Dear Father John, I tend to have a perfectionist personality combined with the cross of scrupulosity. My family of origin does love me but it wasn’t the best environment growing up so I really lack in understanding of a loving father figure hence having trouble seeing God as a loving and forgiving father. I am pretty sure that I have made peace with my past and have forgiven those who have hurt me so how then do I start to see God the Father in the proper way and have a relationship with a loving God and not the “police man ready to punish me” God that I seem to have? How do I learn and practice trust which I really have trouble with? Any suggestions that you have will be greatly appreciated. Thanks again for all of your work on this great website.
This beautiful question reminds me of a quotation from the Catechism that I have often reflected on. I would like to share it with you before offering some suggestions for continuing this discovery of God’s fatherhood in your life (I say “continuing” because it’s clear from your question that the Holy Spirit has already been working deeply to open your heart to God’s gentleness and strength). Here is #239 from the Catechism (emphasis added):
By calling God “Father”, the language of faith indicates two main things: that God is the first origin of everything and transcendent authority; and that he is at the same time goodness and loving care for all his children. God’s parental tenderness can also be expressed by the image of motherhood, which emphasizes God’s immanence, the intimacy between Creator and creature. The language of faith thus draws on the human experience of parents, who are in a way the first representatives of God for man. But this experience also tells us that human parents are fallible and can disfigure the face of fatherhood and motherhood. We ought therefore to recall that God transcends the human distinction between the sexes. He is neither man nor woman: he is God. He also transcends human fatherhood and motherhood, although he is their origin and standard: no one is father as God is Father.
Acts of Faith, Hope, and Love
In a sense, we have a built in idea of what fatherhood ought to be. This instinct enables to recognize the shortcomings of our own parents even before we learn explicitly about the Bible and God’s self-revelation. This opens to the door to an initial suggestion for you: consciously make acts of faith, hope, and love. You know that God’s goodness is immense, unlimited, and uncontaminated by any self-centeredness or brokenness. You also know that he knows and loves you personally. These are simply tenets of our Catholic faith that you have received through the grace of baptism. This knowledge can grow in intensity and spread from your mind into your heart, your will, and even your emotions, if you exercise it. One way of exercising it is through the vocal prayers traditionally called “acts of faith, hope, and love.” These are short prayers we say in order to praise God for his goodness and reaffirm our loyalty to him. They can be said in the morning, at night, or even in little snippets of time throughout the day. Saying prayers like these, and really meaning them, exercises our confidence in God, and therefore strengthens it.
You can compose your own acts of faith, hope, and love, using words that resonate with your own experience of God, and with the yearning in your heart to cling to him more closely, more freely (that yearning is from the Holy Spirit). But you can also use prayers composed by others. Here is a list of some traditional acts of faith, hope, and love. Below I will share a morning prayer we use in my Congregation, with some comments (in parentheses) that can, I hope, show you what I mean about how these prayers can exercise our confidence in God:
Prayer to the Father:
Holy Father, it pleased you to create and adopt me
So that I would love and invoke you with total trust, as your child.
(This places us in God’s strong but gentle embrace. Our life comes from him; it is a gift, a personal gift, that implies a desire on his part for my presence, friendship, confidence… It all starts with him, with his immense goodness, the origin of all things.)
I bless you for the love you have shown me
By choosing me in Christ, before the world was made,
To be holy and perfect in your sight.
(This affirms our assurance that God has a plan for our lives. We are not just an accident; we are not lonely wanderers trying to make the best of a meaningless existence; Christ is a savior who involves us in a wonderful and meaningful story, the story of salvation.)
You know my frailty, and how much I need your grace to fulfill your holy will;
So, Father, in your great love, grant me your grace in accordance with my needs.
(This invokes God the Father’s ongoing care for us. He is interested in everything that happens to us and around us. He is involved in our lives. Our sins and weaknesses only increase his solicitude for us and his desire to come to our aid. He will never abandon us.)
Increase in my heart the burning zeal
that will drive me tirelessly to bring everyone to share in the eternal life
that consists in knowing and loving you, the only true God, and the one you sent, Jesus Christ.
(Here we ask God to give us the desires, courage, and wisdom we need to fulfill our life’s mission. Again, God is on our side! He cares about us as the very best of Fathers!)
Grant me, holy Father, the fortitude I need to shun all sin and imperfection,
and do not let me fall into the traps or give in to the temptations
that the evil spirit sets for me today.
(God is also our protector. We invoke this protection and count on it, and it gives us confidence in the midst of life’s struggles and the spiritual battles we face.)
Another prayer that can be used as a powerful act of faith, hope, and love is Psalm 22 (the Good Shepherd Psalm), reproduced at the end of this post.
Christ: The Revelation of God’s Goodness
In addition to making acts of faith, hope, and love, the real shortcut to experiencing more and more deeply the strengthening goodness of God’s Fatherhood consists in focusing on his Son. Jesus came to reveal to us the real nature of God, to show us God’s face after original sin had blinded us and distorted our perception of our Creator and Lord: “The Word became flesh so that thus we might know God’s love” (Catechism, #458)
You will find no better way to grow in your heartfelt knowledge and experience of God’s goodness, of his infinitely tender and attentive love, then by delving into the “unfathomable riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:8). The best way to do this is to make mental prayer (Christian meditation – see this post and this resource) a daily staple of your spiritual life, and to use as the subject of your prayer the four Gospels, or worthy commentaries on those Gospels (like this one or this one, for example). Spiritual reading is another excellent tool for growing in this knowledge (find out more about spiritual reading here).
Of course, contemplating God’s wonders in creation, admiring his marvels in the lives of the saints, and enjoying the many small pleasures that God sends us each day (from sunsets to songs to Swedish Fish) are all avenues to the same destination – these too are manifestations of God’s goodness, of the Father’s love.
A final word about this spiritual quest: be patient. Your question actually touches on a central need of every human heart: the need to rebuild our trust in God. This is the core of the spiritual life, the only path to spiritual maturity and holiness. For this very reason, rehabilitating trust in God is a long process. But that’s okay. Traveling this path is what God wants us to do, and it is in the traveling that we grow, and discover, and gradually experience more and more of the “peace of God, which surpasses all our thinking” (Phil 4:7) – a peace which alone will allow us find the fulfillment God has in store for us.
The Good Shepherd Psalm
The Lord is my shepherd; I have everything I need.
He lets me rest in green meadows; he leads me beside peaceful streams.
He renews my strength.
He guides me along right paths, bringing honor to his name.
Even when I walk through the dark valley of death, I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me.
Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me.
You prepare a feast for me in the presence of my enemies.
You welcome me as a guest, anointing my head with oil.
My cup overflows with blessings.
Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will live in the house of the Lord forever.
(Psalm 23, of King David)
Yours sincerely in Christ , Fr John Bartunek, LC, ThD