the story room

Monday, January 09, 2006

The Restraint of God

"The power that created the universe and spun the dragonfly's wing and is beyond all other powers holds back, in love, from overpowering us. I have never felt God's presence more strongly than when my wife and I visited that distant hospital where our daughter was. Walking down the corridor to the room that had her name taped to the door, I felt that presence surrounding me like air - God in his very stillness, holding his breath, loving her, loving us all, the only way he can without destroying us. One night we went to compline in an Episcopal cathedral, and in the coolness and near emptiness of that great vaulted place, in the remoteness of the choir's voices chanting plainsong, in the grayness of the stone, I felt it again - the passionate restraint and hush of God."
-Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets, p28-29.

"But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. . . . I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear."
-John 16.7, 12

I've been thinking a lot lately about the restraint of God.

I try to be aware of how aspects of God's love are reflected in the people around me, and I've been especially aware lately of all the people who show love to others through restraint: those who say less than they'd like to say, those who offer a handshake or high-five instead of a hug, those who seek to protect and guard others, those whose silences express a pure and holy love that often needs no verbal expression.

(And I want to be quick to say that restraint is not the only or best way to show love, because we all know we need open expression often, too. But Solomon said there's a time both to embrace and to refrain, and I, at least, too often forget about the value and beauty of restraint.)

For a while now, I've been able to recognize restraint as an expression of God's love, but I'm only recently being able to understand why. After all, we usually hear about God's love only as it is expressed to us, often with the popular imagery of being embraced by our Savior, being his best friend, always hearing his voice as he speaks to us. And I think those things are all true, but they're not the whole truth. To leave it at that would be to have an incomplete picture of our God and our relationship with him.

After all, we have never really been in the arms of our Savior...not yet. Often God speaks to us, but the silences are more familar to us. And he does call us friends, but even the closest of friends are silent sometimes.

But how does that restraint show love?

For one thing, I think restraint is an expression of trust. God trusts us enough to know that we will continue to love him, whether or not he expresses that love in everyday ways that are always obvious - ways that make us feel good. And we learn to trust that our Father loves us, whether or not he says so (at least in the form of good feelings, constant words of encouragement, and other ways we come to depend on). Often, too, I think the lack of the good feelings we long for push us to remember the cross...the expression of love we live on. In our Father's restraint, we learn to trust his goodness, nearness, and love.

And so restraint also has to do with a kind of knowing that is intimate. Those who know me best know me well enough to know not only what they should say to me, but also what I'll understand even without their saying. And in the same way, I think God knows us well enough to know what he doesn't have to say to us. He knows what we'll pick up on, and sometimes he doesn't give us much more than that. But that is more than enough.

I think God loves us in a way that is stronger than we can ever feel, because, in all its pure, powerful beauty, to feel its full expression is more than we can bear. And so, perhaps the restraint of those who love us (and also the restraint of God) speaks of a love stronger than we have the capacity now to hold.

May our Father give us the grace to recognize his love in restraint, and may we have the strength to show that same kind of love to one another.


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