My Parents My God

Selwyn Hughes, in his series on “Life’s Hidden Agendas," writes about a woman whom I shall call Janice who, in spite of the benevolent work she was doing as a Christian missionary, had experienced five nervous breakdowns.

It seems like an unrelated question, but when asked how she saw God, she was able to give an accurate definition of him, but when asked how she actually felt toward him, she went quiet, thought for awhile, then answered, “I feel God is only pleased with me when I am working myself to death, carrying some sickness, or poised on the edge of exhaustion.”

“In that one statement,” said Hughes, “she revealed the root of her problem.” Intellectually, Janice was able to explain who God was clearly, but emotionally she saw God as a cosmic slave driver and served him as if she were a slave.

Janice’s distorted view of God distorted her whole life. The real root of her problem, however, went much deeper. It came from her poor relationship to her parents during her formative years—a relationship based not on love but on fear. It was out of the experience she created her image of God which was a mirror image of her parents.

From this image we deduce that Janice’s parents must have been very demanding and that the only way Janice felt she could ever gain their approval was to “work herself to death!” It appears that one or both parents were also perfectionists, and as such, Janice would have felt that no matter how hard she worked to gain their approval, she was never quite able to measure up.
As an adult, Janice has repeated this pattern and is now a self-demanding perfectionist herself in that no matter what she does and how hard she works or tries, in her mind it is never quite good enough for herself, or for God. No wonder she has had five nervous breakdowns.

Emotionally she saw God as a
cosmic slave driver and served
him as if she were a slave.

As counseling has repeatedly shown, the image most of us have of God is a caricature based largely on our childhood relationships to our parents, especially our father, but it can be to our mother as well. This is true whether we are committed church members or not. As Selwyn Hughes explains: “When we became a Christian, God didn’t drill a hold in our head and deposit a clear concept of himself there.” As a general rule, we relate to God in harmony with the laws of relationships that we learned in childhood. God doesn’t go against these laws. Neither does nature.

Regardless of what we think about God, we tend to feel toward him on the basis of how we felt toward our father and/or mother during our developmental years. If Father was loving, warm, tender, and compassionate and gave us lots of attention and approval, we tend to feel God is the same. But if Father and/or Mother were tyrants, abusive, legalistic, punitive, distant, cold, demanding, or perfectionistic, chances are we’ll feel God is the same. As J.B. Phillips says in his book, Your God is Too Small, some people see God as a resident policeman, others as an authoritarian parent, and some as an absentee landlord. Or, as Selwyn Hughes put it, “God made us in his image. We do ourselves great harm when we try to make him in ours or in that of our parents!”

Continued on Page Two


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