The other day, I got six kids dressed, brushed, fed, and dropped off at their three different schools; cleared the table, threw some laundry in, pulled something dinnerish out of the freezer, and settled down for some frantic writing before a dentist appointment.
I had gotten maybe four words down when my daughter toddled over with a toddler problem—something like, “Mama, I bited my banana and now my banana is bited and now I need a new banana.”
So I stormed, “YES. Absolutely. Let me GET UP from my chair and fix your problem RIGHT NOW because it’s SO IMPORTANT that I stop working RIGHT THIS MINUTE.”
And she gave a happy little hop and said, “Fanks, Mama!”
Ouch. That laid me low pretty quick. She had every right to expect me to care for her, but instead I had spewed this dreadful sarcasm into the trusting little face of someone too innocent to realize I was upset.
I’m pretty sure I’ve had this same conversation with God. I know that God is good and merciful, I should praise and thank Him for His wondrous kindness, blah blah blah. But more often than not, when I get myself to say the words I’m supposed to say—well, they’re not so sincere. If you listen closely, my prayer goes, “YES. Absolutely. Let me THANK YOU for all the wonnnnnderful things in my life, which, as You can see, have made this world SO fabulous and SO blessed.”
And He says in all seriousness, “You are welcome.”
Or I say, “All right, fine, I’m SUPER sorry for the following sins, because clearly it would be COMPLETELY JUST for you to throw me into ETERNAL HELLFIRE for breaking these rules which are not even SLIGHTLY arbitrary or unreasonable.”
And He says, “I forgive you.”
I am never consciously sarcastic when I pray. But insincere? Absolutely. Either I’m keeping up a running monologue arguing against my own words, or I’m wasting time trying to work up the proper emotion, or I’m flaking out entirely. In short, my prayers stink, and I only pray because I have to. I got up to fix the baby’s banana problem not to express my wholehearted alliance with God’s will for my vocation, but because I wanted her to go away. And that’s how I pray.
But God accepts my prayers anyway, because God is innocent.
Let me explain. In a child, innocence is lovely but naïve: they believe everything they’re told because they don’t know any better. They’re inexperienced and undeveloped, and cannot grasp ugly things like sarcasm, cannot imagine parental weakness.
God is also innocent, but not because He is lacking anything. God’s innocence comes from the other extreme: His goodness is so complete that there is no room for anything foul or nasty. He is not deceived; He is not blinded. He simply admits only the durability of goodness, and treats evil and perversion like the worthless, pointless nothing that it is.
Children are innocent because they cannot comprehend evil. God is innocent because He sees evil for what it is: something to wash away and be done with. And this is why He accepts our lousy, lacking, insincere prayers, our grasping petitions, our grudging penitence, our half-baked praise, and our inattentive adoration. It’s not because we’ve deceived Him, or because He’s somehow pathetically grateful for the crumbs we throw His way.
No, our prayers are good because God is good: our prayers are acceptable because God is innocent. His all-encompassing innocence transforms our spiritual insincerity into something true and complete.
In our church basement, next to the bathroom, there is a pastel poster which quotes Corinthians 13 in flowery script:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud . . . it always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perserveres.
So I’m slouching there, hot and disgusted, trying to figure out why we even go to Mass when we spend most of our time out back, in the bathroom, or anywhere but in the pews. And I’ll admit to reading this poster and thinking, “Well, love is a sucker, then.”
But then I correct myself. No, I am a sucker. I’m the one foolish enough to mistake cynicism for knowledge—to think that the corruption I see in the world has any chance at all against the one true living God. Evil is strong, yes. We all have the choice to throw ourselves into the darkness and perversion of sin—eternally, if we like.
But we also have the choice to turn, turn, turn again to the light, to what is complete, to what is true—to what is innocent.
How? I’m going to start with my kids. Next time they ask me for something, I’m going to use those same words I used before: Yes. Let me get up and do this for you right this minute, because it’s important.
But darn it, this time I’m going to mean it.