Choosing a New Father Image

“I believe in God, but I don’t feel close to Him,” a young woman told me after a class one day. She went on to say how she wanted a better relationship with God, but thinking of Him as a father meant nothing to her— although she sometimes was angry with Him. She had felt close to God when she was a small child, but she could not imagine Him being there for her now when she really needed Him. Most of her prayers felt as if they hit the ceiling and dropped to the ground unheard. After a bit more conversation, she mentioned that her dad had died of a heart attack when she was eight.

Her dad was gone, and she felt that Heavenly Father had disappeared too. Was there a connection? Does the relationship (or lack of one) with our earthly dads influence how we think of or feel about God?

I think so.

A Unique Relationship

I have learned from experience that this is a touchy subject. Talking about God as Father stirs emotions. People have told me that they suddenly feel angry with me for bringing up the topic. Others sob uncontrollably. Still others go strangely numb, feeling nothing at all. Of all the topics I have taught in discipleship courses, the Fatherheart of God has consistently produced the most varied and strong reactions. The cultural background or ethnicity of the listeners has not seemed to matter. Why is this so?

Every human has parents. The power of a mother and father (present or not) in shaping the sense of being and life trajectory of a person is undeniable. While the role of a mother, among many other things, helps determine the foundation of whether someone feels lovable, nurtured and secure, fathers—more than any other role—possess the ability to shape identity and purpose (for good or for ill). Children carry the family name of their dads and longingly look to a father to show them who they really are, their personal value and why they’re in this particular family and even on this earth. To have a dad’s undivided attention, patient input, guidance and adoration is every kid’s dream.

Responding to a Father

Most everyone I talk with is moved by the idea that God has strong feelings of affection for each one of His children (read post: Choosing Love from a Father). But when we get to the part about each of us reciprocating affection back to the Father, things get complicated. Many do not know how to respond to a father’s genuine love because they have rarely if ever seen or experienced it. Or it’s been nuanced in such a way that it’s indiscernible. At this impasse, the wide mix of emotions surface, and many choose to not explore what’s going on.

Whether we like it or not, fathers (in or out of our lives) have left deep imprints on who we are, our ability to trust, our sense of personal value and where we believe we’re going in life. They have also set a pattern that has determined much of how we respond to the idea of God as Father. I am convinced that if we want to grow in our relationship with God, we must look honestly at the kind of earthly dads we were given. Honestly acknowledging the truth about their human strengths, weaknesses and failures, can put us into a better position to receive the love, affirmation and clarity of identity that our Heavenly Father is longing to give.

Dads Shape our Image of Father

Below are six categories that I believe help identify the type of father-image we grew up with. They are generalizations. Real life is more complex. None of them precisely describe everyone’s experience. But they can be a starting point to provide words for the father image we’ve been carrying. In most cases our dads will be combinations of several points.

