Help. Hope. Healing.

Accepting God’s Love for Us

By Mark Chamberlain, Ph.D.

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Sex Addiction Recovery Tips from Mark Chamberlain, Ph.D.

Accepting God’s Love for Us

In the addiction treatment groups I facilitate, group members have the opportunity to “check in” at the beginning of each session, assessing and describing how they’re doing emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Listening to our clients evaluate their spirituality, I have been struck by the emphasis on their performance. “I’m not doing very well spiritually,” I hear almost every session from at least one group member, “I haven’t studied my scriptures or prayed like I should have this week.”

One week during check in, I commented, “Listening to you guys, I’m getting the image of a different God than the one I worship. It sounds to me like you are treating God as a father you must work your tails off to please. Almost like you are bringing Him a report card, and if the grades are good, you’ll get a pat on the head, but if they’re bad, you’ll be out of his good graces until next term.”

I don’t want to diminish how important it is for us to please God. However, if we are to have a deep and rich relationship with Him, shouldn’t it be multi-faceted? In addition to being a parent who evaluates our performance and worthiness, isn’t He also a father who might sometimes sit back and adore his children for no reason at all? Isn’t He the kind of father who will receive us with open arms when we run to Him in tears? Isn’t He the kind of father who would gladly spend time quietly relaxing beside one of his sons or daughters, or accompany them on a walk simply so that He could spend some time with them?

Joseph Smith taught that “If men do not comprehend the character of God, they do not comprehend themselves.” Perhaps here is at least one reason this statement is true: to the degree that we fail to comprehend what a loving and forgiving being God is, we are also blinded to just how precious and worthwhile we are in his sight. If we do fail to comprehend our value, it is not due to a lack of effort on his part to convince us.

The messages that come through his prophets and apostles are loud and clear. Consider the words of George Q. Cannon:

It is a truth that, when understood by us, gives a new light to our existence, and inspires us with the most exalted hopes. That truth is that God is our Father, and we are His children. What a tender relationship! What a feeling of nearness it creates within us! What? God my Father? Am I indeed His son? Am I indeed His daughter? Do I belong to the family of God? Is this literally true? The answer is Yes. God has revealed it, that we are literally His children, His offspring; that we are just as much His children as our offspring are our children; that He begot us; and that we existed with Him in the family relationship as His children. What an immensity of vision is given to us in this truth! What a field for reflection! And how our hearts should be inspired with great hopes and anticipations, to think that the Being under whose direction this earth was organized, who governs the planets and controls the universe, who causes the rotation of the seasons and makes this earth so beautiful and such a delightful place of habitation, is our Father, and that we are His children, descended from Him! What illimitable hopes the knowledge of this inspires us with!
Now, this is the truth. We humble people, we who feel ourselves sometimes so worthless, so good-for-nothing, we are not so worthless as we think. There is not one of us but what God’s love has been expended upon. There is not one of us that He has not cared for and caressed. There is not one of us that He has not desired to save, and that He has not devised means to save. There is not one of us that He has not given His angels charge concerning. We may be insignificant and contemptible in our own eyes, and in the eyes of others, but the truth remains that we are the children of God, and that He has actually given His angels–invisible beings of power and might–charge concerning us, and they watch over us and have us in their keeping. (Gospel Truths, comp. Jerreld L. Newquist, 2 vols., Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1974, 1:2.)

I first heard a part of this quote read during a sacrament meeting talk. However, in the effort to settle one of my kids, I was a bit distracted at the time. Nonetheless, as the words were read aloud, I was quite struck by the feeling of God’s love it conveyed to my heart. I was moved by it–unaccountably so. I couldn’t recall exactly what Elder Cannon had said that had touched me so deeply. So when the meeting was over I anxiously went forward to see if I could find a reference for the quote, obtain a copy for myself, and read over it again. I wanted to grasp intellectually what I had experienced in a visceral way. Later, as I read these words again, that same feeling returned: There is not one of us that He has not cared for and caressed. The idea of being caressed by a loving Heavenly Father brought a sense of warmth and peace to my soul. One does not caress out of duty. One does not caress in an attempt to influence. One caresses another when he adores him or her. When he feels a deep sense of commitment to and affection for him or her.

