When We Superimpose Our Parents on God

Two days ago I received this email:

Dear John,

I have a problem (and know two others who share it). I was brought up in a Bible-study church. Thirty-plus years later, I've all but abandoned the Christianity of my childhood, mainly because it made God less than loving: cold, distant, mostly interested in tripping me up, even untrustworthy. I've since joined an Episcopalian church, because they seemed to be focused on the grace and love of Jesus. I believe Jesus would be more of a Democrat than a Republican: giving to others; not worshiping the almighty dollar and big biz; loving the unlovable; accepting of homosexuality, etc. (That whole thing about homosexuality being a sin pisses me off; I know too many gays, and cannot accept they're destined to hell.)

My problem is that on a deeper level, something inside of me is saying that the Christianity of my childhood is the true way. I have a nagging in the back of my head, saying, "Episcopalians and these other sorts of liberal Christians aren't Bible-centered. They aren't right. Few will make it into heaven. Homosexuals will go to hell," etc., etc. All of that kind of thinking is so ingrained in me; it's like a stain that cannot be washed off.

My question: Could the devil have his hand in my liking my liberal Episcopal church? I know my feelings about Christianity have much to do with my psychological makeup, but knowing that doesn't give me freedom. (Some quick background info on me: my dad, the demonstrative parent, died when I was two. My mom remarried someone like her: cold and distant. They both loved the kids, but it was conditionally and from afar.) Have you ever come across anyone like me? Someone who started their lives with a legalistic and punishing concept of God, later turned away from that view in search of a loving God, but was ultimately only able to accept as true about God what they so didn't want to believe was true? That God really is a judgmental, legalistic SOB? What if the God I so do not want to believe in is the true God? Your thoughts on this would be extremely appreciated. Thank you!

First of all, thank you for writing me this letter. Simply by presenting it in the thoughtful and honest manner you have, I know you've helped others who are also burdened with this pressing, deeply personal concern.

What really jumped out at me here was, "I know my feelings about Christianity have much to do with my psychological makeup, but knowing that doesn't give me freedom." Simply thinking the thought that your theology and psychology are intermixed might not give you freedom, but the magnitude of that truth is the mountain you'll have to start taking apart if you truly desire your view of God to be unobstructed.

I'd readily bet my house and everything in it that your problem isn't that you're torn between a harshly judgmental, condemning God, and a loving, benevolent, forgiving God. I'd bet you're torn between a loving, forgiving God, and the single, illusionary entity in your mind that consists of a combination of your parents and the God they helped inculcate you with.

You wrote, "I was brought up in a Bible-study church." Look at how seamlessly, how instinctively you merge your home with your church. It's very unlikely that phrasing was simply a convention of language. It's often in how we use language -- especially when we're speaking or writing directly from our heart -- that we reveal deeper, core truths about ourselves and our foundational operating concepts that are so primordial to our identity that they're barely subject to language at all.

And look how you describe your parents: cold and distant. You couldn't pick two better words to also describe the God whom you're now fearing is the "true" God.

I strongly encourage you to consider that you've superimposed -- that, in psychological parlance, you've transferred -- your feelings about your parents onto at least part of -- the negative part of -- your conception of God. And please know that there's not a thing in the world even slightly weird or wrong about doing that. People all the time confuse God with their parents. And that they do makes perfect sense. The first thing we ever know about our parents is that, in every last meaning of the word, they are our gods. We depend wholly upon them for our survival. If they don't give us what we need, both materially and emotionally, then we just don't get what we need. Their power to make of our lives heaven or hell is absolute.

And what's one of the primary determinants of which of those two it will be? Their judgment of us! Of what we do. Of how well we behave. Of how assiduously we follow their rules. Of how "good" they decide that we are.

Out of fear and love for the gods that our parents are to us, we endeavor as children to obey the rules that they give us, so that, pleased with us, they won't make a hell of our lives; out of fear and love for God, we endeavor as adults to obey the rules that He gives us, so that, pleased with us, he won't make a hell of our afterlives.

And so we have this ancient, cultural, deeply salient tradition of a God who, essentially, spanks us forever. Who from above wags his giant scary finger at us, and in thunderous tones booms at us about how wrong, bad, and disappointing we are. Who makes us feel weak and ashamed. Who severely punishes us -- but only because, through our disobedience, we force him to.

Look what you wrote about your parents: "They loved us kids, but conditionally, and from afar." In a nutshell that captures the lion's share of 2,000 years' worth of Christian theology: God loves us, but conditionally, and from afar. Take your parents, merge them into one imposing male figure, move that figure into heaven, put a white beard and robe on him, and voilà: the popular conception of the God of the Old Testament.

But that's not the God you want to be the "true" God, is it? You do not want God to be a harsh, judgmental, dictatorial, authoritative, "cold and distant SOB." You want God to be loving, compassionate, patient, forbearing, and forgiving.

What you want is Jesus. The Jesus of the New Testament doesn't show us a God who is harsh, punishing, aloof, and vindictive. He presents a God possessed of qualities directly contrary to those, a God who loves as God alone can: absolutely, unconditionally, unmitigatedly, freely. The New Testament shows us a God ready to love us the way that as children so many of us wish our parents had loved us: exactly as we are, without regard to rules. Significantly, the only people to whom Jesus showed extreme displeasure were those authority figures who, in the name of God, judged and condemned others according to whether or not they obeyed The Rules.

Why, it's like so many of us had fathers named Pharisee, and mothers named Sadducee.

Just like everyone else in the world, you have work to do in separating your ideas about God from your deeply rooted ideas about your parents. At the beginning of it, that process is like sitting down before a chess board upon which are both chess and checker pieces. The simple and complex games are all mixed up. You can't tell which if any rules apply. You don't know what pieces you're supposed to move, or how, or where. You have no idea how to win. You don't know who's supposed to be crowned king.

Sorting, as it were, the chess from the checker pieces, isn't easy. It takes a lot of emotional work done over a great deal of time. If you're serious about undertaking that prodigious journey, seek as a guide and helper a good psychologist or therapist. It's almost impossible to do such challenging work alone. We all need help freeing ourselves from the oppressive tyrants of the old, and accepting for ourselves the liberating, true love of the new.

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