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God loves us unconditionally
The great mystery of our Christian faith is that we do not choose God but that God chooses us. Long “Before I was born, the Lord chose me” and God says “I have written your name on the palms of My hands” (Psalm 49:1,16) Our ability to love is “because God first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) He loves us with an unconditional love.
But what does unconditional love means? It means love without conditions. God’s love for me does not depend on what I do or say or on my success or popularity. It means that He loves without expecting or asking for anything in return from me. He loves me regardless of how I think or feel about Him. God is love and His love extends even towards me, the unlovely and unlovable. He chooses me to be His beloved son.
In every situation or circumstance, God seeks to enter into my mind and heart, but unfortunately, I build too many walls around my heart and so I struggle to find God, to know God and to love God. I have failed too many times. Now I wonder whether I have to change my mind-set and solve for myself the questions:
· “How am I to Let myself be found by God?” instead of “How am I to find God?”
· “How am I to Let myself be known by God?” instead of “How am I to know God?”
· “How am I to Let myself be loved by God?” instead of “How am I to love God?”
To resolve this, I have to truly understand in my heart what Jesus requires of me:
· LET Him serve me. . . “But I (Jesus) am among you as One who serves” (Luke 22:27)
· LET Him come into my heart. . . “Behold, I stand at the door (of your heart) and knock. . .” (Revelation 3:20)
· LET Him love me unconditionally. . . “But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God” (John 1:12) "You are My beloved Son; in You I am well pleased." (Luke 3:22 NKJV)
These principles are illustrated by Peter in the Gospel. Peter wanted to serve Jesus and he was extremely adamant that Jesus should not serve him or wash his feet. Jesus told Peter, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with Me” (John 13:8) From this example, we need to understand with our heart that unless we let Jesus serve us, we will not be able to serve others for Him. If we want to serve others, we will have to let Jesus serve us first, in order for us to be able to serve others.
To see whether Peter understood with his heart what this means, the Bible shows us the scene at Mount Olives where Peter’s spirit was willing to stay awake for Jesus but his flesh was weak. If Peter had allowed Jesus to come into his heart, his flesh would have the power to stay awake with Jesus.
Peter was very fervent and sincere in declaring that he would never deny Jesus. He depended on his own strength and he failed. But, if Peter knew with his heart that Jesus loved him with an unconditional love, he would never have denied Jesus three times. “Before the roaster crows twice, you will deny Me three times” (Mark 14:72)
After the resurrection of Jesus, Peter finally understood with his heart that Jesus loved him unconditionally and was therefore able to die as a martyr for Jesus. When Jesus asked Peter three times, “Do you love Me?” Jesus was in fact asking Peter “Do you know in your heart now that I have loved you with an unconditional love?” Peter ended by saying to Jesus that “You know all things” and thus knows my heart.
Until you and I know with our heart and not our head only, that Jesus loves us with an unconditional love, we will not be able to sustain consistently our love for our spouse, family members, relatives and others the way that Jesus commands us to do: “Be compassionate just as your Heavenly Father is compassionate” (Luke 6:36) and be as loving as your Heavenly Father is loving.
The final questions are:
· Do I know in my head and especially in my heart that Christ loves me unconditionally? and
· Would I have the sincerity to pray: Let me be an instrument, or a vehicle, or a channel of Your unconditional love for my spouse, family members, relatives and others?
All the passages below are taken from Henri J M Nouwen’s book “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” published in 1992.
While he was still a long way off, his father saw him [his younger son] and was moved with pity. He ran to the boy, clasped him in his arms and kissed him.
... his father came out and began to urge him [his elder son] to come in.
Luke 15:20, 28
Father and Mother
Often I have asked friends to give me their first impression of Rembrandt's Prodigal Son. Inevitably, they point to the wise old man who forgives his son: the benevolent patriarch.
The longer I looked at "the patriarch," the clearer it became to me that Rembrandt had done something quite different from letting God pose as the wise old head of a family. It all began with the hands. The two are quite different. The father's left hand touching the son's shoulder is strong and muscular. The fingers are spread out and cover a large part of the prodigal son's shoulder and back. I can see a certain pressure, especially in the thumb. That hand seems not only to touch, but, with its strength, also to hold. Even though there is a gentleness in the way the father's left hand touches his son, it is not without a firm grip.
How different is the father's right hand! This hand does not hold or grasp. It is refined, soft, and very tender. The fingers are close to each other and they have an elegant quality. It lies gently upon the son's shoulder. It wants to caress, to stroke, and to offer consolation and comfort. It is a mother's hand.
Some commentators have suggested that the masculine left hand is Rembrandt's own hand, while the feminine right hand is similar to the right hand of The Jewish Bride painted in the same period. I like to believe that this is true.
