Photo by Juan Ordonez on Unsplash
I’ve been exploring why it is challenging, to say the least, to give ourselves to loving God, let alone “with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength.” I mentioned in a previous essay that we live in an era that is fundamentally indifferent or hostile to the idea, leaving us embedded day and night in a world that discourages what it considers spiritual flights of fancy.
I also noted that God is not helpful in this matter. As Isaiah put it, God hides from us (Is. 45:15). Jesus said the path of faith is narrow. That is an understatement. In fact, God made it so narrow one could say it is about as easy to love God as it is for a camel to squirm through the eye of a needle. Again, by God’s design.
One reason for this is not hard to fathom. One key in loving God is disabusing ourselves of what we usually mean by “God.” Here we get into tricky territory. We are told in one way or another, time and again, that God is a very present help in times of trouble. True enough, thank God. But we habitually determine in our hearts and minds what that help will look like: God will defeat our enemy, God will bring us peace in our turmoil, God will give us a clear sense of direction, and so forth. God will solve our problems in a way that makes sense to us, in a way that will please us. God, in this view, attends to our wishes and solves our problems.
To be clear: God does solve many of our problems, not the least of which is our mortality. But God is not to be understood as a mere problem-solver. Contemporary Christianity so exalts this theme—in sermons and books and inspirational posters and verses of the day—that it is fair to say that our view of God has become primarily sentimental. We associate God’s name only with outcomes that help us feel warm and fuzzy. It’s no wonder so many, Christian and not, wrestle with the question, “Where is God when it hurts?”
If we grasped that God also works not only through relief, forgiveness, healing, and resurrection, but also through suffering, guilt, disease, and death, the question would never occur to us. It would enlarge our vision of who God is, and thus make it possible to love God—the true God and not our fairy-tale god—with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.
So far I have foisted the problem of loving God on the world and God himself. But we instinctively know that one big problem is us. I’m not talking about our various sinful habits or our inability to focus our hearts and minds on God. These are problems as far as they go.
This biggest problem is that we really don’t want to love God.
Presumably, those subscribing to and reading this newsletter, as well as the one writing it, all do want to love God. We all practice some form of daily devotion, regularly attend Sunday worship, strive to obey God’s commands, and make time to love our neighbors in the form of our families, the poor, and the community at large. I dare say some of us even have the reputation of being especially devout and religious.
And I suspect that many of us know it’s a sham. Again, I’m not talking about our habitually falling back into our favorite sins or our failure to keep our focus on God throughout the day. It’s that most days, and most hours of those days, we really don’t want God. Or even more to the point, we resent God.
I suspect some readers will doubt that assertion. But I will make another: Until we come to the point of understanding that we resent God and want nothing to do with him, we’re never going to be able to love him with every particle of our being.
Again, many may wonder, “How can you say this when I definitely experience a longing to know and love God?” I will not deny that longing. It is genuine and profound, and I believe that it is found in the breast of every human being, whether they know it or not. But we are divided souls, and another part of us is experiencing this: “God is both a nuisance and a disappointment, and I want nothing to do with him.”
He's a nuisance because he is so damn demanding, day in and day out, requiring us to daily examine our external actions and our internal motives, and raising the bar impossibly high: “Be holy as I am holy.” As if we’re supposed to be God-like.
Who wants that? Most days we just want to sit back in our easy chairs, munch on some Oreos, and mindlessly watch “America’s Got Talent.” It’s hard enough just to get through a day of work and volunteering, of dealing with kids or with our loneliness, of digesting the onslaught of bad news that social media throws at us, of managing our sadness and depression, which seem to be an inevitable result of the madness of the age we live in. And then along comes God making those impossible demands and, very often, not delivering on those seeming promises to make us feel good.
Who of us doesn’t time and again face a temptation—to luxuriate in food or alcohol, to linger too long on sexually arousing images, to buy more than we need, to lash out in anger at a loved one, to refuse to do the right thing in a given moment—and say to ourselves, “To hell with it!” And even though we’ve had a moment, and sometimes more than a moment, to recognize that what we are contemplating is wrong, we plunge ahead. We are, in that moment, essentially telling God and his commandments to take a hike.
