We often pray to God as our Father for things that we think would very much improve our lives, yet we usually find ourselves empty-handed afterward. We are told to pray harder, so we try that, but the results are the same. Church leaders might suggest that we give more, and though we rightly smell a rat, we very marginally increase our giving just to test this hypothesis, but again find that nothing changes. So, how can God be our Father if he doesn’t give us what we want?
Of course, not even our natural parents should be judged by whether they provide everything that we ask for. The son who phones Mom asking for $400 but whose hands are shaking with heroin withdrawal comes to mind. He claims that he needs it to pay his state income tax, but Mom glances at her “excuses” list and sees that he used that one just three weeks back. While drug addicts are pretty creative in their justifications, their memories on which excuse they used with which person can be fairly shoddy. Mom will likely say no to her son, understanding that enabling his heroin addiction is not parental love, since parental love seeks the good of the child.
We really don’t want what God wants for us, what is our truest good. What we want is neither what is dreadfully harmful (like heroin) nor what makes us into saints (like love reminders) but instead those extra little things that take some of the edge off of life.
Okay, so obviously, if we ask God for heroin money, he isn’t going to give it to us. But are the things we are actually asking for all that much better? Think about what God wants for us, what our true good is: namely to love him with our whole selves and to love our neighbors as ourselves. If you ask God to specifically help you fulfill those two objectives, prepare yourself for a shock, because the next time you are in a position to sacrifice your choice for your spouse, or forgive your boss, or avoid anger with your son, you’re going to find this tiny little awareness that, “Guess what, this is it: this is the choice you asked for help with!” At which point you will find that you haven’t got any more ability to choose rightly than any other time. That’s because free will is free. It’s always your choice. God’s help is the awareness that this is the moment. And our usual reaction at this point is resentment that God is answering our prayer and expecting us to step up to the plate! All of which means that we really don’t want what God wants for us, what is our truest good. What we want is neither what is dreadfully harmful (like heroin) nor what makes us into saints (like love reminders) but instead those extra little things that take some of the edge off of life. And that is exactly where we think that since we would do that for our children, why, if God is our Father, doesn’t he do this for us?
Before diving into an answer on that question, let’s consider how often those things that we ask for do in fact come about! We tend to forget, but if you made a list and kept it throughout your life, you might be surprised at the results! Still, we probably think that we are better parents than God is, and though we realize that even thinking that is probably sacrilegious, let’s go ahead and think it aloud as the question we want answered: if God loves us as Father, then why doesn’t he act as a father in the places that we wouldn’t hesitate to intervene?
My suspicion is that the truth on this issue isn’t going to please us, but here’s the short version: God relates to us not just as Father, but as many other modes all at the same time. Let’s take a look at four of these modes, given the analogies with which we are provided from the Scriptures. We are told that we are the clay to God’s potter, we are the sheep to his shepherding, we are the children to his fatherhood, and finally, that we are (or, one day will be) the spouse to his husbandly love.
Now, we might be inclined to think that these are a series of unveiling relationships that God provided first to the Israelites and then gradually to us in Christendom. So, perhaps God initially presented his relationship to human beings as potter to clay. That image would make us mere things, mere works of divine art, such that if something went wrong, the divine potter would just smash the work and start over. Praying to God as clay to potter couldn’t seriously be expected to result in anything all that helpful, I’d imagine. We’d tend to think instead that all of the grief and misery we experience is, as we’ve always heard, allowed to occur in order to shape us morally into the sorts of people who appear as beautiful works of art on the divine mantle.
The next image of us as sheep is a little bit better, and we might think that this is a great replacement for the clay imagery. What’s more, the imagery isn’t just about us as the wayward sheep—and we are awfully wayward—but about the noble shepherd who charges into the stormy night to find just that one single sheep. So, this image is pretty good for us. At first sight, that is. Once you consider that sheep are either shorn or roasted for Easter dinner, you might rethink your delight with this image.
If God didn’t even relate to his own Son as a proper parent, then how are we supposed to understand this imagery in its relation to us?
So, now we come to imaging ourselves as children to our divine Father. This is the image with which we began. But there is a rub even here, when you consider how little the Father did to ease the life of his own Son! He planted him not in a royal palace but in peasantville. And he did nothing to intervene, as his Son was arrested, scourged, and crucified. Now, you might add that that is precisely the problem. If God didn’t even relate to his own Son as a proper parent, then how are we supposed to understand this imagery in relation to us?
The final image with which we might be most pleased is that of wife to husband-lover. Here we are fully mature persons, possessed of distinct value and complementary partners with God. And this image would be much better for us if only it were true. The problem is that this is what we are supposed to be becoming, not what we already are. We aren’t the wife, but the bride to be. Now, I suppose if your fiancé were in deep trouble, you’d do everything possible to help her. So, here again, we have an expectation based on our experience that flies in the face of what we actually seem to get from our divine lover!
So, after looking at just these four images of our relationship to our Creator, let’s consider what I suspect is a major part of the problem. These images are not an unveiling and replacement, but are instead co-extensive, meaning all of the images are true of our relationship to God at the same time! We cannot easily conceive how that can be possible, since these four categories are so radically dissimilar for us. Consider the difference in dropping a pot (the potter/clay image) vs. dropping your cat (the shepherd/sheep image). Our concern over dropping the pot is less about the pot than what happens to be inside it. If it’s the Christmas roast, a lot of people are going to be very unhappy that you dropped and broke the pot. The pot’s value is one of usefulness for other things. We don’t much value the tool in itself, but instead for the things that it brings us.