The familiarity expressed in Elder Cannon’s words are echoed in those of President Ezra Taft Benson: “Nothing is going to startle us more, when we pass through the veil to the other side than to realize how well we know our Father, and how familiar his face is to us.” (“To Draw Closer to God,” Henry B. Eyering, Ensign, May 1991, p. 66.) President Brigham Young spoke of our reunion with our Father in Heaven in a similar vein: If we could see our Father who dwells in the heavens, we should learn that we are as well acquainted with him as we are with our earthly father; and he would be as familiar to us in the expression of his countenance and we should be ready to embrace him and fall upon his neck and kiss him, if we had the privilege. . . . And there is no other one item that will so astound you, when your eyes are opened in eternity, as to think that you were so stupid in the body. (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 8:30.)

“Well I’m not just any child of God,” you may insist as you consider the affection of God, “I happen to be one who is mired in a pretty disgusting compulsive habit.” Just how does our worst behavior affect our Heavenly Father and his feelings for us? Consider the perspective expressed in the following story by Christian author Max Lucado:

When my daughter was a toddler, I used to take her to a park not far from our apartment. One day as she was playing in a sandbox, an ice-cream salesman approached us. I purchased her a treat, and when I turned to give it to her, I saw her mouth was full of sand. Where I had intended to put a delicacy, she had put dirt.
Did I love her with dirt in her mouth? Absolutely. Was she any less of my daughter with dirt in her mouth? Of course not. Was I going to allow her to keep the dirt in her mouth? No way. I loved her right where she was, but I refused to leave her there. I carried her over to the water fountain and washed out her mouth. Why? Because I love her.

God does the same for us. He holds us over the fountain. “Spit out the dirt, honey,” our Father urges. “I’ve got something better for you.” And so he cleanses us of filth; immorality, dishonesty, prejudice, bitterness, greed. We don’t enjoy the cleansing; sometimes we even opt for the dirt over the ice cream. “I can eat dirt if I want to!” we pout and proclaim. Which is true–we can. But if we do, the loss is ours. God has a better offer (Just Like Jesus, p. 4).

The love God has for us, the love the Savior exemplified in his life, does not depend on whether our mouths are full of dirt or ice cream. We may convince ourselves that He loves those who have never tasted much dirt–those ice-cream-only folks–much more than He loves us. As though the flow of his great love were merely a faucet that could be shut off by a puny, unclean hand. To combat this pernicious philosophy, the Savior himself told us the parable of the prodigal son, a story that President Hinckley has called one of the most beautiful in all literature. Every individual who has ever lived is a member of one of the two groups represented by the two sons in this story. Some of us end up spending periods of our lives in both groups. Those who, for the most part, have lived faithful and devoted lives can relate to the son who demonstrated stability in his devotion, never wavering nor leaving the security of the family home. Those who have sought happiness in sources other than those encompassed by the great Gospel plan can relate to the son who took his share of the family fortune, “took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living.” (Luke 15:13.) Of course, after he spent it all, famine hit and “he began to be in want.” (v. 14) He ended up tempted to choke down the husks he was feeding the swine.

It is significant that this wayward son held no hope that he might return again to his original status in the family. He was returning to his father in hopes that he might merely receive some sustenance: “And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.” (Luke 15: 17-19.)

You remember, of course, his father’s response: the run to meet him, the embrace, the rejoicing, the adorning gifts, and the celebration that exceeded all other celebrations. And you remember how this generosity and joy caught the faithful son by surprise.

To me, the father’s message to the faithful son is one of the most significant and powerful in all scripture. To every one in the human race who remains faithful and steers clear of major struggles with sin, what does a loving Father in Heaven feel it is necessary to provide: reassurance! Reassurance that those of us who remain faithful are no less loved and cherished than those of us who have been mired for a time in sin, who have been in a far country, who have groveled with swine! He doesn’t want them to feel bad or left out because he is so overjoyed by and demonstrates so much love for returned prodigals.

This is quite a message! Do we really get it and allow its import to sink in? That God cherishes sinners so much that when they return there is a risk that the consistently righteous will feel neglected and resentful? “Remember,” the Lord revealed to Joseph Smith, “the worth of souls is great in the sight of God; For behold, the Lord your Redeemer suffered death in the flesh; wherefore he suffered the pains of all men, that all men might repent and come unto him. And how great is his joy in the soul that repenteth!” (D&C 18:10-11, 13)

Imagine a reunion in heaven with celebrating and embracing and rejoicing like none you have ever seen. Then imagine a beaming Heavenly Father turning his attention to a group that has been feeling left out. Imagine the embraces and reassurance: It’s not that I don’t love you. You’ve always been closer to my influence and have felt my love without much interruption. But these, these have been in a far country! How wonderful that they did not stay–that they have come back! Don’t take it personally if my heart is about to burst with joy because they have returned to be with all of us!

