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The most exciting day of my five-year-old life came when my father asked me whether I would like to steer his panel truck while he “rested” his arm.

Dad kept the truck parked in our driveway in rural Maine, and I loved playing in it. I’d stand in the driver’s seat making loud truck noises: “Va-ROOOOOM! Va-ROOOOOM,” pretending to race behind our fireman neighbor as he rushed to the local volunteer firehouse.

On the exciting day Dad let me “drive” the truck, I sat on a fat pillow in his lap so that I could see the dirt road ahead over the steering wheel. My heart pounded. I held the wheel in a death grip!

“I’ll control the brake, clutch, and gas pedal while you steer,” my dad said as he slowly moved the truck out into the middle of the road. I didn’t pay any attention when he “rested” his left hand on the steering wheel. I felt safe and secure as we drove slowly over the bumpy road because I knew my father was present and wouldn’t let anything go wrong.

Mine was a common experience for boys growing up in the 1940s and ’50s. Years later, however, while thinking about this warm memory with my father, I realized this story had crept up, unnoticed in my mind, to become the guiding metaphor for my faith in God as a Father.

Historic images of God the Father

Images of God the Father have fallen on hard times in recent decades, even in the church. Pastoral and parental sexual abuse have given the word father a bitter flavor that too many choke on. Some insist that the term God the Father has reached its “sell-by” date, so we need more generic terms that aren’t so blatantly patriarchal or ground under from the crushing power of male domination.

Some religions have produced a grotesque and savage portrait of a god who demands human sacrifices to appease his wrath. In some of these religions parents have even surrendered their children to be burned alive or tossed into shark-infested waters to feed the fury of a diabolical deity!

Other religions have taught that God is remote, totally disengaged, and absolutely disinterested in human affairs. There’s no real meaning for life other than what we decide to make of this obscure riddle with no coherent answer. We’re left alone, alienated, and full of despair in a hostile and unpredictable world to get by as best we can until we achieve our final goal: death.

But can we change these unfortunate concepts of God? Is it possible for those of us who hold these warped ideas about Him to come to view Him as the compassionate Being He really is? The answer is, Yes!

Teens wrestle with these questions

I spent ten years as a primary therapist at a Christian hospital that had an acute inpatient unit for adolescents. I worked with kids suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts brought on by years of neglect, abandonment, and every sort of mental, sexual, and physical abuse imaginable.

Most of the children, at least initially, were openly hostile to what they considered meaningless God-talk and Bible texts that well-meaning adults had pounded into them. Other therapists viewed this topic as something to be avoided altogether or to get through as fast as possible.

After the first day, my patients knew I wouldn’t censor them for anything they said in our group sessions as long as what they said reflected how they truly felt or thought.

One evening, as part of my topic for the group, I asked the kids to tell me what words popped into their minds when I said “Hope in God the Father.” I knew these words would make some of them uncomfortable, because many of them in this particular group were militant atheists—at least on the surface.

One 15-year-old girl was blunt as a hammer: “I hate God,” she snapped. “God is mean and violent. He kills people if they break any of His rules. I don’t doubt that God exists, but I don’t want Him near me. He must really hate teenagers because according to all the adults in our lives, we can’t do anything right!”

Then there’s this from one of the older boys: “What about this doctrine of a burning hell for people who forget to ask God’s forgiveness? Who wants to be around a Father God who can’t wait to deep-fat fry us in His heavenly lake of Wesson oil?”

Another male patient admitted that he didn’t know what to think of God because He didn’t have all that much to do with his daily life.

A shy 17-year-old girl, who rarely spoke out, said, “Do you believe God ever speaks to us directly sometimes?”

“Yes, I do,” I replied, “but why do you pose this question?”

She went on to explain that she was praying one night and asked God, “Why can’t I have a good daddy? (Her father was in prison for molesting her.) Then I heard these words as clearly as I’m speaking to you: ‘What am I: chopped liver?’ God has been my daddy ever since. If we’re not crazy, what does something calling our names mean?”

I paused to think a moment, then responded, “I suspect that, unlike adults, teens are more open to hearing God voice. He calls you by your name because you are precious to Him, your life matters to Him, and He will never leave your side. I believe God brings us the comfort of His Word during awful times so that we won’t feel so alone and helpless.”

I was a little unnerved when several of the kids began rubbing their eyes to hold back tears.

Excluding psychotics and schizophrenics, most of the kids I’ve had in group therapy over the years also claim they’ve heard “Something” speak to them. It’s usually their name. I’ve also heard the same story from adult patients, but they rarely tell anybody because they’re afraid people will think they’re crazy.

In spite of poor father models and little religious education, teens have a rich imagination. They love stories—especially fantasy, like Lord of the Rings or C. S. Lewis’s book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe—and they’re open to secrets and mysteries. They’re enchanted by a story that grips their imagination. I used “story theology” as a regular part of therapy, telling stories by using the language of daily conversation about the Holy and Sacred.

If you dig deeper, behind irreligious teen bravado (or adult, for that matter) you’ll find an aching need to be wrong about the God they’ve come to believe in. They want to believe in God, but too many of their fathers and other adult males have beaten the real “picture” of Him out of their minds, both literally and figuratively.

In spite of my kids’ claim to be atheists, C. S. Lewis books and stories about the journey and struggles of young people were always checked out of our hospital library.

What about Jesus?

I also wanted my kids to know about Jesus. “Consider this,” I said one evening as I opened the Bible to John’s Gospel: “ ‘Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” ’ Jesus shocked the disciples with His answer. He said, ‘Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”?’ ” (John 14:8, 9).

There was a stunned silence. The kids got the significance of what I’d just read but didn’t know what to say.

“Jesus, God the Father, and the Holy Spirit are one and the same. We refer to it as the Trinity.” I explained that this is a profound mystery we can know only by faith in God through Christ.

“How can that be true?” one of the girls asked after some thought. “Jesus is so cool. He was really good to people, even children. I can’t imagine Him getting so ticked off that He’d go around killing millions and millions of people. The only people He singled out for a tongue lashing were the hypocrites and people who He thought were dangerous for young people. He even said millstones, which can weigh hundreds of pounds, should be hung around their necks as they are cast into the sea as punishment for hurting kids.”

A boy remarked, “I like Jesus from what I’ve heard, but I don’t know all that much about Him.”

“Then let’s continue the conversation with hope in God, the Father, in Christ,” I suggested.

The subsequent conversation was long, lively, and loud! It went on for two hours because they didn’t want to stop exploring ideas about God that left them more hopeful for the future but also with some anxiety because they were afraid that maybe the whole thing was nothing but talk.

The group ended on a high note when I asked the girl who kicked off the conversation to read chapters 13–17 from the Gospel of John. Teens love stories in general so, for them, “story theology” gripped their imaginations and left them fired up and wanting to go an extra hour talking and playing with ideas about God.

To conclude the group that evening, I told them the story about my father holding me in his lap and allowing me to steer the truck. “That,” I said, “is how I experience God the Father’s hand on my life and yours all the time: His hand never leaves the wheel.

What Is God Like?

by Jeris Bragan
From the August 2018 Signs