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How can I begin to see God as a loving Father?

December 27, 2010 by  
Filed under Fr. Bartunek

God as a loving FatherDear Father John, I tend to have a perfectionist personality combined with the cross of scrupulosity.  My family of origin does love me but it wasn’t the best environment growing up so I really lack in understanding of a loving father figure hence having trouble seeing God as a loving and forgiving father.  I am pretty sure that I have made peace with my past and have forgiven those who have hurt me so how then do I start to see God the Father in the proper way and have a relationship with a loving God and not the “police man ready to punish me” God that I seem to have?  How do I learn and practice trust which I really have trouble with?  Any suggestions that you have will be greatly appreciated.  Thanks again for all of your work on this great website.

This beautiful question reminds me of a quotation from the Catechism that I have often reflected on. I would like to share it with you before offering some suggestions for continuing this discovery of God’s fatherhood in your life (I say “continuing” because it’s clear from your question that the Holy Spirit has already been working deeply to open your heart to God’s gentleness and strength).  Here is #239 from the Catechism (emphasis added):

By calling God “Father”, the language of faith indicates two main things: that God is the first origin of everything and transcendent authority; and that he is at the same time goodness and loving care for all his children. God's parental tenderness can also be expressed by the image of motherhood, which emphasizes God's immanence, the intimacy between Creator and creature. The language of faith thus draws on the human experience of parents, who are in a way the first representatives of God for man. But this experience also tells us that human parents are fallible and can disfigure the face of fatherhood and motherhood. We ought therefore to recall that God transcends the human distinction between the sexes. He is neither man nor woman: he is God. He also transcends human fatherhood and motherhood, although he is their origin and standard: no one is father as God is Father.

 

Acts of Faith, Hope, and Love

In a sense, we have a built in idea of what fatherhood ought to be. This instinct enables to recognize the shortcomings of our own parents even before we learn explicitly about the Bible and God’s self-revelation. This opens to the door to an initial suggestion for you: consciously make acts of faith, hope, and love. You know that God’s goodness is immense, unlimited, and uncontaminated by any self-centeredness or brokenness. You also know that he knows and loves you personally. These are simply tenets of our Catholic faith that you have received through the grace of baptism. This knowledge can grow in intensity and spread from your mind into your heart, your will, and even your emotions, if you exercise it. One way of exercising it is through the vocal prayers traditionally called “acts of faith, hope, and love.” These are short prayers we say in order to praise God for his goodness and reaffirm our loyalty to him. They can be said in the morning, at night, or even in little snippets of time throughout the day. Saying prayers like these, and really meaning them, exercises our confidence in God, and therefore strengthens it.

You can compose your own acts of faith, hope, and love, using words that resonate with your own experience of God, and with the yearning in your heart to cling to him more closely, more freely (that yearning is from the Holy Spirit). But you can also use prayers composed by others. Here is a list of some traditional acts of faith, hope, and love.  Below I will share a morning prayer we use in my Congregation, with some comments (in parentheses) that can, I hope, show you what I mean about how these prayers can exercise our confidence in God:

Prayer to the Father:

Holy Father, it pleased you to create and adopt me

So that I would love and invoke you with total trust, as your child.

(This places us in God’s strong but gentle embrace. Our life comes from him; it is a gift, a personal gift, that implies a desire on his part for my presence, friendship, confidence… It all starts with him, with his immense goodness, the origin of all things.)

I bless you for the love you have shown me

By choosing me in Christ, before the world was made,

To be holy and perfect in your sight.

(This affirms our assurance that God has a plan for our lives. We are not just an accident; we are not lonely wanderers trying to make the best of a meaningless existence; Christ is a savior who involves us in a wonderful and meaningful story, the story of salvation.)

You know my frailty, and how much I need your grace to fulfill your holy will;

So, Father, in your great love, grant me your grace in accordance with my needs.

(This invokes God the Father’s ongoing care for us. He is interested in everything that happens to us and around us. He is involved in our lives. Our sins and weaknesses only increase his solicitude for us and his desire to come to our aid. He will never abandon us.)

Increase in my heart the burning zeal

that will drive me tirelessly to bring everyone to share in the eternal life

that consists in knowing and loving you, the only true God, and the one you sent, Jesus Christ.

(Here we ask God to give us the desires, courage, and wisdom we need to fulfill our life’s mission. Again, God is on our side! He cares about us as the very best of Fathers!)

Grant me, holy Father, the fortitude I need to shun all sin and imperfection,

and do not let me fall into the traps or give in to the temptations

that the evil spirit sets for me today.

