I have recently been reminded of the long-term effects parents have on their children. Sometimes those effects can be really wonderful. Other times, there can be damage that lasts a lifetime. During my adult years I have sometimes been surprised by the abused suffered by my friends at the hands of their parents. Not surprisingly, many have struggled spiritually, as well as emotionally, because of the things they experienced. As I thought of this, I remembered something I learned many years ago.
For a time during my youth, we had sister missionaries serving in our ward. One sister was very dynamic. She was passionate about the gospel and very enthusiastic in everything she did. Sometimes she pushed the limits on mission rules but there was no doubt as to the strength of her testimony. She also did not hide the fact that she had a very sordid past and that she had been a very different person before her conversion.
One Sunday, she and her companion were asked to teach the youth Sunday School class. This sister missionary shared some of her past, including her time in foster care due to severe abuse from her father. When she began taking the discussion from the missionaries, she struggled with one concept in particular. The missionaries kept telling her that we have a Heavenly Father "just like we have a father on earth." They asked her to imagine what Heavenly Father might be like and how she would feel in his presence. She said she was terrified! She could only imagine someone who wanted to hurt her. She could not imagine a loving Father who cared about her.
She explained that she had to get to know Heavenly Father in a very personal way. She had to think of him as different from her earthly father. When she was able to do that, she was able to feel the love Heavenly Father has for her and that is when her life changed.
This story was very touching and memorable for me, not because I had shared her experiences, but because they were very foreign to me. As I got older I met others who had suffered in ways that this sister missionary had. Sometimes they handled it very well, sometimes they didn't. Each time I learned of these abuses, I thought of her story.
In the conversation that inspired this post, a comment was made that "everyone has issues with their parents". I kind of laughed at that. I want to say it isn't true but it is. The issues might be small and easily worked out but they are still there. It is part of life. We all have to learn to live with real, fallible human parents, who will irritate and pester and make mistakes, even when they are trying their very best.
I have noticed in myself that I sometimes do what the sister missionary did; I apply the characteristics of my earthly parents to my Heavenly Father. I may see my relationship with him in the same way I see my earthly relationship. Sometimes it takes me a little while to realize what I have done. I have to correct that mindset.
No offense to my parents but there are some things they can't do for me. There are things they can't help me with or don't understand. Heavenly Father is not limited as they are. He knows everything I am going through. I don't have to catch him up on my life or explain myself. I can just say "I need help. What do I do?" and he will always give me the very best advice I can hope for. He will always be there for me, no matter what.
I have been working with the Primary children the past few months. During our leadership training we were told to emphasize this very concept. There are very likely children sitting in our Primary classes right now who are being mistreated at home. They need to know that there are people in the world who love them. It is our job as Primary leaders to teach them of the love their Heavenly Father has for them and to be examples of that love.
What a humbling responsibility! When I was set apart for this calling, I was told that the smile or hug they get at church might be the only one they get all week. I look at the children each Sunday and wonder what is going on in their lives. Sometimes I can feel the hurt in that room, I just don't know who it is coming from. My deepest hope is that I can live up to the task I have been given and plant the seeds of testimony in the hearts of those children.
I know it might sound contradictory to say that we have a loving Father in Heaven who will help us overcome abuse. We might wonder why he lets the abuse happen in the first place. There are many reasons. They are similar to the reasons we suffer at all in this life. Ultimately, the reasons don't matter much. What matters is that we turn to our Heavenly Father for help and that we trust in him to help us overcome whatever challenges we are facing. He is our Father. He loves us all. And he is the most perfect parent.