I recently had my first opportunity to go through the grueling experience known as “applying for a pastoral ministry position.” Going into it, I had no idea that this process would be intense in ways that other jobs I have applied for would not even come close to. I completely understand and appreciate the in-depth nature of the process as an exploration of both my abilities and my call to ministry, yet that sure did not make it any less stressful.
In the end, the stress I experienced was always greater during the anticipation of the various interviews and meetings, because the questions that were asked typically turned into discussions that were surprisingly life-giving and energizing. One question during this process sticks out to me, however, because I am still not sure whether I absolutely nailed it or completely fumbled my response. The position I was applying for involves some focus on Christian education with youth and young people, so as we were discussing this topic, one of the interviewers asked, “If you could tell young people just one thing, what would it be?”
As soon as the question was laid out on the table, there was a bit of good-natured joking from the group about the gravity of the question and the difficulty of answering. Before I could respond (and thankfully while I was racking my brain for an answer) the group lightheartedly decided that anyone who asks such a hard question must be willing to give their own answer. This bit of stalling gave me enough time to decide what I wanted to say:
I am not sure if this will forever and always be my “one thing” I want young people to hear from me, but in that moment it felt important. I explained to the group that in the context of Christian Education, my hope for young people is that they would learn a kind of critical consciousness that allows them to be intentional about both the things they believe and the ways they live. Instead of simply telling people (both young and old) what to believe, my hope would be to teach them to ask better questions and to find the deeper community that exists amongst those on a common journey rather than those who have come to all the same conclusions.
I finished talking about my rationale for wanting youth to question everything, and I felt content with the answer knowing that no one answer could encompass everything. Then it fell to the person who had originally asked the question to give her answer. Without missing a beat, she responded:
“God loves you.”
In that instant, it felt like I had the wind knocked out of my answer. Maybe it was the fact that she seemed to be able to respond without needing to think, or maybe it was the fact that all of a sudden my answer seemed so utterly devoid of good news. Why had I wasted my hypothetical “one thing” on something that, on its own, seemed like it had the potential to pull people away from faith rather than drawing them closer to God?
Hypothetical all-or-nothing questions tend to leave me feeling frustrated because there is no way to account for the messiness and complexity of life. I stand by my answer, but hearing this other person’s response has stuck with me because I recognize that they are both so very important.
Yes, God love you. Hear that. Let it sink into your heart, soul, mind, and every part of your being. Allow your faith to be that simple and that beautiful, but at the same time, know what it means to hear and to say those words:
God loves you. Which God? How do we understand and know this God? Is it an old man in the sky kind of God? Or when we say “God” do we mean some ethereal spiritual force that is all around and within us? Do all religions worship the same God but with different names?
God loves you. But what do we mean when we say “love” and how does “God” show us that kind of love? How do we know the difference between God’s love and human love? If God can love, does God ever hate? Can someone reject God’s love?
God loves you. Who do we mean when we say “you”? Do we mean only people like us? Only Christians? What does it mean to have a “personal relationship” with God? Does God love all of me?
As we begin to deconstruct the phrase “God loves you,” we can begin to see that there are an infinite number of ways to understand what this may actually mean. Perhaps this process of deconstruction helps us to see the ways “God loves you” has operated as a tool of the powerful. Perhaps questioning everything about what it means for God to love you allows us to think more deeply about theological topics. Perhaps this critical consciousness allows us to live more intentionally.
Yet, we must never let our deconstruction and our questions leave us with nothing, because they have the potential to lead us down endless rabbit holes. We must live in the tension between “God loves you” and “Question everything.” At times we need the simplicity of knowing God’s love, but at other times, we need the hard questions to rouse us when that simplicity turns to complicity. In the end, my hope is that we may all find the courage to live within this tension.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.