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You can't earn love

I was conducting an interview for a ministry position, and the candidate said something that really struck me. We were discussing some of the most important themes and messages that the youth in today’s culture need to hear. She said, “You have to belong before you can believe.” I didn’t think too much of it in the moment, but that statement has stuck with me. It’s no secret that church attendance has been declining, even before the pandemic hit. Fewer and fewer people identify as Catholic, and fewer still actually live and believe as such. Is this a crisis of belonging more than belief?

I have no idea. We can intuitively recognize that belonging and belief are connected, but as for society’s issues at large? That’s a great question that someone much smarter than I am will someday figure out. What I do know is that I have been re-examining the ways that I teach the faith to my children through the lens of belonging, and I have realized that there are some things I have been doing that may be setting my kids up for a faith crisis. All these things boil down to one central concept: the need to earn love.

YOU CAN’T EARN LOVE!!!!!! It’s freely given or it’s not love. Full stop. No one in your life who truly loves you does so because of something you do. Or know. Or think. Or feel. Or anything. Love is free. Most especially, God’s love is free. We don’t have to do a single stinking thing for it.

“But God proves his love for us in that while we still were
sinners Christ died for us.” – Romans 5:8

As a high achiever, I struggle with this. I’m big on responsibility and earning. I try (again and again and again) to earn God’s love. I slip into that frame of reference probably just about daily, if I’m being honest. It has yet to be true, or good, or helpful. Knowing this about myself, it’s not surprising to know that I do things that create this dynamic for my kids. Here’s 3 things I am working on taking OUT of my practice of faith and the way I pass it on to my kids.

1) Making Mass a performance. I want my kids to know the prayers and responses and songs at Mass. They know that participation is important. But when I focus on my kids’ behavior in Mass like that’s the only thing that matters, guess what? My kids pick up on the fact that the only thing that matters at Mass is their behavior. Not their relationship with God, not the readings, not the very presence of Christ. The question in their minds is, “Did I do what I needed to in order to keep dad happy?” i.e., did I perform well? Did I do it well enough that God will love me? (ouch) I’m not saying that you shouldn’t model and teach and encourage good behavior and participation at Mass. Those are great things. But they’re not the heart of the matter, they’re not the top priority. We shouldn’t make it seem like they are.

Ok, so how do we actually change that perception? Two things. First, make sure that behavior is not the first or the only conversation topic surrounding Mass. Ask if they noticed the liturgical colors, if anything stood out from the reading, which song they liked, etc. Behavior should never be the first thing out of your mouth after Mass. Second, always frame the desired behavior in the context of what Mass is really about, relationship with God. We have the structure that we do in Mass to assist us in worship. Not because God (or mom/dad) will be mad if we don’t.

2) Making the sacraments a prize. This one is tough, because there’s a lot surrounding the sacraments, and you are likely not the only one preparing your children for the reception of them. It’s very easy for the requirements of the church to come across as earning the sacrament in your children’s minds (and mine, and maybe yours too). “You’ve got to learn your prayers, go to class, say and do xyz before you can receive ________.” Whether it’s explicitly said or just implicit, almost everyone I know deals with some degree of this at their parish. It can easily seem like we must do something, know something, in order to be good enough to receive God in the sacraments. What can be done as a parent?

Context is once again key. Help your child understand that everything being asked of them is at the service of their relationship with Christ. A physical analogy I use is a cup and pitcher of water. I have the child put the cup over the sink, and then I dump the pitcher of water (much bigger than the cup) into the cup. It overflows quite a bit. I then explain that the water is like God’s love and the cup is like our hearts. We want to be able to hold as much of God’s love in our hearts as possible, and learning about God, praying, acts of service, etc. are ways that we make our “cups,” our hearts, bigger to hold more love.

It’s also helpful to learn what the Church, capital “C” not your local parish, actually requires for reception of the sacraments. It’s not much. The things your parish asks are generally good and helpful in forming a soul--don’t bail just because--but in some cases, the parish norms can be a burden and actually hinder spiritual growth. If that’s the case for your family, a conversation with your pastor about a different approach may be in order.

3) Making the faith a path to something else. Classic reward-based motivation. Many kids don’t want to participate in some or even most activities associated with faith. Whether it’s prayer, classes, or just plain sitting still, it can seem like a monumental task to get children to engage. So, we throw in a bribe or two. “We need to pray and then we can have dessert.” This is sadly a phrase I have said as a desperate attempt to get the family together and at least looking like we’re engaged in something that could be described as family prayer. Like an exclusive focus on behavior at Mass, this leads to a performance-based mindset. In addition, this approach puts faith in the same category as broccoli. Something I dislike but *have* to do in order to get what I want. I don’t really want the kids to have that experience of faith. I want them to want the faith, and to know God loves them without condition. How to do that?

Christ has a really amazing habit of meeting us where we’re at. Kids too. If your kids struggle to memorize prayers, or sit still, or seem completely disinterested, maybe they are. And that’s ok. Imagine that someone told you the only way to know, love, and serve God was to read St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. I think many of us would grow to dread those times, not out of any dislike for the message, but for the vehicle it’s coming in. The same thing may be going on with your kids. Just because a child isn’t or can’t worship in the way that we do, or that we want them to, doesn’t mean they don’t want to worship or have a relationship with Christ. It may just need to look a little different for a time. As mentioned above, the Church (and the little “c” churches) have structures in place because they generally help souls grow closer to God.

Don’t abandon teaching your child to pray. But maybe hold off on memorization for bit, and teach your child about extemporaneous prayer, or prayer through music, or meditation. Ask them to think of Jesus while they take a lap of the church. Listening to Christ’s interactions with the religious leaders of his day, it seems pretty clear that sincerity means a lot more than method when it comes to worshipping him. Rather than stress about what is difficult for your child to do, how can you emphasize the methods of engagement that do fit your child.

These are just a couple of things that I see in myself that I am trying to get rid of. None of these are attitudes that support lifelong faith, and I don’t want them to show up in my children’s lives. If you struggle with these, know you’re not alone. Let’s pray for each other and for our children, that the truth and freedom of the faith may take deep root in their hearts. And if you have any ideas to combat the notion that we must earn God’s love, or love in general, please share in the comments!

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