When Our Ideas About God Hurt Us

When I was in university, I attended a Baptist church on campus. The people seemed nice, and I appreciated the chance to go somewhere on Sunday mornings instead of hiding out in my dorm room. But even though the worship songs were beautiful, and the people in the pews were warm and caring, I left every service with pain in my heart and tears in my eyes.

I didn’t have a relationship with God. I was raised Protestant, but for most of my life, He felt further away than I could reach. The first time I asked Jesus into my heart, I was four years old. I remember kneeling on my bedroom floor, facing the cool, winter light streaming from the window. I remember not feeling anything, except a vague worry that maybe God didn’t love me because I wasn’t doing it right.

My family stopped going to church when I was twelve. We were going through a lot at the time, and it was just easier not to go. The feeling that God didn’t love me eventually, over the years, turned into a feeling of having been abandoned. I pleaded with Him for more than ten years, not that He would answer my prayers, but that He would say something. Even then, in my heart, I felt an insistent tugging. A voice, saying, “Are you willing to give up everything?” My answer was to run away and hide. After university, the feeling became anger, despair, and finally apathy. I was diagnosed with depression and generalized anxiety disorder a few months later.   

God is the master of plot twists, and in my case, I could never have seen the one He had coming. I moved in with a good friend from high school and started work as a speech therapy assistant at the local school district. As I struggled to overcome the depression with medication and therapy, my friend was there to steady me. As it happened, my friend was Catholic. I continued to spiral until one day the pain became too much to bear. She found me curled up with my back against the kitchen cupboards. Earlier that day, I had almost committed suicide. My friend held me until I stopped crying.

At a loss for what else to do, my friend invited me to Mass with her. I went. And then I kept going. The voices singing around me lifted my soul up to God when I no longer had the energy to do it myself. One Sunday I was kneeling in the pews when something inside me broke. I lifted my hands up to God, the way a child asks to be picked up, and I sobbed. I heard a voice sound in my soul, saying, I love you.

There are a few things I need to say here. I wasn’t a “bad Christian” because I was depressed. And even though I’m now a baptized Catholic who is in love with God and prays every day, I still struggle with depression and anxiety. Emotional problems that took a lifetime to build don’t go away overnight. God didn’t abandon me. In my case, He kept His distance because I wasn’t ready. I neither loved nor trusted Him, and I was terrified of what He might ask me to do. I struggled to understand God, because I had lost the ability to love and trust at all.

Having a warped view of God can put us in a lot of pain.

Father Robert Spitzer, in his book God So Loved the World, lays out a handful of mental distortions that cause us to have incorrect views of God. These are:

  1. “The Payback God”
Close-up of a judge's gavel
Photo by Bill Oxford on Unsplash

The Payback God gives us exactly what we deserve.

What we tell ourselves: “I’m depressed because I’m a horrible person, and God wants nothing to do with me.”

  • “The Disgusted God”
Worm's eye view of a Greek-style building with carvings of the gods. Stormy grey clouds overhead.
Photo by Sebastian Pichler on Unsplash

The Disgusted God is impatient with our faults and lack of spiritual progress.

What we tell ourselves: “I have to try harder, or He won’t love me anymore.”

  • “The Stoic God”
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The Stoic God isn’t sympathetic. He calls us whiny, and pathetic, and asks when we’ll start pulling up our socks.

What we tell ourselves: “Everyone’s problems are bigger than mine. I have no right to feel like this.” 

  • “The Competitor God”
Photo by Svyatoslav Romanov on Unsplash

The Competitor God looks at all we’ve tried to do and shakes his head.

What we tell ourselves: “I should be ashamed of myself. I’m so selfish. I mess everything up.”

  • “The Fearsome God”
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The Fearsome God demands dread and terror. He delivers punishment from a cold and untraversable distance. We despair of ever pleasing this kind of god.  

What we tell ourselves: “God dealt me this hand in life. He must hate me.”

When I healed enough to take stock of the things in my heart, it dawned on me that I struggled to relate to God because I was afraid of him! I was trying to force my heart to obey Someone that it neither loved nor trusted. God is not so pushy. We can say, “I struggle to love you,” or “I can’t trust you right now”. Our heart knows when it’s not being listened to. Relationships, even one with God, take time. Ask Him to begin His work to heal your heart, and then wait in that safe space. God will answer. And He will approach you in a way that you can understand. He knows all of your quirks, how you think, what you’re afraid of, and how that makes you feel. He loves you.

This is painful stuff. Sometimes it helps to talk it over with an understanding friend, or a counselor if you are comfortable seeing one. One of the hardest things about healing is that you can’t always see the path ahead. At times all we can do is live, day by day. And that’s okay. One of my closest friends explains her healing beautifully: “It’s like God rebuilt my foundation while I wasn’t looking.”

We are destined for a higher joy than even the depth of our pain can match. Hold on. Help is coming.

Are you struggling with thoughts of suicide? Visit the I Need Help page under the Depression section to see a list of numbers you can phone. You aren’t alone.

Helpful Books:

Spitzer, Robert. God So Loved the World, Ignatius Press, 2016.

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