(God is also our protector. We invoke this protection and count on it, and it gives us confidence in the midst of life’s struggles and the spiritual battles we face.)

 

Another prayer that can be used as a powerful act of faith, hope, and love is Psalm 22 (the Good Shepherd Psalm), reproduced at the end of this post.

Christ: The Revelation of God’s Goodness

In addition to making acts of faith, hope, and love, the real shortcut to experiencing more and more deeply the strengthening goodness of God’s Fatherhood consists in focusing on his Son. Jesus came to reveal to us the real nature of God, to show us God’s face after original sin had blinded us and distorted our perception of our Creator and Lord: “The Word became flesh so that thus we might know God's love” (Catechism, #458)

You will find no better way to grow in your heartfelt knowledge and experience of God’s goodness, of his infinitely tender and attentive love, then by delving into the “unfathomable riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:8). The best way to do this is to make mental prayer (Christian meditation – see this post and this resource) a daily staple of your spiritual life, and to use as the subject of your prayer the four Gospels, or worthy commentaries on those Gospels (like this one or this one, for example). Spiritual reading is another excellent tool for growing in this knowledge (find out more about spiritual reading here).

Of course, contemplating God’s wonders in creation, admiring his marvels in the lives of the saints, and enjoying the many small pleasures that God sends us each day (from sunsets to songs to Swedish Fish) are all avenues to the same destination – these too are manifestations of God’s goodness, of the Father’s love.

A final word about this spiritual quest: be patient. Your question actually touches on a central need of every human heart: the need to rebuild our trust in God. This is the core of the spiritual life, the only path to spiritual maturity and holiness.  For this very reason, rehabilitating trust in God is a long process. But that’s okay. Traveling this path is what God wants us to do, and it is in the traveling that we grow, and discover, and gradually experience more and more of the “peace of God, which surpasses all our thinking” (Phil 4:7) – a peace which alone will allow us find the fulfillment God has in store for us.

 

The Good Shepherd Psalm

The Lord is my shepherd; I have everything I need.

He lets me rest in green meadows; he leads me beside peaceful streams.

He renews my strength.

He guides me along right paths, bringing honor to his name.

Even when I walk through the dark valley of death, I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me.

Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me.

You prepare a feast for me in the presence of my enemies.

You welcome me as a guest, anointing my head with oil.

My cup overflows with blessings.

Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will live in the house of the Lord forever.

(Psalm 23, of King David)

Yours sincerely in Christ , Fr John Bartunek, LC, ThD

 

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at RCSpirituality.org, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at SpiritualDirection.com.

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  • Kephas

    Fr. John,
    I am SO grateful for this site – and for all your comments and spiritual direction.
    I have a few comments about this post. First, the disclaimer.
    I am *not* a priest. I have not been given the grace to teach doctrine. I am a person with no degree or commission to teach the faith.

    BUT, in my 53 years I have heard this question posed in a multitude of ways. The revelation of God as Father for us requires a re-living – literally a re-birth of our conception of the word and the role of father for us all. The best of a family life falls short of even the human perception of the role and personhood of God as Father. I believe that our personal experience of our parents in and of itself presents an enormous challenge when considering God. We tend to assign the importance and significance due to the “object” being represented to the model or template used to engage our understanding. Put in another way, an architectural model or drawing of a building will never be equivalent to the finished product.

    Our parents – father and mother – are analogous to an architectural model or drawing in this respect. We can only learn the true meaning of the title and role of father from God – here the “potter that made the pot”, so to speak.

    Forgive me – I am not a professional writer, and as I read what I have written my words appear as clear as mud.

    I’m trying to express the notion that what we percieve as father is a “model” – not to be confused with the “real Father” which God reveals to us – in a gradual way, similar to the gradual way we come to know our parents.

    Whether we realise it or not, we *all* have to reassess our notions of both father and mother – realities that Christ Jesus revealed to us for the first time in the history of mankind.

    I love this site – for me, it is a blessing…I look forward to reading the posts daily.

    God bless all of you – and please keep feeding us! 🙂

    Kephas
    (Richard Gonzalez)

    • Dear Richard – very good insights. The experience of our parents can both be a help and a hindrance to understanding God as he truly is. The key is recognizing how that experience influences our relationship with God. Blessings on you.

  • Becky Ward

    Another wonderful post……such great advice.

    I’ve had an awesome image given to me in my faith formation program. Our spiritual Father in telling us that we are God’s children and that He does love us, also says that God is waiting for each of us and wants us to run into His open arms.