As soon as I recognized the difference between the two hands of the father, a new world of meaning opened up for me. The Father is not simply a great patriarch. He is mother as well as father. He touches the son with a masculine hand and a feminine hand. He holds, and she caresses. He confirms and she consoles. He is, indeed, God, in whom both manhood and womanhood, fatherhood and motherhood, are fully present. That gentle caressing right hand echoes for me the words of the prophet Isaiah: "Can a woman forget her baby at the breast, feel no pity for the child she has borne? Even if these were to forget, I shall not forget you. Look, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands." (Isaiah 49:15-16)
My friend Richard White pointed out to me that the caressing feminine hand of the father parallels the bare, wounded foot of the son, while the strong masculine hand parallels the foot dressed in a sandal. Is it too much to think that the one hand protects the vulnerable side of the son, while the other hand reinforces the son's strength and desire to get on with his life?
Then there is the great red cloak. With its warm color and its arch-like shape, it offers a welcome place where it is good to be. At first, the cloak covering the bent-over body of the father looked to me like a tent inviting the tired traveler to find some rest. But as I went on gazing at the red cloak, another image, stronger than that of a tent, came to me: the sheltering wings of the mother bird. They reminded me of Jesus' words about God's maternal love: "Jerusalem, Jerusalem. . . How often have I longed to gather your children, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you refused!" (Matthew 23:37-38)
Day and night God holds me safe, as a hen holds her chicks secure under her wings. Even more than that of a tent, the image of a vigilant mother bird's wings expresses the safety that God offers her children. They express care, protection, a place to rest and feel safe.
Every time I look at the tent-like and wings-like cloak in Rembrandt's painting, I sense the motherly quality of God's love and my heart begins to sing in words inspired by the Psalmist:
You who dwell in the shelter of the Most High
and abide in the shade of the Almighty---
say to your God: "My refine, my stronghold,
my God in whom I trust!
. . .You conceal me with your pinions
and under your wings I shall find refuge." (Psalm 91:1-4)
And so, under the aspect of an old Jewish patriarch, there emerges also a motherly God receiving her son home.
As I now look again at Rembrandt's old man bending over his returning son and touching his shoulders with his hands, I begin to see not only a father who "clasps his son in his arms," but also a mother who caresses her child, surrounds him with the warmth of her body, and holds him against the womb from which he sprang. Thus the "return of the prodigal son" becomes the return to God's womb, the return to the very origins of being and again echoes Jesus' exhortation to Nicodemus, to be reborn from above.
Now I understand better also the enormous stillness of this portrait of God. There is no sentimentality here, no romanticism, no simplistic tale with a happy ending. What I see here is God as mother, receiving back into her womb the one whom she made in her own image. The near-blind eyes, the hands, the cloak, the bent-over body, they all call forth the divine maternal love, marked by grief, desire, hope, and endless waiting.
The mystery, indeed, is that God in her infinite compassion has linked herself for eternity with the life of her children. She has freely chosen to become dependent on her creatures, whom she has gifted with freedom. This choice causes her grief when they leave; this choice brings her gladness when they return. But her joy will not be complete until all who have received life from her have returned home and gather together around the table prepared for them.
And this includes the elder son. Rembrandt places him at a distance, out from under the billowing cloak, at the edge of the circle of light. The elder son's dilemma is to accept or reject that his father's love is beyond comparisons; to dare to be loved as his father longs to love him or to insist on being loved as he feels he ought to be loved. The father knows that the choice must be the son's, even while he waits with outstretched hands. Will the elder son be willing to kneel and be touched by the same hands that touch his younger brother? Will he be willing to be forgiven and to experience the healing presence of the father who loves him beyond compare? Luke's story makes it very clear that the father goes out to both of his children. Not only does he run out to welcome the younger wayward son, but he comes out also to meet the elder, dutiful son as he returns from the fields wondering what the music and dancing are all about and urges him to come in.
No More or Less
It is very important for me to understand the full meaning of what is happening here. While the father is truly filled with joy at his younger son's return, he has not forgotten the elder. He doesn't take his elder son for granted. His joy was so intense that he couldn't wait to start celebrating, but as soon as he became aware of his elder son's arrival, he left the party, went out to him, and pleaded with him to join them.
In his jealousy and bitterness, the elder son can only see that his irresponsible brother is receiving more attention than he himself, and concludes that he is the less loved of the two. His father's heart, however, is not divided into more or less. The father's free and spontaneous response to his younger son's return does not involve any comparisons with his elder son. To the contrary, he ardently desires to make his elder son part of his joy.
This is not easy for me to grasp. In a world that constantly compares people, ranking them as more or less intelligent, more or less attractive, more or less successful, it is not easy to really believe in a love that does not do the same. When I hear someone praised, it is hard not to think of myself as less praiseworthy; when I read about the goodness and kindness of other people, it is hard not to wonder whether I myself am as good and kind as they; and when I see trophies, rewards, and prizes being handed out to special people, I cannot avoid asking myself why that didn't happen to me.
