This week, we continue our series Ask Mission Central, where we tackle real questions on spiritual life from emerging Christian leaders. Subscribe to get the next post in your inbox!
Ask Mission Central: Question Six
“How does God think and feel about me?”
Am I liked?
Am I loved?
Am I known?
These are the aching questions of the human heart. We are remarkably fragile, for all our resilience in the face of challenge. We need the shelter of affirmation and affection. For those of us who seek to follow Jesus, these questions and needs inevitably point us to God. If we could, we might even put a note in the mail to heaven: “Do you like me? Check yes or no.”
Of course, our own thoughts and feelings about God influence how we perceive his thoughts and feelings about us. So that’s a good starting place: What images of God hang on the walls and stand in the corners of our imaginations?
The “Sky Bully”
Joss Whedon (the writer-director whom we thank for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, The Avengers . . . and Rex from Toy Story) describes the deity he doesn’t believe in as “the Sky Bully.” This epithet is striking in light of Whedon’s own experiences with bullying in boarding school. It’s a witty and poignant confession: However God has been presented to me, or however best I can make sense of him, he must be a cosmic sadist, throwing his weight around because he can, and apparently enjoying it.
Although we might be quick to object to this description of God’s character, it’s worth pausing our defensive response and asking, “Do I ever think about God that way?” Even if we espouse a conviction in a God of love, in the secret places of our mind and heart, other pictures can surface. Philosopher and theologian Dallas Willard was speaking to Christians when he said:
See, this is a part of the imagery that comes in the tradition: God is mad all the time. You hear people say, ‘God is good all the time.’ [But they really think:] ‘No, he’s mad all the time. Good mad.’
It may be helpful to stop for a moment and ask, what do I really believe about God today? What doubts surface, if I let them? What unanswered questions gnaw at me? We might also ask, where do these troubled thoughts and feelings come from? There might be particular experiences that weigh on us, things that shape our spiritual imagination whether we want them to or not.
As we consider our own thoughts and feelings about God, we can also welcome specific words that describe him in Scripture. One that repeatedly appears on the pages of the Bible is compassion. This is an expression closely related to love, but conveying its affective dimension—that is, the felt-ness of love. This compassion is not limited to God’s people or even to human beings generally; it also describes God’s disposition toward plants and animals, and even inanimate creatures like rocks and stars:
- “Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young— a place near your altar, Lord Almighty” (Psalm 84:3 NIV).
- “He determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name” (Psalm 147:4 NIV)
- “The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made” (Psalm 145:9 NIV).
The Hebrew word translated “compassion” here has roots in the word for a mother’s womb. Similarly, we read in the New Testament, that when Jesus “saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36 NIV). The Greek word for “compassion” in this passage is used in other places to describe gut-wrenching weeping. These are the kinds of earthy, primal words Scripture uses to help us get some purchase on God’s feelings about us. It’s in-your-gut love.
Who God’s Love is For
We might also wonder whether God feels differently about different people. It’s true that God confronts evil and injustice by executing judgment on the oppressor. Yet even this wrath is presented within the context of God’s care for the oppressed. God’s love for every person is interlaced through the pages of Scripture in union with his judgment.
For example, in his teaching ministry, Jesus draws on the passages like those above about God’s care for animals to emphasize just how much God loves human beings: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:29-31 NIV). Dallas Willard’s comment on this passage always makes me laugh: “Have you ever tried to price someone in terms of birds? Perhaps five sparrows, a hawk, two cockatoos, and a bald eagle?” (210).
Our “Yes” and God’s Love
At the same time, in order for God’s love to “take” in someone’s life, they have to say “yes” to it. This is true in human relationships, too: Someone may act as a good friend to you, but the intimacy of true friendship will escape you unless you reciprocate. That’s why the Scriptures spend the most ink not on God’s general love for humanity, but rather on God’s covenantal love for his people: A love that binds together God with those he has delivered from sin and death, with those who have said “yes” to him.
That love also binds together all the members of the covenant people with each other. In the Bible, you’ll read of God’s love for you, but not for you by yourself. The place where we encounter God’s love is among his people; it’s within his covenantal love that we discover what God really thinks and feels about us.
Imagining God’s Love
In our last post, I talked about how receiving God’s love is a process we have an active role in. As we take stock of the images of God that occupy the landscape of our mind and heart, we can also trace and retrace the outlines of images that are faithful to the Scriptural teaching on his compassion for all creation and covenantal love for his people.
