My Dysfunctional Relationship with God
By Damaris Zehner
Have you ever been in a dysfunctional relationship? Of course you have. They are part of the sad reality of life in this world. I’ve been in several. Most, I’m happy to say, were ones I was able to walk away from once I recognized them for what they were. I got a new job, for example, after I realized that daily rage-induced headaches were not healthy. I broke off an engagement when I saw that we were divided not by our weaknesses but by our virtues – I thought stoicism and independence were good things, while he thought emotional interdependence was admirable and normal. Inevitably, he thought I didn’t care, and I cringed at what seemed to be his neuroses.
I couldn’t walk away from all the toxic tangles so easily, though, because sometimes they came with family. As Tolstoy knew, every unhappy family has its own story, so you don’t need the details of mine – and honestly, most of my life was good. But my father degenerated after my parents’ divorce, and by the time I was in college, I found his alcoholism and craziness hard to deal with. What made it especially difficult was that they were entwined with generosity and love – but very costly versions of those blessings.
So as soon as I could get independent, I did, finishing college in three years and a master’s degree in one. My father wrote me long letters. Mostly I ignored them, especially since several times he sent me back my letters to him with red-ink corrections. He asked to be repaid for some of what he had contributed to my education, and I ignored that, too. Instead I left him the sewing machine he had bought me as a gift but insisted must be kept at his house so I could sew for him. His health got worse, and I didn’t visit him. The only way I could cope with my anger and heartbreak seemed to be distance – the stoicism and independence my heritage admires. For the most part it worked. I was happy, I did well in my life, and I had – have – a great family and a good job; I can generally keep the regret under control.
But here’s the thing. I treat God the way I treated my father. There are a lot of parallels, if I’m going to be honest. My father let me down when I felt I needed him; God has let me down when I felt I needed him. My father’s demands on me were confusing and led to self-destructive personal behavior on my part; God’s demands on me seemed confusing and led to self-destructive religious behavior. I had to turn my back on my father in order to gain health and perspective. There was a time in my twenties when I realized that religion was making me crazy and turned my back on it entirely. And I did gain some health and perspective.
Now, even though I have happily come back to faith, I recognize that I don’t seek intimacy with God. I try to develop healthy spiritual disciplines of prayer, but, honestly, I just don’t want to. I find every reason in the world not to pray. I’d rather read other books than the Bible, and I’d rather discuss economics, ecology, or social issues than spiritual matters. I’d even rather write a post about not praying than getting up and doing it. About a week ago I asked myself why, and I arrived at the insight I described above: part of me is angry and heartbroken at God and finds distance more reassuring than intimacy.
We’re told – and it’s true – that we have to do several things to heal from the effects of broken human relationships: we have to dissociate ourselves from inappropriate guilt and blame; we have to try to understand the other person’s perspective, weaknesses, and struggles; and we have to forgive. But what am I supposed to do to heal my distance from God? As far as guilt and blame go, I accept that yes, I’m a sinner. He isn’t an unreasonable perfectionist – he’s perfect. I can’t really understand God’s perspective on things, and I don’t find the trite assurances of “God’s got a wonderful plan for your life” satisfying. And how could I have the gall to forgive God?
Yet I believe. I won’t give up. Because there are three things my faith has that nothing else does. Well, really one thing, but they can be viewed in three parts. It’s funny how often that happens.
The first is grace. God does not send my letters back corrected. God is standing at the end of the driveway watching for me to come home, not in order to make me do his sewing but to throw me a party. I believe this, at some level; at another level I’m pretty comfortable with the pigs.
The second is the Church. I cling to the raft of the Church and let it carry me when I can’t carry myself. Even if I can’t pray, I can be in prayer. I am upheld by the great cloud of witnesses and can rest on the words and actions of millennia of fellow believers.
The third is the Incarnation. I said that it’s healthy to try to understand the offending person’s perspective, weaknesses, and struggles. I can’t understand the remote, perfect Godhead, but I can understand Jesus a little bit when he walked on earth, was despised, mocked, ignored, and killed. That’s a good thing – a great thing, and a source of comfort. I can at least see that my suffering is also God’s suffering, that the brokenness that breaks me broke him, too.
I realize the analogy falls down here, because Jesus’ actions toward us don’t arise from his “dysfunctional” life on earth, and I don’t need to make allowances for him as I would for a mortal person. But I wonder, for my sake if not for his, whether I do need to forgive him. There’s no point folding my hands piously and saying that God doesn’t need my forgiveness when I have resentment and disappointment and heartbreak still roiling around inside me. Should I forgive as an act of healing, or is even the thought of forgiving God a heresy?
I don’t think it’s a heresy. I think he understands what I mean. We’re told that King David was a man after God’s own heart, and all I can figure, after stripping away the adultery, murder, and pride, is that God appreciated David’s honesty. David confronted God in his confusion, anger, and despair, and God didn’t seem to mind.
I never healed my relationship with my father when he was alive, and realistically I know he was too far gone to do so. However, I could have done more during his lifetime to avoid the regret I feel after his death. I’m wondering now if there is more I can do to heal my relationship with God in this lifetime in order to avoid regret in the next. Can I hand God the weight of resentment, anger, and despair I feel, not just at life but at him? Is this what Jesus meant when he invited us, the heavy-laden, to give him our burdens and find rest? Do I dare to forgive God?