We hear a lot, of course, about how much God loves us. “God is love”, as St. John’s Gospel proclaims. And the proclamation of God’s love for us has been at the core of Christianity from the beginning.
The theologian James Alison points out, however, that perhaps the most important question is not whether God loves us, but whether God likes us! It is easy, he observes, to lie about love. People say they love someone or something all the time, but do they really? Do their actions really demonstrate that love in a tangible way? A lot of suffering has been caused in the name of love — a kind of love defined as something that is meant for our good but isn’t experienced by us as a good at all. Or a kind of love whose heart is abusive or manipulative. One could argue that these sorts of loving don’t really constitute love at all, and yet there are numbers of people whose understanding or experience of love looks abusive, manipulative, or simply unkind.
When Christians go about proclaiming God’s love, it sadly often ends up looking less than loving too much of the time. How many people have been lured into Christian community under the banner, “God loves you!”, only do discover that despite this alleged love, the community in question finds a lot about the newcomers not to like. “God loves you — but God doesn’t like the fact that you’re gay.” Or, “God loves you — but God doesn’t so much like that you’re a woman, so there’s a bunch of stuff you really can’t do in our community.” Or, “God loves you — but God doesn’t like the fact that you act this way or do these things or have these desires.” In other words, in so many ways, Christians today and over the years have proclaimed God’s love for humanity — but haven’t been quite as sure about God’s like for humanity.
Alison observes that it’s much harder to lie about liking someone. While the cues as to whether someone loves us can get quite confused and mixed up and leave us wondering, the cues as to whether someone genuinely likes us are usually more straight-forward. People often find themselves wondering about whether some other really loves them, but people don’t seem to have that same uncertainty about whether someone likes them.
Alison proclaims strongly that not only does God love us, but God actually does like us, and wants us to be well. God’s liking of us is not suspended until we get certain things right, or believe appropriately, or modify our desires to some standard of acceptability. God likes us as we are, right from the moment we are born. And if we can get our minds and hearts around that profound liking, then we will know that God is safe. We will know that we can have a relationship with God that is absolutely authentic and honest, and not be afraid that our authenticity will somehow get us punished. God is not the dysfunctional father who believes that love involves toughening us up with various trials and punishments. God is our friend — our very best friend — who wants nothing more than to be allowed to come along side us and journey with us, always in dialogue and companionship, encouraging us, comforting us, understanding our quirks and weaknesses with the kind of like that allows us to laugh at ourselves.
If the Christian people and communities of the world are really to preach authentically and convincingly about the love of God, we need to make sure that we are also proclaiming the like of God. Because it is really only in the context of true, deep friendship that we will find ourselves in a relationship where we are accepted enough tot be freed into transformation.