So, along with my reading of this book and my pondering the growth of my own child, I’ve come across a strange and intriguing spiritual concept. If God is a divine parent and loves me the same way I love my child, then is it possible that God’s wish for me is that I grow and develop so that I am no longer completely dependent on God for everything? Perhaps God wants for me what I want for my child: to grow and mature so that I can think and act responsibly for myself without a constantly hovering authority correcting and redirecting me.
This is really stretching my mind, and, I hope, my faith. After all, as powerful as the image of God as parent has historically been in the Christian community, and in my own faith life, that image has seemed to depend on the concept that we, God’s children, never grow up. But this is not, I believe, what a good parent wants for his children.
Right now, my little girl is pretty much totally dependent on me or her mother for most everything. She isn’t old enough to feed herself or change herself; she requires constant non-stop supervision so that she doesn’t hurt herself. This is developmentally appropriate for a fourteen-month-old toddler. One day, however, she will be able to feed and dress herself, use the bathroom on her own, bathe herself, and (hopefully) develop enough sense to gradually be trusted to her own devices without fear that she will burn down the house. That’s the goal, at least. That’s what I want, both for her as my child and for me as her parent.
There are actions she performs now that are acceptable due to her developmental stage that will not be so acceptable in a few years. For instance: throwing her food at dinner time. This is terribly obnoxious even now, but we don’t punish her for it because we’re aware she still doesn’t know how to tell us she’s not hungry or that she doesn’t want to eat a certain food anymore. Of course, we’re trying to change this behavior, but for now it doesn’t seem so unacceptable. In five years, though, once she’s developed the verbal capacity to say out loud that she doesn’t want to eat anymore carrots, I will have far less patience when she throws them on the floor. That doesn’t mean she won’t still do it, but developmentally that will be less than what I will expect from her. And, naturally, when she’s fifteen, throwing food on the floor would simply be considered downright barbaric. Barring some kind of developmental block or disability, we expect that a teenager knows better than to throw food on the floor when she’s no longer hungry.
This is a strange but basic paradox of parenting: a good enough parent’s job is to teach his child to need him less and less. This takes a lot of time, toil and trouble, but the outcome of successful parenting is an adult child who is self-sufficient and differentiated from her parents.
Which, for me, begs the theological question: is God not a successful parent?
This is an imperfect metaphor, I know. After all, Jesus tells us that we must become like children to enter the kingdom of heaven, so maybe God really doesn’t want us to be independent and self-sufficient. Then again, the author of the letter to the Hebrews chastises those who have become “dull in understanding,” suggesting that they are not mature enough to eat solid food: “You need milk, not solid food; for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.” (Hebrews 5:12b-14, NRSV) This author, at least, believes that there is growth to faith, that “the word of righteousness” (whatever that means) requires skill and practice.
So what would it look like to be a grown child of God? This is where I’m really being stretched. It’s easy for me – and, I think, for most Christians – to look at other people and point out their childish faith. But what does it look like for me? What does God expect from me in my growth and development as a person of faith? I know what I expect from my child as she grows, so how might that translate into my own faith development? I’ve come to believe (in the roughly two weeks I’ve been pondering this) this would mean learning to become less directly dependent on tenets and doctrines and more flexible with how my relationships can be nurturing and mutual. I think it means not expecting God to rescue me with some divine intervention every time I get in trouble. I think it means taking initiative to enact the values of God in the world around me instead of leaving it to other people or, worse, shrugging them off as impossible or unimportant.
I anticipate some resistance from other Christians to this idea of God’s expectations that we would grow in our faith. I can already hear people (and by “people” I really mean the introjected voices from my early church experiences that still reside in me) say, “But we should always be dependent on God!” I agree with this, to an extent. After all, just because I’m an adult doesn’t mean I don’t still depend on my parents for certain things. I still love and appreciate their relationship with me and I’ve certainly come to rely on them for advice and direction when it comes to parenting. I don’t call them every single time my little girl has trouble sleeping at night, but I have definitely listened to the wisdom and input my parents (and my in-laws) have provided regarding child-raising. They don’t offer their advice to me as commandments, declaring that failure to heed their direction would make me a terrible parent. They offer me suggestions from their own experience, trusting me to use both their guidance and my own intuition to do what I believe is best for my child. They’ve taught me their values and trust me to enact those values in a way that is both consistent with their examples and unique to my own life and personality. But even if they don’t have any advice, I will never ever be free from a need to have my parents’ love. A successful parent may raise a child to not be so dependent, but it also creates a relationship within which love and affection is always present and necessary.
Another peripheral truth that this metaphor is unlocking for me is how deep and powerfully graceful God’s love is for us. When I was a teenager, my relationship with my parents was strained. (I’m indebted to Gulley for this specific example in his book.) I think this is normal for all teenagers and their parents, and I expect something similar will happen with my own daughter. But my parents don’t hold that against me. They know – and knew at the time, I suspect, although that didn’t make it easier – that this was developmentally appropriate, that a teenager is trying to differentiate from his parents but is unsure of himself and awkward and anxious. So, then, does God understand us in the awkward trying moments or our faith development. When I threw food on the floor as a spiritual fourteen-month-old, God didn’t punish me or begrudge me this behavior, but God also hoped that I would grow beyond this. When I was a sullen spiritual teenager who sulked around and didn’t communicate and pushed away, God knew this was part of my faith development and stuck it out, staying present to me while giving me the space I needed. I’m pretty sure that it annoys God when I act out; I know I’m sick of wiping up milk and carrots from the floor every night. But I don’t blame or my little girl for still growing, and I don’t think God blames us when our spiritual growth doesn’t happen overnight. God’s presence is always available in whatever capacity we need, and God’s love for us always takes into account our spiritual maturity and development. And I believe God is proud to look upon God’s grown children, who have made themselves into responsible and productive people.
Just think: if someone asks God about me – about you – then God will say, “Oh my, let me show you pictures and tell you all about what we spoke about on the phone last night!” It doesn’t matter what age you are, a good enough parent is proud of his or her children. And as we age and mature, that pride deepens and changes. I want my earthly parents to be proud of me, and I know they are because of how well I am doing as an adult. I want God to be proud of me for the same spiritual reasons.