In last week's post I talked about my set up for my parish mission, which answers the question, "What happens when a child feels like their parent is disappointed in him?"
The first response is what I call "Polite Avoidance."
You aren't a jerk to him, but you certainly do not desire to spend time with him regularly. You will send the birthday card or visit for Thanksgiving or Christmas because that is the polite thing to do. But you aren't happy about it. Such visits do not bring joy. You just want it to be over so you can avoid him again.
To me, this is the Christmas and Easter crowd spirituality. We go to Church from time to time because it is the dutiful, polite thing to do. Mass is a joyless event and not a lifegiving encounter, and we are happy when it's over and we can get back to football or food or our families. Such a person recognizes a need for "God in my life" but doesn't want a relationship with God. After all, somewhere in the back of his or her mind, God is disappointed in him or her.
The second response is "Hostile Rejection."
This is best summed up in the phrase, "You don't want me? Then I don't want you." I told the story about a man whose father was disappointed in his choice of career, so he moved from Korea to America, not knowing a word of English, in order to get away from his dad. He never saw him again and never spoke to him again. Living in a home with his father's disappointment had so hurt and jaded him that the only remedy was to move to the other side of the world. Gone are the notions of politeness and dutifullness, replaced by the feeling of hate and rejection.
People come to this place with God usually through a huge wound, tragedy, or suffering that they have experienced in their lives. Physical and sexual abuses, especially when suffered as a child, will generate such a response in people. They aren't atheists. They think God exists and they hate Him. The hostile rejecter wishes God to be dead and lives accordingly, but there is always the fact that God isn't dead that pushes against them, causing either the individual to reject God even more, or to eventually lead to a home coming.
I met such a woman when I was in younger that I will never forget. She suffered an extremely painful miscarriage and blamed God for it. She wanted answers to the question "Why?" but never found one that satisfied. She would get so angry that she would see red when she walked by a Catholic Church. In a stirring conversation at a dive bar I told her that I had no answers for her, only the crucifix. I could never answer with complete satisfaction the Why question, but I said this: "Christ suffers with you and Christ suffered with your daughter." Crying hot tears, she left and that was the end of it. Three years later the answer of the Crucified One sank from her head to her heart, and she converted. But her rage was real for years. She hated the God that she felt to her core was so disappointed in her that He got even by taking the life of her baby girl.
But the third response is the worst response of all and is the most dangerous in the spiritual life.
The third response is that of being a Good-Enough Earner.
Some kids feel like their fathers are disappointed in them because they aren't good enough: not a good enough athlete, musician, student, worker. So they respond by doing everything in their power to be good enough for dad. They choose certain majors or entire careers. They dump husbands or wives, boyfriends or girlfriends, in the hopes of being good enough for dad's approval. They do all of this in the hope that, finally, I will be good enough for dad to love me.
Imagine who this is in our Catholic faith. These are the people who think that they will strive to be good enough for God to finally accept them, approve of them, and love them. They really hope to be good enough by the day they die to make it in to Heaven. They create and run through the checklists of works to be done in order to be good enough for God: weekly or even daily Mass attendance (check!), rosary praying (check!), vote pro-life (check!), toss money to the Church (check!). On the surface, they are doing everything right, but they are so motivated from the completely wrong image of who God really is and how God views them.
As I studied on this more, I realized that this viewpoint has shaped religious systems throughout world history. God, the gods, goddesses, or some other form of the deity is not pleased with me. I'm a nothing to him/her/them/it, so I have to get the deity's attention. Fasting and praying isn't enough, especially when confronted with guilt from not following the deity's will perfectly. A sacrificial system gets introduced to deal with the guilt. If I kill a goat, o ye gods, then am I good with you? Will I have earned your approval then? What about 2 goats? What about 10 goats? The high acheiver among us will then become a goat-killing machine to earn approval or to garner favor. Whatever it takes to get dad to stop being disappointed with me.
All these responses are false, because they lie about God.
That these responses characterize world religions makes perfect sense. World religions are man's seek for God and man's attempt to understand God. All of this equates to the natural religious impulse in human nature that is at once aware of the natural law of right and wrong, and the immediate follow-up awareness that one has broken such moral laws. This sinfullness leads to guilt, which leads to the notion that God is disappointed with me, which leads to systems to transfer guilt to the goats.
But what if we have it all wrong about God? Our sinfulness drives us away from God, but what if it doesn't drive God away from us?
The unique thing about our Catholic Christian faith is that God pursues us, it's peculiarity, is that we discover God pursuing humanity. In fact, the whole Genesis account is the unfolding this unique relationship that God has with His people, Adam and Eve. In fact, the whole point is that God made us for Himself, for His good pleasure. As St. Augustine says, "You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You."
From Genesis we see this dueling duality: God pursues man, man's sin pulls us from God. That felt distance from God causes man to seek a remedy from his own abilities and environment in order to rectify the situation, but it only ends up driving us further away from Him. So God pursues humanity further up and farther in, until we arrive at the drama of the Incarnation. And so there we have it.
The fourth response is that of reception.
The fourth response to God is not to avoid, to reject, or even to earn, but to receive. This is the only possibly correct response to the truth about God, humanity, and oneself. The truth about God that all of the others get wrong is that God is pursuing us because God is in love with us. "God is love" (1 Jn 4:8). The analogy with our earthly dads breaks down because they are capable of pettiness, of evil, of being a jerk. But our heavenly Father is not.
I say it is "reception" because the fundamental stance that God has towards you and I is one of love. For many of us operating out of the guilt and disappointment paradox of religion, we ask ourselves "What does God want from me?" It's a good question, but not good enough. The real question that God reveals is this: "What does God want for me?" If this question was at the foundation of our belief in God, then it would change so much. Gone would be the attitude of the Good-Enough Earner because God is pouring Himself out to me already. All I have to do is receive it, not earn it. Besides, how could one earn Heaven or forgiveness? How much should I beat myself up for my own sins until God says, "Great! You've finally hit the maximum score of discouragement and self-pity! Enter into My rest."?
I believe that many Catholics have not received God's saving love into their hearts and lives. I don't believe that many Catholics have in their fundamental religious attitude towards God a conviction that God is for them and not against them. We live in the shadows of our fathers and even if our fathers are great, there is that element whereby we project onto God this father-disappointment we think He has for us. It causes distortions in our faith, leading to an eventual distaste or even hatred for it.
The conclusion is the same as it has always been. God loves the world that He sent His Son. The drama of the Incarnation and then the Crucifixion is the demonstartion that humanity needed to see in order to know Dad ain't mad, but also that Dad wants things to change.
See, just because God is in love with me, that doesn't excuse the horror of my own sinfulness. In fact, God's love for me, if it is received, is the only thing that can drive away from my weak and tattered heart the sin which is cleaves onto. The fear of disappointing Dad is driven out by the love Dad has for us. It is this reception that leads me to repetance, to detest my sins. It is God's love that becomes for me the overwhelming impluse to put to death the deeds of the flesh in order to have life in the Spirit.
In short, this radical love of God doesn't do away with the evilness of sin, but rather makes the possible the reality of mercy. And mercy can never be earned, only received. And that's what my parish mission was about.