God as Suffering Parent

Suffering parents love in the face of contempt and give despite ingratitude. God must do even more.

On a cold day in December, a mother gave birth to a baby boy. Seventeen years later, he sat in her kitchen with a towel around his neck while she trimmed his hair. When a boy reaches a certain age, he doesn't like his mother to touch him anymore. This is as close as she's likely to get, circling him, nipping behind his pink ears with scissors.

An hour earlier, Nancy hadn't known if he was alive or dead. He had been arrested with a baggie full of drugs and swore he would either flee to Mexico or kill himself. But on his trial date, he came home one last time, to borrow his brother's shoes and have his mom trim his hair. She circles him, sifting through his hair with measuring fingers, and dark broken wisps drift to her arms like jumbled dashes.

A couple of hours later, he is in the back of a police car. They must leave for the state school immediately. The boy stares stonily ahead as his parents stand outside the car, leaning together like wind-battered trees. Say good-bye, the officer instructs. "I don't know them," the boy mutters. The car door slams, and he is gone.

On a cold day in December, a mother gave birth to a baby boy. Have you heard that story before?

Perhaps too many times before; it is so old, so worn, so overly familiar we can't hear it anymore. It is blunt, irrelevant. At best, it's merely cute. A friend told me about a Christmas display she saw at the mall: giant plush bears robed as Mary and Joseph, beaming at a swaddled Baby Jesus bear in the manger. If there was once grand mystery around the Incarnation, it has long since dispersed. Three jolly bears now convey everything we know or expect to know. It is a scene plump with stupidity. Jesus as a cookie. God as a pet.


This is very bad news.

For one thing, a circle of cuddly bears is useless at helping us deal with pain. It cannot help us grasp searing heartbreak; it cannot deflect the hard, sharp reeling pain of a car door slamming and then tail lights at the end of the road. We want a just-my-size God, fluffy and approachable, without all those picky commandments. But once we get him down to teddy-bear size, we find that he is powerless. He is not able to ease our suffering or comprehend our dark confusions; he does not have strength equal to our grief. A reduced God is no God at all.

God cannot be less than us; he must be more. Our understanding is partial and dim, but we know at least that he is greater than us. We grasp for analogies: Some people are artists, but God is the greatest artist. Some are wise, but he is wisdom itself. Most frequently, however, we say that God is love, because love is the best thing we know.

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