What words do you use that imply something about God that really came from the ungodly traits of the humans in your life? This is what we’ll look at now because it can make all the difference between a safe, healthy friendship with Abba-Father and a relationship that’s handicapped by misconceptions.
Because of the devastation of the afflicted, because of the groaning of the needy, / Now I will arise,” says the LORD; “I will set him in the safety for which he longs.” / The words of the LORD are pure words; / As silver tried in a furnace on the earth, refined seven times. (Psalm 12:5-6 NASB)
The Christmas of my first bicycle was both delightful and frustrating. Delightful because I finally received what I’d been begging for. Frustrating because my younger sister got a bike too.
Whenever I had pleaded, “Please can I have a bicycle,” my parents told me that I wasn’t old enough. So you can imagine how I felt when my sister got her bike the same day I did, even though she was two years younger than me.
“Unfair!” I cried.
I can emphasize with the first laborers in Jesus’ parable about the vineyard workers (Matthew 20:1-16). The landowner hired them early in the morning and agreed to pay them a denarius (the usual wage for a day’s work). He hired more workers at noon, still more at mid-afternoon, and a few more just one hour before quitting time. Then the landowner, a.k.a. God, paid everyone the same amount. In relating this to my bicycle, I had “worked” longer than my sister at growing old enough for a bike.
“Unfair!” cried the men who had worked the longest. “Some of those other guys worked only one hour and paid them the same amount you gave to us. That’s not fair!”
But the employer replied, “I am not being unfair to you, friend.” (Friend? Is this how God treats his friends? As St. Teresa of Jesus said, “If this is how You treat Your friends, no wonder You have so few of them.”)
Jesus continued the parable, still sounding very unfair, with the landowner saying: “I gave you what you agreed to. So what if I want to give those who were hired last the same as I gave you? I can do whatever I want with my money.”
Very unfair! Hmm, that even sounds like my human father scolding me for being unhappy about waiting an extra two years for my bike. It also sounds like God is being tricky. Even miserly. As if he’s saving money by cheating his full-time workers out of what they deserve.
And then comes the stinger: “Or are you envious because I am generous?”
Yup, that’s me! I commit the sin of envy every time God makes easy for someone what I have worked hard for or prayed many years for. The little girl who waited too long for a bike has become the lady who cries “Unfair!” at the blessings of others.
You see, while I’m waiting on the Lord to give me what the Bible assures me he has promised, I’m vulnerable to the idea that God doesn’t care about me as much as he cares about others. I can usually resist this false message, but not when I see someone else get what I want.
But what does the word “fair” really mean? To my parents, it meant treating everyone equally. My dad often reiterated that it was very important to him that he treats each of his three children equally. This meant, on that particular Christmas morning, that both me and my sister got our first bikes at the same time. I knew that this was not the true definition of “equal”. To be treated equally, my sister and I would have been given our first bikes based on age, not “at the same time”.
Thus, my image of God became: He is a Father who is unfair while claiming to be fair.
So let’s ask: Does “fair” mean the same thing to Father God as it did to my human father? And to you and me?
What point was Jesus making with this parable? To find the answer, we have to look past the way the parable makes us feel when we put ourselves into the work shoes of the first laborers. Jesus is revealing the Father’s compassion toward the underdog. The disadvantaged ones.
Consider the type of person who often gets turned down when applying for a job: the weak, the sick, the disabled, the “too” old and the “too” young, and other targets of discrimination, such as criminals or anyone with a bad reputation. Jesus is asking you: “In what ways do you feel discriminated against? The Father is going to give you more than what anyone else would give you! Who has overlooked you? The Father is going to give you special treatment! Who has rejected you because you don’t match their expectations or they don’t understand your capabilities? The Father has a special mission for you.”
Turn off the auto-responses that control your feelings
If our focus remains on the first laborers of the parable, we miss the opportunity to learn that God wants to give us more than what’s “fair”. That’s the trouble. We get stuck in feelings that are based on wrong images of God’s Fatherhood.
Mal-formed unconscious beliefs control us with auto-responses that are inappropriate for the situations that trigger them. We need to take control away from the misconceptions that have been limiting our understanding of Abba-Father.
The image of God as a Father who is unfair is, in fact, very unfair to him. This is not who he really is. He is a caring Father who is genuinely interested in you. He is generously doting on your unique needs. He is concerned about you alone while also remaining concerned about everyone else in your life. He gives you what you are ready to receive as soon as you are ready for it. He is never late, not even when we think he is. His timing is always perfectly suited for our lives and for the journeys of our faith growth.
