In her new book Not Who I Imagined: Surprised by a Loving God, Margot uncovers some thought-provoking research that shows how we naturally project the face and attitudes of our early caregivers on to the face of God.
Weaving her story and the stories of many others into a narrative of hope, belovedness and redemption, she points us back to a God who is both with us and for us. And she points the way to reshaping our faulty images of God into a new image of the God who is true.
Margot has agreed to answer a few questions for us:
Q: Research you share in the book shows a direct correlation between the faces of early caregivers—and whether they are both with us and for us—and how we perceive God. Can you tell us how you have both accepted this and moved beyond it in your own journey?
A: I am pretty convinced that we come to know who we are through those early formative faces in our lives that reflect our worth. And I also believe that those early faces “prefigure” the way we’ll experience God. Through them we discover what Martin Buber calls the “I thou” relationship. We learn whether or not there’s reliable other who will meet our needs, and later we often transfer that experience of a human “other” to a Holy Other.
That’s a lot of fancy words to say that somewhere, in our deep places, at some point, a part of us does expect God to behave like our human caregivers.
I know I did.
So many of my caregivers—the ones who relinquished me, the ones who drank, the ones who raged, the ones who divorced, the ones who left—said that they “loved” me. And since that’s sort of the big refrain in the Scriptures, in God’s posture toward us, I naturally collapsed the two. There was a moment in my journey, though, noticing Jesus on the cross, when I realized that God was altogether for me in a way that my human caregivers—stuck—were unable to be.
That was big.
Q: You talk about God as mother and father. Besides the handful of “mother” verses in the Bible, where do you find these roles in Scripture?
A: So glad you asked.
A British psychiatrist, named Frank Lake, wrote a very thick volume called Clinical Theology. Over 1200 pages. Most of it is way too clinical, but I found it to be totally worth it to mine for the theological nuggets.
For instance, Lake describes God’s “mothering” as the face that receives us, accepts us, nurtures us, and God’s “fathering” as the one that protects us, and sends us out.
And while I’m pretty cautious of those kinds of gender role distinctions in human lives, it really does resonate as true, in my heart, that there is a divine fullness that includes both.
For Lake, it’s also sacramental.
At the baptismal font we are received—by a divine Mother—and at the Lord’s table we are nourished—by a divine Father—and sent out to serve.
I just think that Lake has articulated the nurturing and protecting roles of God so very beautifully.
Q: What does it look like at this point in your spiritual journey to receive the "loving God who is not who you imagined?" How have these truths shaped your spiritual practices, and where are you still anticipating more growth?
A: I’d say that because of my human experience, being “left” in a variety of ways, I did not know—in my deep places—that I was worth loving. What I’d learned from the ‘trust people’ in my life was that I wasn’t worth showing up for. I wasn’t worth sticking around for. I wasn’t worth loving.
So there’s this spiritual part of me that really didn’t believe that God had time for me. I was really clear that God cared for others, but much less convinced that God cared for me.
However, the face of the Father Jesus describes is one that lights up when a wayward son returns. That kid didn’t have to do anything to win the Father’s love.
Or I notice the countenance of Jesus that’s tipped toward a woman at a well in Samaria. And when I listen for the tone of his voice, there’s not a hint of disappointment or anger or judgment. I hear his voice more like, “I know what you’ve been through, darlin’. And it’s about to get better.” The words we read in black and white print in our Bibles really aren’t that compelling! Really, enumerating the woman’s sins? So whatever she saw, whatever she heard, whatever she experienced in that gracious face is what moved her to run around and tell all of her friends and neighbors about Jesus.
My work on the journey is two-fold. It’s to tip my eyes toward that gracious face that is true. And it’s to choose for the true words God speaks to my heart. Henri Nouwen writes,
“The root choice is to trust at all times that God is with you and will give you what you most need….God says to you, ‘I love you, I am with you’…this is the voice to listen to. And that listening requires a real choice.” (Inner Voice of Love, p. 113)
As I live into that reality, I expect to experience more and more joy and freedom as a beloved daughter of God.