The world in which I have grown up is a world so full of grades, scores, and statistics that, consciously or unconsciously, I always try to take my measure against all the others. Much sadness and gladness in my life flows directly from my comparing, and most, if not all, of this comparing is useless and a terrible waste of time and energy.
Our God, who is both Father and Mother to us, does not compare. Never. Even though I know in my head that this is true, it is still very hard to fully accept it with my whole being. When I hear someone called a favorite son or daughter, my immediate response is that the other children must be less appreciated, or less loved. I cannot fathom how all of God's children can be favorites. And still, they are. When I look from my place in the world into God's Kingdom, I quickly come to think of God as the keeper of some great celestial scoreboard, and I will always be afraid of not making the grade. But as soon as I look from God's welcoming home into the world, I discover that God loves with a divine love, a love that cedes to all women and men their uniqueness without ever comparing.
The elder brother compares himself with the younger one and becomes jealous. But the father loves them both so much that it didn't even occur to him to delay the party in order to prevent the elder son from feeling rejected. I am convinced that many of my emotional problems would melt as snow in the sun if I could let the truth of God's motherly non-comparing love permeate my heart.
How hard that is becomes clear when I reflect on the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. Each time I read that parable in which the landowner gives as much to the workers who worked only one hour as to those who did "a heavy day's work in all the heat," a feeling of irritation still wells up inside of me.
Why didn't the landowner pay those who worked many long hours first and then surprise the latecomers with his generosity? Why, instead, does he pay the workers of the eleventh hour first, raising false expectations in the others and creating unnecessary bitterness and jealousy? These questions, I now realize, come from a perspective that is all too willing to impose the economy of the temporal on the unique order of the divine.
It hadn't previously occurred to me that the landowner might have wanted the workers of the early hours to rejoice in his generosity to the latecomers. It never crossed my mind that he might have acted on the supposition that those who had worked in the vineyard the whole day would be deeply grateful to have had the opportunity to do work for their boss, and even more grateful to see what a generous man he is. It requires an interior about-face to accept such a non-comparing way of thinking. But that is God's way of thinking. God looks at his people as children of a family who are happy that those who have done only a little bit are as much loved as those who accomplish much.
God is so naive as to think that there would be great rejoicing when all those who spent time in his vineyard, whether a short time or a long time, were given the same attention. Indeed, he was so naive as to expect that they would all be so happy to be in his presence that comparing themselves with each other wouldn't even occur to them. That is why he says with the bewilderment of a misunderstood lover: "Why should you be envious because I am generous?" He could have said: "You have been with me the whole day, and I gave you all you asked for! Why are you so bitter?" It is the same bewilderment that comes from the heart of the father when he says to his jealous son: "My son, you are with me always, and all I have is yours."
Here lies hidden the great call to conversion: to look not with the eyes of my own low self-esteem, but with the eyes of God's love. As long as I keep looking at God as a landowner, as a father who wants to get the most out of me for the least cost, I cannot but become jealous, bitter, and resentful toward my fellow workers or my brothers and sisters. But if I am able to look at the world with the eyes of God's love and discover that God's vision is not that of a stereotypical landowner or patriarch but rather that of an all-giving and forgiving father who does not measure out his love to his children according to how well they behave, then I quickly see that my only true response can be deep gratitude.
The Heart of God
In Rembrandt's painting, the elder son simply observes. It is difficult to imagine what is going on in his heart. Just as with the parable, so also with the painting, I am left with the question: How will he respond to the invitation to join the celebration?
There is no doubt---in the parable or the painting---about the father's heart. His heart goes out to both of his sons; he loves them both; he hopes to see them together as brothers around the same table; he wants them to experience that, different as they are, they belong to the same household and are children of the same father.
As I let all of this sink in, I see how the story of the father and his lost sons powerfully affirms that it was not I who chose God, but God who first chose me. This is the great mystery of our faith. We do not choose God, God chooses us. From all eternity we are hidden "in the shadow of God's hand" and "engraved on his palm."(Isaiah 49:2,16) Before any human being touches us, God "forms us in secret" and "textures us" (Psalm 139:15) in the depth of the earth, and before any human being decides about us, God "knits us together in our mother's womb." (Psalm 139:13) God loves us before any human person can show love to us. He loves us with a "first" love, an unlimited, unconditional love, wants us to be his beloved children, and tells us to become as loving as himself.
For most of my life I have struggled to find God, to know God, to love God. I have tried hard to follow the guidelines of the spiritual life---pray always, work for others, read the Scriptures---and to avoid the many temptations to dissipate myself. I have failed many times but always tried again, even when I was close to despair.
