My life of faith has been just that – a life of faith. I have soared at the mountain tops, and I have lost all hope in a valley of despair. I’m willing to bet that if you’ve been a believer for more than a year or so, we can relate to each other. Like you, my valley-moments are ugly. Though we may not struggle with the same things in the valley, we still need the same Jesus who is committed to us regardless of the circumstances in which we find ourselves. In the valley, I start asking questions, doubting convictions, and wondering about things that can send me unraveling.
Have you ever wondered whether or not God likes you? Maybe you haven’t. I sure have. Last week, I had my regular meeting with my Spiritual Director. I confessed that over my years, I’ve had this off and on struggle with feeling like “God likes me less and less each day.” Figuring out where that thought comes from within me has been challenging. Some may instantly suggest that it is demonic. While believing that spiritual oppression is very real, I’m not so sure that is what this is. Rather, through hours of prayer, meditation, contemplation, and counsel, much of it is bound up in various experiences throughout childhood on up to the present day. Like everyone, I’ve experienced loss, betrayal, disappointments. Unlike everyone, I’ve also battled various forms of depression throughout life.
I have no secrets, seek to walk in the light, and genuinely strive to follow Jesus with all my heart. I’ve got close friends who know the real me, love me, hold me accountable, and tell me the truth. I agree with Merton, No Man is an Island, and if it weren’t for my friends, I don’t know where I’d be.
Yet, with an open Bible, deep friendships, and a knowledge of the truth, I keep returning to doubting the fact that God actually likes me. I wish it weren’t the case. I thought that by the time I was nearly 40 years of age I’d have that fundamental question answered and settled once and for all. Heck, I grew up going to church, was active in my youth ministry, went to some schooling, and even wrote The Reckless Love of God! I know that God loves me! And yet, maybe sometimes I don’t know that as fully and completely as I’d like to think. It’s a daily thing, ya know?
In my weakness, doubt, pessimism, low self-esteem, and gospel-less self-hatred, I am tempted to believe that God loves me with an “I’ll-tolerate-you” kind of love. It’s a distant-love; a “stand-over-there” kind of love; a love that will put up with me but isn’t interested in me. My crooked teeth, weird quirks, and scatter-brained-self have got to be irritating. This might sound trite, selfish, or completely absurd to some, and I am genuinely okay with the fact that my struggles may seem strange.
As I delve deeper into my relationship with my Abba, I am confronted with painful realities. I am prone to believe things that are simply untrue. These are things I learned as a child, in adolescence, and on up to the present moment that stirs up fear, guilt, shame, and sometimes paralyzing anxiety. I mistakenly think God is like me and that his thoughts are not above my thoughts and his ways aren’t above my ways. Therein lies the mistake, the error, the sin that leads me to the lie that God doesn’t like me. God is not my peer, Jesus is not my homeboy, and the Holy Spirit is not my co-pilot. God is my Father, Jesus is my Brother, and the Holy Spirit is my Comforter, and the Divine Community is unlike me in every way. Leave the petty score-keeping out of the picture. This is gospel.
I understand the doctrine of justification fairly well, but letting that doctrine drip from the filter basket of my mind down into the carafe of my heart is where the real work of being born again happens. I know that God demonstrated his love for me, not in the air but down here, in history, in the dirt, nailed to a cross (Rom. 5:8). Beloved Brennan was right when he said, “No one can measure like a believer the depth and intensity of God’s love, but then again no one can measure like a believer the effectiveness of our gloom, our pessimism, our low self-esteem, our self-hatred and despair that block God’s way to us.”
Here I sit 23 years after I was waylaid by the love, Spirit, and ferocious mercy of God, and I’m more in need of Him now than the “hour I first believed.” I am still showing up to the table set with bread and wine, word and Spirit, hope and despair, confidence and doubt, sin and righteousness, repentance and belonging, happiness and sadness – casting all my anxieties on him because Peter says he “cares for me.”
So with this struggle of God’s dislike of me, I have often felt an existential dread over being a grave disappointment to my Heavenly Father. As I confessed these things, I knew I was stepping out a little more into the light. I then asked my director bluntly, “What do you say to someone who on the one hand knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that God loves him and then that afternoon, doubts whether or not God likes him?”
His reply was simple and profound.
He looked out the window over the lake, leaned back in his chair, thought for a moment and then said, “Alex, that’s a profound and honest understanding of your own self.” He then asked, “Can you feel your heart beating as you sit there in that chair?” I thought about it and said, “Well, yes. Of course.” He then leaned forward, looked me in the face, and said, “Alex, His ‘liking’ of you can be felt in every heartbeat. You are the breath of the unnamed God who is and calls you into existence. Were it not for Him; you’d come apart this instant.” And there I sat, stunned and teary-eyed for the thousandth time, embracing the work of the Spirit, and believing that the fact that God wills me to exist is enough in this moment to know that he really is fond of me. After a moment of stillness, he said,
That is good news!
That is freedom!
That is the truth!