One spring break in college, I took part in a local service program working with kids. We began with a training session at a nearby church about warning signs of child abuse. For everyone else, it was routine preparation. But not for me.
You see, I had attended this church as a young child. Every Sunday I walked through these front doors after a week of being cruelly abused at home. No one noticed or intervened. And now I was here, listening to descriptions of horrors that mirrored my home life. I was undone. I realized in those moments that I had been abused, but I didn’t know where to go from there.
I’m not the only one. Tragically, many Christians have suffered at the hands of our parents, and one of our many challenges is relating to God in light of our experiences.
Fathers That Lie About God
God is our heavenly Father. Jesus intimately addresses him as Father and teaches his followers to do the same (Matthew 6:9). God has lovingly adopted us who believe in Christ, and now we are his children, never to be forsaken (Romans 8:15–17).
“I could imagine what God’s wrath might be like, but I was unable to comprehend his tenderness and intimacy.”
Knowing God as Father might be difficult if we had a bad earthly father: one who was abusive, absent, or distant. We develop an implicit understanding of fatherhood from our fathers, who are meant to lead us toward our majestic and tender God with both awe and trust.
If our father did not display God’s character, or even the basic protective instincts of a parent, it stains our understanding of the entire position of “father.” As a child, I learned that fathers are scary and unpredictable, never to be trusted with body, mind, or heart. Children whose fathers are willfully absent learn that fathers cannot be depended on for anything. We learn that fatherly love is either fickle or a contradiction in terms.
Our fathers lied to us about what God is like.
Distortions of Fatherhood
We may feel ambivalence: a mixture of contradictory feelings that don’t seem like they can coexist. We may feel anger, hatred, or numbness toward our father, even as we work to forgive him. We may also feel longing: a desire for him to be who he was meant to be and for our relationship to be what it was meant to be. This ambivalence adds confusion to our sense of how to approach our Father in heaven.
As a young Christian, my experience of my earthly father polluted my understanding of God’s character as Father. While I knew that God himself defines love, I had trouble believing that he truly loved me, and that he wasn’t harsh and brutal when I messed up. I could imagine what God’s wrath might be like, but I was unable to comprehend his tenderness and intimacy with us.
Our abusive or absent fathers are the sinful distortion of God’s design. But the twisted copy does not and cannot destroy the original.
The True Father
“Abusive fathers are a distortion of God’s design. But the twisted copy does not and cannot destroy the original.”
God is the true Father; he designed fatherhood to image him. In one sense, fatherhood helps us understand God, who is spirit. But the essence of fatherhood is rooted in who God is, and this pattern was meant to be replicated in earthly families.
Fatherhood in its intended state would have been wholly good, but because of man’s rebellion, there is much to condemn and mourn in how fatherhood has played out. Too many men have domineered and oppressed their families in the name of God. This is an affront to God and a misrepresentation of his original plan.
The father was meant to lead his family as a servant, laying down his life for them; it is an honor to know many fathers who embody this call.
Old Identity, New Identity
Separating God’s character from an abusive or absent father’s character is a process of differentiation between our identity as victims and our identity as Christians. We have suffered, but we are not consigned to a future defined by our suffering. God has chosen us and given us a new identity and hope. We can expand our vision of fatherhood beyond what we experienced into what God promises us is true.
God loves us, with love far surpassing the best we’ve ever known. Don’t gloss over this astounding truth: the love given freely within the Trinity for all eternity is the same love with which God loves us, his people (John 15:9; 17:23). His love is unconditional and unfailing, and it always works for our ultimate good, even at great cost to himself (Psalm 100:5; Roman 8:28, 32). His love does not hurt us or demand of us what we should not give, like abusive perversions of love. He does not manipulate us with fear.
His justice and holiness assure us that our suffering does not escape him, and neither will the sin that caused it. Sometimes the wicked seem to go free in this life, but God will judge all evil at the last day (Psalm 73:3, 18).
The biblical testimony about God is far different from what we may have learned from an abusive or distant father.
Embracing God as Father
“God’s love does not hurt us or demand of us what we should not give, and it does not manipulate us with fear.”
The training session about child abuse at my former church precipitated a fruitful upheaval in my life: I knew I could not deal with this on my own. I found an experienced Christian counselor and began the long, tough road of healing, surrounded by the care of my brothers and sisters in Christ.
I had learned the biblical truth about God once I became a Christian, but it took years for me to find joy in knowing God as Father. Until then, it was a matter of obedience and faithfulness to call God my Father. This faithfulness must not be confused with falseness; it’s not pretense. It’s a matter of orienting our hearts and desires toward something true until it becomes natural.
No one would say it’s inauthentic for an athlete to practice shooting drills or extra sprints just because they were not in the midst of a game. We understand that it’s about shaping ourselves to be the kind of player — and the kind of person — that we should be for the real thing, with the desired mindset and behaviors that will automatically take over in the heat of the big moment.
Remind Yourself of Who God Is
Teaching ourselves the truth and training ourselves to live out of that truth, even if it’s deeply challenging for us, is the only way to grow in any area of life. As such, it is essential to continually remind ourselves of who God is, contra what we imagine of him based on sinful humans. It may be a slow, arduous process, but God is merciful and patient with us through it, and he gives wisdom to those who ask for it (James 1:5).
Regardless of our background, even through great trials, we can know and embrace God as our ultimate Father, upon whom all our hopes rest and in whom all our longings will one day be filled.