The fear of God

I feel a little distant from You. I like to sit, to be quiet and still, to write, to ponder. I can do this without any memory of You, without reference to You. But I think You are inviting me into a deeper relationship. You are always present, so being fully present means being present and open to You.

In the next few days I am giving a couple of workshops for spiritual directors on “Your Greatest Gift Is Your Presence”, one for Guildford Diocese, the other for the London Spirituality Centre. In other news, I am concurrently reading a terrific book, Attachment in Psychotherapy, by David J Wallin.

During prayer I found myself in an anxious fantasy about a workshop participant who says that she fears letting God come too close because of what ‘He’ may ask her to do. This is not an uncommon fear. It set me thinking about our fears and how they relate to attachment theory.

We have two fundamental terrors:

  • the fear of being abandoned: this is the source of the constant appeal of romantic stories that end ‘happily ever after’, and the pleasurable shiver dread of post-apocalyptic movies where no one (nice) is left but the hero;
  • the fear of being attacked, controlled, or otherwise overwhelmed: the fad for thrillers, horror, zombies and vampires is a flirtation with, and a resolution of, this terror.

These are our fears and responses set up when we were young, probably before we can even remember. We fear that either of these could lead to our physical or psychic annihilation. As an infant either would easily be fatal.

God is the great Other, and the great unknown. We project these fears on to God:

  • like a ‘preoccupied’ parent, God is unpredictable, sometimes ‘shows up’, but is often distant, disinterested, elsewhere, and unresponsive; and/or
  • like a ‘dismissing’ parent, God is demanding, suffocating, sends us trouble to ‘test’ us, but doesn’t care about our plight, and is unmoved by our suffering.

These images of God then lead us into strategies to deal with this untrustworthy god:

  • like an ‘ambivalent’ child, you might constantly badger God with requests for answers or signs about any little matter, continually make pleas, petition for any little favour, always looking for a sign of God’s presence – and never be satisfied: hence the cult of the desperate search for ‘spirituality’, self-help, and ‘the answer’; and/or
  • like an ‘avoidant’ child, you might lose trust that there is anything worthwhile to be had, close up, avoid, dismiss or actively attack God, become self-sufficient – and never able to really believe in yourself: hence the reverse cult of atheism, denial, and assertion that God is a delusion;
  • then, without a sense of the Divine Other, to fill the void left by the lack of meaning, you might distract yourself with pleasure: hence the machine of entertainment, shopping and consumption, exemplified par excellence by the cult of cooks, cookery, and cuisine.

You might employ these strategies in different circumstances and areas of your life, sometimes demanding, sometimes distant, often distracted.

In the face of these visceral fears trust in God is indeed a work of trust. It is trusting in the face of the all the bad stories we have been told about God, and all the bad experiences we have had from those who have not been trustworthy.

The truth is that You are neither distant nor demanding. You are right here, at my elbow, in this body. You give love and life.

What do You want from us? In a way, I think you need and want nothing in return and recompense. You are God. What could You possibly need? In another way, I am You in this little scrap of space-time; I am You having a Julian-shaped experience. You need me here being me.

What does the painter need from the paint? Absorbed in her art, she becomes the paint-laden brush and the waiting canvas. She needs their specific colour and consistency, texture and resistance. Likewise, You need me as me.

Can I trust that if I open to You and let You in that I shall finally make safe haven?

2 thoughts on “The fear of God

  1. Yes attachment theory offers some useful insights!
    The final comment in your piece, “Can I trust…” reminds me of some of Winnicott’s contribution to the world of attachment theory. He distinguishes between two states that might both seem to be the opposite of integration – disintegration and unintegration. As I understand it, as an infant begins to integrate (and thereby develop a sense of himself as separate from others), he or she also takes time out from the task and rest in a state of unintegration: in these moments of unintegrated relaxation (perhaps in moments of reverie, after being fed) the infant experiences complete trust as he/she gives him/herself over to be safely held by his environment (maybe literally held by his mother). In contrast, those who are insufficiently held, those whose environment is not ‘good enough’ experience disintegration. Disintegrated states are said to be a defence against unintegration in the absence of a sufficiently safe holding environment (or a ‘good enough mother’ as Winnicott might have said in the 1950s). Whilst said to be a defence, disintegration is itself a state of awful chaos and terror.
    It strikes me that those whose basic trust was compromised, and who were exposed to disintegration rather than the repeated bliss of unintegration will find it harder than others to ‘let go’ in meditation or prayer.

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