Picture yourself as a lamb. You are in a precarious position. You know you are in trouble. Your hope is waning. But lo, what do you hear? You turn to see the Shepherd himself. Climbing, making his way to where you are. Risking life and limb–indeed offering his life–on his way to retrieve you and bring you back safely to the fold. Once he reaches you, you feel his loving embrace. There is no scolding, no ridicule of your choices, no resentment for the high price He paid. Only rejoicing! Tears of joy because He cherishes and adores you. Then, He carefully places you upon his shoulders to carry you back to safety. Will you be self-conscious when he gathers his friend to celebrate? When he rejoices more over you than over the ninety-nine which went not astray? (Luke 15:4-7; Matthew 18:12-13).

Besides the lost sheep and the prodigal son, there are other images that shed light on God’s love for us and expose the limitations of our usual perspective. In the process, they can help strengthen our conviction that his love is deep and abiding. Consider some of the images Elder Richard L. Evans once used:

Our Father in heaven is not an umpire who is trying to count us out. He is not a competitor who is trying to outsmart us. He is not a prosecutor who is trying to convict us. He is a Loving Father who wants our happiness and eternal progress and everlasting opportunity and glorious accomplishment, and who will help us all He can if we will but give him, in our lives, the opportunity to do so with obedience and humility and faith and patience. (General Conference, October 1956)

Not an umpire, not a competitor, not a prosecutor. These images inspire my mind to consider other human relationships that might color and distort our ability to see ourselves as beloved by God: God is not our foreman, driving us to work longer and harder hours; he is our Father, encouraging us to struggle onward through adversity. Instead of working to impress Him, we can work to bring Him glory. In fact, instead of thinking of it as work, we can begin to see it as worship.

Since God is, first and foremost, a loving Father, when we are at our best as parents, when we are most loving and giving in our relationship with our children, perhaps these are the times when we come the closest to emulating character of God. Perhaps this is why the following poem is packed with so much meaning:

How much does God love you?
Let me count the ways:
If God had a refrigerator, your art work would be on it.
If He had a wallet your picture would be in it.
Think of it:
He sends you a sunrise every morning and new flowers every day all spring, all summer and all fall.
Whenever you want or need to talk, even if it’s about how upset you are at Him, He’ll listen and not reject, belittle or abandon you.
He can live anywhere in the universe but he wants to abide with you.
And what about that Christmas gift he delivered to you in Bethlehem, . . . not to mention that Friday on Calvary . . . and then only three days later on Easter.
Face it, He can’t get you off His mind.
He’s crazy about you!

If you find it hard to grasp that God cherishes you in the way I’m describing, you may want to try out a couple of techniques some of my clients have found useful. First, some tape record–in their own voice or in someone else’s–affirming statements they would like to hear from a loving parent: “I love you just as you are.” “You are the daughter I have always wanted.” “You couldn’t do a thing to make me love you any more than I do.” Listening to these affirmations a couple of times a day–usually first thing in the morning and at night just before going to sleep–can sometimes help override the negative and self-critical thoughts that have become so dominant.

You may take some time to go places where you can watch parents and young children interacting. Watch loving parents as they interact with their kids. Do you realize that God encompasses all of the highest qualities of the most loving parents? Imagine your Heavenly Father treating you in the same way these loving parents treat their children. Hugging you. Patiently teaching you. Perhaps even affectionately ruffling your hair. As you watch these loving interactions, let the knowledge that God loves you unconditionally and with great affection sink more deeply into your heart.

The scriptures provide instructive metaphors not only for our relationship with our Heavenly Father, but also for our relationship with the Savior. In addition to describing us as sheep belonging to the Good Shepherd, a topic we addressed above, that relationship is also frequently likened to a covenant marriage. What better comparison to help us grasp his devotion and commitment?

During a particularly stressful time professionally, I remember the great comfort I received from having a devoted wife. I was undergoing interviews that could lead to my acceptance or rejection, and ultimately they led to my rejection as a job candidate. However, I knew that they wouldn’t lead to my rejection where it mattered even more to me, because Jenny was devoted. It wasn’t that there might not have been a better husband candidate out there. I’m sure there was. But she had stopped looking for one. She had chosen me and I knew she would remain true. She wasn’t going to trade me in for the next interviewee even if he could do a better job. I had no fear of losing her. Sure, we might not reach certain goals we were working toward together, but love from her and for her was sure.

