Clearing Obstacles from your Journey with God
When a child first hears someone speak of God within the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is invariably in parental images and words. We introduce children to this incomprehensible Entity using images of a father who loves them, images given us by Jesus, the supreme revealer of God’s nature. Jesus used our universal human experience to open a window into the kind of relationship our Creator wants to have with each of us. It is the trusting relationship of a child cared for by the very best of human fathers, one who cherishes that child and cares enough about her to discipline her lovingly toward the kind of character God designed all of us to have.
This image is inviting for anyone whose human father was devoted to the woman he impregnated and to the child they created together. Such a father protects and sustains the child in all the ways God intends and hopefully he lives a long life of availability as the child grows up. The child of such a father has a helpful analogy that creates a clear path to personally discovering God’s even greater love.
But for a child or adult whose experience of their father falls short of these ideals, many problems can arise when they’re told to picture God as their heavenly Father. What associations to “father” does a child have if the man who contributed the sperm disappeared after doing so, remaining altogether absent from his life? How inviting are father images to the child of a negligent or even abusive human father? Or to the child of a father who leaves, deserting the family for unknown reasons or perhaps disappearing from the child’s life after affairs or a divorce? Or what of the child whose loving father dies, simply disappearing before the child is old enough to have any grasp of death? How might such misfortunes and flaws in the human experience of family affect a child—even as an adult—as they try to relate to “God the Father”?
Simply put, these misfortunes and flaws often create major obstacles in their spiritual journeys, sometimes a chasm that seems too wide and deep to cross. Children with such experiences often grow into teens and adults (1) who simply cannot relate to the positive images intended to invite them closer; or (2) who grasp the images but are do not experience the invitation, forgiveness and welcome applying to them; or (3) who are so completely put off by the disparity with their own experience of a father that they are bitter and want nothing to do with this supposedly caring God who dealt them such a bad hand; or (4) who defensively find the idea of God irrelevant. Of course there are many exceptions, people who find their way to God despite unfortunate childhoods and parenting. But in my experience as a Christian psychotherapist for over thirty years, the nagging or blaring interference often lasts a lifetime. If your own experience of your earthly parent(s) has contributed to difficulties forming a close, personal, trusting relationship with God, it may help to understand how and why your psychological history has been interfering with your experience of God.
Three concepts are important to understand as we go forward: projection, core beliefs and mental security systems.
Projection is the idea that when we encounter a new person who in some way activates faint or strong memories of a person known to us earlier in life, our experience of this new person is likely colored by that earlier person. The familiarity may be in physical appearance, mannerisms, stature, voice, facial expressions, or simply the nature of the relationship we have with the person such as employer, friend, lover, authority figure, underling, etc. If we meet a person who activates no such memories, the new person is a blank slate to us and we form our impressions of that person solely on the current evidence as we encounter them. But if there are similarities of any kind, the prior experience with the “someone else” is likely to interfere a little or a lot with what we think and feel towards this new person. If you project a photograph of John Doe onto a clean white wall, the only thing you see there are the features of John Doe himself. But if the wall already has a painting on it of Tim Smith, you won’t be able to see John Doe’s features clearly. That’s projection. Sometimes it casts a positive, inviting light on a new person; other times, the associations are negative and off-putting.
If we recognize it’s happening and work hard against the influence of the projected past, we can minimize the distortions. If we don’t know projection is happening we may be drawn into a new relationship unwisely or put off from one to our loss. For good or for ill, every one of us tends to project onto the idea of God our earliest experiences of our parents, particularly our fathers since Jesus so clearly told us God was HIS father and ours. The similarity in the vast power gap between child and parent and between creature and Creator intensifies this effect which for some people is a blessing and for others a misfortune.
Now let’s talk about the second important concept, core beliefs, and how they become like captions we project onto future experiences, telling us how to interpret things. These “captions” cause us to misinterpret data in such a way that the present and expected future seem to prove the core beliefs were (and forever will be) true.
Core beliefs are convictions about truth. Many of the convictions that prove most resistant to change crystalize and take root in our first few years of life. We don’t often think about it, but the mind of an infant/toddler/small child can only work with what it has: first-hand experience. Consequently, the core beliefs formed during this period are overly simplistic conclusions based on limited and often inaccurate information. Children are concrete thinkers. Abstractions have no meaning to them. My 15-month-old granddaughter learned from repeated first-hand experience this summer where and what “the garden” meant and had positive associations to going there with me. So, she understood what “I’m going to the garden” meant and wanted to come along. But if I said, “I’m going to my office”, it would mean nothing to her except that I was leaving.
