We live in too much fear of God, trusting too little that God understands and accepts us as we are, with all our adolescent mistakes, betrayals and weaknesses. As an illustration, I offer you a rather poignant incident I was associated with some time back. I was officiating at the funeral of a man in his early 20s who had been killed, while drunk, in a motor accident. Death because of irresponsibility and drunkenness! Moreover, during the last few years of his life he had been away from the church and the sacraments and had been living, unmarried, with his girl friend. This is hardly what classical spirituality calls “a happy death.” This young man had come from a good and faith-filled family who, despite the fact that his last years had been filled with turbulence and immaturity, loved him very deeply.
Looking at faces at that funeral, it was evident that there was more than sorrow in them. Fear was present, real fear that this young man whom we all knew, loved, understood, and knew to have a good heart despite the fact that he had been irresponsible and away from the church, was somehow going to be excluded from heaven and condemned to hell because he had, for a few brief years of adolescence, been mixed up and somewhat irresponsible. Strange and sad that we should be worried that God did not understand. We, with our limited minds and limited hearts, understood. We, with all the fogginess that clouds our understanding, knew that, beneath it all, despite the circumstance of his life and death, he had a good heart, a warm heart, a loving heart that needed just a bit more time and love to burst into charity, chastity and faith. Strange that we should feel that God did not recognize this.
We knew how good was this young man’s heart. We knew too that his irresponsibility was, in the end, little more than a combination of adolescent immaturity, laziness, peer pressure, and the infectious influence of an amoral culture. Deep down this young man wasn’t bad, immoral, a candidate for condemnation. He was little more than a child, irresponsible, struggling, feeling his oats, showing off, insecure, merely looking for acceptance and love. On that basis, can we seriously think that he might be excluded from the community of life? How utterly absurd! A child in this state needs, perhaps, a spanking, a challenge, a shock, but that is light years from hellfire.
I knew this young man’s parents. Because they were good Christians, they were deeply hurt by his immaturities, his irresponsibility, his straying from the church and his disregard for the teachings of the church on sexuality. The last years of his life and especially his death made a deep wound. Yet, standing at his graveside, if they could have reached him, even for one second, there would have been no scolding, no bitterness, no demand for an explanation and an apology. There would have only been one powerful embrace. They would have wrapped their arms around him as they would a wounded child and conveyed to him in a language deeper than words that they understood. Like the father of the prodigal son, they would not demand nor want any atonement before they would let go of their own hurt. They would simply be overwhelmed in the joy that they again had their son.
God is a God of infinite compassion. Even more than this young man’s parents, God understood the goodness of this young man’s heart. I am sure that God greeted him with an embrace that was as accepting and healing as was the embrace of the father for the prodigal son. I suspect that the only thing condemned that day was another fatted calf…for the feast!
The purpose of this article is not to dwell on this particular example, but to challenge us to believe more deeply that God understands. Crassly put, God isn’t stupid! If we, with our limits, can see beyond wound and struggle to a goodness that lies still deeper within a human heart, how much more does God see our goodness, understand our struggles and forgive our weaknesses. If we could believe this, then we would let God walk with us through all the patches of our lives, however dark and perverse. Not believing it leads us to the worst religious mistake of all: We run away from God whenever we need him the most. It is precisely at those times when we have fallen, when we are morally impotent, bankrupt, struggling, and stand, unclean, with our sin on our hands, that we most, like a wounded child need the embrace of a mother or father.
Unfortunately, too often, that is precisely when we quit praying, quit going to church, quit receiving the sacraments and quit putting ourselves in God’s arms. Why? Because we feel we must first, by our own efforts, clean our house a bit and get our lives in order before we can approach God’s arms…as if to approach God first requires a basic moral minimum. First clean the house, then call in the cleaners!