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William A. BarryOctober 02, 2006

Jesus called God “Abba” (“dear Father”), which tells us something about his relationship with God. In the same vein, he told his followers, “Pray, then, in this way: ‘Our Father in heaven’” (Matt 6: 9), telling us that we have a similar relationship with God. Many people have been heartened by this image, less forbidding than older ones—one that has brought them to a better, easier love of God. When we use or hear the image of God as father (or mother, for that matter, since God has no gender), we generally envisage ourselves as small and needy children, not as adults. Our relationship with God, however, is more analogous to that between adult children and their parents.

What God Wants

Most times when preachers and teachers speak of God as father or mother, they invoke images of a parent with a child. “God holds us as a mother holds an infant in her arms.” “God wants to console and comfort us as a parent cuddles a child.” “God welcomes sinners back as a father or mother welcomes a wayward child.” “God punishes us the way a good parent does for our good.” At times, of course, such images may be quite appropriate for an adult. But how does a 45-year-old parent of young children who also works a full-time job react to a steady diet of such images?

I am concerned that adult members of our churches are not being encouraged to relate to God as adults; and I wonder if, as a result, they lose interest and stop participating in religious activities. This is a real concern, because I believe that God is offering a different relationship to mature adults.

Consider for a moment our adult relationships with parents. As we grow older, don’t we become more like our parents’ peers? We know, of course, they are always our parents. It is unthinkable, for most of us, to call them by their first names; they are always “Mom” or “Dad” when we address them, and “my father” or “my mother” when we refer to them in conversation. We continue to accord them reverence, because they brought us into life and raised us. But, except under extreme circumstances, we no longer expect to be held in their arms. Nor do we expect them to tell us what to do with our lives.

Rather, we become more like equals as we take on the same roles they have had. We become more sympathetic toward them, now that we know what adulthood entails; we realize what they went through earning a living and rearing us through childhood and especially through our teen years. We may even find that we treat them as good friends in whom we can confide, without expecting that they will then shoulder the burdens we know we have to carry alone.

It is this kind of relationship that God wants with us, as we grow into adulthood. God wants our friendship. Indeed, God can be defined as the vulnerable one who saves us by offering us friendship. My conviction has been reinforced after reading Liz Carmichael’s Friendship: Interpreting Christian Love. This is a book of solid scholarship that shows a long tradition of identifying caritas (love or charity) with friendship—and thus defining God, who is love, as friendship. Two historical examples should suffice. Aelred of Rievaulx, the 12th-century English Benedictine abbot, developed his own variant of “God is love” (1 John 4:16): “Shall I say God is friendship?” A century later, Thomas Aquinas defined this same love as friendship with God.

If we follow through that God, our dear father/mother, wants friendship with us, we realize that growth in friendship means developing from a child to an adult relationship. When we do, we will see, for example, a change in the nature of our petitionary prayer.

God With Us

As adults we come to see that our hopes for a favorable outcome, say to a medical procedure or a job interview, depend on circumstances other than God’s intervention—the skill of the surgeon or presenting myself well in the interview. God is present and sustaining our world at all times, but God is not Mr. Fix-It. When we think of God as the ultimate fixer of everything, we get into trouble explaining tsunamis and hurricanes and earthquakes. God creates and sustains a world of shifting tectonic plates, of complex climatic interactions and other such phenomena that, at times, cause havoc in human lives. That is in the nature of the universe that God creates and we inhabit. God does not intervene to stop the shifting of the plates or to change climatic conditions.

And when it comes to human evil, if God did not stop the crucifixion of Jesus, then perhaps, we can reason, God cannot change human hearts unless those hearts agree to change. God will try to influence those hearts, but God cannot coerce them to change.

When, as adults, we pause to reflect on petitionary prayer, we realize that our requests—for the healing of a loved one, for example, or good weather for an outdoor wedding or the happy resolution of a conflict—are not automatically answered. We do not expect God to intervene to change the world for our convenience or even to fulfill our dearest hopes. What our prayer is doing is telling God our concerns, as we would tell a good friend. Of course, we also are aware that God is present and active in our world, and we hope the expression of our concerns, especially those that come from our deepest and truest parts, will somehow have an effect on God’s presence and action. We all, at times, hope for miracles, but we want most to know that we are listened to with understanding and sympathy.

In Partnership

Our adult relationship with our parents yields further insight into the relationship God wants with us as adults. Sometimes parents and adult children engage in a cooperative venture. The family, for example, owns a business, and the children join it when they have grown. In Jesus’ time, fishing was such a family business. In our day parents and adult children often engage in business together or share in the same trade. In the course of their common work, parents and adult children grow in mutuality, camaraderie, friendship and cooperation.

In the Book of Genesis we are told that God created human beings in God’s own image and likeness. The image of the garden in Chapter Two allows us to imagine God and human beings engaging in the work of developing this garden, our planet, together. Human beings and God work together in cultivating the garden, and at the time of the evening breeze, God comes to meet them for a chat about the day, so to speak. This image speaks to an adult friendship between God and human beings that includes shared work and shared conversation at the end of the day. The work of creation, God’s family business as it were, will not get done without our cooperation.