However, it’s possible to know this as a fact and yet not as a belief. Here’s an example of how this happens:
God has taught me the truth of his perfect timing for many years. It’s uncanny how often he reveals his hand in the timing of nearly everything I do. Despite this, sometimes I react to circumstances instead of act on what I know is true. My auto-response tells me that the Father is a God who answers prayers with, “Okay, you can have what you want, but first you’ll have to wait until someone else catches up.” It tells me: “Anyone else who might be impacted by your prayer request has to reach the point of asking for it, too, wanting it as much as you do. Until then, you have to wait.” In other words, I think that I’m handicapped by the spiritual handicaps of others.
“Unfair!” I cry.
We have a lot of misconceptions about how our Divine Father treats us. These mistaken ideas often come from words that have been tainted by misuse, such as “fair”. Another tainted word is “love”.
Nancy didn’t know the real meaning of love. Despite several years of therapy for the abuses she had suffered during childhood, she needed spiritual healing to discover God’s love for her. She needed to learn that God’s love was different than what she had grown up with.
Her father had been mentally unstable. When Nancy was five years old, he was committed to a psychiatric hospital. After that, one of her older brother began to molest her and another brother physically and emotionally abused her. The image of God she unconsciously learned from her dad was that he is a Father who is not there to defend you when you need him most; he is not protective. From her brothers, she learned that love means being a victim. When she heard the words in church that describe Jesus as Victim, she identified with him but in a painful, non-healing way.
Furthermore, her mom often said while spanking the kids (just like many other parents do because it’s true), “It’s because I love you that I have to do this to you!” So of course, to Nancy, all love was suspicious. Even God’s.
She says, “To this day, I have trust issues.” When her second husband molested her daughter, “That was the final straw. I felt, right then and there, that I couldn’t trust any male. I wanted to die and I made my final attempt on the highway.” Thanks to the therapy she received, her suicidal impulses were overcome, but she needed to learn how to trust God. She could not do that without first learning that there are men who are trustworthy.
After she came to me for spiritual healing, I introduced her to my husband, Ralph, and we included her in some of our family activities. We wanted to show her what God’s love is really like. I led her through some inner healing exercises, and these began to make a difference. However, she distrusted my love for her. She wondered, “When is the abuse going to start?” To protect herself, she tried to push me away with anger and false accusations.
Of course, the abuse she expected from me never happened. But that didn’t stop her from reacting to me as if I were about to hurt her. Our friendship was a minefield, and it didn’t take much for an explosion to get triggered. Despite learning that I was safe, her emotional auto-responses over-ruled her intellect. And the same auto-responses also affected her understanding of how God loves her.
Meanwhile, the Holy Spirit inspired me to stand my ground patiently, quietly, calmly, and Jesus gave me the strength to do it. When time and again I did not treat her in the harmful way that she expected, she began to understand the difference between the manipulative, so-called “love” of her childhood traumas and the safe, unconditional love of Abba-Father.
Words of love do not mean the same to the abused as they do to the non-abused. More than anyone else, those reading this book who’ve been abused (especially during childhood) have more to overcome, more to reprogram, more to learn and re-learn about who Abba-Father really is and what his love is truly like.
Nancy and I talked a lot about the true meaning of love and how God designed relationships to be. We differentiated Abba’s unconditional love from every other relationship she’d ever had. Over the course of several years, she learned the truth about love, forgot it when circumstances triggered auto-responses, re-learned the truth, and gradually became stronger in it.
It took a lot of reprogramming to deactivate the bombs in her minefield, and today there are still situations that trigger unhelpful auto-responses. She’s had to repeatedly practice what she learned. She’s had to persist in reexamining her auto-responses, relearning the truth, and reinforcing appropriate responses. It’s a learning curve that needs to continue for the rest of her earthly life.
She explains, “Trust is an imprint that we learn as young children. We trust Mom and then Dad. When those building blocks are missing, trust has to be a conscious effort, done every day. It never becomes natural after those imprinting years are long over. Unless God comes in a does a miracle, trusting others has to be put on just like someone who, after losing his legs in a car accident, has to put on prostheses legs in order to walk. It’s a lifetime struggle. I will never trust the way a child in a safe home learns to trust. I have accepted this fact and I do my best to just trust God because he is the most important figure in my life. As for trusting others, I lean on my crutch of trusting him first. But it will always be a struggle for me, just like a person who has to live a life with no legs.”
If she hadn’t persisted through spiritual healing with determination and the help of a professional therapist, she never would have made the progress that she did. And then, to continue progressing, Nancy relied on constant prayer, the Bible, spiritual books and talks, and Holy Mass: the essential sources of growth for all of us.
Anyone who has been abused needs the three-fold approach that helped Nancy: (1) psychological counseling from a qualified therapist, (2) persistence and determination and conscious effort, and (3) spiritual healing. Without these, it’s common to get stuck in the auto-responses that control our feelings.
