This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
-1 John 4:9-11 (NIV)
I’d heard that before, but it really came home to me recently while going on a couple of college visits with my son. We got to learn a lot about some schools and get a little glimpse of what life would be like for him there. Based on the visits, he has a better idea of what he’s looking for. I have some thoughts too, about which colleges I think might be best for him.
Of course, my ideas and his might be different.
Which is why I’m thinking about the planned obsolescence of parenthood. When your child is newborn, he can’t make any decisions for himself. Doesn’t even know how. By the time he goes away to college, ideally he can make almost all of his decisions on his own. In between those points, parents make the decisions for their kids they need to make, while letting go a little more each day. Planned obsolescence. If we do our jobs well, by the college years our kids can pretty much get along without us.
None of us like to hear that, though. I just wrote all that, but sometimes I don’t act as if it’s true. My son’s very responsible and trustworthy, and yet I remind him of things he already knows. Nag him about things he was already planning to do. It’s because I love him, of course, and want to make sure he’s on the right track. But it’s also, if I’m being honest, sometimes because I’m a little afraid to let him go. Because letting him make his own decisions means letting him, possibly, make decisions that are different from the decisions I’d make, and it means living with the possibility that he might not make the decisions that are best for him.
I wonder if God ever struggles with that. I know it’s not good theology to assume God is too much like us — in fact, it’s idolatry — but I wonder how God feels when we, the children he loves, make bad choices, irresponsible decisions. That’s one obvious difference between my situation and God’s, of course; there are times when Josh’s decisions are better than mine, but when we make decisions of which God doesn’t approve, we’re always in the wrong. I wonder how it sits with him to let us make those bad decisions, go our own way, and ignore what he wants for us.
Because I love my son, I want to keep him from trouble, grief, and pain. I want to protect him. That’s natural enough, and sometimes that’s what love looks like. But what our experience of God’s love reminds us that is that love gives freedom to its object. That’s how God loves us. He could force us to fall in line with his will. But he gives us room to choose to obey him or not, to walk in his paths or not, to be his people or not.
In fact, as John put it, he showed us his love, not through control or coercion, but through sacrifice. In Jesus, he showed his love through suffering, through giving of himself. “He sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for sins.” In other words, his sacrificial love for us isn’t limited to those times when we do what he wants us to, when we make the right choices and take the right paths. It’s also, and even especially, for those times when we’ve wandered off track, gone our own way, and ignored his will. Even then, our Father in heaven did not coerce us or manipulate us into doing what he wants. He came to us, through his Son, in love and sacrifice, offering himself.
So maybe the love I’ve experienced from God in Jesus can help me know better how to love my son in the oncoming new realities of our relationship. Maybe his love can help all of us learn how to love the people in our lives without needing them to do what we want them to do. To love like God is to love with no strings, with no requirements. Love like his gives freedom to those whom we love. It doesn’t hold them tight, afraid to let them go. Rather, it sets them free to make their own decisions, go their own way, grow, learn, and experience. But always with the promise that we are there for them when they need us.
I saw that the actress who played Mrs. Wolowitz on The Big Bang Theory, Carol Ann Susi, passed away this week. You never saw Mrs. Wolowitz on the show, you just heard her voice, but the relationship between her and her adult son, Howard, was frequently played for laughs. He lived with her, in his childhood bedroom, until he got married. (Actually, for a while even after he got married!) She cooked him meals, did his laundry, ran his baths, and so forth. She was equally dependent on him. A frequent joke had Howard trying to escape from his mother’s neediness — but finding his own neediness getting in the way of his freedom.
It was always funny on the show. But that reality would not be funny at all. It’s not the kind of relationship we want to create, with our children or anyone else. Real love, God’s love, sets those who are loved free. It doesn’t burden them with our neediness, imprison them with our expectations, chain them with our disappointments. It offers itself to liberate, redeem, and renew.
So I’ll ask for grace, while the next couple of years go by, to do a better job of loving my son more like that, more like God has loved me. I’ll ask for grace to give him freedom, even while I give myself for him.
Maybe there are some people in your life who you could love in the same way. If not a child, then a parent. A spouse, a relative, a friend. Someone at work, at school, in your neighborhood, or at church. Try giving of yourself to them, with no expectation. (Not even unconsciously — that might take some self-reflection.) Show them grace, mercy, and forgiveness, with no need for reciprocation. Free them to make their own choices, cheer them when they succeed, and be there for them when they fail. And see if it doesn’t begin, over time, to transform your relationship.
At the very least, they’ll get a glimpse of God’s love through you.