The Lord, your God … will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
as on a day of festival.
Those words from this morning’s Old Testament reading brought to mind a passage from Lionel Shriver’s novel, We need to talk about Kevin, where the narrator tells her parents-in-law:
“I realise it’s commonplace for parents to say to their child sternly, ‘I love you, but I don’t always like you.’ But what kind of love is that? It seems to me that comes down to, ‘I’m not oblivious to you – that is, you can still hurt my feelings – but I can’t stand having you around.’ Who wants to be loved like that? Given a choice, I might skip the deep blood tie and settle for being liked. I wonder if I wouldn’t have been more moved if my own mother had taken me in her arms and said, ‘I like you.’ I wonder if just enjoying your kid’s company isn’t more important.” (p.143)
“Liking” somebody is often regarded as a very poor substitute for loving them. But a moment’s self-reflection is enough for us to realise how important it is for our well-being to have people around us who not only love us, but who simply like us; who enjoy our company; who like having us around; who think we’re pretty neat.
People can survive without grand romantic passions in their lives, but it’s very hard to function for long without knowing there is someone out there who simply likes you.
The importance of being liked as well as loved also applies to our relationship with God. The words, “God loves you”, have become so well-worn as to lack almost all force at times. Yes, we may think, God loves us, but that’s just the love of the infinitely patient for the infinitely unpleasant. He loves us like a parent changing a filthy nappy on a screaming infant at some unearthly hour of the night: yes, he loves us, but frankly there are things he’d rather be doing.
But those words from Zephaniah bring home a liberating and gloriously enriching truth for us. God doesn’t merely tolerate us, he rejoices over us, he exults over us. You get the distinct impression that… he likes us. That he asks us to pray to him and praise him, not because it’s good for us, but because he enjoys it.
Think also of those wonderful words from God in Hosea 9:31 (NIV):
When I found Israel,
it was like finding grapes in the desert.
Isn’t that wonderful? Such as simple image of joy and delight, almost of relief.
So here’s some good news to lift our hearts as we approach Christmas: “Rejoice! God likes you! He enjoys your company! He thinks you’re neat!”