Mike McHargue points out that those who experience an angry God have more activity going on in their amygdala, which causes them to have more stress, anger more easily, and fear those who are different from them. They also struggle more to forgive themselves. On the other hand, those who experience God as loving develop richer gray matter in parts of their brain that help them to feel safe around God and loved by him. With this, they also gain more focus, concentration, compassion, empathy, lower stress, and lower blood pressure. They also have an easier time forgiving themselves and others. (Finding God in the Waves: How I Lost My Faith and Found It Again through Science, pages 157-159.)
Many of us struggle to believe that God loves us despite ourselves. I tend to be one of those people. It’s interesting how we’re always the worst person we know, isn’t it? How we can pour God’s love out on others, but not receive it ourselves? It’s like reasoning with a drunk person. For example, I once met a drunk man on the side of a building down the road from our church and tried to communicate this very thing to him.
“Hey man, can I get a cigarette?” he asked.
“Sorry man. I don’t have any of those to give,” I replied. “But I can pray for you if you want.”
“You can what?”
“Pray for you. I’m a pastor,” I said, waiting to see how he would respond.
“Ordained?” he questioned.
I hardly saw how that was relevant to the conversation. “Uh.. yes,” I said as I sat down with a confused look on my face.
“I’m so messed up man. I’m drunk and messed up.” You could hear the brokenness in his voice. “I’ve been through so much stuff. Can you help me?”
“Maybe,” I answered. “What have you been through?”
“Man, will you just sit and talk with me awhile?”
“You know in the Bible where it says God will…” he paused, wanting me to finish his incredibly generic statement. I stared at him blankly, waiting for a little more detail. His voice grew angry. “You know what I’m talking about?”
“Uh,” I stammered. “I mean, there’s a lot of verses in the Bible so…”
After talking for awhile, I realized that it was quite possible he was not going to remember any of this conversation, so I tried to cut to the good part. “You know the story of the prodigal son, right?” I asked.
“You know how he basically wishes his dad was dead so he could have his money and then he runs away and probably spends it on everything bad you could think of? Maybe he spent it on prostitutes or alcohol—maybe he got completely wasted. But despite all of that, what happens when he gets home to his father?”
He mumbled something in attempts to remember.
“His Father throws a party for him!” I said.
Good, I thought. Maybe he’s starting to get the point! “That story is you, man,” I explained.
His eyes swelled a little. “It is?” he asked.
“Yeah man. You probably wished you didn’t have to deal with God and walked away from him and did a bunch of stupid things, right?”
“And how do you think he would react to that?” I asked.
“I know God is upset with me,” he said.
“You’d expect God to be upset, but how does the father actually react in the story?” I asked, leaving room for him to reply. He said nothing so I answered for him. “He celebrates you! This story is you at the bottom of your game, but you come to him in this moment and he throws you a party! He’s not mad at you. He loves you! And you can’t escape that love—it’s way too big.”
It’s funny how we can preach these themes to others, but we can’t preach it to ourselves. A few weeks ago, I found myself walking around outside at one in the morning, condemning myself to God for yelling at my daughter about nothing. I was stressed out while trying to get some work done and her interruption caused me to flip out. I had since apologized, but she had been very quiet towards me since that day and I felt awful about it. So for about an hour, I told God how much of a piece of crap I was and considered that to be prayer.
After ripping myself apart, I realized that I hadn’t paused to let God speak yet—and to be honest, I didn’t have the time or energy to try to listen to the Holy Spirit. So I told God I would stop for a second and listen, but that I really didn’t have the mental capacity to press into listening prayer right now. Almost instantly a thought bubbled up in my head that, for me, felt like the Holy Spirit: “Go to bed Jamin, you’re drunk. We can talk in the morning.”
So I did.
While I’ve never had a drop of alcohol in my life, the point was clear. I was just like the depressive drunk guy I met on the side of the road—unable to listen or reason with anyone but myself, ripping myself apart and bubbling up the stress, anger, and unforgiving side-effects of the amygdala. I was drunk with self-hatred. The conviction that I had sinned against my daughter when I yelled at her was good, but I had allowed it to turn into condemnation that spiraled me rather than healed me.
You are loved—remember that! You are loved despite yourself! You are loved despite your sin! And how would your sin detract from God’s desire to love you anyways? “He loved us not because we were lovable, but because He is love,” said C.S. Lewis (“Membership,” The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, page 170). He goes on elsewhere, “Christ did not die for men because they were intrinsically worth dying for, but because He is intrinsically love, and therefore loves infinitely” (“Miracles.” The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics, page 346).
A mentor of mine once told me, “God loved you and died for you on your worst day—not your best.” That has stuck with me for years now and I often use it when I’m praying for others, reminding them of that simple fact. He didn’t die for us on the day we had it all together—he died for us when we committed our worst sins. And that is a good and loving God.