    This immediately put the image of any earthly father, older brother, uncle, grandpa, etc…. reaching down to pick up a small child that was hurtling themselves in absolute trust into loving arms, lifting the child high, maybe tossing them into the air and then bringing them close in a reassuring hug as laughter rings all around.

    Trusting that the Chuirch’s teaching on this is true…..(That we are God’s children)…..and being a grandmother myself, this imagry has helped me time and time again as I stumble on the path to holiness………..I can step back for a moment when I feel I’ve let God down, and imagine how I would treat my grandchildren. If I can be loving and forgiving………how much more will God be?

    I too come from a past where my biological father did not provide this loving example………..and it’s hard to leave that behind. In praying for healing and the ability to forgive completely I have received the grace of both, and am also delighted to find myself building a realtionship with my heavenly Father.

    God is so good.

  • Sfbierly

    The spiritual direction that you offer is so beneficial to my growing in faith, hope, and love for the three persons of the blessed Trinity. At one point of my spiritual journey, I didn’t have a very positive relationship with God the Father because I also projected the image of my earthly father onto God the Father. When I went before the crucifix, preparing for a good sacrament of reconciliation for the first time in my life, I realized how much God the Father loved me personally, because He sent His only son to be the sacrifice for my sins. To understand that God loves me personally was a huge act of faith, hope, and love, and the grace moved from my intellect to my heart in an instant. I began to understand that if I have seen Jesus, that I have seen the Father, and that the perfect unconditional love between the Father and the Son is the Holy Spirit that dwells in me when I am in the state of grace. Thank you for helping me to grow in my relationship with God.
    Sandy

  • Yoy

    I find this article so pertinent to where I am at. Like this person, I didn’t have loving parents and have never really felt loved, have made terrible choices with my husbands too – in other words, i have been abused since I was a child. I have been working very hard to get close to God and was making good improvement, feeling accepted and loved by God was tough but I had already conquered it, unfortunately I wasn’t able to enjoy that feeling of knowing I was loved and accepted by God for long. Lately I have been having many challenges – loss of job, risk of loosing our home, conflicts at home that are severe, and when I thought I was going to get an interview for a job I get terribly sick, my face is paralyzed and I feel terrible – no insurance, now I cannot go on this interview. . . another challenge is that I have been reading the bible daily and journaling about what God might be telling me on the readings – this made me feel so close to the Lord and I was enjoying it so much until I got to Leveticus and then Numbers where Moses decides to execute people who disobey the law and he says God told him to do so. How can He be a loving God? Was this Moses’ interpretation? I hope you reply to my email.

    I will forever believe there is a God but now with all that I am dealing with I don’t know if He is loving or is He punishing me with all these things. I have never felt worthy anyway, and it was hard to believe he forgave me because I have always thought black and white and it was so hard to feel accepted by Him and now these challenges. . .

    • $1650412

      This is such a moving response! Yoy, I am praying for you-
      You know, obviously I am not a priest, but I think there is a preferable place to work from when we are in the throes of certain kinds of suffering- the ones that really can strike at our confidence in God’s love for us-in those experiences, I get more out of trying to understand how my trials are similar to aspects of God’s own experience as our Father or as the Spouse of Israel; or some facets of Jesus’ life as a neighbor or friend or Lord of Creation etc. rather than in reacting through why this is happening to me or how I could have avoided it if I had done better or made better choices or how my pain is an unexpected or unforeseen fruit of my own personal failure. (I can find alot of reasons why my trials and sufferings are possible punishments or have punitive aspects because I do sin alot.) But more often my heart and understanding are lifted to draw closer to God when I think about how He might have felt like this or that in a similar circumstance. The Holy Spirit is typically really sweet about helping me along with this, if I try to work on it and it usually helps me maintain a perspective that also opens up my heart to where I need to improve. The thing is though, that my motivation is elevated and I am more united to the Lord- rather than my other default option which is – ‘get the skills to avoid the set of errors that caused or contributed to this pain.’
      It also always helps me to intentionally think through things with the constant reorientation on the personal love of God for me and how that is the grounding element at the heart of everything I am going through. I think that is why those acts of faith, hope, and love are so good for the soul- as Father describes above- they call us back to the basic grounding truths about our existence. And when you stop and think reasonably, intentionally, element by element about these things- like reevaluating the basic brick work or architectural footing at the base of a great structure that maybe obscured by fog in the moment- it reinforces confidence in the Builder and the work.
      Stories or accounts from the Bible are sometimes hard to understand- I often don’t get why God does and says some of the things that He does- but I know from experience that as I keep seeking Him in His Word, He will direct my attention where He wants it, to give me the things I need most from Him- sometimes it is more insight into His ‘character’ or ‘personality’, something that brings me into a closer relationship with Him; and sometimes it is stronger faith in what I already know is true about Him.

