God is love (1 John 4:16).
The Bible says “God is love,” meaning love is God’s essence. God does not only “possess” love or “will” love, but rather God loves. Period. Even if we violate God’s will or disappoint, God still loves us. This is the God Jesus revealed to us. It is the loving and tolerant father of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32.
The Prodigal Son tells the story of a young son who asked his father to disburse the family inheritance. Upon receiving his share, he took off to a faraway land. In the following years, he squandered the money and lived an indulged life until penniless and abandoned. When the destitute young man succumbed to eating pig feed, he realized that even the servants in his father’s household fared better. So, he decided to return home and offered himself as a servant.
Based on the cultural norms of the time, the younger son committed several offenses. First, he asked for his inheritance when his parents were still alive. Such a request was equivalent to wishing the parents an early death. Second, he left home after getting his share. This was a rejection of family. Third, he spent many years away, seemingly not caring about his parents nor family.
The younger son’s self-centeredness was quite evident by his behavior. In that culture, most authoritative fathers would have been furious when they first heard the unreasonable demand of this son and might have even driven the son out. However, this father not only fulfilled the son’s request but furthermore, upon seeing his return, ran to welcome him home. The father chose not to make the son crawl or beg for forgiveness.
Many may feel the father embraced his son too quickly, but this is the Abba Father Jesus wants us to experience. Such a God is completely different from the wrathful God described in the Old Testament.
1 John 4:18 tells us there is no fear in love. A God of love is a God whom we’d wish to draw near. As such, our relationship with God needs to be rooted in love, not fear.
Often, it is difficult to experience this type of Godly love. Why? Because our feelings are influenced by culture, our experiences and how we are raised. When we are young, we experience our parents authoritatively. In a young child’s mind, parents are like gods. Therefore, we unconsciously retain the images of our parents as our first images of God. Regardless of what we “believe” about God, affectively we “feel” God is similar to our parents.
The truth is, God is notlike our parents. Human love has limitations — and often is conditional. God’s love is beyond our ability to understand. Our journey of faith continually deepens our experience and identity as God’s beloved.
Image of God or image of our parents?
One summer, I taught a course on the integration of spirituality and psychology. During one class, I invited students to use a few adjectives to describe each of their parents, and then do the same for God. One particular student, a high school theology teacher, described his parents as loving but distant. He then described God as the life force. When I heard that he described God in such a rational and impersonal way, I knew he did not have a close relationship with God because he was not close to his parents. I was also concerned about how he instructed his students if he never experienced the love of God himself. Upon invitation to reflect upon the similarities between his parents and his image of God, he understood how his distant relationship with his parents contributed to his inability to experience a personal connection with God. After the course, he decided to seek counseling. Several years later, he informed me that his heart had been healed. He can feel God’s love and lives with a renewed passion for helping youngsters to know a loving God.
The Christian God is a God who is very near. It is a God who knows us while we were still in our mother’s womb. The Christian God is not just a life force. The Christian God is the Creator of the universe and the Abba Father who is always with us. She is the nurturing and attentive Mother. She is Wisdom, the Holy Spirit always guiding us. He is the Lord who is willing to die for love. But we often have a misunderstanding of God because of the cultural and familial influences. If our parents are authoritative, we may feel God is cold, cannot be questioned or rebelled against. If our parents are demanding and difficult, we may feel God keeps score.
As a pastor’s child, growing up I often felt God loved others but didn’t love me. Why? Because my parents were constantly serving others but not available to attend to my siblings and me. Such relational dynamic resulted in my feeling, at a subconscious level, that God did not love me. It was not until I was in my adulthood that I realized I believed in God’s love but did not feel loved by God. Fortunately, after receiving spiritual direction, I gradually came to experience a God who loves me, a loving God whom I am eager to invite others to come to know.
Believing is not the same as knowing and experiencing. We can “believe” in a God of love, but not “feel” loved by God. If you feel God is difficult to know and love, if you hesitate to bring your pain and struggle to God for fear of God’s criticism, if you think that you are helplessly fighting on the battlefield of life alone, if your prayers feel dry and dull, if you are isolated because of shame, then I would invite you to examine your image of God.God’s lap, comfort, forgiveness and guidance always await us. There is no fear in love, no fear of God’s rejection. Do we hear God whisper in our ears, saying “you are my beloved; you are beautiful and wonderfully made; I am well pleased with you”?
Hsin-hsin Huang is an associate professor of pastoral theology at Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis. She also practices as a pastoral psychotherapist and a certified trauma therapy consultant. She is a member of the Taiwanese Presbyterian Church of Greater St. Louis.
This article is a revision of a Mandarin version that first appeared in the New Messenger magazine.