Thursday, April 23, 2015

Where Was God?

Over the years I have been asked “where was God in all your abuse?” It is a legitimate question. And one I have thought about a lot. It’s been said that three of the most important questions in one’s life are who God is, who you are, and who you are in relationship to God. My answers to those three questions are critical to the way I understand where God was in my abuse.

For my growing up years I didn’t really think about God much at all as it related to my father abusing me. My father, as far as I can tell, spent a lot of time just scaring the heck out of us by talking about all the ways God was judging the world and judging us. My father made sure we were always off kilter and always feeling guilty, always looking over our shoulder for God’s wrath or our father’s. My father instilled constant fear in us and basically I was afraid of God. My sole purpose in life for years was to stay one step ahead of my father and not get caught! Because to get caught by my father meant I was to get beaten. I felt the same way about God. I think our home was truly a cult compound. Maybe more like a prison or work camp. Our entire goal was not to get screamed at or beaten and then to get up the next day and try not to get beaten again.

When I finally escaped the cult I was under the impression, thanks to my father’s weekly preaching on this subject that any who left were going to hell and probably were going to be zapped into a grease spot. So all I cared about for a number of years was to figure out how to live my life. I had gotten very little training in our family on the basics of being an adult. And I hoped God would not zap me into a grease spot as I tried to learn to be an adult.

When I finally began my journey of healing years later part of it happened under the care of some very special guys in a church I was attending. My father had spent years saying everyone else had “gotten it wrong” when it came to God and how to live life. What these men taught me was something very different from what I learned from my father. These men taught me that God loved me and others, with a profound love, and that I was a worthwhile human being who deserved to be shown love and respect and friendship. This was completely foreign to me.

These men were helping me with the answers to all three of these fundamental questions about life as they simply lived out being humble, loving Christians. It honestly about blew my mind as each time I interacted with them I had to “undo” the tapes in my brain where my father had said everybody else in the world was wrong and that God hated everybody. These men hated nobody and were taking the time to reach out to me as a young man, very much in need of a caring father figure.

Over time I began to believe the things these men were telling me. And I dug into the Bible and learned that they were right. That God does indeed have a profound love for people that is akin to the best earthly father you could even dream of and then magnified beyond imagining.

The time I had with these men was wonderful since I was essentially being “deprogrammed” from my father’s brainwashing and hatred. With the truth slowly sinking into my brain I began to think about how God’s love for me was still true during the abuse itself. That was something I hadn’t thought about growing up under my father’s teaching. There was no way I would have concluded there was a loving God who cared very much about me being abused as a little boy, but as an adult man who was in the process of healing the question could not be escaped.

If God loved me how was it possible that He stood on the sidelines and saw me being abused, my mom being abused, and some of my “target” siblings being abused far worse than I ever had. How could His love be reconciled, at all, with the abuse? And for that matter how could any wrong thing that was done on the planet toward people be reconciled with God’s love? How could rape and kidnapping and murder and abuse be reconciled with God’s love for people?

Well, before long I had to come to grips with several important truths. The evil that was being perpetrated in abuse and wrong doing was one human being against another. It was never perpetrated by God. It was just not stopped by Him. So, I had to grapple with the obvious reality of our ability to exercise free will. I believe free will is a gift God gave to people and it is a reflection of who He is.

My father mocked the idea of free will but he was mistaken. (I have no idea how he didn’t see his daily tirades of anger and abuse against the human race as his own exercise of free will!) The Bible clearly states that we are made in God’s image. So anything God gave to us as humans somehow reflects Him. Free will is a powerful gift. It is essentially the ability to call the shots for your own life, to be the author and creator of your own destiny. It is an enormous gift if you think about it. It can be used for tremendous evil, for tremendous good and everything in between. We are given amazing freedom over our own destiny.

The problem with free will is that God just gave it carte blanche to the whole human race. To people raised with loving parents, and to people who grew up on the streets with no moral compass in their lives. It seems God did not attach an owner’s manual with our free will that would have us only making good choices and never bad ones. Well, okay, I might argue the owner’s manual is the Bible, but even then as we all know, people are free to still make choices that hurt people. We see evidence of this in the news every day. As completely free moral agents we can make choices all day long every day that either harm or help, either bring good or bring evil, either value people or devalue people, either honor or dishonor others. The choices are endless and God allows that.