Rout out your misconceptions about Abba-Father
All of us – everyone – can deepen our relationship with Father God and increase our trust in him by paying attention to our auto-responses whenever it seems like God is not loving us the way he should. Even the words that we rotely and obediently recite in church can trigger wrong ideas. For example, when the intercessory prayers of Mass and other group events are read, how does the congregation respond? A very common formula is: “Lord, hear our prayer”. What happens with that on the subconscious level of faith?
The implication could easily be: “Lord, You don’t hear us unless we ask You to hear our prayer.” Think about it. If this what you believe, change the formula. Mentally or out loud change it to: “Lord, thank You for hearing our prayers”. Do you notice the change in your spirit?
What other words do you use frequently that imply something about God that is simply not true? These nuances can make all the difference between a safe, healthy friendship with Abba-Father and a relationship that’s handicapped by misconceptions.
The Holy Spirit has provided us with tools that free us from mal-formed auto-responses. It’s like having a treasure map and a magnifying glass to search for what has been hidden. Only when they are exposed can we conquer them. Let’s uncover the subtle, hidden misconceptions that have been influencing you.
God is good. We know that. We profess it out loud. But whether we actually believe it or not is proven in the tests of everyday life. Our reactions to stressful situations – our behaviors during difficulties – reveal a lot about our unconscious beliefs.
For example, do you really believe that God is good all the time? That it’s impossible for him to sin against you (or against the loved ones for whom you’ve been praying)? If you do, then why do you get stressed out by the situations that you’ve entrusted to him?
Or how about this: Do you really believe that God is omniscient (all-knowing)? If you do, then why tell him how to fix your problems or how to change your spouse or how to convert your adult child who has left the Church?
Admittedly, we understand Abba-Father imperfectly. So we compensate by adding to the end of our prayers, “But You know what’s best. Thy will be done.” Later, our joyless response to the hardships of life betray our inner handicaps. We still have unconscious messages undermining our faith. “Thy will be done” means, deep down, something like: “Thy will be done because I have no say in the matter anyway. Thy will is not fair, but You are God and I cannot control You, so I’m unhappy. Now I’ll pray a Novena of the Rosary to get the Blessed Mother to change Your mind.”
We accept his will and we don’t accept it — both at the same time!
In scripture, God is described as the Rock whose works are perfect. All of his ways are just. He is faithful and he does no wrong. He is upright and just (see Deuteronomy 32:40). In human logic, where one plus two equals three, “God’s ways are just” is added to the injustices we suffer even after we pray and therefore equals a definition of “fair” that is not fair to us at all.
Yet we know that God is faithful and does no wrong. We know he is a Father who is always “fair” and “just”. So how do we make sense of the times he seems unfair? We blame ourselves. Our auto-response belief is that we don’t get what we want because of God’s justice. We don’t deserve to be treated better.
This is why our auto-responses can tell us that we must wait for others to become ready for divine help when we give our prayer requests to the Father. They further tell us that we must wait patiently or else we’re sinning and the Father gets upset with us.
But who can be patient under those circumstances? It’s not our fault that we’re ready while others are not. We now have someone else to blame. Hooray.
Every mal-formed, below-surface thought-process hampers our relationship with Abba-Father. Unless we pay attention to what’s happening underground and rout out what is wrong, we remain stuck there. The good news is: Once exposed to the light of the scriptures and the revelations that are readily supplied by the Holy Spirit, they lose their hold on us. Our faith grows.
To enjoy a close, fun, helpful intimacy with the Father, we need to understand him as he really is. We need to reprogram our thought processes and consciously choose to live in the truth of God’s goodness. We need to do this repeatedly until we form a healthy, holy auto-response.
Reprogramming involves understanding the scriptures better and reading them in the context of the bigger picture or lesson that’s connected to them. This is what we’ve been doing with the parable of the vineyard workers. As I said before, Jesus was revealing the Father’s compassion toward the underdog. In this light, “fair” and “just” describe a God of compassion, mercy, and love. I like that! It’s not about the bike at all. Nor wages. It’s about unconditional, merciful love.
Let’s look at how knowing this can affect our prayer requests. When we pray, we can experience the peace that overcomes stress by reminding ourselves that God is fair and just and that therefore he doesn’t withhold anything good from us, not even if we’ve had a long, dark past of doing evil. What matters, in his eyes, is how much – right now – we want what he wants.
So, what does he want? He wants to say yes to the desires of our heart, he wants to say yes to our prayer requests, as long as what we want is not sinful. But he wants to give us even more than we’ve asked for. His “yes” might come with a “but not now” or “not this way”.
And he wants us to learn something valuable, something that will increase our holiness, something that will also help others. When we want this too, we appreciate how fair Abba-Father truly is. We relax. We discover joy even before our prayers are answered.
The divine logic is: “God’s ways are just”. Add to this his forgiveness for the injustices that we’ve repented from, and now one plus two equals “he only wants what’s best for me”, which equals far more than we can ever imagine. Therefore, “I can trust him with ‘Thy will be done’ and truly be at peace with that.”
