Distorted images of God

Dustin Perkins | Jul 17, 2009

Photo by Louis Moncouyoux

Note: This guest blog is from author Dustin Perkins, whose article “Ministering to abusive families” is one of this month’s Hurting Kids and Families featured resources. You may want to read the article before the blog post to understand more of the context of the abuse cycle.

Youth workers know that bad theology is rampant in youth groups. Sometimes an unchurched background or an inattentive Sunday School teacher is to blame, but people living in the abuse cycle undergo a radical worldview shift as a part of their trauma, and their theology changes accordingly. Persons in abusive systems are so enmeshed in that system that they identify God as one of the characters in the abuse cycle. Fuller’s Dr. Dale Ryan refers to this process as “trauma-bonding,” wherein people in the abuse system who have experienced trauma bind a person (in this case God) to a familiar persona. Thus, the victim’s understanding of God in these roles is not a formal, studied, theological conviction so much as a habitual reaction to God based upon their experiences in the abuse cycle. As leaders, we must be aware of how abuse has altered our students’ perspectives of and reactions to God before we can illustrate God’s role in healing and redemption. Here are a few warped views of God in the cycle:

God as abuser

The Abuser-God is a punitive, sadistic bully. This is the god Bruce Nolan complained about in the hit movie Bruce Almighty: “God is a mean kid sitting on an anthill with a magnifying glass, and I’m the ant. He could fix my life in five minutes if he wanted to, but he’d rather burn off my feelers and watch me squirm.” This god is all-powerful but not all-loving, and so chooses to use his power to pour out wrath.

God as non-protector

The Non-Protector-God is inattentive, abandoning, distant, cold, disinterested, and absent. This is the god of Deism, the grand watchmaker who set the world into motion and watches bemusedly to see how everything works out. This god is all-powerful but not all-present, and so he is unavailable when he is needed the most.

God as victim

The Victim-God is impotent and unreliable. This is akin to gods of ancient pagan religions who each had a specific realm of operation and power. This god may have power in a church or Frank Peretti books, but when it comes to real abuse in the home he simply responds, “That’s not my area.” This god is completely restricted, barred, and contained by the free will of his creation, and in the case of abuse he is completely stymied by the will of the Abuser. This god is all-present but not all-powerful, and so while he is present with the victimized, he can do nothing to shield them from the sadistic will of the Abuser.

God as Messiah

You’re probably thinking, “Oh, this is the RIGHT one,” because, after all, Jesus is the Messiah. One would expect a Messiah-God to be positive, but seen through the lens of the traumatic abuse cycle, God’s messianic nature becomes distorted. This Messiah-God (as opposed the real, biblical one) has impossible expectations of his people, twisting into a performance-oriented god of conditional love. This is a “Santa Claus” god who demands that we be good little boys and girls, lest we find coal in our stockings. This god, like the Abuser-God, is all-powerful but not all-loving, and though he does not pour out wrath, he certainly withholds his love. This god will swoop in to shield the Victim but heap guilt on them in the process, and threaten to abandon the Victim when the going gets really tough. Keep in mind that these are distorted views of God, and in this case the Messiah is not a Messiah at all.

Most abused persons will identify God as one of these four distortions and are likely to find isolated scriptures, sermons, or experiences to reinforce their perception. Each of these gods are false and idolatrous, and, worst of all, contained within the system of abuse. As spiritual guides, we must identify and renounce these distorted attachments in our own theology as well as that of our students, and be courageous enough to explore the source of these attachments and how they’ve been reinforced.

Help both Abusers and Victims to ask “outside the box” spiritual questions and get in touch with the mystery of the true God who cannot be contained. But remember that we must know where students are coming from before we can take them where we are going.

For more insights about our pain and theodicy (God and the problem of evil), see Jude Tiersma Watson’s article “Your pain: Six lenses to help.

Dustin Perkins

Dustin is a former (and future) pastor who recently graduated from Fuller Seminary with a Master of Divinity in Youth, Family, and Culture. He spent four years as a youth pastor in California and now currently resides in Dallas, Texas, working with an organization that connects mentally ill and chronically homeless people to permanent housing.

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