by Lori Wilson
The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein, has haunted my life with its poignant story of selfless giving. Reading it as a child, I was reduced to tears. Later in life, reading it aloud to my own children was more than I could manage. It became almost a game for us, to see how far into the reading I could get before handing the book off to someone else, someone who didn’t have a lump in their throat too large to read around. And now, as a mother with an empty nest… well, the book gathers dust on a shelf and calls out to my aching heart each time I walk past.
While The Giving Tree may look like a children’s book, it also disguises profound theological reflections. While much might be (and has been) said about the ungrateful boy, the Tree nevertheless presents a powerful image of kenotic love. At great cost to herself, she gives and gives and gives. In the end, her giving brings about the transformation for which she had longed. The book, in this sense, ends well, but not without new layers of grief at each turn of the page.
The Uncontrolling Love of God tells a story of a God who, in many ways, loves like Silverstein’s tree. God gives of God’s self without coercion or control, always with the desire to draw us near. But because, like the boy, we remain free to walk away, God’s work for our transformation doesn’t come with a guarantee of happiness or satisfaction. In fact, deep sorrow is woven into this understanding of God.
We so long for the comfort that everything will work out well, or at the very least that an all-powerful being is behind the curtain, guiding everything for a higher purpose. There is strong emotional incentive to hold onto this classical understanding of providence. But Oord makes a solid case that the traditional model of an all-powerful, controlling God comes at too high a price. At the very least, in light of suffering, it undermines a thoroughgoing belief in a loving God. Given the strong testimony of Scripture and Christian tradition, any doctrine that doesn’t point us to a God who “so loved the world,” who “loved us first,” who in fact “is love,” falls short of the mark. Oord’s model of essential kenosis presents a strong alternative, one which makes better sense of suffering while preserving God’s love as primary.
But this model doesn’t come without a price of its own. If I accept that God persuades but does not coerce, I have to release my view of a God who controls evil and suffering. I have to accept that some things happen outside of God’s will. And then, I have to come to terms with God’s place in the midst of injustice and pain and loss.
There’s some really important theological work out there on these themes (Moltmann & Fiddes come to mind), but what especially has my attention these days is the lived experience of sorrow as a part of kenosis. Silverstein’s tree tries to persuade her boy over and again but each time releases him to the path he has chosen, a path that leads away rather than towards her. As she lets him go, and even showers him with her generosity, she experiences profound loss. In her loneliness, “she is happy… but not really.”
In keeping with this metaphorical picture of kenosis, it doesn’t take long to glimpse the suffering of a God who is essentially characterized by “self-giving, others-empowering love.” The cruciform love of God sometimes takes the shape of profound sorrow, the grief that comes from rejection, from longings denied. The Old Testament prophets describe in stark terms the depth of divine suffering; Jesus weeps over Jerusalem. The Scriptures bear eloquent witness to God’s grief.
If our loving God suffers, so must those of us who follow this God’s path. No longer sheltered by the false comfort that ‘all things happening for a reason,’ we are exposed to the raw grief of God’s will thwarted. We walk the path of a kenotic God only insofar as we, too, accept the burden of a world where things go deeply amiss… a world where God is at work, but God doesn’t always win the day… a world where grief is sometimes the only authentic and faithful response.
Our lived experience tells us that even the most sacrificial love sometimes can’t ‘make it better.’ At one time or another, most of us have confronted the fact that the deepest goodness of love is almost inevitably paired with profound grief. Essential kenosis makes sense of this sad reality. It invites us to walk in the company of the man of sorrows.
This path is not an easy one. Releasing our hold on a God known for power and control comes at no small cost. Much like the tree, we will sometimes find ourselves “happy… but not really.” But, as the tree shows us, this way is nevertheless a beautiful and faithful one. She grieves, to be sure. Yet her tenacious hope transforms the bitterness of disappointment and the crushing pain of loneliness into an ever-deeper love. And so it is with us. As we allow ourselves to grieve, to follow in God’s kenotic footsteps, this sorrow can break open our hearts, too, making room to love still more.
The child of missionary parents, Lori grew up in northwestern Argentina. As an adult, she’s made her home in Grand Rapids and London, and now works as a non-profit consultant based in Colorado. She and her husband enjoy reading, hiking, and traveling with their two adult children.
Credit for the banner photo: “Woman and Grief”, by x1klima, https://www.flickr.com/photos/x1klima/31467682482/in/photostream/. License at https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/