The formula is simple: To free ourselves to enjoy a close, trusting relationship with Abba-Father, we must first identify and then clear up our misconceptions about him.
Today’s Exercise: Reprogram your thought processes
To find the errors that control your auto-responses, listen to how you complain. Every complaint carries within it a clue about how you see Abba as less than he really is, such as less caring, less powerful, less attentive, or whatever the “less” is that has been diminishing your relationship with him. These clues are important!
Today’s exercise will help you detect the misconceptions that have been affecting you. Write a letter to the Father. Name your toughest prayer request — that situation that has been going on for far too long – and complain to him about how he is or is not handling it. Complain, complain, complain! (This is not sinful; he can handle it and he knows that your innermost desire is to be healed.) Write down why you’re upset with him, but if you don’t feel upset with him, dig deeper by finishing this sentence: “I trust You, Father, but I wish You would ____.”
Write it fast, unfiltered. Be honest. Be brutally honest. Don’t hold anything back.
Describe your feelings – they contain wonderful clues. How do you feel about waiting so long for your prayer to be answered? Even if you think you know why God wants you to wait so long, how do you feel about that?
Maybe you’re waiting for God to zap someone into loving you the way they should. You know that God won’t force them against their free will. So how does that make you feel? God is surely powerful enough and creative enough to get around their free will somehow. But nothing has changed. Or maybe it got worse. Complain to God about his (apparent) lack of intervention.
Write this letter to God now before finishing this chapter. Write it, don’t just think it. The second half of this exercise will shed light on what you wrote.
* * *
Watch your words
My first spiritual director, Irene Huber, frequently taught that “what you say is what you get.” She wanted everyone to pay attention to the words we use, because our choice of words can impact us emotionally and spiritually. In her healing ministry, she had discovered that when people came to her saying, “I’m sick,” they were less likely to receive a miracle than if they said, “I’ve been diagnosed with or have the symptoms of a sickness”.
We can either own the illness or take ownership of God’s concern and compassion for us in our illness. By choosing our words carefully as we describe what we’re seeking from him, our focus shifts from the limitations of the illness to the potential of the healing.
To say, “I have ___”, is to admit ownership of it. Which is more true for you? “I have faith” or “I have fear”? Do you have a fear that if your prayers are not answered, disaster will strike? Do you have a fear of God disappointing you? Or any other fear that’s based on a misconception about God?
I’m sure you want to say, “I have faith”, but when you react to situations that challenge your trust in God, reacting so spontaneously that don’t have time to choose your words carefully, what comes out of your mouth? For example: “I’m feeling very worried about this situation. I’m afraid it’s going to get worse.” This does not mean you have no faith. It simply means that you’re routing out a misconception that’s been controlling you.
Look again at the letter to God that you wrote in today’s exercise.
- What did you take ownership of with the words you wrote? (For example: “I have fear that this terrible situation will last forever.”)
- Which sentences can be rewritten to start with “I am ___” or “I have ___”? (For example, change “You know what is best, Father, but I sometimes feel angry about the injustice of it. I can’t imagine why You haven’t done anything about it yet” to “I am angry because You seem unconcerned about the injustice. I have doubts that You truly care.”)
- What clues about your understanding of Father God do these sentences reveal? (For example, if you wrote “I am angry because You seem unconcerned about the injustice, I have doubts that You truly care”, ask yourself: “Which humans in my life treated me unjustly long ago?” And then remind yourself: “Ahhh, but Father God is much better than them! Of course he cares! He hates the injustice far more than I do.”
- Which sentences proclaim correct understandings and which ones are raising flags about misconceptions? (Highlight in yellow what is true about Abba-Father, and cross out the misconceptions. Circle the parts that need further clarification.)
Our choice of words when praying to the Father can reveal a lot. In your prayer exercise:
- Were you demanding or trusting? (Perhaps both?)
- Did you tell God how to solve a problem? How humble were you in sharing your ideas with him? How much of the problem-solving did you leave up to him?
- What do your demands (or strong preferences) and problem-solving ideas indicate about your conceptions of God?
- Which words obscure what Abba-Father is really like?
By unearthing the indicators of a lesser faith, your faith will grow. Identify the wrong messages that some of your words imply. Then seek out the truth from scriptures, a spiritual director, or a friend who has mature faith. Post the truth on sticky notes by your desk and on the bathroom mirror. Turn them into memorized mantras that you repeat often and out loud. This will reprogram your auto-responses.
Rewrite your prayer request with carefully chosen words of faith, even quoting scripture. Let this become your mantra in the particular situation that’s covered by this prayer. And guess what will happen! Your new way of praying will improve your prayer words and build your faith during other situations as well.
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© 2020 by Terry A. Modica
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