God As The Invisible Third Parent

My third parent was the protagonist of our lives. It was always about what they wanted. His desires were our orders, his rules our constitution, and his disapproval my terror.

An Essay on Healing From Religious Trauma

Growing up, I had three parents. I had a mother, a father, and a perfect celestial being that dictated most of my family’s decisions.  My mother was protective and tender, my father was serious and sensitive, but my third parent was a mystery. 

My third parent was the protagonist of our lives. It was always about what He wanted. His desires were our orders, His rules our constitution, and His disapproval my terror. 

My third parent would tell my father what was next for our family. And when this plan caused complicated feelings within my siblings and I, we could only express a muted sadness as anything beyond this would convey rebellion to the perfect parent. We had to bend our feelings into knots of obedience and swallow the feelings of confusion knowing we were mere mortals in God’s plan. 


Religious Trauma as a missionary

We moved countries, settled into new homes, changed schools, started churches, learned new languages- all for my third parent. When things got hard and my temperament became uneven and uncontrolled, my father, the human one, would explain that he was doing what the Lord wanted. My third parent had sacrificed so much for me, the corrupted human child that was part of this family, I owed resolute obedience and compliance. 

The stakes were high for my mistakes. There was my dad’s disappointment, my mother’s anger, and the profound judgment of my third parent. I was taught that it was sin that separated us from God and God could not be with those who sinned. Yet, he was a part of my family. He was there at all times and I couldn’t help being flawed. I assumed that if I lost the acceptance or approval of the third parent, my human parents would have no other choice than to abandon me as well. My mistakes meant separation. My mistakes meant the end of our relationship. This celestial parent not only saw my mistakes but also listened into my inner dialogue and knew of my corrupted motivations. He recognized my disappointing childish immaturity. 


One might assume that I was afraid of the concept of eternal damnation. One might assume that the fear of being swallowed whole by a lake of fire would terrify any child. Yet, I was a missionary pastor’s kid. Missionaries and pastors did not go to hell. I had a third parent because we were chosen to be close to the mysterious plans he had for us. 

My human parents were not the sort of parents who used eternal damnation as a motivation to comply with christianity’s rules. In fact, they were boastful about being the sort of people that basked in the endless sea of mercy that their god had gifted to them. They were undeserving of anything good but yet, they got to have direct access to god because they were forgiven. 

The thing about this specific mercy is that it is, without a doubt, woefully conditional. The premise of this mercy involves an undeserving corrupted human trying to continuously and perpetually find forgiveness for a salvation they could not escape from. Humanity and its complexity is interpreted as a cardinal sin and unacceptable in the eyes of this celestial god. Atonement is needed for the sinner in order for them to become welcomed into the house of the third parent.  

The atonement riddled me with guilt. My sacrifice as a child moving from country to country preaching was never going to be good enough. It feels like a cruel bait for those of us who need a way to feel more acceptable in this world. My fear was not about hell, my fear was about separation. As a child, I feared being unacceptable. 


I had nowhere to hide my humanity. My thoughts were a dangerous place. It was possible that in the highest courts of morality, my thoughts could be printed like a transcript and read aloud in front of my third parent for prosecution. 

In moments of sadness, I would turn to my mother and father for an explanation of the hardships we endured. Their rules, their changing plans, their emotional reactions, the overall state of our family – it was all the responsibility of my third parent. The third parent also happened to be perfect and therefore, not to be disputed, not to be questioned, and not to be disrupted. 


Parents using God as a third parent

Thereby, I embraced a version of myself that might be acceptable. I decided my spiritual-self could be the person that would represent my child-self and she could be nearly perfect. I figured I could split myself into two people and devote my life to nurturing the spiritual-self; wielding it to become the acceptable version of myself. The human-self needed to be ritualistically rejected and buried somewhere hard to find. My spiritual-self could have the third parent close by and she would survive the relationship. She could even befriend the third parent. She would be safe.

We Understand Religious Trauma.

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