The cat, on the other hand, changes the equation, doesn’t it? Dropping the cat is complicated by the fact that cats have a tendency to right themselves mid-air. But even here, if you drop your cat, you are likely to get a severe stare afterward, a stare that probably makes you feel chagrined. Why? Because the cat is a living creature, unlike that non-living pot. And as a living creature, we feel some kind of relationship with him and duty toward him. Yes, he is an animal of use: he keeps mice out of the rice and he provides rich comfort. But for all that, he is still a creature in his own right, not merely a blanket. So, dropping the cat is a lot worse than dropping the pot.
Let’s move to the third image and compare dropping the pot or the cat to dropping your infant son. Unless you are sadistic, you cannot drop your child and not feel a crucifying inner guilt. As a parent you feel wholly responsible for the welfare of your child, to the point where you readily act to the point of self-sacrifice. In this image, we become the tool to our child’s good, so radically does the imagery reverse. So, drop all the pots and cats you like, but for God’s sake, don’t drop your kid.
Let’s move to the final image, that of spouse and compare dropping our infant child, our cat, or our pot to dropping our spouse. If you think things just got kind of weird, I agree. I couldn’t even come up with an example of dropping your spouse until my wife reminded me of being carried over the threshold on your wedding day. But dropping her here, while shameful, is nevertheless a hilarious critique of your manhood. Dropping her while taking her down a ladder while the house in engulfed in flames might be a more serious case, but since she is herself an adult, we just don’t feel the comparison as urgent as with our children.
We tend to think of ourselves as clay to divine potter in one set of cases, but as sheep to shepherd in another. We think of God as Father in many more, and as future groom in more of an imaginative way. But that’s not how God thinks of us, because he is the Creator and we are the creation.
And this is why the dropping examples are so helpful at illustrating how we cannot at the same time compare one and the same thing as a pot, a pet, a child, and a spouse. The different relationships, obligations, and values inherent in each of these relationships often either entirely excludes or at least supersedes those in the others. So, we tend to think of ourselves as clay to divine potter in one set of cases, but as sheep to shepherd in another. We think of God as Father in many more, and as future groom in more of an imaginative way. But that’s not how God thinks of us, because he is the Creator and we are the creation. We literally belong to him in virtue of his having created us. He can do with us as he wishes consistent with the natures and purposes he designed us as having. Those rational biological natures together with the divine end of beatitude do limit what he does with us. But they don’t in and of themselves enable us to predict how God is going to react to our prayers, because he is still Potter, Shepherd, Father, and Fiancé all at the same time, meaning he sees us as clay, sheep, child, and fiancé all at the same time.
I cannot figure out how those images cohere, not because I think there is an actual contradiction there (like a brown dog who is not brown), but because the larger picture necessary to understand how all those images fit together is not something that I have access to. Remember, God is eternal, meaning that our past, our present, and our future are all one present to him. He sees us in our all, something that we cannot even do for ourselves. So, though we use terms like beatitude and images like the great wedding feast to try to point to what God ultimately has in store for us, the truth is that it has always eclipsed our vision. We just will not know what it is like to love God face to face until we do in fact love God face to face. At that point everything that happened in this life will make sense, because all the trails of our lives, of what we chose and what others chose for us, will unite in the story of the saints that we became.
Furthermore, in that day everything will prove to have been worth it, something St. Paul illustrates by suggesting that our lives here are as the pains of childbirth, pains that no woman wishes to experience but which nearly all women admit were worth it for the sake of this child that they now hold in their arms. Suffering for the sake of love is the kind of suffering that proves its worth. And in God’s mind, anything that happens to us provides an opportunity for the divine potter to work with our moral responses to transform us into vessels of his love: beautiful works of art that he adores, the best sheep at the heavenly state fair, the beautiful baby he hold in his arms, and the naked woman he holds in his arms as her husband.
Remember how St. Paul concluded that chapter where he compared suffering to childbirth pains: “all things work together for the good to those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” This does not mean that God causes everything that happens to us, but instead that no matter what does happen to us, God will work through it to bring us to our ultimate good if we remain steadfast in loving him. The full calling to prepare us for the purpose of beatitude is that we be prepared as the sorts of persons fitted for divine love. How can we be so prepared? Every single element of our human selves must be infused with the theological virtue of charity.
We need to significantly revise how we pray, so that our prayers are centered on what we know are God’s ultimate objectives.
How does this impact our prayers in the here and now? It means that we need to significantly revise how we pray, so that our prayers are centered on what we know are God’s ultimate objectives, namely that we love him with all of ourselves and that we love our neighbors as ourselves. There is nothing wrong with additionally recommending to God certain courses of action that we think might facilitate those ends, so long as we always conclude those parts of our prayer as Jesus did with “yet not my will but thine be done.” Even if you know you don’t entirely mean it, still say it, because saying it will help you slowly come to mean it. This is not easy. It wasn’t easy for Jesus, for recall that he coined those words as he begged his Father for an escape from the cross. Wouldn’t you? But Jesus knew that his purpose was larger than himself, and that in order to bring the rest of the sheep into the fold of the good shepherd, he must suffer and die for us.
The truth is, we aren’t much different. When we one day look back from the standpoint of providential hindsight, we will see how all the little strands of our lives—of the things that we chose and the things that others chose for us—ultimately produced not just the saints that we have become, but also the saints that others became. For we do not exist solely for our own sakes, but for the sake of one another. You may discover in the kingdom of God that your part in the divine play was to encourage a depressed person who took your words to heart, then made up with her husband, and then bore into the world the person who would one day become Bishop of Beijing and see that communist country break with its past and rush into God’s loving arms. How can you predict that now? You can’t. But those are the sorts of stories that we will be able to tell once we see our lives as wholes the way that God does. Until then, we have to believe what God says about working things toward our true good no matter what so long as we persevere in loving him. And that takes faith—a lot of faith.