  • Guest

    Thank you, again, Fr. John. As my now dear friends on this Website will have read my response on the three Prayers of of Faith, Hope and Charity, my father , being a unique Lay Leader of the Catholic Faith of our entire Mother Parish and a Teacher, was very strick to his children. To me, being the only daughter and a last born of 4 boys, it was hard to feel close to him since I was, admittedly very rebellious. But to reply to the person who has asked this very vital question, I would refer him to the earlier Post which had the Prayer with the Title ” A Love Letter from Your Father”. In that Post he will discover how, through the Scriptures, God’s Love for us as a Father, is so eloquently and astaundingly revealed. I loved that Post so much that I have placed it on my Desktop so that I can read it from time to time. My response to you, Yoy, is this. We need to understand the place of suffering in the context salvation Mystery and its place and purpose in Christ’s Life. Many Saints also explain how they attained the highest level of holiness through suffering. The life of the first Saint of this Millenium – St. Maria Faustina – Christ’s Secretary of the Eucharistic Apostolate of the Divine Mercy Devotion, is the latest testimony of how suffering is used by God – in imitation of Chrisist – to bestoy very high degree of holiness to a person when that suffering is understood, accepted with humility and fortitude, offered to Him and joined with the sufferings of Christ. I have no doubt, Yoy, God has very holy plans for you and Christ has joined your sufferings and troubles with His, not ony for your own salvation, but for many,many other souls. We shall all pray for you and soon His plans for you will become manifest and you shall begin to experience His Love and closeness to you, as He grants you peace of mind amindst your hardships.

  • Ltqlin

    Jesus was very gentle with me as He led me to Our Father over a period of several years. What hit home for me was seeing Jesus in His suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane and Jesus telling me He carries out the Passion of the Cross out of love for the Father. This moved me to gaze upon the Father and think, if Jesus loves the Father that much, He must be worthy of my love and affection as well, not just my obedience and praise which I always understood He was due. Just a couple of weeks ago I had a dream that I could feel my hand in the hand of my deceased father. I had to make peace with this and once I did, I realized my father was pointing, along with Jesus, the way to The Father. He no longer seems as distant, but just as I’ve spent a lifetime in an intimate relationship with Jesus and the Holy Spirit, I must spend time in contemplation with Him to develop a closer relationship. ~~Lisa

  • Dan Burke

    Dear Friend: I am open to the idea. Can you tell me a bit more about yourself?

  • Laura

    I have a hard time with accepting that God loves me just the way I am. My father, step-father both sexually, physically and emotionally abused me. To the point of close fist punching me in the face as a teen. My mother allowed everything and did nothing, but went on to drink, party and abandon me to care for the younger children as my teen years came upon me. My mother was killed at work when she was 39 years old. My sister, one year older then me had my stepfathers baby. My son had cancer and chemo at the age of 13. I married an emotionally, religiously abusive husband. I have a hard time knowing and accepting God accepts and loves me. I feel like maybe I am too much work, even for God.
    laura-wallace@hotmail.com

    • LizEst

      What a difficult life you have had, Laura. You have seen and experienced much evil…and my heart aches for you. God loves you with an everlasting love and wants you to know His love, His grace and His mercy. And “[He has proved] His love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

      That you have come to this site, to write about this, is evidence of the Holy Spirit working in your heart. God wants a relationship with you, a relationship of love that is so much more different and so much better than what you have ever known. That’s probably why you have a hard time knowing and accepting that God loves you. How could you, if you have never known even a reflection or a shadow of His love? This love of God’s is like no other. He is faithful. He is just. He is THE tremendous lover. God IS love itself. He aches for you to love Him back. And, when you do love Him back…Eye has not seen and ear has not heard nor has the human heart conceived what God has prepared for those who love Him (cf 1 Corinthians 2:9). You are not too much work. He made you for the everlasting happiness of His love.

      My prayers for you Laura. God bless you always.
      ps. If you are still in an abusive relationship, you need to find someone to help you with that. Go to your parish priest for recommendations. And, while you are there, you can also talk to him about what you have written here.

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