Now I wonder whether I have sufficiently realized that during all this time God has been trying to find me, to know me, and to love me. The question is not "How am I to find God?" but "How am I to let myself be found by him?" The question is not "How am I to know God?" but "How am I to let myself be known by God?" And, finally, the question is not "How am I to love God?" but "How am I to let myself be loved by God?" God is looking into the distance for me, trying to find me, and longing to bring me home. In all three parables which Jesus tells in response to the question of why he eats with sinners, he puts the emphasis on God's initiative. God is the shepherd who goes looking for his lost sheep. God is the woman who lights a lamp, sweeps out the house, and searches everywhere for her lost coin until she has found it. God is the father who watches and waits for his children, runs out to meet them, embraces them, pleads with them, begs and urges them to come home.
It might sound strange, but God wants to find me as much as, if not more than, I want to find God. Yes, God needs me as much as I need God. God is not the patriarch who stays home, doesn't move, and expects his children to come to him, apologize for their aberrant behavior, beg for forgiveness, and promise to do better. To the contrary, he leaves the house, ignoring his dignity by running toward them, pays no heed to apologies and promises of change, and brings them to the table richly prepared for them.
I am beginning now to see how radically the character of my spiritual journey will change when I no longer think of God as hiding out and making it as difficult as possible for me to find him, but, instead, as the one who is looking for me while I am doing the hiding. When I look through God's eyes at my lost self and discover God's joy at my coming home, then my life may become less anguished and more trusting.
Wouldn't it be good to increase God's joy by letting God find me and carry me home and celebrate my return with the angels? Wouldn't it be wonderful to make God smile by giving God the chance to find me and love me lavishly? Questions like these raise a real issue: that of my own self-concept. Can I accept that I am worth looking for? Do I believe that there is a real desire in God to simply be with me?
Here lies the core of my spiritual struggle: the struggle against self-rejection, self-contempt, and self-loathing. It is a very fierce battle because the world and its demons conspire to make me think about myself as worthless, useless, and negligible. Many consumerist economies stay afloat by manipulating the low self-esteem of their consumers and by creating spiritual expectations through material means. As long as I am kept "small," I can easily be seduced to buy things, meet people, or go places that promise a radical change in self-concept even though they are totally incapable of bringing this about. But every time I allow myself to be thus manipulated or seduced, I will have still more reasons for putting myself down and seeing myself as the unwanted child.
A First and Everlasting Love
For a very long time I considered low self-esteem to be some kind of virtue. I had been warned so often against pride and conceit that I came to consider it a good thing to deprecate myself. But now I realize that the real sin is to deny God's first love for me, to ignore my original goodness. Because without claiming that first love and that original goodness for myself, I lose touch with my true self and embark on the destructive search among the wrong people and in the wrong places for what can only be found in the house of my Father.
I do not think I am alone in this struggle to claim God's first love and my original goodness. Beneath much human assertiveness, competitiveness, and rivalry; beneath much self-confidence and even arrogance, there is often a very insecure heart, much less sure of itself than outward behavior would lead one to believe. I have often been shocked to discover that men and women with obvious talents and with many rewards for their accomplishments have so many doubts about their own goodness. Instead of experiencing their outward successes as a sign of their inner beauty, they live them as a cover-up for their sense of personal worthlessness. Not a few have said to me: "if people only knew what goes on in my innermost self, they would stop with their applause and praise."
I vividly remember talking with a young man loved and admired by everyone who knew him. He told me how a small critical remark from one of his friends had thrown him into an abyss of depression. As he spoke, tears streamed from his eyes and his body twisted in anguish. He felt that his friend had broken through his wall of defenses and had seen him as he really was: an ugly hypocrite, a despicable man beneath his gleaming armor. As I heard his story, I realized what an unhappy life he had lived, even though the people around him had envied him for his gifts. For years he had walked around with the inner questions: "Does anyone really love me? Does anyone really care?" And every time he had climbed a little higher on the ladder of success, he had thought: "This is not who I really am; one day everything will come crashing down and then people will see that I am no good."
This encounter illustrates the way many people live their lives never fully sure that they are loved as they are. Many have horrendous stories that offer very plausible reasons for their low self-esteem: stories about parents who were not giving them what they needed, about teachers who mistreated them, about friends who betrayed them, and about a Church which left them out in the cold during a critical moment of their life.
The parable of the prodigal son is a story that speaks about a love that existed before any rejection was possible and that will still be there after all rejections have taken place. It is the first and everlasting love of a God who is Father as well as Mother. It is the fountain of all true human love, even the most limited. Jesus' whole life and preaching had only one aim: to reveal this inexhaustible, unlimited motherly and fatherly love of his God and to show the way to let that love guide every part of our daily lives. In his painting of the father, Rembrandt offers me a glimpse of that love. It is the love that always welcomes home and always wants to celebrate. (98-109)
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