This is one of the oldest insights about a relationship with God: It is often shaped by hostility.
Nathan the prophet, speaking for the Lord, shows the logical consequences of David’s sins:
Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. 10 Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me…. (2 Sam. 12:9-10)
We might imagine that the gravity of David’s sin warranted the charge of despising God, but note what Jesus says:
No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. (Mt. 6:24)
Older translations use the word mammon rather than wealth. It’s a more accurate translation of the Greek. Mammon is a catch-all term for money, riches, and material possessions, which constitute the molecules we breathe as 21st-Century Americans. Who of us does not lament our materialism? But not often do we equate our materialism, as Jesus did, with hating God.
So along with that genuine desire to know the Good, the True, and the Beautiful—this also is a deep desire: To be free from God.
The First Halting Step
As I said, until we come to recognize the depth and force of our resentment of the divine, we will not make much progress in our love of God. It’s the principal reason I have made such halting progress in loving God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength. I cannot simply say I want to love God but all these other things—sins, habits, and so forth—are making it hard for me to do the thing I really want. No, the problem is that my heart, soul, mind, and strength are deeply divided. As much as I want to love God, I also don’t want to love him.
This means that many days, the most honest prayer is not “God give me the strength to resist temptation,” but “God, I don’t really want to resist temptation; help me want to resist it.” Not “Help me to do your will this day,” but “God, I don’t really want to do your will today; help me want to do that.” Not “show me yourself, for I long for you,” but “God, help me want to long for you.”
If a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step, it seems to me this is that step: the first step in the spiritual journey toward God.
P.S. For those who missed the announcement regarding my new book about my journey to Roman Catholicism, check out my last Peripheral Vision.
Mark - I have enjoyed your writing for quite a while now. I don't know how this happens but I read 3 other email mediations regularly and they so often line-up on a given day that it seems somehow mystical. Here is the one that lined up with your thoughts today which I really appreciated yet found difficult to hear.
A Lenten Prayer
The Lenten season begins. It is a time to be with you, Lord, in a special way, a time to pray, to fast, and thus to follow you on your way to Jerusalem, to Golgotha, and to the final victory over death.
I am still so divided. I truly want to follow you, but I also want to follow my own desires and lend an ear to the voices that speak about prestige, success, pleasure, power, and influence. Help me to become deaf to these voices and more attentive to your voice, which calls me to choose the narrow road to life.
I know that Lent is going to be a very hard time for me. The choice for your way has to be made every moment of my life. I have to choose thoughts that are your thoughts, words that are your words, and actions that are your actions. There are not times or places without choices. And I know how deeply I resist choosing you.
Please, Lord, be with me at every moment and in every place. Give me the strength and the courage to live this season faithfully, so that, when Easter comes, I will be able to taste with joy the new life that you have prepared for me. Amen.
-- Henri Nouwen, Road to Daybreak
Goodness Mark, another spiritual punch to the gut of things. I would like everyone from the tradition I walked away from to read this and seriously consider the consequences.
I can see why so many would have an immediate knee jerk negative reaction to the implication that we "resent God", as if that would somehow offend Him and cause us to lose Godly favor points. I think God can take it...
I guess if I could add anything from my own experience, I've found that most of what I get angry with and resent God for are my own mistaken expectations of who I want Him to be...and, unfortunately for my own selfish misguided desires, He is not.
Many, many times I've wanted Him to be the one that could sweep down from heaven and fix my problems. If not the external ones, at least come into my head and "transform" me into a happy at all costs Christian.
I've had to learn the hard way that that's not how He works or who He is; and showing me my error and the truth behind it is the most loving thing He could possibly do for me.
So, if the cost of truly knowing and loving Him is my traveling the road of resentment and more than a few, "to hell with it"s coming out of my own erroneous thinking, then so be it. To shed my own misguided beliefs of who He is in exchange for who He really is seems a small, if many times profoundly annoying, price to pay.
Carry on, brother Mark.