My oldest daughter lay shivering under covers last night, the warmth of my body powerless to calm her feverish chills. “I’m so tired of being sick,” she said for the third time that day, and probably the tenth time since her fever first appeared on Thursday. The thermometer beeped, and she almost imperceptibly lifted her arm so I could slide it out. 103.4. She is normally quite proud of her own high body temperatures, so I was surprised when she didn’t even open her eyes at the beep or ask what the number was. She must have felt terrible. “Still pretty hot,” I reported. She didn’t respond. I set the thermometer on her night-stand and turned again to face her. I combed my fingers through a tangled mess of her brown hair. I scooted down her bed until my face was level with hers. Forehead against forehead, nose against nose, I whispered, “I love you,” and waited for her sweet, cartoon character-like voice to say “I love you too, mommy.” That didn’t happen. Instead, she hoarsely, simply replied “I know.”
It’s not the response you’d expect. As adults, we don’t reply to compliments or expressions of affection with “I know.” At the very least, we thank the person offering them. Often, we return them with sentiments of our own, as if compelled to complete some social circle. We start learning this at an early age—my daughter first said “Lub you too” at eighteen months, before she really knew what love is. Last night, she was too weak and tired to concern herself with social frippery. Her simple response was bathed in the innocence and honesty that is so refreshingly apparent in childhood. She said she knows that I love her. And I believe that she truly does.
How does she know? If I asked her, she might give many reasons. Maybe it’s because the lullabies I’ve sung to her most nights since her birth are “To Make You Feel My Love” and “You Cannot Lose My Love.” It could be because of the outrageous number of hugs and kisses I give her every day. I doubt it’s because I discipline her, protect and provide for her, and tell her to be careful when she walks down the stairs—she’s too young to recognize those things as expressions of love. That’s okay; she doesn’t have to. She can depend on the most obvious expression of my love for her: the words “I love you.” I am present in her life, and my love is tangible. It is inescapable and inexhaustible. And she knows.
A blogger I follow recently wrote here that he continues to believe because he is in love, and he sees scripture as a love letter to him. There was a time when I could relate. I have journals full of love letters to God. I have Bibles that are falling apart because I read his love letter to me until it disintegrated in my hands. He loved me enough to let me disagree and question. He loved me enough to let me fail. He loved me perfectly, even though he knew me fully. How did I let a love like that go?
My freshman year of college was a disaster. I gave too much for too little. What I thought was budding romance was really just “friends with benefits.” I wanted so intensely to be valued that I convinced myself that I was. I was so starved for appropriate affection that I accepted a pathetic substitute. I met my husband the following summer, and he saved me. We began a relationship and continued it over a distance, even an ocean apart at times. He mailed me a letter every single day we were apart, and his strong arms were there to greet me every time we were reunited. One weekend, a blizzard interfered with his trip to see me, and his car was partially buried in a snowdrift. He could have checked into a hotel somewhere, but he walked and hitchhiked to get closer to me, a dozen roses in hand, and then waited in a convenience store until the storm cleared enough for me to pick him up in the early hours of the next day. That’s love. That’s pursuit. It was real then, and it’s real now, in new ways and stronger ways as time passes.
I entertained the thought of leaving him when he confessed his disbelief in God. I knew that there was nothing in the Bible that would have made this permissible, but I also felt that my daughter’s salvation was at stake. Would he interfere with her heart? I told him my thoughts, and he said he would never stop fighting for the love that we shared. Now that I no longer believe, the memory of those thoughts is horrifying. What if I had given up a present, tangible love because a theoretical love mattered more to me? I am so thankful that he forgives me for that. I’m so grateful for the daily reassurance of his love after my alarm goes off at 4 am, when he wraps his arms around my waist and presses his face against the back of my neck before I get out of bed. I have to pry myself away from him, and I don’t think he even remembers it the next day. I wouldn’t trade that for any other love in the world.
And that’s why I’ve been able to let go of Jesus. Even if I believed in him, I could never claim that he lived and died out of love for me. He never even wrote my name in that love letter. And that’s the only letter he ever wrote. He has never held me, never defended me, never shown me himself in any way. And when I left—he didn’t come after me. I know what many of you will say. You’ll point me to John 17 and tell me that Jesus prayed for me before I believed, before I was born. You’ll point me to something like the Footprints in the Sand poem and remind me that when I see only one set of footprints, it’s because he carried me there—that I never walked alone. You’ll urge me to see that he pursues me and loves me through sunsets on a trail, through well-timed sermons and Christian radio songs, through my husband’s embrace, and through your own reassurance. I want to believe you.
And that’s why I can’t. I’ve learned that if love is not spelled out for me—the way my love is for my daughter—I can’t trust it. I can’t trust myself to keep from wanting something so ardently that I begin to perceive it when it isn’t there. I cannot rely on assumptions; I will not make inferences and risk being wrong. If God asks us for a child-like faith, I’d like to ask him to show me love the way I show love to my child. I don’t give her a puzzle. I don’t make her wait for love with anxious anticipation. I don’t let her wonder if I love her or if I even exist at all. I don’t ask her to hold onto words I said long ago or to trust others’ descriptions of their experiences with my love. I just show her every day. I tell her every day. She knows.