Drawing on this analogy further, we note that God depends on our ingenuity and adult responsibility to make the work go well. We are not robots, but partners in God’s dream for our planet. God’s dream for our world will not come about without our cooperation. We cannot have a sustainable environment unless we cooperate in making it sustainable. We will not have peace on earth if human beings do not allow their hearts to be transformed from fearful hearts to forgiving and loving hearts, hearts that reach out to the stranger as a brother or sister. God is vulnerable indeed and wants adult friends who work together with God to achieve the dream of a world where “they will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isa 11: 9).

Mutual Compassion

For the past year I have begun each period of prayer asking to be aware of God’s presence. I soon realized that God was already waiting for me to become conscious of God’s presence. That sense of God waiting for my attention in itself indicates God’s willingness to be vulnerable. Many times, of course, I am quite distracted, but when grace works, I become aware of God creating and sustaining the whole world and, at the same time, attending to me. Sometimes I have also realized that God is present to hurricane and earthquake victims, to refugees driven from their homes by war and terror, to people mourning almost insupportable losses, such as the loss of their children, and so forth. I have been deeply moved with sympathy for the suffering of so many people. I then reflected, “If I can feel sympathy for these people from reading about their plight or seeing them on television, what must be God’s reactions?” God is, after all, not reading or hearing about them, but is right there sustaining them along with the whole universe. I believe that my best reactions are only pale reflections of God’s reactions. Perhaps, indeed, God is calling me to an adult relationship where there is mutuality, even a mutuality of compassion for one another.

Such mutuality is presumed by St. Ignatius Loyola in the last great exercise of his Spiritual Exercises, the “Contemplation to Obtain Love.” There he makes two preliminary observations: first, love ought to manifest itself more by deeds than by words. Second, love consists in a mutual communication between the two persons. That is, the one who loves gives and communicates to the beloved what he or she has, or part of what one has or can have; and the beloved in return does the same to the lover. Thus, if the one has knowledge, one gives it to the other who does not; and similarly in regard to honors or riches. Each shares with the other (No. 230-31).

How extraordinary that God wants our gifts just as much as we want God’s gifts. Yet, “each shares with the other,” Ignatius writes. It may seem inconceivable that God would want something from me, but Ignatius came to the conclusion from his experience that God wants such mutuality.

We live in a world where evil people inflict incalculable harm on their fellow human beings. At these times I feel a sort of compassion for God, who creates and sustains all that exists. Teresa of ávila described God as an immense and beautiful palace in which everything that exists dwells, and then went on to write: “The greatest evil of the world is that God, our Creator, suffers so many evil things from his creatures within his very self” (Interior Castle, VI.10.2-3). These reflections give us something to ponder as we read the newspaper and watch television. Perhaps if we reflect on God’s sustaining presence amid all the horrors of our world, we will become more sympathetic and, in the process, more of an adult friend of God.

Recently a chaplain in an acute care unit of a large hospital spoke to me of what she had experienced in a single 24-hour period. In one instance she was called to comfort a mother who had just delivered dead twins; then she had to minister to another mother whose newborn baby was dying because of the mother’s drug use, and then bless a baby whose brain was dead because of a severe shaking, probably by the mother. Later in the day she was called to see that mother. As she prepared for this meeting, she prayed for the grace to do what God wanted done, and that her anger at the mother would not get in the way. When she got to the room, the mother broke down in her arms, and all the chaplain could do was hold her with compassion. After this heart-wrenching day she sought comfort from God. She wanted God to hold her and caress her the way a mother might hold a child in great pain. When she did not receive that comfort, she became angry with God.

As I listened, I became aware that God not only was present as the mother shook the baby, but also sustained the mother and the baby in existence while this horror was going on. God was also present at the other terrible situations of this chaplain’s day, as well as at all the others throughout the world. After some time discussing her reactions and her frustration, I wondered aloud if she were being called to a new step in her relationship with God, a mutuality of comfort. She then remembered hearing God say recently, “We have to learn to trust one another more.” Perhaps, indeed, God was asking her for mutuality in compassion. She continued to pray in the following weeks, and came to understand that concept.

It boils down to mutuality in friendship, cooperation, mutual compassion: “Abba” and us. “Abba” with us. Perhaps preaching and teaching about such an adult relationship with God, using the more engaging image, will not only challenge people, but also intrigue them enough to pursue such a relationship with their God.

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17 years 4 months ago
Thank you for “Friends With God,” by William A. Barry, S.J. (10/2). In over 20 years of offering retreat and spiritual direction, I have encountered many people who experienced a genuine breakthrough with God once they accepted the grace that God loved them as the adult they had become. Feeling free to be themselves (at 35 or 40 or more years of age) in prayer, relationship with God blossomed.

I have long been a fan of Father Barry’s work. This article is a “keeper” for sure!

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