Perusing some of the links in my favorite online parenting journal, I ran across an interesting little story of a mother and daughter, told from the daughter’s perspective primarily. (Full article here.) The background goes as follows: the mother is apparently in the hospital, hooked up to tubes and unresponsive. The daughter is at her mother’s bedside begging for her to respond. “Please? Mom? C’mon…you have to wake up. This whole thing is freaking me out! You’re just staring.” Throughout the story, the daughter repeats: “Mom, blink if you can hear me.”

But the daughter’s story is less about getting her mother to hear her and more about what she had always heard from her mother.

The daughter recounts her own descent into an angry young woman. She unloaded her anger on her mother directly through verbal attacks, or indirectly by insulting herself—a double whammy attack plan, i.e. If my insults to you don’t hurt, I’ll criticize the thing you love! Later, she writes,

It was stupid, really. Typical teen stuff. Rebellion. Drinking. Smoking. Piercings. If I spoke to her at all it was to say how awful she was. And how ugly I was, since she gave birth to me. I knew, somehow, that by insulting myself, I’d cut right to her core. But, she constantly reassured me that I was the most incredible thing. And even though I didn’t acknowledge it, I think I said those things just so I could hear her tell me I was beautiful. I knew she hated what I had become. At least on the outside. But she never said it. Not once. She only said she loved me. Over and over and over.

When our children are babies, it’s easy to say repeatedly, “I love you”; they’re squishy loaves of pink flesh, innocent, sweet, and precious. The I-love-yous pour from our mouths in sickening sweet tones to on-hearers. And just because these I-love-yous are easy does not mean that they aren’t heartfelt; they are. Our hearts are captured by our babies. They’re even captured by our toddlers. Whether terrific or terrible, these little guys still smell of sweetness and innocence, embodying the deep-down root of what it means to be silly, and we love them. And we tell them so, over and over.

But as the young child grows into an older one, the I-love-yous become harder to muster. The “Oh, sweet little girl, you just plucked every ornament off of the Christmas tree like they were ripe apples is replaced with “For the love of God, child, would you just clean your damn room?!” The crayon they once wielded, scratching out precious drawings of you two holding hands with the erratically sized letters spelling out: “I love you, Mommy” is replaced with a well honed verbal sword that cuts you to the bone. And in those moments, rather than say, “I love you,” we send them away. When they come home embracing everything we taught them (nay, implored them) to reject, our words are often filled more with judgment and condemnation than love.

And it’s not because we don’t love them; we do love them. A lot. Hurt, rejection, and even disappointment are big emotions for a parent to feel, emotions that are easier to communicate with angry language rather than loving language. When my child’s mess hits my front door like a locomotive, my knee-jerk response is anger; rarely is it, “I love you.”

article-1088254-028B2DB5000005DC-917_468x331But, it’s precisely when our children’s messes hit our front doors like locomotives that the I-love-you penetrates the hardest of hearts, plants a seed, grows its roots, and (eventually) bears its own fruit. Like a grappling hook to the heart is the “I love you” in the darkest of moments.

How do I know this? How do I have faith this is true?

Because we know how rebellious and unpleasant and messy a child we are, yet God loves us. He loved us so much that He sent his only son to save us. In the midst of our mess, muck, and mire, God’s love hit us right where we are like a locomotive. Jesus came to us, the sick not the healthy, and He loves us with a no-strings-attached, just-because, one-way love; not only when we are good, sweet, or innocent, but when we are downright horrible, cursing His name, rejecting everything about Him. He loves us no more when we’re great and no less when we’re rotten. And He never-ever stops saying it. His I love you echoes through the halls of time, forever penetrating our ears through the word of the Gospel. And it’s here, right here, as we hear that God loved us first, where we see our children in the midst of their mess, grab them by the arms, and say, “I love you…even now, I love you. Always, I love you. No matter how hard you push, I love you…you’ll never outgrow my love.”

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.  Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another….We love because he first loved us (1 John 4:7-11, 19)