never stop loving Him.
Asking “Do you like God?” may help us to think about God liking us. I hope this doesn’t sound too touchy-feely. But what I mean is that, for some strange reason, saying that “God likes me” has more punch than “God loves me.” Maybe it’s because “the love of God” is an overused phrase. Maybe it’s because I think that since I am “supposed to” love God, I think that God has no choice but to love me. He’s “supposed to.” Yet Jesus called his disciples “friends” (John 15:15).
To say that God likes me as well as loves me, that He has genuine affection for me, actually overwhelms me. Would Jesus put his arm around me and say, “Hey, everyone, I can’t wait for you to meet my friend, Greg!” I struggle to imagine this. Why? Because I often act toward God as a sullen teenager. I treat Him no better than a butler or a maid. I ask Him to do things for me, shrug when He doesn’t, and then go about my day ignoring Him. If I knew that God actually liked me, I just might snap out of my sullenness.
I have a hunch that growing out of that phase would be a gift for any Father.
Copyright 2007 Gregory Spencer. All rights reserved.