  1. “The Abusive Dad.” This father lacked self-control, knew no boundaries or simply disregarded the basic needs of his child. Whether it was with physical violence, inappropriate sexual touch, language that belittled and humiliated or neglect of physical needs, the image of “father” was severely damaged in the child’s mind and emotions. There was never a solid feeling of security. Trust was crushed. God as Father was and still is a cruel joke. Child’s possible attitude toward God: “Why did this heavenly father allow my dad to abuse me? And why would I ever choose to get close to an all-powerful Father who will inevitably hurt me??”
  • “The Authoritarian Dad.” This father was unyielding in almost all his methods. It was “my way or the highway.” Questioning his rules or orders was unheard of. He rarely, if ever, asked about the child’s thoughts or feelings. Unswerving and immediate obedience was demanded, and failure to do so brought certain punishment. For the child, rebellion was a natural default. Child’s possible attitude toward God: “Why would I submit to a divine authority who just wants to control and crush my happiness? I’m tired of being told what to do.”
  • “The Achievement-Oriented Dad.” This father offered love, affirmation and affection—at a price. Certain behaviors and performances were necessary to get his attention. Most often, the accomplishments weren’t good enough, always something more that could have or should have been done. Whether it was attainment in sports, academics or social achievement, the child never felt worthy of dad’s love, respect, attention. His expectations mostly felt out of reach. Child’s possible attitude toward God: “How could I ever please a perfect Heavenly Father? Why would I even try?”
  • “The Indifferent Dad.” This father never crossed boundaries or made outrageous demands. His passiveness, however, left a hole in the child’s identity. Fatherly expectations were never understood. He was mostly pleasant, but standards of behavior were either fuzzy or non-existent. So, there was often a sense of aloneness and confusion in the child about the purpose of life. Ultimately this was translated into feelings of worthlessness. Child’s possible attitude toward God: “Why try to get close to Father God? He won’t have anything important to give or say to me. I’ll figure things out without him.”
  • “The Unavailable Dad.” This father was either physically or emotionally absent. Whether it was through abandonment, premature death or simply withdrawing into his own world, he wasn’t there when the child needed him. For some, work was the culprit that took all his attention, energy and time. For others, he physically left the family for “more important” things. Still others saw a physical body but never connected with or knew the man inside because he never opened his life. Child’s possible attitude toward God: “I can’t imagine a Heavenly Father that would desire an intimate relationship with me. I can’t imagine myself being that loveable.”
  • “The Good Dad.” This father covered all his bases, trying to meet the physical and emotional needs of the child. While he was the dad that every child desired, he sometimes contributed to the feeling that a Heavenly Father was merely a symbolic “add-on,” even unnecessary. The “good dad” could either intentionally point the child to the Eternal Father or confirm God as a nice but nonessential idea. Child’s possible attitude toward God: “I have what I need without any direct meddling from a Heavenly Father. An intimate relationship with him sounds weird and isn’t necessary.”

Releasing the Old Images

I believe that each of these dads want to be good to their children; some even believe they are. But many are too wounded by their own earthly fathers, hiding a deep sense of inadequacy to live out their ideal. Or they fail to realize that their most important responsibility is to introduce their children to The Heavenly Father (God’s original plan). He’s the One who can perfectly meet each child’s needs.

Regardless our earthly dads’ good intentions or miserable failures, they never quite reflect the perfect love, support, tenderness and discipline that is the essence of Father God. As a result, we end up with images of the divine that are somewhat shaded or severely twisted. These false likenesses form barriers that keep us from fully embracing the Father’s love that Jesus came to show us (John 14:9). Our experiences fashion our images of Father; our images shape our beliefs. And our beliefs about Father God determine our openness to drawing close and trusting Him.

The first step to clearing the path is always forgiveness (read post: Choosing to Forgive When I Don’t Feel Like It). Whether it’s for heinous abuse, abandonment, neglect or simply being an imperfect human, we have to honestly release our dads—and all their failures—into God’s hands. And we must begin the process of separating our idea of earthly father from our concept of Heavenly Father. For He is a good, good Father—regardless what you have experienced—and He longs for a more intimate relationship with you.

What’s getting in your way?


  • What do I feel when I think about my earthly dad? Do these feelings lead me toward Heavenly Father or away from Him?
  • Which kind of dad did I end up with? What about him can I thank God for? What do I need to forgive him for?
  • What images of Heavenly Father am I holding in my heart that aren’t true? Controlling? Indifferent? Too busy? Harsh? Abusive? Absent? Demanding? Distant? Unnecessary? What do I need to do to renounce these wrong ideas and make room for new images?
  • Jesus, what do you want to show me about my Heavenly Father?

(Edited and reposted from August 3, 2020)

One Comment on “Choosing a New Father Image

  1. Hi Jeff I needed this one because of things that happened when I was a child. i prayed to God for it to quit happening but it did not. What was an 8 year old child to think when parents told her God answered prayers. Sharon


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