One of my former pastors used a blessing at the end of the weekly worship service that contained the following line: “May the God who loves you take delight in your living.” I found the line striking because it contrasted sharply with ways I had learned to think about God. I had conceived of God’s attitude toward me as mostly critical, focusing on my failures. I was taught, of course, that God would forgive, but the attitude I imagined God taking was a kind of tolerant acceptance of someone who constantly screws things up. The thought that God might actually find enjoyment in the way I lived didn’t fit at all with the critical and judging ways I imagined to dominate God’s attitude.
Accompanying the idea that God focused on my failures was the thought that I should think of myself in the same way. I had been told to think of myself as a miserable sinner whose only hope was that God would be willing to accept me despite my failures. To receive God’s grace, I needed to realize vividly the ways I had missed the mark, not whitewashing the bad things about me. I don’t deny the importance of critical self-examination. But attending excessively to my failures was hardly conducive to developing a positive self-image. In fact, the implicit warning I received was that positive assessments would have been a sure sign of pride.
So, the thought that God might find something in me that could evoke delight was not one I had entertained. Considering it was like a shift in perspective. Perhaps God wasn’t like the critical parent I had imagined who couldn’t see past my flaws and felt the need to constantly offer correction. In the blessing the pastor used, the delight God takes is connected with God’s love. That makes sense. We find something valuable in the things we love that evokes our enjoyment. It’s hard to think of a parent who finds nothing to value and, hence, nothing to enjoy in her children as genuinely loving them. So, if we think of God as being like a good parent, maybe there is something wrong in imagining that God’s focus is so much on what is wrong with us that God is unable to find in us a source of enjoyment.
Parents who have nothing good to say about their children and who constantly remind them of all their bad qualities don’t strike most of us as models of love. It’s an all too common story to find children struggling to gain an expression of parental approval that never comes. And parental assessments of our flaws can sometimes have devastating effects. We can sometimes remember their condemnations for the rest of our lives. No doubt in many of these cases the parent’s habitual focus on what needs correction is well intentioned, and it often stems from the absence of good role models. Nevertheless, we all yearn for approval, especially from those who claim to love us.
Still, how could God take delight in the living of someone who frequently behaves in unworthy ways? To me it doesn’t seem far-fetched to think that God’s attitude might be like Jesus’s attitude when he says of those who have orchestrated his unjust execution, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” I don’t take Jesus to be accepting the ordinary excuse, “I didn’t know.” I take him instead to be recognizing that humans are caught up in social systems that have distorted their awareness. Social science research shows that people who do bad things typically think they are good people who are motivated by good reasons. So, perhaps we can credit God with the recognition that it is difficult to overcome the self-deception that is pervasive in human life.
What stands out in Jesus is an eagerness to extend compassion and forgiveness to those who have strayed from the path. Underlying his instruction to his followers to forgive is the thought that getting more than you deserve can trigger a redemptive process that puts a person back on the path. Jesus’s parable that describes rejoicing at the return of the prodigal gives expression to his focus on welcoming us back, rather than rubbing our nose in the dirt about our failures. It is the elder brother in the parable who displays the judgmental attitudes that often dominate our images of God. But this attitude is in sharp contrast with the attitude Jesus explicitly attributes to God.
During a time of crisis in my life, I was helped by an elderly woman in my church. Every time I went to see her, I came away feeling better. At first, I didn’t recognize why talking to her had this effect, but on reflection it became apparent that she had an unusual ability to notice my strengths and call them to my attention. I suspect that her ability was a result of practicing a way of attending to other people that made her aware of their potentials for good. She noticed things that someone habitually inclined to pick out faults would likely miss. What she affirmed in me gave me more confidence that potentials I had thought I possessed were genuine.
What would it mean to replace the judgmental images of God we carry with us with the thought that God sees through our weaknesses and attends to what we can be? What would it mean to think that instead of harping on each failure, God is able to experience delight at the baby steps we take toward developing our talents and showing concern for others? The point here is not that we don’t sometimes need correction. It is that thinking of God as focused primarily on correcting our faults is conducive to a response of fear that tends to crowd out the kind of response that is possible when we recognize that we are loved and that we can be a source of delight.
For a fuller discussion of this issue, see chapter 11 of Changing Your Mind Without Losing Your Faith (Divine Judgment and Punishment).