It can be difficult to grasp God’s love for us. For many, the love of Jesus comes through loud and clear, but God the Father often seems distant or looming. God’s attributes—including love—aren’t like human traits that strengthen or weaken nor are they like moods that come and go. God is all of his attributes perfectly, all the time. And yet, we still struggle to believe it can be true, that this great God can love us messy and stumbling sinners. Sometimes we don’t feel his love on a day-to-day basis like we desire, so walls of doubt begin to shut him out. Other times we unwittingly read the Word not through the lens of his love and grace to us in Christ, but through tinted lens of condemnation and guilt.
As believers, knowing God as a loving God is at the heart of our faith. When we see him as loving, faithful, and trustworthy, we will trust in and rest in him. But when we doubt, question, or feel uncertain about his love, it leads to everything from lack of assurance to anxiety to insecurity. It seems like experiencing God’s love should be easy, but it’s often not. Before getting to examples of God’s fatherly love (future posts coming), consider a few of the hindrances and obstacles to receiving God’s love.
Hindrances to Knowing God as a Loving Father
Satan wants to undermine our view of God.
Undermining and warping our view of and trust in God as our good Father was Satan’s original temptation for humanity in the Garden and he continues to tempt us like this today. Our enemy’s tactics are the same today as they were in the Garden (Gen. 3). He wants to stir up in us mistrust about God’s goodness, kindness, love, and care for us. He wants to plant seeds of doubt about whether God will provide, if God truly loves us, if God sees and knows what we’re going through, or if God has good plans for us. Satan tempts us toward sin by telling us lies about God our Father. He twists the words of God and sows seeds of doubt about God in order to turn our hearts away from him.
Read Genesis 3:1–7 and notice how the devil raises doubts about what God said (3:1). The serpent subtly suggests God would not say such a thing because to do so would restrict their freedom, hold them back, or keep them from something good.
Capitalizing on the seeds of doubt about God’s goodness and wisdom he planted, Satan moves to outright denial of God’s authority in their life (3:4). He then lies and creates mistrust about the nature of God’s character and his concern for them as Father (3:5). With a two-forked tongue, he whispers into their ears something like this thought: “If God loves you then he won’t tell you that you can’t do something. He’s not looking out for your best interest. He just wants to keep you under his authority. He’s not providing something you need or something that can truly make you happy and change your life. How can a little taste of something God made be that bad for you?” The enemy wants us to think God’s boundaries are too restrictive and there’s something out there that can make us happy he’s not telling us about.
There’s always a connection between our theology—what we think about God—and our actions, whether we trust and obey God or don’t trust him and go our own way. Adam and Even believe Satan’s lies about God, that he’s not a perfect Father, that he’s not provided everything they need, that he’s withholding good, and that they need to step out of his parental boundaries to be happy. This misinformed view of God is the seed that sprouts into rotten fruit of unbelief, idolatry, and sin.
We should recognize from our own lives and temptations that Satan’s tactics remain the same. He wants to create in us mistrust about God’s goodness or care for us. He wants to sow kernels of doubt about whether God will provide or if God truly loves you. He operates the realm of raising little questions, doubts, confusion, and misunderstanding that undermine the goodness and kindness of God. Satan’s acidic lies about God can eat away at our faith and trust, causing us to distance ourselves from God rather than drawing near.
“The lie of the serpent in the Garden of Eden was that God is an uncaring Father and so we should go it alone. Satan didn’t dispute the existence of God nor his power. The lie was that God doesn’t care. All the evidence was to the contrary. God had placed Adam and Eve in a place of security and plenty—and given them the fruit of every tree except one. His provision was complete. Yet humanity believed the lie that God is distant and uncaring. We still do. Still today, says Jesus, our problem is that we lack faith (v 28). We don’t believe God cares. We think of him as distant. We see this world as unfathered.” Tim Chester, Enjoying God
Importing onto a perfect God our experiences from imperfect people.
While we can think wrongly about our heavenly Father because of earthly figures we then project onto God, this can be true of religious leaders, bosses, grandparents, principals, friends, trusted family members, or really anyone, it especially happens from parents, dads in particular.
