There’s a John Mayer song that I like. I like a lot of John Mayer’s lyrics for their poetic imagery (slow-dancing in a burning room, anyone?) This one isn’t particularly poetic, but it can help me have a nice sloppy cry on the days when a sloppy cry is in order.
I hate to see you cry
Lying there in that position
There’s things you need to hear
So turn off your tears
Pain throws your heart to the ground
Love turns the whole thing around
No, it won’t all go the way it should
But I know the heart of life is good
It’s a fairly audacious conclusion– in the face of pain, in the face of stuff clearly going wrong, the heart of life is good. Pretty theological for a pop-rock song, if you ask me.
I know that philosophers and theologians and thinkers have been grappling with the screwed-up mess of the world for thousands of years, and I’m certainly not going to have anything new to say. For most of my life, I believed that the only reason that the heart of life is good is because “God is ‘sovereign'”, which is a fancy Reformed word for “controlling everything.” That was my answer to everything from minor inconvenience to the giant pain of us losing our twin girls at 22 weeks in pregnancy. Hey my daughters died, but God’s in control, so life=good, right? I would never have put it that callously, of course, but it was kind of there at the bottom. In my theology for most of my life, the most important thing about God was that he is all-powerful and controls everything.
Nobody has satisfactorily figured out the problem of God and control and free will and evil. There are philosophers and theologians who argue that God cannot really be God if he did not ordain every last thing that has ever happened and ever will happened, from what you ate for breakfast yesterday to the biggest mass-murders in history. They are answered by philosophers and theologians arguing that in that case God cannot be good because He has ordained evil. As far as I can know, nobody has ever come to a conclusion that isn’t going to make somebody squirm.
I wonder if we aren’t missing the point when we get lost in the debates over God’s sovereignty versus man’s free will. What if we are never going to really figure it out– because God is mysterious and sometimes unfathomable, and all our efforts to hem him in and nail him down with rules and systematic theology are going to be like trying to contain the ocean in a bottle?
What if the most important thing we need to know and communicate about God is that the heart of God is love?
We tell it to our children. “God is love,” we say, quoting 1 John 4, and we teach them in songs, Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. O the deep deep control of Jesus– not so much. It’s his love we sing of, vast, unmeasured, boundless, free.
“I love you,” I tell my children every day, when my son asks me for a hug in the middle of trying to get lunch on the table, when I tuck my daughter in bed at night. I exert a lot of control over their lives– they’re only 4 and 19 months after all, so the decisions they get to make for themselves are limited to things like do you want to watch Puffin Rock or Wall-E for t.v. time or do you want a cookie or a chewy candy for dessert? But when they fall and hurt themselves or they’re upset about how life is going for them or they just need a cuddle, they don’t come running to me and tugging at my legs and nestling into my arms because I have a lot of sovereignty over their little lives. They come because they know that regardless of whether I’m able to change anything about their circumstances, my heart towards them is one of love. And I hope that they’ll never unlearn that, that they’ll always have the confidence that no matter what, they can always come running to me because I love them.
Maybe that’s part of what Jesus was talking about when he said we need faith like a little child.
If the heart of God is love– love towards every last one of us, whether or not we have eyes to see and ears to hear and hands open to receive it– then I can lean into the hard bits. I can sit in the uncomfortable spaces where our human attempts at understanding God fall woefully short. I can miss my girls freely and I don’t have to try to explain whether their death was “God’s will” or not, because that doesn’t matter nearly as much as God’s love for them and for me, wrapping all of us round and offering us hope and a promise of the redemption of our pain. When there are hard things in the Bible– and oh dear God are there some hard things in the Bible– I can believe that whatever else is falling short, whether it’s our interpretation or translation or understanding– the heart of God, God’s heart of love, is not falling short.
Because otherwise we are so screwed.
If we really are just sinners in the hands of an Angry God, then we’ve got no hope. We can try to appease him through saying the right words and following the right rules, so that maybe we can escape getting tossed into a burning lake for all eternity, just like slaves can obey their masters to keep from getting beaten to death, or citizens under a totalitarian government can follow all the oppressive laws to keep from being executed. If you want to say that God has the right to do whatever he pleases with us because he made us, you can make that argument, but then please don’t tell me that we should trust him as a good and loving parent. We have a history full of stories of gods who did whatever the hell they wanted because their power gave them the “right” to do so. Baal, Ra, Zeus, Odin– their worshippers feared them and tried to please them with sacrifices or personal bravery or complicated ritual, but there wasn’t any nonsense about having a relationship with them, about trusting them as you trust a father. We don’t trust the people we do because of how powerful or righteous or just they are. Trust can only be birthed out of love.
When it comes down to it, the reason I believe that the heart of God is love is because I believe that Jesus is God, and even though I don’t understand a lot of the things Jesus said in the Bible, it seems pretty clear to me that Jesus’ heart towards all the messed up people he encountered was one of love. All the ordinary everyday sinful people– the prostitutes and the tax collectors, the illiterate fishermen and the harried housekeepers, the mentally ill and the physically disabled, the thieves and the liars and the sexually promiscuous, the rich and the poor, the insiders and the outcasts– Jesus hung out with them and talked to them, ate with them, touched them, healed them, brought life to them. He loved them.
He told them a story about a son who spits in his father’s face and goes off to do whatever the hell he wants, and the father, rather than cursing his rebellious and toxic child, instead stands at the gate every day, waiting, watching, never giving up hope. And when the son comes slinking back because he’s starving, the father doesn’t wait for him to confess or apologize or renounce his evil ways, but sprints like a marathoner to embrace his child, calling him “beloved.”
The only people Jesus condemned as a group were the religious hypocrites who patted themselves on the back for following all the rules and looked down on everybody else as contemptible, loathsome sinners. Jesus had some pretty choice names he called the Pharisees. But I find it fascinating that when one of them, Nicodemus, came sneaking around by night because he wanted to talk to Jesus without his friends knowing what he was doing, Jesus didn’t send him away. In fact the context of what is probably the most famous verse in the Bible is Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus-the-Pharisee.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. (John 3:16-17)
Even as Jesus was dying on the cross to which he’d been nailed by the work of those religious hypocrites and power-hungry political leaders, he prayed to the Father God to forgive the people who killed him. Even the Pharisees get Jesus’ love offered to them.
The heart of creation, the song of the universe, the secret of life. In spite of the wreck we have made of the world with our untold millennia of wars and slaughter, poverty and cruelty, sickness and death, God’s heart still beats with love, with compassion, with a desire for the redemption and peace and flourishing of every last person he’s made. No matter how many times we spit in his face, he’s always the father standing at the gate, looking out with never-ending anticipation, ready to run and fold us in his arms and whisper “beloved” to us the second we’ll let him. It is, as Sally Lloyd-Jones puts it, a “Never-Stopping, Never-Giving-Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love.”
I have a number of posts I want to write, unpacking some of the ways in which my faith has evolved in the past few years. As I state in my bio, many things I once clutched tightly with clenched fists I now hold with open palms, uncertain, struggling. Things I once thought were black and white have become swept with multitudes of colors, multitudes of questions. But I believe that I am safe– safe in the questions, in the doubts, in the struggling and weeping. I am safe, because I am held by Love, an unbreakable Love that is not threatened by my questions, doubts, struggles, and tears.
So everything that I write, I write in the context of this one hope. On many days, it feels like the only thing I have left to cling to, and so I cling, white-knuckled. Write it on my brain, on my heart, let it be the song of my mouth and the stem from which my actions flower, stamp it on every last day of my life– The heart of life is good, because the heart of God is love.