Rod Dreher

There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love. (1 John 4:18, NKJV)

“I was surprised to realize,” said the man to the theologian, “that even though I have been a serious believer for years, and have even felt the presence of God on a number of occasions, that I had no experience of God’s love.”
“Do you doubt that God loves you?” said the theologian.
“No, no, not at all,” said the man. “That’s why I was so surprised to discover this the other night, while reading a book about God. It struck me as odd that my knowledge of God’s love is all in my head. I know God loves me, but I know it like I know if I stand in my backyard at night looking at the stars, that the sun is going to come up in the morning. But that’s not the same thing as feeling the warm rays of the sun on your face.”
The theologian took a sip of his wine and sat his glass down on the table in front of them.
“It’s funny,” he said, smiling, “but in my classes, I’m shocked by how many graduates of the best Catholic schools in this area know almost nothing about the faith, and how little they care to. I’ve made it a habit to talk to the students who are most engaged by their faith, to ask them what the heck is being taught in the Catholic high schools. They all say that this is the result of gray-haired Vatican II nuns who go on and on about how God loves us. It’s all touchy-feely stuff, and it bores kids to death. And you have the best kids who are starving for something substantive, something meaty. They want to be challenged, and they’re not getting that.
“And yet, here you and I are, at our age, sitting here talking about whether God loves us and how we can know it.”
The man laughed too, then said, “I don’t think this is a problem with God. I think it’s a problem with me. Even from childhood, I’ve been hard on myself. I knew my parents loved me — they showed me that all the time — but there was always something in me that felt that I was a disappointment to them. There was a little voice inside telling me that yes, they love me, but they love me because they don’t know the real me.”
“But that’s not true,” said the theologian.
“I know it’s not true,” said the man. “But again, it’s one thing to know it in your head, and another thing to know it in your heart. All my life I’ve felt that I was on the verge of being found out, that the people who think well of me are deceiving themselves. That’s the thing about God — he does know the real me, and I guess I find it hard to believe that he’s not as disappointed as I am.”
“But he’s not,” said the theologian.
“I know that as a matter of faith,” said the man. “But — you know.”
“Are you afraid of God’s love and approval?” the theologian asked.
“That’s a good question,” the man said. “I can’t imagine why. I think one thing I’m afraid of is taking God’s love for granted. Which brings us back to the touchy-feely nuns. They’re not wrong to say that God loves us, but that’s only half the story. Why don’t those kids respond to that good news by wanting to know more about God, and how to serve him? Is it because they get no sense of God’s holiness with the message of love? I don’t know.
“This book I was reading,” the man continued, “had this woman saying that as she grew to experience in her soul the love of God for the first time in her life, she also became aware of how holy he is, and how far she is from that holiness. It’s a kind of paradox, isn’t it? But it makes sense to me: she experienced God’s overwhelming love in tandem with awe at his unspeakable holiness. If the only way we know God is through love and tenderness, without a sense of his awesomeness, faith becomes a matter of therapy. It won’t heal us from our brokenness, but only drug us to mask the pain. We’ll only feel good, but we won’t necessarily be good.”
The men drank their wine in silence.
“I think there must be something wrong with me,” said the man. “I feel like I’m a color-blind man asking you to describe red to me. I think it’s not that God doesn’t love me — I really do believe he does — as much as it’s that for some reason I don’t have the capacity to perceive that love like others do. So for me, it stays in the realm of theory, not experience.”
The man and the theologian talked about the theory that our perceptions of God often depend on how we perceive our fathers. If that’s true, how much more sensible, he said, would we be to think instead of how we see our own children! We know how flawed and hapless our children can be, but we love them unconditionally all the same, even as we nurture them to grow in virtue and love. Why do we have so much trouble imagining God seeing us the same way?
The theologian then spoke of his daughters, the older of whom is mildly autistic. The child’s little sister the other night threw her arms around her big sister and comforted her in a tender way. The older child didn’t notice, and continued her conversation with her father as if nothing extraordinary were going on.
“Maybe it’s like that with us,” the theologian said. “Maybe God is around us at all times, offering love and comfort and tenderness — but we cannot or will not see it.”
The hour was late, and the men parted. On the way home, the man wondered why he was so afraid that God loved him. He searched his heart, but he found no clues.

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