Redeeming the Story of Fatherlessness

I have difficulty praying the Lord’s Prayer because whenever I say “Our Father,” I think of my own father, who was hard, unyielding, and relentless. I cannot help but think of God that way. — Martin Luther

It has been said that God created man in His image, and man returned the favor. Our natural impulse is to view God through the lens of the relationship we had with our earthly father. For those of us who had attentive and faithful fathers, our memories of him may conjure up feelings of warmth, security, and strength. It is not a stretch for us to imagine God in that same way. For others, though, with absent or abusive fathers, the very word father can be a razor-wire barrier to knowing God.

For the fatherless, accepting the idea that God is a loving Father is difficult. Don Miller writes, “My father left my home when I was young, so when I was introduced to the concept of God as Father I imagined him as a stiff, oily man who wanted to move into our house and share a bed with my mother. I can only remember this as a frightful and threatening idea.”1

Recently I had a conversation with a fatherless teenage girl who was seated next to me on a flight from Denver to Springfield, Missouri. She was around fourteen, with a decidedly Goth vibe — jet-black hair and some facial piercings. She told me she thought God was whoever we made Him out to be, and the idea of God as Father was repulsive to her. God could be a man or woman, an impersonal “higher power,” or anything else we wanted Him or her to be.

After listening to her vent for a while, I decided to ask her what she thought about my hair. Not surprisingly, she thought it was kind of boring. But eventually she agreed with me that it was short and brown, with a sort of steel-wool texture. We went on until we had a pretty good physical description of me: six foot two, brown hair and eyes, dashing good looks, and the like.

I then asked her if someone thought I was actually seven feet tall instead of six foot two, would I magically grow ten inches or stay exactly the same? Would I actually change every time people thought differently about me, or was this a problem with perception?2 Then I asked her if she thought that God changed every time we thought differently of Him. I wish I could say she was won over by my argument. She wasn’t. But I think my point made her think a little.

In his brilliant book Faith of the Fatherless, New York University professor Paul Vitz applies what he terms “the defective father hypothesis” to the lives of over twenty well-known atheists.3 Vitz takes a close look at Freud’s projection theory, which declares that belief in God is a psychological result of being raised in a home with a good father. Vitz argues that if we are going to accept Freud’s “projection theory,” we must apply it universally. If those who believe in God believe because they have fathers, then those who do not believe in God must not believe because they lacked fathers. Vitz sees this as true of many of the top atheists of the past few centuries.

Frederick Nietzsche’s father, a Lutheran pastor, died a couple of months before Nietzsche’s fifth birthday. Nietzsche writes in detailed sadness of the day of his father’s death. Later in his life, Nietzsche famously proclaimed, “God is dead.” Noted atheist David Hume lost his father when he was only two. Atheist Bertrand Russell is well known for his essay titled “Why I Am Not a Christian.” Russell’s father died when he was four. Philosopher and atheist Jean-Paul Sartre’s father died when he was fifteen months old. Albert Camus’s father died in World War I when Albert was an infant. Camus later writes in detail about his own search for a father.

I am not saying that Freud’s hypothesis is correct. I am living proof that it is not. But both he and Vitz have a relevant point. Our fathers powerfully shape our perception of God — like a projector flinging grainy images on the screen of our minds. Fathers project images of trust and security that inspire faith. Or they project bleak, dark images of rejection, isolation, and abandonment.

Fatherlessness and The Death of God

If our fathers were absent as we were growing up, we may tend to view God as distant and uncaring. If our fathers were rigid disciplinarians, we may be nervous around God, seeing Him as something of a cosmic policeman. If our fathers were flighty and inconsistent, we may write off God as unreliable. If our fathers were abusive, we may fear God’s anger. If our fathers left us or died when we were young, we may feel that God, too, is dead in our lives.

Fatherless children often believe that God, like their earthly father, is now gone. He does not inhabit their bleak and ashen existence. He does not speak a meaningful word to their postmodern existence. And this theme — alienation from God— is repeated over and over by young people growing up without their fathers, struggling with their experience of rejection, and trying to understand God in the midst of it all.

A young man in his twenties, Justin, commented:

I’ve often wondered what would have been more painful: a father I’ve never known and never seen or a father I’ve seen and never known. He never shares what’s on his heart.

And the closer I try to get to him, the further away I feel. Why is it that my greatest fear is becoming the man that gave me life? And why do I still seek his approval? Is he the reason it’s so hard for me to see God as Father?

