We’ve had some birthdays in the Disoriented household this month; I have now been a father for four of my 30 years of life. I was not prepared for the numerous ways in which fatherhood changes a person. It’s not the same for everyone, I’m sure, but having children, especially daughters, changed the way I look at everything from movies and advertising to the Bible and God.
The latter is especially significant. The Bible describes God as a parent numerous times, ascribing to him the characteristics of both mother and father (we tend only to focus on the latter, to our discredit). Certainly, we have picked up that mantle. We often address God as “Father,” we talk about divine correction, we often analogize God’s actions with the actions of a parent.
But I don’t think you can really get a handle on God’s love until you experience what it’s like to love unconditionally as a parent – at least I couldn’t. My view of God has been radically reshaped by finally understanding the parental perspective on the actions of my children.
Perhaps one of the most damaging doctrines with which I was raised is the notion that God does not hear/listen to the prayers of those who have sinned. This notion is taken, as far as I can tell, from a single verse, Isaiah 59:2: “Your misdeeds have separated you from God. Your sins have hidden his face from you, so that you aren’t heard.”
Perhaps you wouldn’t be surprised to learn that’s taken just a smidgen out of context. Here are the first four verses of Isaiah 59:
Look! The Lord does not lack the power to save,
nor are his ears too dull to hear,
but your misdeeds have separated you from your God.
Your sins have hidden his face from you
so that you aren’t heard.
Your hands are stained with blood,
and your fingers with guilt.
Your lips speak lies;
your tongues mutter malice.
No one sues honestly;
no one pleads truthfully.
By trusting in emptiness and speaking deceit,
they conceive harm and give birth to malice.
It goes on like that for eight verses. We’ve taken a lengthy passage detailing God’s description of and response to the systemic corruption of ancient Judah and applied it literally to each of us personally. There’s plenty of modern, personal application to be had from Isaiah 59, but using one verse to support a doctrine of God choosing to ignore us when we try to pray? That’s a stretch.
Which isn’t to say God’s just fine with sin, and if we continue to sin chronically and unapologetically, I think there’s a natural separation we feel from God. But I think all of us would agree that God does not expect perfection from us, nor is his love conditioned on how well we please him. Yet the doctrine I described above is not all that far away from saying, “God only loves you when you’re perfect.” After all, if God won’t even listen to us without the proper confessions first, how much love could he really have? If someone I care about is dying, and I pray for healing, does God stick his fingers in his ears because I haven’t repented of coveting my neighbor’s new car yesterday? Is that love?
Becoming a father has shown me that no, that’s not love – and since it’s not love, it can’t be what God, the very personification of love, does. The Bible certainly calls us to confession and repentance, but nowhere is God’s love or even his ability to listen predicated on our ability to be sinless at the time we start talking to him. I try to listen to every word my daughters say, regardless of whether they have fully grasped the weight of their transgressions from moments ago. If one of them stubs her toe on her way to time out, I’m not going to make her finish time out, apologize and repent before I comfort her and kiss her foot.
But maybe that’s not even the right comparison. I’m thinking of preschoolers, but I wonder if we shouldn’t lower ourselves down a notch and say that compared to God, we’re more like toddlers.
I was struck by this notion when reading Honest Toddler’s beautiful post about his (her?) DaDa:
Sometimes I’m naughty. My hands hit. Screams. I break things. And you keep coming home.
I throw food across the room. Spill yogurt on your toys. Draw on your favorite papers. Do bad smelling things in the bath. And you keep coming home.
I push away from your chest and twist my body towards mama, mama only, mama up. And you keep coming home.
You keep choosing me.
Why does God keep choosing us? Because he loves us. Not because we please him all the time. Not because we approach him during some theoretical window between confession and our next sin. But simply because we are his children.
Sometimes I get so scared as I stare out the window in the long afternoons hoping each car speeding past our street is yours, imagining you never coming back. Finding a new baby who listens.
I must be very special. I must be good if you want to play with me.
Indeed, we are very special. Indeed, God considers us good. “Very good.” Even when we’re not perfect.