There’s a particular metaphor that has stuck with me since a church service in elementary school. During a vacation Bible school altar call, the preacher of a large church stood up and told a sanctuary full of children that it was impossible for us to do anything that would please God. In fact, the very best thing we could possibly do- the most selfless, most loving thing we could imagine doing, the best thing we ever accomplished- was, to God, a dirty diaper.
I imagine he chose this illustration carefully. What better to elicit disgust in a room full of children?
The preacher spent some time on the point, really driving it home that God was utterly disgusted with our every attempt at goodness, because it could never be good enough. God was so holy, our best attempts, our most pure-hearted intentions would always be repulsive waste in his eyes. Jesus’s purifying influence was the only way he could stand to be close to us at all.
And then I became a parent. And let me tell you, that metaphor? It’s a load of shit.
New parents are given a lot of information about baby poop. In the hospital, we were actually given a chart and told to fill out time, color, and consistency for every effort. That’s because for newborns, poop is a major indicator of nourishment and development. A baseline number of dirty diapers indicates that the baby is receiving adequate nourishment, while the rapidly changing appearance of the poop – for the uninitiated, there’s a normal progression of rather surprising colors and consistencies- indicates that the baby is developing appropriately. A quick search for “baby poop” will bring up countless articles on the subject. With images. A lot of loving thought and concern is put into baby poop.
So as parents, we nourish our children the best we are able, and we watch their output to check on the quality of the nourishment they are receiving, and the development of their system which processes that input. We take genuine pleasure when the output suggests the child is growing and developing, even when dealing with it is messy or inconvenient. In between holding our noses and arguing whose turn it is to do the changing, we may just admit we’re happy or relieved or maybe even a little bit proud of the development of which the bundle held at arm’s length is the outward sign.
Which brings us back to the preacher’s metaphor. The “actions as dirty diapers” metaphor crumbles the second you acknowledge that God the Father has a parent’s heart.
If my love for my children causes me to value even a dirty diaper as a sign of their growth, how much more must the perfect parent, the perfect love value our attempts to learn and grow? Even when they are messy, even when they are inconvenient, even when we get it all wrong, I’m convinced that God values our efforts the same way we value those of our children. I think God rejoices just as much when his children open up and try something new; when they do the hard thing and share; when they keep trying, even when things get tough.
Of course he does. He’s our father.
And I believe he’s waiting, smiling, arms open. “Look how much you’ve grown!”