I’ve spent so much time worrying about whether or not God exists that I overlooked a more important question. If I believe that God exists, do I believe in a God that I would approach in prayer?
Another way to ask that would be: If I believe in God, do I believe in a loving, merciful God who wants nothing more than for me to pray? Or do I let my imagination create images of an angry, violent, and petty God who is waiting for me to finally mess up enough to justify banishing me from his presence forever?
That latter image haunted my prayers for years. Whenever I struggled to pray, I told myself, “Well, this is it. You’ve finally done it. God has finally turned away from you, and there’s no hope. Prayer may work for other people, but it won’t work for you.”
By imagining a God who could take me or leave me, waiting to strike me down, or to cast me away at the slightest infraction, I made it extremely hard to pray. If I can’t imagine God liking me, let alone loving me and seeing me with compassion and mercy, it’s awfully hard to begin to pray.
Perhaps we struggle to reconcile the God of Hebrew Bible who throws down thunder, hail stones, and fire from the heavens. Perhaps we can’t reconcile those stories with the proclamations of the Psalms:
The LORD is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness.
I don’t know how to create a theological system that seamlessly accounts for these stories and comfortably fits them in with the many verses in the Psalms and prophets where God is described as merciful, compassionate, full of love, and loving for his people like a jilted lover.
Here’s what I do know: the people who seek God in prayer have found more love, mercy, and compassion than they ever would have guessed. When the mystics write about the presence of God, there is awe and even a bit of fear at times, but God is love, compassion and mercy.
The people who have dedicated their lives to prayer overwhelming reveal that the God we seek is the kind of God we would want to seek.
That isn’t to say that our faults or sins aren’t a big deal. Anyone who believes in the cross and resurrection would recognize that these are important problems that God himself has set out to resolve. The point for me is not minimizing my faults, it’s seeing the largeness of God’s love, mercy, and compassion.
My mistake wasn’t underestimating the seriousness of sin; it was underestimating how deeply God loves us.
Over and over again in the Gospels, I see Jesus telling people that God is more loving and merciful than they expect, that more people are welcome than they suspect, and that the supposed barriers between people and God are actually not holding anyone back.
Perhaps the greatest struggle for Christians today isn’t believing God exists, it’s believing that God is merciful.
We do ourselves no good if we believe in a God that we fear, a God we dare not approach, or a God who is so terrible that we fail to open our deepest fears and pains to him.
In the vast reserves of God’s love and mercy, there is room for us to come as we are and to seek healing and restoration. The greatest obstacle to God’s mercy is believing that it exists and applies even to you and to me.