This post is based on Week One of An Ignatian Prayer Adventure.
I found myself in a desperate situation just over ten years ago. During that time of struggle, a staggering realization met me face to face: I didn’t trust God with my son. It was an unsettling epiphany.
I had joined a 12-step group for friends and family members affected by the addictions of others, and there I was asked to come to believe in a power that is greater than myself. I don’t need to come to believe, I told myself. I don’t ever remember a time when I didn’t believe in God.
Except I still couldn’t seem to trust. I’d read Scripture about God’s love and thought that I had accepted it as truth. Then one day almost a year later, I read the following passage:
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”
Like Jesus challenged Simon Peter, this Scripture passage asked me to trace my beliefs in God back to their origins. I began to realize that the way that God had been characterized to me both consciously and unconsciously was a major factor in my capacity to accept God’s unconditional love.
When relatives or teachers cautioned me that, “God won’t like it if you do that,” without realizing it, they were representing God as a creator whose love is transactional. That attitude said God would love me when I behaved a certain way. This image of God kept me distant. Unconsciously, I felt as if I would never do things well enough to earn God’s love.
If instead my elders had said, “God won’t like seeing you hurt yourself when you do that action,” how would that have changed the image presented of God? That characterization shows God’s focus is on loving me as his child. That representation of God aligns with the Scriptures that I’d read about him. It describes a love that is unconditional and transformative.
As I began to break down those false images of God I’d been carrying around, I was able to make room for my personal experience of him, now that I felt safe enough to bring God close. Little by little, I began to trust.
St. Ignatius understood how imperative it is to begin the Spiritual Exercises with an existential experience of God’s unconditional love as our foundation and guiding principle. How can we move forward if we don’t feel safely wrapped in love? How can we begin to experience God’s love for us if we remain distant?
I’m learning that our attitudes and actions are the products of our beliefs. Do our actions match our words? Have we taken time to unpack the images that we carry of God? God’s love for us is pure gift. We can’t earn it. We don’t have to measure up. It is there for the taking.