“Undealt with wounds from the past can limit and distort our experience of God’s love. Like a broken bone that was never set, a broken heart, in time, can throw everything out of whack and define how we walk or limp through life and the knowledge of God. It is as we learn the relationship between our sinfulness and our woundedness that we begin to understand how our hearts serve, as John said, as ‘idol factories.’ We create substitutes for the love of God and the God of love.” Scotty Smith, Objects of His Affection
Part of the challenge is many of us get our view of God in part from authority figures in our life. That might be a parent, grandparent, a boss, a pastor, or some other leader. Sometimes the way they treated you, their expectations, and their relationship with you is imported to what God must be like and it creates barriers in how we relate to God. If your father was angry you might see God as angry. If your parents, your pastor, or your boss were demanding and only showed you kindness when you earned it then you might relate to God by your works rather than grace. If a trusted person abused or abandoned you, it can shade your view of God so you don’t trust him or you wonder if he will abandon or hurt you too. If your father never expressed affection toward you or you never felt secure in his love, then you can always be insecure in your view of how God must treat you and think of you. None of this has to be the case, but it can happen. Unless we’re intentional about recognizing how parents and other authority figures negatively influence our view of God, we can’t counter with biblical truth and think rightly about God.
In her article, “Absent Dad, Present Father,” Callie Sivils offers some encouragement. “Growing to know God as a Father means dropping our guard and letting the goodness of God heal our wounds. My father has not been present, but my heavenly Father is omnipresent. For some, their father might have put his desires for money, power, or sex over the needs of his family. God, however, is a Father who will never fail us.”
Pain can cloud our thoughts and feelings toward God.
Whether it’s suffering, grief, spiritual doubts and questions, wounds in the faith, past trauma, or other things, these can affect our view of God if ignored or not processed and responded to biblically. It’s not only imperfect earthly people that can distort our view of God, but so can circumstances that we misinterpret, wounds that aren’t dealt with, or doubts and questions about God we never wrestle with from the Bible.
If someone sees suffering in their life as a sign that God isn’t fair, hasn’t protected them, piles on them, or doesn’t care about them, this subtle thought or undealt with concern can grow and grow as the various trials of life continue. As fallen people, we are prone to think of God incorrectly because we do so based on our limited view and understanding, which is why we need Scripture to speak truth to us about who God is. You see this often in the Psalms (like Ps. 73) as David can go down a mental path—”everyone else is blessed despite their sin or God has abandoned me”—before he stops listening to himself and speaks truth to his heart. He reminds himself who God is, what he’s done, what the Scripture says about him, and how David has experienced this in his own life.
“Painful events in life make it difficult for many of us to believe that God is love. The stories of betrayal, abuse, abandonment, chronic pain, and unimaginable suffering cause many to doubt God’s love. We blame God for the evil we see in the world rather than blaming the evil one who reigns as ruler over this temporal earth (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). We have a hard time waiting for the day when God will redeem every fear, heal all sorrow, and make everything new (Revelation 21:1-5).” Scotty Smith, Objects of His Affection
God’s gracious love can seem too good to be true.
Humans are sinful, flawed, and selfish. We largely treat one another according to what we think others deserve. The commerce in human relationships then is works or performance, not grace. When someone does something that feels unkind to me, I’m cold to them. If they speak a harsh word to, I fire one back at them. Rather than giving grace to the unkind or unlovely, I pay out what I think they’ve earned. People love others imperfectly, and often, conditionally, Christians are called to not act this way, and hopefully, you have experiences of being treated with grace rather than works by other believers.
Because all we know is this imperfect human love, we can have a hard time thinking God can love unconditionally, treat us with grace, not hold grudges, or view us with love when we’re unlovely. God’s love can feel foreign because we never experienced anything like it: a love so free and gracious. But God is not sinful, flawed, and limited by the same weaknesses as us. He’s perfectly righteous, holy, kind, patient, and loving. God treats those in Christ according to grace, not works. God’s promises, not our performance, are the basis of God’s unconditional love and kindness toward us. But we need to be honest that because of how humans treat one another, we can have a hard time believing or experiencing God’s grace.
“We sometimes feel as if we’re in the heavenly ‘doghouse.’ Too much of our experience of God’s love is tied to our performance, circumstances, and sense of personal well-being. Like a flat cherry Coke, there isn’t a lot of fizz in our perception of God’s love.” Scotty Smith, Objects of His Affection
Bad theology and unhealthy church cultures.
