Redefining God as Father

How Papa-God showed me my heart—and his

My father took things from me. After filling a supper plate for myself, sometimes my father would take it. Just as I was salivating at the smell of fried chicken or bean soup, he'd require me to give it up. And he stole my innocence when I was four, when he took me out to the half-picked cornfield in the big Nash and molested me.

I grew up on an Illinois farm where I learned to can corn, pluck chickens, and cut out weeds in the soybeans. However I also learned to trust no one, stuff my feelings, and tuck the family secret of my father's molestation into a dark corner of my mind.

At 20, just before I got married, Jesus took my hand. I felt safe with him, but I was afraid of his Father. He seemed a little too much like my father—distant, angry, powerful. I rejoiced in Jesus' sacrifice for me, but I didn't let him into my secrets. Until I had a baby, three years later, the childhood abuse stayed hidden.

In those early years of marriage nothing interested me, I didn't like myself much, and sometimes I couldn't get out of bed in the morning. I cooked meals and washed clothing, but dishes piled up in the sink and dust accumulated in the living room.

Twice in the two years after childbirth, I experienced not just depression, but much more serious mental illness, even losing touch briefly with ordinary reality. With much prayer and support from God's people, I recovered. But that experience and the stress of those years opened an opportunity for Father-God to give me a much deeper healing. God brought my father's betrayal into the light, and whispered to my soul, "Karen, you have deeply rooted weeds in your heart. Let me pull them."

He began to pull the easier weeds first. But one day he exposed a deep, deep root: the distrust I felt toward him as my "Father."

You're not like my dad—but it feels like it!

I was 35 and had been suffering with terrible back pain for a while. Finally, I asked for prayer, and our church prayer team prayed for my back that included sciatic nerve pain down my right leg. We all praised God when the pain disappeared. I was able to return to work and my other activities.

But three weeks later, the pain returned. And I was angry. I drove 40 miles to a quiet forest preserve to wrestle with God.

I trudged to the edge of a creek and uncomfortably sat.

"God, what is going on? Why did you heal my back for only three weeks?"

Crying, I wiped my nose on my sleeve. The cold wind stung my cheeks. In the journal I'd brought, I wrote: "You have all the power here. Why did you take the healing away? Why do it at all if you meant to take it away?"

I closed the notebook and spoke aloud: "God, you are not like my father." I stared at the gray trees across the creek. "But it sure feels like you are. Show me! I want to give up this anger. It looks like you use power whimsically! You create pain, and you heal pain. I don't understand."

I opened the book again and wrote: "Capricious. That's how it feels. But that's my father, not you. Transference. I still expect you to act like my father." My hands felt numb. I climbed in the car to get out of the wind. After rubbing my hands to warm them, I continued to write: "Intense hostility toward Dad for years and years is part of my character." I put down the notebook and leaned against the seat back.

Yes. I've been angry with him forever. In fact, I hate him, I thought. I leaned my forehead against the steering wheel. I'd never acknowledged hatred before. I'd dreamed it. But I'd never said it. And God has the same kind of power my father had. And like my father—he'll hurt me. It's only a matter of time. Yes, that's what it feels like. But that cannot be right.

Distrust as a way of life

God wasn't the only one I distrusted. I'd been aware of my pervasive distrust of people since March 1981. Two days after starting a university clerical job, gallbladder pain seized me and didn't let go. I needed immediate surgery. Could I use the health insurance so soon? Would I lose the job because I needed four weeks off? The benefits official said, "Yes, insurance will cover." My boss said, "You just take care of yourself. The job is yours." But I struggled to trust their answers.

The night before surgery, praying in the hospital bed, I reflected on the struggle. Why couldn't I believe them? Just then, an image of the cornfield abuse came to me: the front seat of the Nash—my father's violation. That objectification, like I was a toy to play with. I had trusted him without reservation before that day. But he abused that trust. At age four, without conscious thought, I took a vow. I will never trust anyone again. Not my father. Not other people. Not God.

Not until that night, when I stopped to think and pray, did I realize the vow I'd taken. When the abuse memory flitted through my mind, I made the connection. If I couldn't trust my father, I couldn't trust anyone. Did the benefits official know for sure? Would my boss fire me, after all?

Of course, they both kept their word and I continued to learn trust.

My head told me I could trust God, but still I wasn't sure. When I wrestled with God about my back pain, I knew what the Bible said about God's trustworthiness. After 15 years of walking with God, I'd heard hours of teaching on God's character. I knew Jesus' self-revelation in Matthew 11:29: "Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls." I knew Colossians 1:19: "For God in all his fullness was pleased to live in Christ." In my head, if not my heart, I knew that God loved me as part of the world he loved and sent his Son to. I'd even prayed for a revelation of God the Father's love—a powerful experience at the time he revealed himself—but I still fought with him about what kind of God he was. The roots of my unbelief went deep.

As I sat by the creek that day, God illuminated one of the darkest lies in my heart. I expected God to display the worst parts of my father's character—his capriciousness—his whimsical, volatile use of power for his own pleasure. I thought God had just toyed with me—he'd healed my back and then arbitrarily taken it away.

To get to that lie, I opened my angry heart to God. I became honest with him, and finally allowed him to show me the truth of who he is. Paying attention to my thoughts and feelings helped me understand how I expected my Father-God to hurt me like my father. Recognizing the source of my unbelief set me free to see the real, biblical Abba, Papa.

Papa-God has revealed his fullness in Jesus. Like Jesus was gentle with the children, Papa is gentle with us. Like Jesus warned the Pharisees that they were whitewashed tombs, Papa exposes the lies and unbelief in our hearts. Papa's purpose is to create a family for himself. At the cross, Jesus suffered greatly to accomplish that purpose. No one knows what it cost Papa to restrain himself while his dear son died such a cruel death.

When I confessed my unbelief, the pain left again. Sciatic pain has not bothered me since. I have continued to let Papa-God pull my weeds and grow his seeds. I now live among his lilies and believe that God cares about what is going on with me.

Karen Rabbitt, MSW, based this article on her memoir, Trading Fathers: Forgiving Dad, Embracing God (Winepress). She blogs at www.karenrabbitt.typepad.com. She speaks at www.tradingfathers.com.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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