One of the best ways of thinking about our relationship with God is as a close personal relationship or an intimate friendship. It's not a perfect analogy, but thinking about our relationship to God as paralleling a human relationship can be quite helpful.
Like any relationship, for example, our relationship with God often starts with infatuation (as when everything about the spiritual life seems easy and wonderful), it goes through exciting times (when prayer and worship are satisfying) and sometimes dry periods (when your spiritual life seems at a standstill). Like any friendship, your relationship with God requires the ability to devote time, it requires a willingness to listen, it requires a tolerance for silence and it requires a desire for real honesty. All the things that you say about friendship you can say, by analogy, about prayer.
Obviously, a relationship with God isn't exactly the same as a relationship with a friend. None of our friends have created the world out of nothing. (Though some act as if they had!) But thinking about our relationship to God in these terms can help to show us where our spiritual life might be lacking.
For example, would you say that you were a good friend if you never spent time with your friends? Or if you never listened to them? If you were never honest with them? Yet sometimes people approach their relationship with God in those ways. Again, the metaphor of friendship with God can help us see our spiritual life in a fresh way.
In that light, our relationship with God -- like any relationship -- can use some humor from time to time. That is, it's okay to be playful with God and accept that God might want to be playful with you. But does the idea of a humorous or playful God have any antecedents?
Rabbi Burton Visotzky, professor of Midrash and interreligious studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, noted that while the Hebrew Bible often shows a stern God, the tradition of a playful and loving God is also part of the Jewish tradition. "In a fifth-century Midrash in Israel," said Rabbi Visotzky, "the rabbis tell the story of God braiding Eve's hair in the Garden of Eden, like one who would help a bride. It is a charming and playful image of a loving God."
Once, when she was travelling to one of her convents, St. Teresa of Ávila was knocked off her donkey and fell into the mud, injuring her leg. "Lord," she said, "you couldn't have picked a worse time for this to happen. Why would you let this happen?" And the response in prayer that she heard was, "That is how I treat my friends."Teresa answered, "And that is why you have so few of them!"
This story, one of the most well known about St. Teresa, is often told as a way of demonstrating the abundant humor of the saint. But it shows something else: her playful way of addressing God. Moreover, it shows her assumption of God's playfulness with her.
The Book of Isaiah says, "The LORD delights in you." (Is. 52:4) One of my spiritual directors used to quote that constantly, whenever I would tell him something wonderful or unexpected that happened to me. "The Lord takes delight in you, Jim!" he would say.
What a strange thing that was to hear! Previously, I had imagined God creating me, caring for me, maybe even taking an interest in my life, but certainly not delighting in me. But why not? Doesn't a parent delight in a child?
So a few questions to consider:
Can you allow yourself to think of God as playful?
Can you allow God to be playful with you?
Can you imagine a God who enters into a lighthearted relationship with you?
Can you allow yourself to think that the wonderful or funny or unexpected things that surprise you are signs of God being playful with you?
Think about this in a slightly different way: Can you imagine God not simply loving you, but as the British theologian James Alison often challenges his readers to imagine, liking you?
We've heard the phrase "God loves you" so often that it becomes a platitude -- like wallpaper that we cease to notice once we've plastered it in our room. We think, "Well, of course God loves me. That's just what God does."
But thinking about God liking us is quite different. That has a different energy around it. Surprising. Lighthearted. Personal.
Here's another question: How do you show that you like a friend? Well, maybe you tell your friend outright. Or maybe you do something generous for him. You also may be playful with your friend. So can you let yourself think that the funny things that happen to you are signs of God's love, but God's like?
Another way of looking at this: One of the oldest images of God is as a parent. Jesus refers to God as his father, and even calls him "Abba," a sort of affectionate Aramaic term, used even today in some parts of the Middle East, that may be fairly translated as "Daddy."
The traditional image of God as parent doesn't suit everyone (particularly those from abusive or severely dysfunctional families) but it can still be helpful as one image among many. When you could imagine God as parent you can imagine the best of all possible parents.
Using the metaphor of God as parent, then, you might ask yourself, "Doesn't a parent sometimes enjoy being playful with a child?" When you see a father throwing his child up in the air, or a mother tickling her baby, you can see a human sign of this loving playfulness.
God is the One who delights in your own sense of humor and who surprises you with life's funny moments. And in life's surprising and unexpected moments may found signs of God's delight in your life.
Excerpted from James Martin, S.J.'s new book "Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life" (HarperOne).
Follow Rev. James Martin, S.J. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/JamesMartinSJ