We learn who we are and what we can expect from others in the context of relationships. Some of what we learn from our mortal relationships encourages us to trust our Father in Heaven and His Son, Jesus Christ, and to reach optimistically toward Them. Some of what we learn can interfere with that trust, making it hard to comprehend Their love, let alone be filled with it.
It is difficult to grow a satisfying, trusting relationship with Divinity when prior relationship losses, disappointments, and fears entangle us in false hopes and impossible expectations. How can we learn to approach these—our most important relationships—with less worry and shame, more trust and hope? How can we more fully receive the love that we’ve been told They offer but that we don’t always feel?
Fear and Vulnerability
Without fully realizing it, many of us fear the vulnerability inherent in such closeness. We may yearn for an intimacy with God that we believe would quiet our fears, strengthen our confidence, and reassure our faith. But we are afraid of intimacy when we realize it would also expose our inadequacies or make us vulnerable to loss. We may have learned in relationships to feel overwhelmed, used, ignored, or afraid of betrayal, rejection, or disappointment. We may explicitly or implicitly worry that God will also criticize, ignore, deplete, or test us beyond our ability to endure.
Most of us have had at least fleeting thoughts of frustration or fear or confusion in our relationship with Deity. Often, we work it out. We change the way we think about things. We get another perspective or another calling. Something happens to comfort us or distract us. We move on. Sometimes, however, the hard feelings do not dissipate or heal. They go underground, ready to re-emerge when we are overstressed, tired, or confronted with some new temptation or challenge.
Faulty Assumptions, Not Just Faulty Behavior
We want to be in the loving embrace of our Father and our Savior. So why do we keep God so far away?
While there may be multiple ways of understanding our relationship dilemmas with God (maybe we need clearer understanding of doctrine, more repentance, or greater patience), there is often something else at play that may not reflect a lack of righteousness on our part or a lack of accessibility on God’s part. It may be simply that God is inviting us into a deeply intimate relationship with Him, and that this kind of closeness requires us to change not only our behavior but also some of our most basic assumptions about ourselves and life.
What kind of changes does such closeness require? The kind of change that occurs in a long and fruitful friendship or marriage as we learn to see ourselves—not just the other person—more clearly. The kind of change that requires us to repent and forgive. The kind of change that allows us to see our upbringing, weaknesses, and future with new eyes and broader perspective. The kind of change that comes from facing deep disappointment and finding a way to move forward with hope.
In other words, what has to change is not only our obvious sin, although that is also essential. What has to change may also be a conclusion we came to without knowing it was a conclusion, assuming instead that it was a fact about the world or ourselves, or a rule that would hold back trouble. A conclusion like: People can’t be trusted, and I’ll be safe only if I’m always on guard. But that conclusion no longer explains or protects. Now it holds us back and stops our relational growth.
Changing Our Relationship Assumptions
We all have, by definition, a personal relationship with God, who is eternally our Father. But we must individually choose to foster and receive the covenant relationship that brings us back into His presence for eternity.
I don’t build a relationship with my husband by constantly asking him for favors, though I may ask him for favors. I don’t build a relationship with my mother by only thanking her for her help, though I surely should thank her. I don’t build a relationship with my friend by cajoling and pleading at every turn, though sometimes I may cajole and plead.
I build relationships with people by sharing their company, walking with them in the park, laughing together, crying together, having long talks about nothing in particular, struggling together with a problem, feeling heard, sharing hugs, working side by side, hearing their stories, telling them mine, serving on their committees, sitting with them on the beach at sunset, learning from them, teaching them, and saying nothing at all. And when the chips are down, I build relationships with other people by sharing my most intimate fears and hurts, letting myself be cared for, apologizing, forgiving, seeing what really is, and not running.
Such experiences teach me, also, how to have a personal relationship with God. In such proximity to God we learn most fully who we are. He wants to teach us who He is as well, to reveal to us His identity as a healer, a life giver, an empowerer, an embracer, a teacher, a redeemer, a friend.
When God Seems Far Away
Just as Christ must remember on the cross that God is His Father, even when He seems far away, so we must remember in our dark hours the companionship of heaven we have once experienced, even if we do not experience it now. Though His plea on the cross about being forsaken is the only prayer Christ addresses to “God” and not “Father,” Christ acknowledges again His trust in God as His Father with His final prayer of complete submission: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46).
Gethsemane required Jesus to accept the strengthening hand of a messenger—instead of the escape He had prayed for. Calvary required Jesus to hold fast to what He knew about His Father’s love—even when His Father seemed far away. Such prayers are less about trying to make sure God knows us and our needs, and more about receiving and remembering what He has already given. Such prayers can be especially difficult when our earthly experiences have taught us to fear abandonment or rejection. It is a rare person whose relationships have been so consistently trustworthy as to not instill at least a few such fears.
Our Loving Father
The name of Jehovah was not spoken by the Jews because it was considered too sacred to utter. Yet God seems to be forever inviting us to call out His name, open our hearts to His companionship, learn about His character and identity, and make that character and identity our own.
Elder Bruce R. McConkie taught:
“We don’t need to think everlastingly about God our Eternal Father as being an omnipotent, almighty, glorified person. . . . We might do better to think of God our Father as just that—as a father . . . as a personal being whose face we have seen and in whose household we have dwelt, whose voice we have heard, whose teachings we have learned before ever we were born into this life.”
President Boyd K. Packer spoke in a similar vein:
“For now I offer this comfort: God is our Father! All the love and generosity manifest in the ideal earthly father is magnified in Him who is our Father and our God beyond the capacity of the mortal mind to comprehend.”
We can choose, heal, and deepen our relationship with God our Father and His Son, Jesus Christ. We do this more readily as we better understand the impact of our mortal relationships on our assumptions about love, as we change our minds about the fears our relationships have taught us to harbor, and as we repent, forgive, work, and receive so God can meet our truest needs. We may still have to make do with something other than the relief we seek. We may still feel at times that God has forsaken us. We may still have to choose to remember and trust what we cannot now feel or see. But I believe it is also still true that God is closer to us than we know, and wants to be closer still.
What have you learned about yourself from your past and current relationships? We learn who we are and what we can hope for from others in the context of our relationships with family, friends, and others around us. Some of what we have learned and experienced may even blind us to what is really true about God, leaving us both yearning for and afraid of closeness with Him.
In Let God Love You: Why We Don't, How We Can, Wendy Ulrich couples the teachings of Christ and His prophets with gospel-oriented ideas from her counseling background as she probes faulty assumptions that we may bring to our relationship with God. By understanding and healing these false beliefs and then following the teachings of Christ about how we can ''come unto Him,'' we learn to see God more accurately, rely on Him more trustingly, and become strengthened in His love.
Be sure to catch Wendy Ulrich at these Time Out for Women events in 2017!