God loves us is well received, but not well believed. We know God loves us for the Bible tells us so. It has been oft repeated for thousands of years ever since God began revealing Himself to us and definitively revealed Himself in Jesus Christ. The problem is we do not believe it. Do not get me wrong we want to trust it, but we do not. Many of us live from our brokenness and weakness and think that is who we are. Many of us have felt unloved and unwanted by those who should have loved us and wanted us the most. Little by little it gets ingrained in us that we are unlovable and not even God loves us. This is the root of all of the world's problems. I know that is a bold statement, but I am convinced that it is one hundred percent true. This article will propose a way to begin to believe the truth of who we are.
Daily persevering prayer is the way to lean into the truth that God loves us. One of the many fruits of prayer is this knowledge of God's love for me personally. Although it is only one of the fruits of prayer, given the world we live in it is one of the most important.
First, prayer introduces us incrementally into a real personal knowledge of God. Prayer gives us actual experiential knowledge of God and not merely an abstract, philosophized, or theologized understanding of God, which is not to downplay their necessity. The God who is living and true and speaks to the heart. Prayer empowers us to go beyond our ideas of God, beyond the beliefs we have formed through our human experiences, which are usually wrong or too narrow. Whether we realize it or not our human experience with those in fatherly positions in our lives shapes our image of God for good or ill.
The primary goal of prayer from God's perspective is to bring us to know Him as Father. Jesus is the only one who knows who the Father is. But, He also desires to reveal the Father to us little ones (Lk 10:21-22). The revelation of the Father by the only one who knows Him is well portrayed in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-32). The marvelous parable should be called the parable of the Prodigal Father. Prodigal means to squander and the Father squanders his love on a son whose first statement in the parable is a rejection of his father. When we come to know God as Father, we concomitantly come to understand His mercy and forgiveness as the parable beautifully portrays.
God is great, transcendent, majestic, and all-powerful while at the same time being tender, gentle, and full of endless mercy. In prayer, this knowledge is not grasped only by our intellect, but by our entire being. It becomes a lived experience. This knowledge of God gives us access to real understanding of ourselves. We can only honestly know ourselves in the light of God. What we learn from the experience of life, psychology, the human sciences which is helpful is also limited and partial. In the light of God, we have access to our deepest identity as we are in the loving gaze of the Father.
This knowledge has two aspects: one that is initially negative but leads directly to something extremely positive. The negative character has to do with our sin and our deep-seated brokenness. In His light, no lies, no evasion, and no masks can remain. We are compelled to see who we are, with our wounds, our weaknesses, our selfishness, our egos, our hard-heartedness, our complicity with evil and everything else.
God is tender and merciful in revealing this to us in a gradual way as we become progressively able to endure it. God shows our sin while simultaneously revealing His forgiveness and infinite mercy. We experience sorrow for our wretched condition and our absolute poverty as fallen creatures. In this, we recognize that everything good is from God and that it is received by pure grace. We can take no glory in it, nor can we attribute anything to ourselves. It places us in an excellent spiritual space - humbled.
This stage of self-knowledge is necessary for there can be no healing unless the sickness is diagnosed. The truth will set us free. There is something still more profound and more beautiful that is revealed over and above our self-knowledge. We discover that despite all of our sins and failings, we are God's children. God loves us with absolute unconditional love, and this love of the Father is our deepest identity.
At our core, we find an essential part of us that has not been corrupted by sin - the image of God although we have lost the likeness (Gn 1:26, see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 705). This part of us is the love that God has for each of us personally as our Creator and Father. Although, we are each soiled by sin and in urgent need of purification and conversion, more profound still is the Father's love, which is the basis of our identity. At the very essence of who we are lies the fact that each of us is a beloved child of God. This is the answer to the question that continually echoes in the hearts of each man and each woman: Who am I?
Many have sought the answer to that question in work, in the family, in relationships, and many other things. We believe that we have to answer the question for ourselves or worse create the answer. Yet, no matter the answer we try to give it we are still empty, unsatisfied, confused since none of these have provided the answer. Worse we may believe that this is as good as it gets. This brokenness is who I am; the sum of my failures is who I am; this disordered attraction is who I am. These are the lies we believe. No, our identity is the love of the Father that we find at the center of our being.
We have to embark on the journey of prayer to find this deepest identity for ourselves. It comes to light only in a personal encounter with God. This encounter begins to strip away these false images of self and brings us to the heart of who we are. Our deepest identity is not something we need to construct but something that we need to receive as a gift. By our own baptism, we can embrace the words of the Father spoken at Jesus' baptism as spoken to each of us: "You are my beloved son (daughter)" (Lk 3:22).
Prayer, where we encounter God, permits us to discover God's unique personal love for us. None of us want to be loved in a general way. We desire to be uniquely loved. Isn't that what the experience of being in love is about - finding someone who loves you uniquely. This is what God's love brings about in us by knowing that we are uniquely loved and chosen by God in a personal way. All of this is contrary to our popular belief that God loves in a general way. God loves you as He loves no one else in the world. For it is His love that makes us unique. Analogously, a human father loves each of his children uniquely because each of his children is unrepeatable and irreplaceable.
Sometimes we can think to ourselves, "I will never love God like St. Therese or Mother Teresa or St. John Paul II." No, we cannot because we are not those persons. We can love God like no one else who has ever existed. We can love Him with our unique personality that was created by His love. We can serve Him, and the Church like no one else in history has ever served. We are not one among many. The way we love and serve God and the Church is our gift to both, and no one else will bring it to fruition but us.
There is much mystery in this reality. It is not something we can claim as our glory or assimilate to ourselves as our project. It must be lived out in humility and poverty. It has to be lived out as a response to the love of God in faith and hope. Yet, it is real and sure enough to give inner freedom and security to live this life of faith with confidence.
The discovery of the personal love of God as Father is the essential fruit of fidelity to prayer, and the most precious gift. God's fatherhood is the most profound reality there is and once we experience it life takes on an unfathomable richness and depth. God's fatherhood is the source of happiness for each person. In it, we seek to live, and move, and have our being. We expect everything from His goodness and generosity, confidently living every moment of our lives as a gift from our merciful Father. Learning our true identity as a beloved child of the Father is one of the many fruits of persevering prayer, but arguably in our world the most important. Let's get praying.
* The inspiration for this article derives from Fr. Jacques Philippe's book "Thirsting for Prayer." Scepter Publishers, 2014.
I am a Catholic priest writing about Catholic things.
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