Parenting and Image of God

Awkward!  A while back, someone gave me a short writing entitled “Why Is It so Important to Change Our Image of God?” I had the presence of mind to write the source on the bottom of the page: “Good Goats”. The writing was thought provoking and I imagined that I could find it on the internet and then paste and copy it for blog readers. When I searched the internet, however, I found that the piece is actually a chapter from the book, Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God by Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn, and Matthew Linn. So much for short-cuts.

The excerpt was given to me by a person who is like-minded when it comes to our sense of God. Like me, he had received his image of God as a child in the Catholic Church and had to unwind himself from one belief about God in order to be open to another. The authors take this transition to another level in that they show a link between one’s perception of God and the way one lives in the world.

I have had two careers in my life, one as a coordinator of religious educator and the other as a parent educator. The former required me to have a degree in religious studies, the latter in child and family studies.  Even after I completed my formal education, I continued to read and, over time, I began to notice a definite link between what people believe about God and what they believe about parenting.

The Linns use the example of marriage. “The more a couple experiences God as a lover, the more likely they are to enjoy a wholesome, loving marriage (which) extends to all aspects of marriage including sexual fulfillment.” Citing a study done among those who choose celibate religious life (David Nygren and Miriam Ukeritis), they write, “The most caring were four times more likely to image God as a caring healer than their less caring peers.” They shared Andrew Greely’s finding that that the more we experience God as a lover, the more sensitive we are to social justice.

Continuing the discussion on social justice: “The Roman Catholic Bishops recently issued a pastoral on the economy which says that wealth or goods cannot be divided on the basis of what we merit through our work. Rather, they must be divided on the basis of what we need.” Then the link is made: “If we have a vengeful, punishing God who calculates on the basis of our work… we will probably choose an economic system that is also based on merit. We can easily say to those who have less, ‘To hell with you, we earned it.’” On the other hand, when one believes in a God who “gives generously free gifts to those working only an hour (Mt. 20:1-16), and even to unrepentant sinners solely because they need it, then (one is) likely to choose an economic system based less on merit and more on need.”

The third example of this human/divine link offered is that of capital punishment. “If we believe God gives up on people forever and does away with them by sentencing them to death in hell, then we can give up on some people forever and do away with such people by sentencing them to death through capital punishment. Or, I’d add, by dismissing or disowning them in one way or another.

The Linns don’t talk about parenting in their piece, but in my mind, the link between image of God and parenting is even more obvious. Those familiar with the Bible know that a large portion  presents God as a father figure and in the Old Testament story of his forming a people, we see that any actions contrary to his law are considered acts of rebellion worthy of severe punishment. There is more than a theoretical link when it comes to parenting. There are passages that directly admonish parents to be severe with their children and children are meant to accept such punishment and honor the parents who dole it out. Doesn’t it follow that a person faithful to a harsh God would want to emulate this God and follow God’s teachings in the scriptures? The opposite is true. Parents who are gentle and accepting of their children and are quick to forgive are more likely to believe in a loving, forgiving God.

My belief in the parenting/God link is not just based on my studies. I have learned a lot from the families that I encountered in my church work and from the parents I taught in parenting education classes. But my real conviction is gut level.  My husband and I were both raised believing in a God of judgment and retribution. While I did not use corporal punishment as a mother, I believed what I was taught – that children are bad and rebellious by nature. I saw my role as convincing them that they were such. This belief was reinforced when I left the Catholic Church for a time to join groups who believed in a literal interpretation of the Bible. It took a long time for me to change my beliefs about parenting, but it did change parallel to the change in my image of God. I suspect that if you were to ask each of my four children about the kind of mother I was, their responses would be quite different. They were not aware of the spiritual growth happening during those years.

I am done parenting children but I have been given the gift of many grandchildren. Their main caregivers are their parents, of course, but because my image of God has changed, I am present to them in a much different way. For me, changing my image of God was more dramatic than the word “important” shows. For me it as dramatic as is moving from death to life.