How Relational Expectations Shape our Vision of God

Editor’s Note: Catch our recent conversation with Tatyana, where she unpacks more about expectations in the context of her own incredible story, on The Mudroom Podcast. Click here.

For good or for bad, the relationships we have in our lives create our image of God. These include the important ones like our parents, spouses, and our friends and siblings. These interactions help us understand our value, how relationships work, and are the avenues through which we attach meaning. 

For example, the very first and formative relationship we have is our relationship with parents. Because they are in the role of semi-creators, they have a huge impact on how we attribute self-worth. In an ideal situation, we will have parents who love us, care for us, protect us, and help us develop our abilities and purpose. But, even with well-meaning parents, there are often circumstances beyond anyone’s control that can bring chaos and trauma into a child’s life–illness, accidents, financial challenges, and more can steal a child’s security. These difficulties translate to a warped understanding of God’s love and his omnipotence. If he can’t protect us, can we trust him? If our parents didn’t love us, can anyone, much less God, love us?

The Relationships that Form Us

The parental relationship, while impactful, is not the only type of relationship that forms us. Our personal interactions with peers, siblings, and romantic interests reveal aspects of ourselves we wouldn’t see on our own. People notice our skills and talents and celebrate them. Without the support of others, we wouldn’t be able to develop fully. However, these relationships also point out our traits that can be annoying to others. We learn what needs are “allowed” and what behaviors are rewarded. We try to conform ourselves to the expectations of others in order to earn love and acceptance.

Over and over again, we are taught how we need to change in order to be worthy of love. This translates to our relationship with God as we try to turn ourselves into something that we believe God would value. We struggle to accept that we really could be loved without changing ourselves to meet his qualifications. 

There is no way we can avoid how our relationships affect us. This isn’t unintentional though. Throughout Scripture, God is referred to as a father (Ephesians 4:6, Isaiah 64:8, Psalm 103:13), a mother (Isaiah 66:13, Matthew 23:37, Deuteronomy 32:18), a lover/spouse (Hosea 2:18, Ephesians 5:32, Song of Songs as a metaphor), and a friend (John 15:15, Proverbs 18:24, Revelation 3:20). He knew that we would draw upon our experiences in these relationships in order to understand him. 

Relationships are Important

This understanding helps us see the vast importance of relationships in our lives and how destructive unhealthy ones can be. In my own life, I can see how relationships have shaped and formed me. I was very close to my father, and, even when I was young, he made a point to listen to my opinions, making me feel as though I had important input to offer. Some good friends have helped me take risks, to pursue writing, and feel safe when being vulnerable. 

In contrast, the traumatic events of my childhood have shaped me to see parents as loving but incapable of keeping me safe. My relationships with peers revealed the aspects of me that are unacceptable:  my needs that are annoying or burdensome, and my failures which reveal my inadequacies. This has translated in my relationship with God to view him as well-meaning but, ultimately, not in control. I’ve also come to see that there are parts of me that are undesirable and need to be hidden at all costs. For many years of my faith walk, I have tried hard to be the type of person that I think He would like and been terrified of his rejection when I failed. 

I Am Shaping People’s Understanding of God

I can clearly see how the failures of others have made me doubt my ability to be loved and God’s ability to both protect me and accept me. It would be very easy to camp here and feel sorry for myself also. I am a victim; it’s not my fault. However, I too have been shaping people’s relationship with God, even if I hadn’t realized it. I have a tendency to be impatient, a know-it-all, and rigid. In my own relational expectations, I have communicated that God is short-tempered and has no patience for each person’s journey. I have done this without intending to. 

There are two important truths here. One, we are not completely responsible for how others view God. However, we cannot deny that we all have some power in affecting how people relate to God in these different relationships. God has allowed relationships to be an important means by which we understand and relate to Him. We cannot ignore this. However, we also have hope because he didn’t stop with this. Jesus came to be the ultimate image of the invisible God. What we do poorly, Jesus did perfectly.

We Have Been Entrusted With Relationships

By allowing our relationships to shape our understanding of God, God has taken a huge risk. He has entrusted a piece of himself to us, trusted us to reveal him truthfully and lovingly. In this scenario, lots of Bible knowledge is not as helpful as understanding his heart and being willing to share this with others. We are not all great at relating with people, but if there’s one thing the lockdowns revealed is that relationships are a gift. They may be hard work, but because they mean so much more than just what is going on between two people, they are important. 

This means that we need to approach every relationship we have in our lives as being multilateral. It is about the two people involved, but it is also about God. We are shaping each other’s understanding of God, as well as each other. This should not make us nervous; instead, it reveals the sacred nature of our relationships. It’s a reminder that family, friendships, and marriage are indeed holy work. 

Tatyana Claytor
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