Of the many pictures from the poetry and stories of the Bible, five come to mind:
1. God loves us the way a sculptor loves her work.
The apostle Paul describes us as “God’s handiwork” (Ephesians 2:10 NIV). This is an artistic expression that might be used to describe a painting, sculpture, or poem. The author of Genesis imagines God sculpting Adam, “Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living person” (2:7 NASB). My friend Tamara is a potter, and when she hosts her annual Christmas sale you can feel, as she hands over her lovely vases and bowls, a tinge of regret that she has to give them up. There’s a natural affection even for these clay housewares, because they are her handiwork. Imagine so much more the affection God must hold for the masterpiece that is every human person!
2. God loves us the way a mama bear loves her cubs.
Woe betide the one who threatens a mama bear’s cubs! There’s a defensive energy that preserves safety and well-being for the vulnerable built into her DNA. God feels just such energy to protect his children from anyone and anything that threatens them. The psalmist recounts the history of the people of Israel by saying, “He allowed no one to oppress them; for their sake he rebuked kings: ‘Do not touch my anointed ones; do my prophets no harm’” (105:14-15 NIV). That also means that God will confront the physical, social, and spiritual forces that threaten us today, including disease, injustice, demonic oppression, and our own sin. That confrontation may be fierce, even harrowing; God’s love is not just a pleasant affection, but also muscular and bold for the sake of his children’s good.
3. God loves us the way a goofy dad loves his toddlers.
If it’s not irreverent to imagine God being a little goofy, I think that kind of zany affection you see in certain parents is hinted at in several places in Scripture. The well-beloved words of Zephaniah 3:17 come to us in the context of searing, serious poetry:
The Lord your God is in your midst,
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing. (ESV)
Even so, “loud singing” can be imagined in a variety of ways, can’t it? The whimsy of a dad tucking in his kids at night with loud singing comes to mind. The Bible is replete with humor, which also seems to convey something of God’s zany love for us.
4. God loves us the way fast friends love each other.
Friend is a word of mutuality. A parent has a child, and that relationship is defined by the differences between a parent and a child. But a friend has a friend, and that relationship is defined by the things they hold in common and do for each other. That makes the notion of being God’s friend counterintuitive.
Trying to envision the full extent of God’s personal capacities and character is a fool’s errand; he is so far beyond us it boggles the mind. The gap between our experience and his is far wider than that between a parent and a child. For all that, he is willing to call us his friends, to invite us to some measure of mutuality.
Abraham, our father in faith, with whom God made his covenant, was called “God’s friend” (James 2:23 NIV). And as Jesus renewed that covenant for all his disciples, he also called them his friends. Consider how this mutuality can reframe our interactions with God. If you’ve neglected a life of prayer and feel convicted about it, is your primary feeling a failure of duty? What if instead, you considered that Jesus just misses you?
5. God loves us the way a husband loves his dying wife.
Marriage is one of the most common biblical metaphors for God’s love for us. The whole prophetic book of Hosea centers on this theme, again evoking God’s compassion as he speaks to his people Israel: “I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion” (2:19 NIV). In the New Testament, Jesus is presented as the husband, with the church as the wife: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25 NIV).
One of the most concrete ways that Christian spouses embody this image is when one faces the ravages of prolonged, terminal illness. I think of the example of Robertson McQuilkin, who resigned from his university presidency eight years early in order to care for his wife Muriel full-time as she slowly progressed through the stages of Alzheimer’s. God loves us like that: with both affectionate tenderness and unflappable day-in, day-out faithfulness, to the end.
We See God’s Love for Us in Jesus
That metaphor of self-sacrificial love finds its power in the literal self-sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. That is the image that we most need to inhabit and adorn our imaginations. Jesus’ body, breathing and giving up the last breath—that is the best answer to the question, “How does God think and feel about me?” In the same talk of Dallas Willard’s mentioned above, he went on:
[But they really think:] ‘No, he’s mad all the time. Good mad.’ That is just not God. The miracle is not that God loves me; it would be a miracle if he didn’t love me, because he is love. That’s God’s basic nature—will to good.
What a thought! God cannot not love you. It’s who he is. Jesus’ sacrifice can persuade you, every part of you, that that’s really true. Henri Nouwen put it like this in his book Letters to Marc About Jesus: “Everything that Jesus has done, said, and undergone is meant to show us that the love we most long for is given to us by God, not because we deserved it, but because God is a God of love” (58). What a gift.
Good Friday is a week from tomorrow, and Easter comes quick on its heels. Take time to linger on the thoughts and feelings God reveals to you in Jesus as you journey with him to the cross and on to the resurrection.