Several of the prior points hint at how our theology of God affects our relationship with and trust in God. Wrong theology about God—or salvation, sin, the Christian life, etc.—hinders our ability to receive and respond to God’s love. This can happen in small ways, partly due to the fact that the Church doesn’t talk enough about God’s heart, love, and character—though we long to hear more of this. When these things about God are downplayed or assumed, then our view of God can be a little off, and even a slightly skewed view of God (maybe we tend to just think of him as more harsh than gentle) affects how we relate to him. Or rather than letting our theology of God helps us process our circumstances, we interpret who God is by our circumstances.
Let’s say you’re in a legalistic church that makes Christianity about man-made rules, which often turns our view of God into the principal ready to give us a pink-slip for our failures. God’s righteousness is often emphasized more than his mercy, grace, and the provision in Christ, and so the view of God shifts to a God who relates to us based on our performance rather than Christ’s performance. This affects everything, including how we respond to sin, our approach in prayer, how we think God thinks about us, the way we treat others based upon their performance, our pride vs humility, etc. If you’re immersed in this environment for long, your view of God is likely to be a loving Father and more likely to be a rigid boss.
Or consider how American evangelicalism has been affected by the prosperity gospel in ways we might not realize. For many Christians in my circles, if I asked if them if they believed in “health-and-wealth” teaching or the prosperity gospel, they would say, “No” pretty quickly (I hope). But, practically speaking, we can still fall for the lies that make us think we should have our best life now, that if God is for us we will be blessed or prosper in material ways, and that being a Christian must mean life should be a little easier.
I know this is the case because when many of us (including me) suffer, walk through trials, are inconvenienced, or don’t have all the things we want in this life, we can easily talk and think as if God is not holding up his end of the bargain or is being unloving. We too often connect hardship, the annoyances of living in a broken world, or the toil of life to beliefs that maybe God is against me, doesn’t love me, or is harsh. That’s why it’s important to think rightly about God, but also think rightly about the reality of this fallen world, which God’s Word says will include many trials and tribulations, worries and woes. Our “best life now” still awaits us and our hope in this life isn’t ease or prosperity, but God’s presence, kindness, and good plans for us.
Idolatry—crafting the kind of god of we want.
This is another aspect of bad theology. One of man’s recurring sins is that we make gods in our own image. One way we commit idolatry is by constructing our understanding of God around what we want God to be like or think he’s like rather than what the Bible tells he’s like. Our bent to mentally construct our own god requires thinking biblically about what God is really like. If we create a false god in our mind and worship him, then this impacts how we relate to God. This can lead to trusting in a god that’s very different from the true God (such as a God who exists to be our genie but not our king). Or it can lead to not trusting the true God because we think he’s something he’s not or should be doing something different than he is.
“And it is not just that we are quick to replace the living God with gods of our devising: the world is already filled with innumerable, often wildly different candidates for ‘God.’ Some are good, some are not. Some are personal, some are not. Some are omnipotent, some are not.” Mike Reeves, Delighting in the Trinity
Ongoing sin can impact our relationship with God.
This can be true in a few different ways. First, if we have unconfessed, ongoing sin in our life then there is going to be a disruption in the relationship—just like if I sinned against my wife or kids. Our sin doesn’t make God love us more or less, but it does get in the way of the relationship. It causes us to hide. It keeps us from seeing him. It blocks fellowship and communion. Unconfessed sin is a hindrance. It’s like a cloud that fogs our vision of who God is. Confession and repentance that lead to clinging to the gospel are the means by which this relational junk is removed so there’s nothing between us and God.
Sometimes, even when we confess our sin and get rid of the relational junk between us and God, we might still feel guilty or shameful. When we don’t live in the freedom Christ provided but still struggle with guilt, feeling dirty, or feeling unworthy, there can be a deep-seated suspicion that God cannot really love. When we think God feels disdain or disappointment rather than delight—the lie our enemy wants us to believe—it can lead to trying to hide our sin and who we are or just running from and doubting God’s love for us.
A third way sin can be a hindrance is we can be so in love with the world that we think little of or do not experience God’s love. We’re so caught up in pursuing or enjoying all the things of this world that we think God and his love is kind of irrelevant. We want God to bless us and not send us to hell, but the idea of “experiencing his love” might seem a little too much for some people.
To move forward in loving and being loved by God, we must replace our false ideas with biblically saturated truth. Stay tuned for upcoming posts on aspects of God’s fatherly love.