“Life is pain, Princess. Anyone who says otherwise is selling you something.” –The Princess Bride.
The most profound insights into the human condition come from the most unexpected places sometimes.
Life is pain.
That’s not all that life is, but life IS painful.
There is no Easter without Good Friday. I know many churches that do not celebrate Good Friday. They sanitize life and present a “rainbows and butterflies” Christianity that simply doesn’t resonate with the experience of the average person. They preach a health and wealth theology: if you’re good, if you have faith, nothing bad will happen to you. If you suffer, your “lens is dirty” and you must clean it (from sin) in order for God’s blessings to “shine through” and make your life better.
There is no greater rubbish preached in the world today than that. “Health and wealth” theology, the belief that being good is what brings blessings and being bad is what brings pain, is no friend to scripture. It is antithetical to the entire message of Christ, who tells us that we must “take up our cross” to follow Him. It stands as an affront to Paul, who so often spoke of his sufferings with joy, pointing to their importance in his Gospel message, and saying so eloquently that “I make up in my sufferings what is lacking in the suffering of Christ.”
The Book of Job discusses why bad things happen to good people; it ends without a satisfying answer. In the end, God explains only that God is God and Man is Man and we don’t understand. The Book of Jonah discusses why the evil prosper and also ends without a satisfying answer; bad people will do evil things and then continue to prosper.
Essentially, if I were to summarize the message of the Gospel about pain, it is this: you will suffer at the hands of others through no fault of your own. That’s life.
God didn’t promise that our lives would be easy. He promised that, if we believe, we will have true life—and so we do.
Yet, we are MORE than what life does to us. Even life is more than what happens in life.
Sadly, most people do not absorb that truth until much later in life because they endures the worst of their pain while they were children. This produces a spiritual hindrance that stalks a soul throughout her life because our parents are our first typological figure for God. Regardless of how we may feel as grown-ups, throughout our youth, it is our parents who teach us who God is simply by being who they are. It is their behavior towards us that will ultimately generate our later concept of how God interacts with humanity.
If your parents were strict and authoritarian, you learn to fear God; to attempt to appease God via manipulation. You will ultimately come to hate God, consciously or unconsciously, because you have been taught that you must excel in all undertakings in order to procure God’s love. That’s what they did with their parents, right? The people who were supposed to love them unconditionally?
What about neglectful parents? Children of such caregivers must wonder if there is even a God up there who cares what happens to them.
What about children of abusive parents? The very strictures of religion must feel to them like whips and chains keeping them from a God who wants them to be free from God.
What can we say about those with absentee parents? So many adults in this world treat God like an absentee father, a divorced dad, whom we visit on weekends but who has no relativity to the remainder of the week.
None of these images for God is real. They are idols we have unconsciously created in our minds because the most powerful beings we knew for our first decade-and-a-half of our lives left their psychological footprints in our souls. It isn’t our fault. It isn’t our sin that caused this conception of a tiny and implacable god.
So I need to tell you something that will be hard to hear at first, but here it goes:
The biggest lie we tell ourselves is that our parents loved us unconditionally.
Listen again: the biggest lie we tell ourselves is that our parents loved us unconditionally.
You’re probably horrified by this statement, so let me explain. Our parents are human. They got tired. They got frustrated. They had expectations. They were happier when we did well and angrier when we got emotional at the wrong times. They wanted the best for us and pushed us to do more and to excel. They punished us when we did wrong, sometimes unjustly. They overreacted, under-responded, forgot important things, threw away toys, hated some of our friends, and imposed silly rules based on their own fears and shortcomings.
In short, our parents were human and loved us as much as any human ever will, but that love wasn’t divine love, so it was certainly conditional.
Because human beings—fickle, egotistical, sinful, weak, and anxious human beings—were our first types for God, many of us have a warped view of who God is.
There’s an old joke about a famous theologian who dies and goes to heaven and meets God.
“Are you God?” the theologian says.
“Yes,” God replies.
“Then take me to your leader.”
We all suffer from idolatry, which is the worship of anyone or anything other than the true God. When you think God is some cosmological Santa Clause, or someone who demands a magical faith formula to stay out of hell, or even someone who will love you if you’re good—then you are guilty of idolatry. None of those beings is the One God, Living and True. They are idols, remnants of your childhood.
We must acknowledge our parents’ flaws, their selfishness, their pettiness, their sinfulness. Then we need to understand that God is not like our parents.
Toppling these particular idols is extremely painful. It requires us to accept two truths: no one ever loved us as much as we deserved to be loved and we did not deserve the bad things that happened to us.
Think about how deeply you’ve always believed those two lies: I got what I deserved and was loved as much as possible.
How devastating. How untrue.
God loves you in a way you will never comprehend. You cannot do one thing, ever, in any way, to make God love you any more than he does at this moment.
He will never tire of you. He expects you to be truly and completely you, free from sin, knowing Him, the True God of Life and Light.
Rudyard Kipling talked about how the slaughter of these small idols causes us pain, but is ultimately worth the struggle. He said (paraphrased): “when we realize that we have worshiped an idol rather than the real God, it is very painful. But we mustn’t lose heart, because it happens to a great many people. When the native finally realizes that his little wooden idol does not have the power to save him, it is not because there is no God. It is because the true God is not made out of wood.”
Think about who God is to you. Then ask yourself if the God you just described is worthy of worship. Is it a small god, one whom you’d dismiss as false if someone else described it to you? Does God make you anxious? Worried? Cold? Angry?
If so, you are not worshiping the true God. To worship Him is to be acutely aware of both His tremendous love for us and our inability to earn that love in any way.
God gazes at you like a newborn at its mother. God adores you—His gaze is so intensely ablaze with love that if He looked away from you for a second, you would cease to exist. It is love that holds you together in existence and love alone. That love is a free gift because God is love and He gives of Himself to all of creation.
God doesn’t love you because of who you are or what you’ve done. He adores you because of who God is and what God’s done.
You will never know a love like this in your lifetime: the love and peace that surpasses all understanding. But you can meditate everyday in the arms that cradle you, as the still small voice that whispers sweetly to your soul: “You are my beloved.”
And, one day, when you die and walk that road toward home, God will see you from afar.
And He will run to you with joy.
+Bishop Kristina Rake