So, are you okay with that? Well a lot of us aren’t when we first start into this subject. We want God never to allow rape or kidnap or murder. And we don’t want anyone to suffer pain or torture. We would simply have God wipe out evil.

Here’s the problem. There is an evil tendency in each of us. We spend our lives trying to convince ourselves this is not so, but if we have lived on this planet we are well aware of the wretched things we think and the wretched things we do . . . on a very regular basis. We may be able to hide our sin and our junk from others for a while. But we can’t hide it from ourselves.

So it occurred to me one day that if God were going to wipe out evil He had to wipe out our free will. ALL of our free wills. And the second He did that humankind would cease to exist. So for Him to get rid of evil He would have to get rid of us! While this is hard to imagine logically there really isn’t a way around that conclusion.

So now back to my abuse. I came to realize the free will of my father was allowed to exist no matter how loud and long he foolishly protested this reality. His free will was allowed to exist to abuse and torture and malign and demean and scream at the 14 of us who my father lived with. And that coupled with a criminal justice and social services system that was not quite ready to deal with my father yet in the 60s and the 70s meant that we in our family had no exit path from the abuse other than to grow up and to leave.

So, did God really love me during my abuse? Yes. I believe with all my heart that He did. And that He was as heartbroken as I was over my father’s exercise of his free will in such a mean, criminal, abusive way.

If any of you who are parents think about your role with your own children, in some ways it is similar to this predicament God has placed Himself in by allowing free will. I think pondering my role as a daddy has given me some new perspective on God Himself as our Father. We parents cannot protect our children from all harm and pain and cruelty as much as we would like to. So when something bad happens to our child and they look up at us with an angry or scared face that says “Dad, why didn’t you protect me from that?” our hearts break. We cannot protect our children from all harm. We do our best, but that is all we can do. What we can offer our children is to be with them THROUGH their lives and their pain. Not to protect but to come alongside. And hang on for as long as it takes. That is a hard realization for any parent, and when God made the world it was probably a hard realization for Him too. And I believe He has intense empathy and compassion for the injustice and pain and abuse that is perpetrated on every single precious child He made.

So how did this help me as I looked back over my abuse? Well it helped me as I thought through the gift of free will. We tend to look only on the downside of free will. We think of war and torture and cruelty and we just want it ended. We don’t tend to think about free will on the upside. The upside could include the beauty of music, the writing of a wonderful book, the creation of the Internet, the making of a vaccine that saved millions or the drawing of a sweet picture by your 3 year old. Free will includes the sum of all the human race has ever done or ever will do. Some people will live selfishly and go for fame and fortune with no concern for their fellow man. Some will behead people and put those deeds on the Internet. Others will climb to amazing heights to help other people to recover from Ebola. All of the deeds of mankind come from our amazing ability to use and direct the free will God gave us.

So, I see free will as a gift. I saw my father exercise his immense gifts and talents in people-crushing ways. What a sad realization that was for me! And I had to live through it and attempt to climb out of the deep hole it made for my life. But, I was also able to exercise my free will to heal, to overcome the desperately sick and wrong things my father taught me and choose to live a different kind of life. I have also chosen to live my life now with God at my side every step of the way. I have raised two amazing daughters with my wife and had a business and been part of wonderful, beautiful opportunities to help people. Just because my father exercised his free will in such reprehensible and ultimately terribly sad ways, does not take away my joy in getting to exercise my free will gift. And I hope the sin and destructiveness of others doesn’t keep you from using your free will in courageous and life giving ways.

I hope as you who have been abused look at your lives you will wrestle with all that has hurt you and especially the way you see God, yourself and your relationship with God. Dig in and stay with it until you find yourself and I hope, find your God. But in the processing I hope you also see your life as a totality. You are far more than the worst abuse that ever happened to you. You are a precious, amazing, beautiful creation of God and He loves you so, so much! And He delights to see the way you exercise your free will. It is yours to use as you see fit. And you can do amazing things with it, amazing things for yourself and for others. Blessings to you in the exercise of it!

Mark Phelps

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