When true devotion exists in a love relationship, amazing possibilities unfold. Very different than when courting, during which time we are trying to impress the other person, checking them out to see what they have to offer. Instead, with true devotion both of us have our hearts in the pursuit of the same goal–and if one of us stumbles we are not out of the other’s good graces.

Our experiences with devoted mortals give us a small taste of the kind of devotion our Savior has promised us. If we stay devoted, we are his, and He takes us as is, the whole wreck. We are the only ones who might turn our affections elsewhere.

“But I haven’t been the most loveable bride,” you may respond. Well, think about it: When we are truly loving toward our spouse, is it because they have worked to change and become more loveable or deserving of our love? No–love is not about earning. We love them, not based on them and how loveable they are, but based primarily on our own capacity and willingness to extend love. We must learn to trust that our Savior is loving by nature and out of his goodness. He does not wait until we have made ourselves so loveable that He just can’t resist our goodness. He allows his sun to shine on the evil and the good–and the sunshine of his love to be showered on the evil and the good–because He has a perfect ability to be loving and is not dependent on us or our behavior! When we act as though we’re earning his love when we perform for him, we may seem to do it in humility, but it is actually the greatest of audacity: We are pretending that we can extort love from God, that we are the ones who make it happen, by doing so much.

We don’t need to work to impress Him; instead, we are free to receive his love and in return worship Him. He is not our boss, he is our loving bridegroom! He adores us, showers us with affection, and not just when we shine. In return he doesn’t want performance solely out of obligation (that we may end up resenting). He doesn’t want our horsepower, he wants our hearts, which can only be given freely. He refuses to exact devotion of us like a tax.

The fact that we may not be aware of the Savior’s goodness, grace, and love in our present lives does not mean that it is not freely available to us. However, in order to access it we must learn to become more like Mary than Martha. We must begin to relax and rest in the Lord’s grace. We may then begin to discover what we have never dared to dream: that if we were to still ourselves and sit adoringly at his feet as Mary did, we could receive his love even more fully.

To begin experimenting with the receptive mode that can open your life more fully to the Savior’s grace, you might begin by experiencing a day without striving. “Fret not thyself,” the Psalmist wrote. “Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for him.” (37:1, 7.) An entire day spent in this receptive mode can be quite an experience. Since working to try to measure up can become our Solarcain against the negative feelings of shame and guilt, if we wish to give up our quick fixes for permanent, deep healing, we must ease up on the constant spraying of this spiritual Solarcain. However, when we take a break from working so hard to redeem ourselves, we may not feel better right away. Instead, we will feel our own lack–our weaknesses and inadequacies–more poignantly. We will be reminded just why we have been spraying so much Solarcaine. Then, we can take these needs and imperfections to God, requesting that his grace and goodness will fill in these gaps in our lives.

As we begin to see the highest within ourselves, the wonder and beauty of who we already are in the Lord’s eyes, over time we will feel less compelled to frantically work to become something different or better. However, this is difficult to do, since at first his love might feel inaccessible. When this is the case and we have the urge to strive impatiently to earn his or someone else’s approval, we can deliberately interrupt the impulse to perform and instead turn to prayer. We might petition, for example, “Father in Heaven, please help me see the value you see in me as I am. Please help me see that I need be no more than I already am to be loved by you. Help me glimpse the goodness and worth of my own soul in quiet moments throughout the day today.”

Of course, we can rarely dump our responsibilities for the day. Instead, we may try approaching them at half-speed or three-quarter-speed, all the while keeping a prayer in our hearts that God will make up the difference for what we are unable to do–not only in the area that has our current focus but in all other aspects of our lives as well.

Mark Chamberlain, Ph.D. is Salt Lake City-based clinical psychologist specializing in the treatment of sexual addiction. He can be reached at 801-564-7566. His offices are located at 1258 West South Jordan Parkway, Suite 202, South Jordan, UT and in Davis County at 1785 East 1450 South #233 Clearfield, UT. Mark is author of Wanting More: The Challenge of Enjoyment in the Age of Addiction and coauthor of Willpower Is Not Enough: Why We Don’t Succeed at Change. He specializes in the treatment of addictions and compulsive behavior. Contact Dr. Chamberlain to try out his eWorkbook, “Turning from Other Dependencies to God.”

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