Graham had a problem with God and the Heavenly Father thing. Graham’s father hadn’t been, in any way, heavenly. Graham figured it was best to give God a wide berth in case he was anything like his earthly father. Graham hoped God wasn’t, but he just wasn’t ready to take the risk.
Over the years, I’ve struggled to help people cope with an image of God as a super father figure. People come to me with problems relating to their earthly fathers. Perhaps they were emotionally distant or unnecessarily harsh. They may have been unyielding or overindulgent.
When an earthly father is abusive, this creates a spiritual challenge for the child, who is told that God is their heavenly Father. While this description is meant to give the child reassurance, for abused children, this description can terrify. When an earthly father uses their authority to violate a child, that child’s perception of God’s authority can become suspect.
I have found abused children, as adults, have a variety of reactions to God:
- Some abused children understand God as their only refuge amid the abuse. They cling to God and credit him for saving them during their fragile childhood. Their relationship with God is strong.
- Other abused children feel like Graham and are suspicious of God. This negativity may be subtle, a refusal to engage God to any great depth or degree. Their relationship with God is shallow.
- Some abused children are openly angry at God. They accept that God is all-knowing and all-powerful and, within that context, believe God knew what was happening to them and failed to protect them. They blame God as well as their abuser. Their relationship with God is hostile.
- Other abused children are afraid of God. They believe in their total unworthiness and seek to please God, while also believing they can never succeed. Yet just as they tried to please their abuser to no avail, they continue to attempt to please God. Their relationship with God is fearful.
Additional difficulty arises if the abuser used spirituality or invoked God as a rationale for all or part of the abuse. Sadly, childhood abuse does happen in faith-based families. Because our clinic is faith-based, we have people who come for treatment specifically because they have a religious or spiritual background. Many of them were raised within a religious household.
Tragically, in some of those households, children were taught they were flawed, worthless, and unlovable by God. They were taught they had to be perfect for God to accept them. They were told they could try and try and try, but never meet God’s standard. Condemnation was taught and modeled. Love was dangled out in front of their hearts like some sort of prize to be won for good behavior, as determined by the parent. The parent became the proxy for God and constantly voted against the child.
At The Center • A Place of HOPE, we routinely ask those who are leaving treatment to complete a feedback survey. We want to know what we are doing right and what things we can improve on. The very last question on the survey over the years has been something to the effect of “tell us anything else you think we should know.” I’ve been struck by the number of times people have, without prompting, related that one of the biggest components to their recovery has been a discovery or rediscovery that God loves them.
I am saddened that this simple biblical concept of “God loves me” gets warped and obscured by human failings. God cares about children and the faith children innately have in him. Abuse can damage or destroy that precious faith.
I believe children harbor a deep capacity for faith. I have seen how faith can take a beating because of childhood abuse. I confess, after hearing stories from survivors of childhood abuse, I have envisioned a millstone wrapped around certain necks. But anger and revenge are not my job; forgiveness and reconciliation are. My privilege over the years has been to watch many people find their way back to faith, to trust in God, and, ultimately, to forgiveness.
If you have experienced physical abuse, emotional abuse, or sexual abuse, The Center • A Place of HOPE is here to help. Our team is skilled at navigating these sensitive issues. For more information, fill out this form or call 1-888-747-5592 to speak confidentially with a specialist today.