How does a parent teach a child about the unconditional love of God when trust, safety and security have been broken in the past?
Whether it is anecdotal or evidenced based, there have been many times when professionals sat across from an individual who expresses no faith in a heavenly father and has a broken relationship with their earthly father. As one listens to this person’s childhood experiences, the mistrust and disbelief are not surprising: How can someone believe in an unconditional love when they have never experienced it?
At the core of every relationship is trust. Strong, healthy relationships between spouses, parents and children, co-workers and friends all exhibit a high level of trust in the safety and dependability of the other person. When trust is broken, it takes intentional repair to regain the trust of the person who feels betrayed.
No one had more cause to be distrustful, bitter and angry than Joseph in the book of Exodus when he saw his brothers again. Yet, he remained faithful to God, rose to become a leader in Egypt and easily forgave his brothers when he saw them again (Genesis 50:19-21).
How did Joseph remain so resilient and confident? One reason may have been that he had the unconditional love and adoration of an earthly father that helped create an unwavering faith that his Heavenly Father would never fail him. From a therapeutic perspective, this is the joy of the lasting impact of early childhood security, safety and trust.
Not everyone gets what Joseph got from his parent. How does a parent teach a child about the unconditional love of God when trust, safety and security were not a part of their early experiences? How does a parent repair a heart that has been broken by another parent?
Babies learn trust when their needs are met over and over again by a responsive parent. For older children and teens, the same principle applies, but it may look different. A teenager may not cry. Their needs may be expressed through anger, frustration or defiance, requiring a parent to be consistently loving, responsive and ask, “What does he or she need?”
This goes against some traditional strains of thought on parenting, but it is absolutely what God does for us each and every day (Psalms 147:3). Traditional thought may say, “My teenager needs to know the importance of repentance and the consequences of disobedience.” But consider the conversion of Paul.
He knew about God. But even Paul had to truly know God before his heart could be transformed. He could not repent or obey until he knew and understood the magnitude of God’s love. During this time, God used Ananias to comfort, instruct, heal and baptize Paul. He did not shame Paul for the sin, death and destruction he had wrecked on early Christians. Ananias nurtured Paul’s body and soul. Children harmed in relationship need the same nurture from a loving parent.
Jesus also provided the perfect example of how a parent’s earthly love can model our heavenly father’s love in the story of the prodigal son. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him (Luke 15:20).”
Like Joseph, this father had every reason to be angry. However, the father’s love was unconditional. He remained a trusting, secure and safe person for his son and the son, in turn, was healed by and understood the magnitude of his father’s love.
Sharing the gospel with those who have been harmed in relationships, particularly children, can feel overwhelming, but there are great biblical examples to guide us. First and foremost, “…Love one another. As I have loved you, you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).
Amy Curtis is director of counseling for Buckner Children and Families Services. Each day, she helps individuals and families overcome challenges from their past to fulfill their God-given potential in the present.