Believe it or not, most of us developed our first images of God based on our parents. It’s strange. We may think our parents told us about God. I am sure they did. But they may have told us about our grandparents. Our experiences with our grandparents (if we were lucky enough to know them) altered the impressions we received from our parents. Children do not have the direct experience of God in this way. Unconscious associations of God with the experience with the parents makes the image of God we have.
A Troubling Example Of The Parent/God Connection
A spiritual director was giving a seminar at a convent. One of the nuns approached her for guidance.
“I believe I may have a vocation to be married,” the nun said.
The director was astonished that this person who took a vow of chastity was experiencing these thoughts. Why had this not come up before then in the nun’s life? “Have you prayed about this?” She asked.
“No.” The nun replied.
Again the director was taken aback because a nun is supposed to be devoted to prayer. What was going on here? Then she ventured a question. “What was your relationship with your mother like?”
“Not very good,” the nun began. “Mom was always busy. There were so many of us kids that I didn’t bother her with anything unless it was important.” It turned out she was the oldest child.
Important? What could be more important than discerning one’s own vocation? Did God not care if she responded to her calling? Wouldn’t God want to be consulted on the matter? The nun believed that God had more important matters to deal with than her personal concerns. She got that image of God from her experience with the parent with whom she identified.
A Scriptural Consideration For Parents
Every Christian has heard the fifth commandment. “Honor your father and mother…” is often quoted. St. Paul had this to say about the commandment. “Children obey your parents in the Lord for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother, – which is the first commandment with a promise, ‘so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.’ It is a practical promise. Paul sees something else very important here. The next verse is an application based on that promise. “And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (Ephesians 6:1-4)
Paul indicates here that parents can cause the commandment to be violated. If the parents fail to love their children, the children will violate the commandment. In other words, just because one is a parent does not mean that person should automatically be honored. God does not require children who are neglected, abused, or exposed to toxic family environments to maintain the connection that parents have broken.
A Theological Problem Created By Parents
St. Paul does not say that bad parents will cause a separation between God and the children. Children who learn what they should have received from their parents but didn’t often reject their parents. And they may also reject the image of God they receive from their parents. Some times that is a good thing.
When children are taught that God ordains or justifies the bad behavior of the parents a sick situation develops. God, who is supposed to love a person, becomes the primary enabler of the abuser.
The scriptural text above does not mean parents won’t “get it wrong.” It assumes some will get it very wrong. It is in the canon of the New Testament to let the reader know of the option to let go of what one has been taught to seek what is real. Then, perhaps, the child who becomes a parent can avoid the same mistakes.
Do Not Distort The Image Of God
Christian parents who do not expose their children to the larger world “out of consideration for their souls” risk stunting their souls. Idolatry was about making false divinities that suited our own purposes. The big difference between this and the “God of one’s own understanding” is that the image constricts the understanding of God and becomes false. It is the reason the Prophets were clear in saying God “does not live in a building made by humans.”
Failing to love others by only loving one’s own self (or image of the self) distorts the image of God. The young children exposed to such parents have a lot of work to do to understand God. It’s hard enough doing that without that barrier.