The following is an article published in God Is Faithful: Stories That Inspire
I work with children who have disabilities. It isn’t what I planned when I graduated from school, but it is where I ended up through circumstances and the hand of God. I’ve worked in a program setting with children with severe autism and worked in the school system with children with various diagnosis from Fragile X to cerebral palsy. I have also run a private business for many years tutoring, coaching and teaching life skills to children with disabilities from Down syndrome to Asperger’s. I don’t mention this because I am looking for work because the needs are endless.
Whether I started working with the family when their child was three or twelve, and regardless of nationality or religion, every mother said to me, “My child is broken.” These mothers are universally without hope and resigned to the prospect of forever being caregivers. The dreams and hopes they possessed when they carried their children lay shattered in pieces smaller than dust.
Most blame themselves and say, “I must have done something to deserve this.” Or, “I must have done something evil in a previous life.” Somehow we see God as an angry judge not only ready to dole out punishment, but also dealing out lifelong hardship to make us pay for our sin or the sin of an ancestor. Because of bad teaching, many Christians believe this. They have become so sin conscious that they believe they deserve every bad thing that happens.
Now I am not promoting sin or excusing it. Things we do can have devastating consequences. Unfortunately, often we give a nod to the idea that God loves us but, in our hearts, we believe that God is angry with us. We see him like an angry father ready to take his fury out on us. If not that, we see God as measuring out punishment to keep us forever repenting and trying to earn his favour through our giving, service to others, and time spent reading the Bible and praying. You’ll know this is you if you ever started a prayer by saying, “I am sorry I did not do more…”
A few years ago, I worked in a situation where my co-worker was a bully. Every day she found ways to put me down. She continually let me know that I did not measure up. I tried to please her and worked harder and harder, but I always fell short. I found myself continually apologizing to her. My conversations sounded like some of my prayers, “I am sorry I did not do more…” I spent my days in dread. Talking to her seemed like walking on eggshells because I never knew when she would make me pay for something I did or didn’t do. She acted like I had a “hurt me” sign taped to my back. The longer I worked with her, the more I thought I deserved what she doled out.
Our Heavenly Father is not a bully. Jesus came to reveal his father as a God of love. He came to make a way for his father to become our father. Jesus told a story of a son who demanded his inheritance, then squandered it, and yet his father waited for him to return. When the son finally came back home, the father did not make him pay or treat him as less than a well-loved son.
I always felt a little jealous of the prodigal son because his father demonstrated love. My experience growing up didn’t include unconditional love. My father doled out judgement whether I deserved it or not. I paid the price if my brothers misbehaved. He took it out on me if he had a bad day at work. So in my head, I gave ascent that the Heavenly Father is loving and forgiving, but loving and forgiving to the lucky ones, and I wasn’t one of those. I guess this is why I let people bully me. I grew up believing I deserved abuse.
People with children with disabilities don’t see themselves as lucky, either. Often they believe the lie that God is punishing them. However, soon they ask the questions, “What did my child do to deserve this?” and “Why is God punishing my child?” Even when we believe God is just in punishing us, we still have a hard time accepting a just God would make innocent children pay. We have a hard time reconciling a loving God being unloving towards us. This results in a spiritual disconnect.
When this disconnect happens, some people throw God out the window. They say things like, “I’ll never measure up so why try.” “God has abandoned me.” “I can’t go on pretending everything is fine when I am in church.” “God loves the lucky ones. He doesn’t love me.” Or, “God hates me.” Some say, “There can’t be a God, when all these bad things happen.”
I get that. I grew up going to church. Every day my father read the Bible at the table for family devotions after supper, and yet I wished I had a different father. A huge gulf existed between what he said and what I saw, so I grew up in a Christian family believing God hated me. I saw God based on my earthly father. When I left home, my father told me I was no longer his daughter and not to bother coming back. My father read the Bible every day and yet only saw God as a God of wrath. He portrayed God the way he understood God.
