I’ve been to my share of conferences in the past few years and quite a few of these have been geared toward pastors. There’s a phenomenon I’ve noticed at the beginning of these events. In many cases these conferences are an opportunity for old friends to reconnect. Many times pastors have been attending the same conference year after year and have met new friends there or have reconnected with old friends from their college or seminary days. This is a once-per-year opportunity to spend a little bit of time together and to play catch-up.
I suppose there must have been a time when people carried printed photos in their wallets. Today, though, people carry photos on their cell phones or on their iPods. So often, when these men meet after the passing of yet another year, I see them embracing and then immediately digging out their phones or their iPods to show off the pictures of their children or grandchildren. And it is interesting to hear them talk; to hear them share proudly about the children they’ve already begun to miss even after only one day apart. As you listen to these pastors tell about their children, you notice that they dwell on the things that make them proud. “Brian’s nine. He loves basketball and leads his team in scoring. He’s getting so tall! His head comes up to my chest now and he eats like there’s no tomorrow. And here’s Rebecca. She’s fourteen. You can see she looks just like her mom. She loves cameras and says she wants to be a photographer…” Of course you know as you hear this that the last year has not been free of conflict. You know that mom and dad are probably working hard to maintain boundaries around Rebecca who is already acting out as a rebellious teen and that they are working hard to make Brian respect authority. It may well be that the night before he left, dad had to invoke some discipline and left the house only after making Rebecca promise that she would obey her mother. But when dad gets together with his friends, these things are not at the front of his mind. He loves his children, he is proud of his children, and he wants to tell others about them.
I thought about this a short time ago when I was considering how God feels about us, how he feels about me, how he feels about all of his children. I guess I often go through life thinking that God is generally displeased with me. I see my sin, I see my failings, I see my heart. At the same time I see from Scripture God’s majesty, his holiness, his perfection. And when I put these together I suppose that God must be looking at me with at least some level of disgust. He must regard me as I regard myself so much of the time; as a person who may try to do what’s right, but as a person who is just an abject failure when it comes to holiness. At the end of the day, I do love him, but I also love sin. At the end of it all, I pledge allegiance to him, but prove allegiance to myself seemingly just as often. So what could there be for him to love here?
But I’m starting to think that I’ve had this all wrong. I don’t know that there is a single Bible passage I would point to. But more and more, as I study God’s Word and as I learn about who he is, I see that he is a loving Father who is lavish with his love. Maybe it was my recent studies in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Maybe it was my reading through the prophets, seeing how God hates sin but loves his people. Maybe it was just talking to my mother who came to this realization, I think, long before I did. But somehow I am starting to see that God hates my sin but that he loves me. God despises the evil that lurks within me, but is extravagant in his grace. He actually, really loves me.
And maybe in that way God isn’t so different from the pastors I see at conferences. He loves us. He loves me. And more than that, he’s proud of me. He isn’t petty, filling his mind with all those things I’ve done wrong, but rather he is gracious, seeing all those evidences of his grace in my life. And, you know, I think this is one of the reasons that The Shack has done so well and has sold so many copies. It presents a God who not only loves people, but who also likes them and who is proud of them. Maybe we can be so careful in (rightly) understanding God’s hatred for sin and his desire for holiness that we forget about his great love for us despite the sin that still pollutes us. Maybe we forget that God truly does regard as children—children he not only loves but children he also genuinely likes. And there’s a difference between the two, isn’t there?