This was originally posted as a column on the Grandin Media website.
If you spend any amount of time around the Church, you are likely to hear some discussion about God’s love for us. It’s written into many of our liturgical prayers. You might hear scripture passages like “God is love” (1 John 4:8) or “For God so loved the world He gave His only Son…” (John 3:16). Some homilists and speakers like to quote saints poetic descriptions of what God’s love for us actually means. (One of my favorites comes from Pope Benedict XVI: “Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.”)
The reason that the topic of God’s love comes up so often is simple: it’s foundational to our understanding of why God made us. St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us via the Catechism that “Creatures came into existence when the key of love opened (God’s) hand” (CCC #293).
All of that being said, our ongoing understanding of God’s love can have a much more personal meaning: the simple fact of knowing we are loved has an impact on how we live and on how we act. I had my clearest lesson in understanding what this means the first time I took one of my kids to get stitches.
It all began about seven years ago, as I was in the process of packing to head out of town for a few days. My son and daughter were playing in her bedroom – an experience that was much more interesting to them because her sheets were in the wash, and they believed that this presented a wonderful opportunity to practice their “Olympic Diving.” As a result, my packing was done to the rhythmic “thudding” of a four-year-old and two-year old alternatively jumping off a bed.
That rhythmic thudding came a sudden halt when a thud was followed by a loud crash, which was itself immediately followed by the sound of my two-year-old son screaming. I rushed down the hallway to discover that he had leapt too far, crashing into a bookshelf on the other end of the room –giving himself a nasty cut across the bridge of his nose. I remember cleaning a lot of blood off his face, and packing this two-year-old boy into my car for a trip to the ER for his first set of stitches.
Being in the emergency room with a child was a new experience. Mercifully, I wasn’t alone. We were one of three sets of parents & children waiting to be patched up that evening. As I listened to one of the other kids scream the entire time she was being stitched up, I was bracing myself for a similar experience: I fully expected my son to scream and fight while they attempted to give him stitches.
The medical staff felt the same way, as they had two nurses first wrap him up in a blanket, and then proceed to hold his body and his head still in preparation for the stitches. I took this moment as my cue to give some good dad encouragement, as I told my son: “This is probably going to hurt a lot. But remember that this doctor is here to help make things better.” He looked nervously at me, and then proceeded to let out a small whimper as the first needle went in… but that was all he did during the entire procedure. A few minutes later, we were on the way home, and within a half hour I was on the road contemplating what had just happened.
How was it that my two-year-old son had shown such courage in a moment he can’t have understood?
It dawned on me about halfway down the highway – my son had decided to trust in my love for him. He had known from the moment he hit the bookshelf that something was seriously wrong. He knew that me cleaning him up and taking him to the hospital was part of the process to fix whatever was wrong… and when the time came for needles and stitches, he chose to believe that his father who loved him would only allow this painful experience because of my love for him.
His ability to do this came from the different ways I have tried to show him love all of his life. There are moments when I’m better at this than others, and moments where he understands this more clearly than others, but two years of being told and shown he was loved added up to a moment of heroic trust from his two-year-old heart.
Our understanding of God’s love is not meant to be mere sentimentality, nor some tacit permission to do whatever we want whenever we want. Knowing God’s love for us is a comfort that is reinforced both by His words as well as the spiritual consolations we experience from time to time. But it also ought to lead us to action: at times, the simple act of trusting that the God who loves us also knows what He’s doing in our lives.
“See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God.” -1 John 3:1