Since I left home, I learned that bad things happen to bad people. Bad things happen to mostly bad people. Bad things happen to somewhat good people and also to amazingly wonderful people. “If God isn’t judging me, why is my child broken?” you ask. I could tell you it is because of bad luck or bad genetics. And we can blame the bad luck and bad genetics on polluted water or lack of nutritional value in our food or the side-effects of medication. We can blame trauma in the womb or during birth. Instead, I tell people we live in a fallen world. We are all damaged spiritually, emotionally and physically.
When I read in the Gospels of parents bringing their children to Jesus for him to lay hands on them, I don’t picture happy smiling parents bringing playful children. I picture the desperate and broken families I worked with over the years. And Jesus says to them, “The kingdom of heaven is made of your children and children just like them. Raising them isn’t your cross to bear because I already paid the price when I went to the cross. Raising these who are most precious to me is highest honor I can bestow.”
Needless to say, after I left home I discovered the love and grace of Jesus so I stopped seeing Father God as an extension of my own father. I am happy to tell you I had the privilege of introducing my Dad to the love of God. He became a different man and we became close friends. We reconnected with each other and with God.
My father was a great dad yet I promised myself I would never be like him. My dad took me hunting and fishing. In the summer, I spent days with him at his work. He took the family camping and on road trips to see new places. He laughed freely and told funny stories that had everyone in stitches. He was one of the most compassionate men I ever met. Now I do want my children saying all of those things about me, however, my father was broken, and that had an effect on me.
The doctor diagnosed my father with leukemia when he was fifty-years old but, my father was ill from the time he turned fifteen. He got terrible headaches where the dimmest light hurt his head and every noise sounded like someone banging a bass drum. In my growing up years, he spent a lot of time in a dark room trying to sleep off the migraine and I spent a lot of time outside, preferably nowhere close to home.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I learned to see God like my dad. When God spent time with me, nothing could be better. Then there were times where I shouldn’t bother God. He wasn’t available. My little trouble or my recent discovery wasn’t something I should talk to him about. It seemed like a large do-not-disturb sign stood between me and my Heavenly Father. After a while, I prayed only in emergencies.
I’m not blaming my father for having leukemia. When he was a teenager, a doctor said to his parents, “Your son has a very square jawbone. We have a medical miracle that can fix that so he looks normal.” As my grandparents did not want their son called abnormal, they said yes to treatment. The doctor shot radiation into either side of my father’s jaw until the bone shrunk. The radiation reshaped my father’s jaw while it destroyed his bone marrow. Soon afterward, he began having headaches, a symptom of the disease that eventually took his life.
In a lot of ways my father acted like his father although, like me, he probably swore to do better. For example, when I was a child my father never told me, “I love you.” I heard those words for the first time when I was 31 and my father and I were in the middle of an argument. It came out something like this, “I don’t agree with what you are doing, but I still love you.” Those words floored me. He actually said he loved me. Before LeeAnne and I had children, I told her that I would say those words to our children every chance I got. I asked my father sometime later why he never told me he loved me. He answered, “You are just supposed to know. My father never said those words to me so I never said them to you.”
I saw God like my dad. He loved me and I was supposed to know it. However, my father never gave direct compliments either. Apparently, he feared compliments would fill his children with pride. Instead, when I did something good, my father would tell my brother, “Gary did such a great job. I am so proud of him.” My father often told me me how happy he felt with my brother’s accomplishments. I’m sure my brother hated me because he thought Dad loved me and not him. And I tried and tried to please my father, but I knew he only loved my brother. So I believed God loved me a little. After all, I was his child, but he loved my brothers and sisters more.
Then God broke into my life with multiple miracles, signs and wonders and shattered my misconceptions of Father God’s love for me. Although I promised I would never be like my father, I discovered I really only wanted to be more like my Papa God.
The doctor gave my dad five years to live when they found the cancer, but my father lived more than twenty more years. In that time, he told me many times that he loved me. And my children heard those words from him, too. Not everyone gets the disconnects in their lives repaired, but we can take Jesus at his word. His father is our father, and he loves us.
Gary and LeeAnne Dyck co-authors of Miracles: Your impossible is Possible and The Beauty of Israel in Photos
Gary Dyck author of Bears, Bobsleds and Other Misadventures and The Photographer’s Will