Another blogger, a forty-year-old married man and father of two, William, adds:

I was six when my dad left. My little brother sat on the couch and cried, “I want my daddy,” for what seemed like hours and hours. He cried himself to sleep at night. When he was at school, he cried around his classmates. He was so broken that he couldn’t really control his emotions at all. But not me. I had to be the strong one. And I swore that day that my dad would never see me cry, nor would anyone else. Not even God. I shut it all in, locked away like a vault. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered the problem with that setup. Not only had I locked away the anger and pain; I had locked away everything else too. I completely forgot how to feel.

A third blogger, Michelle, who is a fatherless single mom with three kids, talks about how difficult it was for her to see God as Father. She had been disappointed by every man she had ever known — first by her father, then by her unfaithful husband. She had attended church before, but it had never connected to her heart. For Michelle, seeing God as Father was seemingly impossible:

I had been to church before, but it never really took. I didn’t have a problem with it; I met some great people there. But I had a hard time connecting all the dots. Now, looking back for me, I know that it had everything to do with my fatherless childhood and my husbandless marriage. One day, I was listening to a sermon on the radio, driving the girls home from school, and I was absolutely exhausted by raising the girls, working two dead-end jobs just to make ends meet, exhausted with life in general. I was at my wits end, ready to scream.

As I listened to the sermon, I distinctly remember praying, asking God for one thing: help! I thought he existed, but I had never really tried to pray before. Not anything more than lip service. I wasn’t really into men, and God seemed like the King Man. So here I was in the car, asking Him for help, when the strangest thing happened. Within seconds, I felt like God was telling me, or showing me, that I was His precious little girl. It’s not like I heard Him say anything, but I was overwhelmed with His delight for me — I could feel His love. And He had been waiting for me to come to Him so that he could pour out tons of affection and grace over me. It’s like He had been pursuing me but ultimately waiting for me for years and years to come to Him, the perfect gentleman. My eyes filled with tears, and I had to pull the car over. From that day on, God began to make sense. He was no longer an impersonal or scary thought. That day God became my Father, my true love.

One of the great theologians of the twentieth century, A. W. Tozer, once said, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”4 Our perception of God defines who we are and affects the way we relate (or do not relate) to Him. We may be confused or angry with God. We may be paranoid about or afraid of Him. We may think He is whimsical and inconsistent, or see Him as an impersonal, faceless deity.

The way fatherless children see God also affects the way they relate to others, especially men. Having never seen masculine goodness, they may look at it with suspicion. They may begin to fear that divine characteristics such as fidelity, compassion, goodness, and trust simply don’t exist. They may begin to believe that all men are villainous.

I saw this restructuring of God play out in my life. I liked my dad but didn’t see him much. As I grew older, he grew more and more distant. In my mind, God was much the same way — a swell guy to be sure, but not involved in my life. God was likable but distant, good but aloof.

Growing up this way, I never felt good enough to merit my existence. I convinced myself that I had to do something to matter to others. So I became a performer. But it always felt like I was being watched and evaluated by others. With big clipboards and red pens, they were constantly grading my performance.

I projected this performance mind-set onto God. Christianity became something like Little League baseball. God became the coach who cheered for me when I hit well but looked away in silent disapproval when I struck out. I went to Sunday school and did everything I could to be the “good little boy.” I found this was my golden ticket to acceptance.

I based my entire worth on my performance. Whenever I screwed up, I was terrified. I kept wondering if and when God’s grace would finally run out for me. I constantly wondered, “Am I doing enough? Is this OK? Does God still love me? Have I finally fallen off the edge of grace?” I tiptoed around sheepishly, looking over my shoulder, waiting for God to throw His big, black shoe at the back of my head.

Approaching God like this, based on my performance, made the story more about me than Him. I lived in ignorance of God’s unconditional acceptance. Before too long, I found myself running in a religious fog, burning out under the weight of it all. I was tired of the constant rules and the pressure and the unrealistic expectations I was placing on myself. It was a religious performance — a tap dance — and God was my audience.

It wasn’t until later that God broke through. I realized that relationship with Him is not a moral code or a religious performance. It is not a list of rules or a tap dance. It’s more like Argentine tango. It’s wild, free, and alive. And it invades our personal space.

  1. Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz (Nashville: Nelson, 2003), 1.
  2. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines distortion as “a lack of proportionality in an image resulting from defects in the optical system.”
  3. Paul Vitz, Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism (Dallas: Spence, 2000).
  4. A. W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God (Harrisburg, Pa.: Chris tian Publications, 1948), 16.

Excerpted with permission from Fatherless Generation: Redeeming the Story by John Sowers, copyright John A. Sowers.

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Your Turn

Did you or someone you know grow up without a father… or with an absent one? How has your view of God been shaped by your relationship (or lack thereof) with your father? And do you find it easy or difficult to accept the idea of God’s unconditional love for you? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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