Enforcer or Encourager?

Homily at St John Lloyd, for the Fourth Sunday of Lent. Year C

Is God your enforcer, or your encourager?

If you had to draw a picture of God, what image would be the first to come to mind? A policeman? A personal trainer? A prison guard? It’s all too easy to focus on the part of the Gospel which points us to high moral standards and leap to the conclusion that God is out to get us if we don’t live up to them.

In the First Reading, God’s people arrive at the Promised Land, and we’re reminded that even during their time wandering in the desert, God provided manna for them – God was looking after them even while they served their 40-year punishment for not trusting God’s commands in the first place.

Today’s other readings don’t focus on the God who disciplines us, but on the God who wants us to live in that Promised Land, that place of peace and harmony. God is the proud parent, wanting the very best for each one of His children, encouraging them to do the right thing but holding His breath while they mess up.

I’m not a parent myself, so I’m going to borrow my Mum’s eyes for a moment. I left home for the first time when I was not quite 18. Mum had very mixed feelings. Yes, I’d won a place at Oxford University and was off to fulfil my dreams – but Mum knew that I was still very young in the ways of the world and was desperately worried about what was going to happen to little Gareth, out there, on his own. Well, as you can see, I survived – but yes, my first three years away from home were also part of the school of hard knocks.

As we celebrate Mother’s Day this weekend, let’s acknowledge the very difficult emotional challenge of being a mother. If your child does something idiotic, your maternal instinct is to protect and soothe – while your parental responsibility is to speak a word of correction. Indeed, every parent will feel this tension between caring and coaching, though different families manage this in different ways. Yet every parent knows the day will come when their child has to be given enough space to make their own life-decisions, with all the risks that go along with that!

We are God’s children, and God speaks to us – through the Church and through our own conscience – about the standards that we should keep. If God has spoken to us about Right and Wrong, it’s because God wants the very best for His children, not because He is out to get us! And the Christian life is one where God is ALWAYS calling us to raise our game, to live a higher standard. The great saints weren’t people likely to commit the big sins against the Ten Commandments, but God still challenged them to improve with the small stuff. For St Therese of Lisieux the challenge went like this: “You see that nun who gets on your nerves? Make a special point of being charming to her!” St David must have had something similar in mind, in his dying words to “be faithful in the little things”. For us, it might be that in the stress of ordinary family life, we don’t treat our spouse or our children with the tenderness or understanding which they deserve. In our modern society, each one of us has to deal with ethical questions about recycling, care for the environment, and making economic decisions which are fair to the poorest members of our society. So whether we’re tempted most by pleasure, money, sex or power, each one of us will have some area of our life where we are struggling with temptation, struggling to put the “right thing” ahead of self interest.

RELAX! The normal way of being a Catholic is to spend our life struggling against temptation. Even Jesus was tempted. But look out – there are two wrong ways of handling it.

The first trap is to beat ourselves up. “I’m never going to be perfect! What hope is there for me in this church?”

What is the church meant to be?

A community of shared values.

We all aspire to those values.

We all fail, at times.

We encourage each other to keep going.

The second trap is to reject the values. “These standards are inhuman! They are unattainable!”

No! Jesus shows us the standard. Jesus shows us the perfect example of a human being pouring out love without limit. This is our goal – and without a goal, where would we go? But we can’t do it in our own strength, only by God’s grace. We are meant to find fulfilment in being partners with God.

The younger son says “give me my inheritance now, and I will spend it my way.” Eventually, poverty drives him home to the Father, and only then does he realise the depth of the Father’s love.

The elder son is looking for affirmation, to be recognised as an important person in his own right. Only when he puts his jealousy into words can the Father challenge him to enjoy his status as a Son of God rather than as an independent person.

Both sons got it wrong. But God is merciful! In the Old Testament, our God proclaims to Moses that he is the God of mercy. God offers us this deal: keep admitting that you are not perfect, and things will be great between us.

The world we live in today puts the individual at the centre. You are important! You have rights! Assert your rights! As far as possible, society will make WHAT YOU WANT the most important thing.

No, says God, that way lies tension. Make WHAT GOD WANTS the most important thing, and come together around that. You will fail. Failure is OK. Look at the Cross – the greatest failure in human history! God-in-Christ comes down to earth to preach to his people, to lead them in building a community of love – and they kill him! But God is a specialist in bringing life out of death, success out of failure, hope out of despair. THIS is the God we celebrate every Sunday. This is the God I worship, the one who encourages me to try again when I get things wrong, the one who always offers a fresh start as long as I’m humble enough to admit my mistakes.

My God is the one who encourages me never to lower my standards, always to try again, and to rejoice in my status as a beloved member of His family. You are welcome to share my God. But perhaps your God is the policeman, the punisher, the prison guard. Might I be bold enough to suggest that your God is a false God? Your God certainly doesn’t sound like the one Jesus came to introduce us to. So I ask you: is your God your enforcer, or your encourager? And as always, if this stirs up deep questions, you are more than welcome to speak to me confidentially for spiritual direction. Let me introduce you to the Father Jesus came to reveal!

Am I doubting that God loves me? If so, what hurt or bad experience do I need to talk over with someone I trust?

When did I last ask God for something good? Am I afraid it will not be granted?

What experiences have I had of unanswered prayer? Have they affected the way I pray?