How Can I Pray to God as Father When My Own Father Was So Terrible?

by Mark D. Roberts (reprinted with permission from High Calling Blogs April 15, 2011)

Jesus said, “This is how you should pray:“Father, may your name be kept holy.
May your Kingdom come soon.”

In yesterday’s post I marveled at the invitation of Jesus to address the God of the universe as “Father.” We are blessed beyond measure to have such a direct, intimate, and loving relationship with God.

Yet, for many Christians I have known, the invitation to speak to God as Father is not a happy one. Yes, they can hear what Jesus means when we calls God Abba and encourages us to do the same. And they can understand that God is a loving, forgiving, faithful Father. But for many believers, their personal experience of their own earthly father has tainted the word “father.” For them, a father is not loving, forgiving, and faithful, but harsh, judgmental, and untrustworthy. As a pastor, I have had many people say to me something like, “How can I pray to God as Father when my own father was so terrible?”

I’m always glad when people feel free to ask this question, though I feel sorry for their experience of an unloving father. My gladness comes because I know they are beginning a process of discovery, one in which they will learn the true nature of God as Father. This learning often includes healing of deep emotional wounds and transformative experiences of God’s love.

How does this happen? There is no magic formula, though such learning almost always includes the raw materials of the Christian life. It is based upon Scripture, where God as Father is revealed as a passionate, lavish lover of his children. In the Gospels, in particular, Jesus paints a stirring picture of his heavenly Father. The transformation of our image of God comes through the work of the Holy Spirit, who takes the truth and works it into our hearts, bringing healing and hope. We come to know God more fully in the context of Christian community, where our brothers and sisters teach, encourage, and pray for us. Often, God brings into our lives mature people, both men and women, who help us to sense through their example and witness the true nature of God the father.

The starting point of this process is the Spirit-inspired recognition that my view of God as Father is limited or tainted by my own personal experience of fathering. Aware of my weakness, yearning to know God more fully and truly, I ask him to reveal himself to me in new ways. The more I come to experience God as Abba, the more his character defines my sense of true fatherhood. Thus, I come to pray to God as Father, not just because Jesus tells me to, but also because in this simple word I am drawn anew into the loving heart of God for me.

QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: When you think of God as Father, to what extent is your image of God shaped by your experience with your own father? Is this helpful to you? Harmful? Or some combination? Given that all human fathers fall short of the divine idea, and many are poor representatives of God the Father, how can we know what it means for God to be our Father?

PRAYER: Father, your Son invited us to speak to you with this term of intimacy and affection. Yet, as you know, for many people, the word “father” is laced with pain. Their human fathers were not like you, dear Lord. They did not love as you love. Often, instead of love, they communicated disapproval, even rejection.

Today, I pray for all who find it hard to speak to you as Father. Make your true nature known to them in a deep and fresh way. Heal the wounds in their hearts. Run to them with your embrace, even as the father once did with his prodigal son.

May I come to know you, dear Father, more truly, more deeply, more fully. And as I do, may I be transformed to live more completely as your forgiven, accepted, and beloved child.

I pray in the name of Jesus, who teaches me to call you Father. Amen.