Most of the core beliefs formed in those early years are about self and the relationship with their important caregiver(s). Just as you can watch a toddler’s mind experimenting and figuring out how things work, you can also see them figuring out how relationship dynamics work with parents/caregivers. Primarily a toddler is trying to figure out is whether she is safe in this relationship. Can she count on the parent to reliably respond to her needs and reliably enforce limits. It’s the inviting or off-putting personality of the father, assuming he is present, and the relational dynamics with him we’re most interested in as we think about how our relationship with God is affected by those early years. Obviously, if he is not there at all, when the child is exposed to the wider world and sees that fathers exist in the lives of others, she will come up with an interpretation, often a mistaken one, of the blank-spot in her own family portrait.
As a baby’s relational experiences accumulate, she reaches sound-bite conclusions like: I do X and he gets angry. I do Y and he smiles and hugs me. I do P and he rushes in from the other room. I refuse to do Q and he takes away my favorite toy. A baby/toddler interprets everything that happens in her field of awareness as about HER. She has no other way of explaining it at this stage in her development. This is important to grasp: There is no such thing as weighing alternative explanations about outside factors; no other explanations exist. Her mind is not sophisticated enough yet.
To understand the formation of early core beliefs, you really must wrap your mind around these realities: as a toddler tries to make sense of what’s happening/happened, her mind has only the evidence of her 5 senses to work with. The fact that mommy or daddy is upset about something at work or in world news doesn’t exist in her calculations; the upsetness must be about something she herself has done or not done. An infant’s core beliefs are even more primitive and simplistic: its nervous system registers peace and well-being (a sense of “I’m safe”) when surrounded by calm or becomes dysregulated and upset (“I’m not safe”) when the environment is chaotic or a caregiver is angry or afraid.
A child whose needs are met reliably with loving attention will likely conclude “I’m lovable”, “I’m safe”, “I’m good” and similar core beliefs. If life flows along without major disruptions, she’s likely to conclude “the world is safe”, “life is good” and develop a hopeful outlook in general. These core beliefs become a solid foundation on which to build. A child who experiences lack of attuned parenting, indifference to his needs, or outright neglect is likely to conclude things like “I’m not worthy”, “I’m not lovable”, “people can’t be counted on” and “there’s something wrong with me.”
To a child “death” has no meaning apart from absence so if the parent disappears from her life, the very young child is left to wonder “what did I do wrong?”, “why doesn’t he love me anymore?”. Remember: everything is self-referential at this age, so whether from a loving home or a disruptive one, a child who loses a parent to death or abandonment is likely to conclude that somehow, the disappearance is because of her. As time passes and the child’s thought processes develop, she comes up with all kinds of explanations for this abandonment, all with herself at the center of each. By the time the child is old enough to incorporate more sophisticated information, be it an understanding of death or the far more complicated factors of mommy leaving because she now loves someone else instead of daddy, there is already in place a core belief like “It’s my fault” or “If I’d been lovable enough, she would have stayed.”
As I’ve explained earlier whether accurate or erroneous, such core beliefs formed early in life function like distorting captions projected onto future experiences, becoming a lens through which we view the rest of life. In the next section we’ll explore what makes those early lenses so long-lasting. (At the end of this blogpost, I’ll include a list of common negative core beliefs held by far too many people.)
Finally, to understand why early core beliefs remain so entrenched and resistant to change, let’s look at the idea of mental security systems. From the moment of birth, a mammal’s number one concern is survival. If a caregiver does not attach to the infant enough to feed and protect it, the baby will not survive. The radical dependency of human infants lasts far longer than other mammals, so “keeping someone attached to me” is the most important instinctual need far into toddlerhood and childhood.
At the very same time the attachment system is dominating existence, survival also depends on the nervous system picking up cues of danger in the environment. Given a physically safe setting, if the caregiver is doing his or her parenting job well enough the infant-toddler-child feels safe (and safe to be attached) most of the time. She can pay attention to the environment around her and happily try to make sense of it. But if the caregiver gives off strong vibes of anger, fear or disgust the child’s nervous system goes on high alert, geared to protect itself. These emotions in anyone nearby, and especially in the caregiver, signal danger. A caregiver’s indifference due to depression, preoccupation or lack of love also cues danger from painful isolation. These upsetting emotions cause the child’s defense (“stay away”) system to war with her attachment (“stay close”) system. At best, this creates confusion and ambivalence in the child; at the worst, it creates internal chaos and pain.
Adults who live in predominantly safe neighborhoods have locks on their doors and may or may not even use them consistently. But those who live in high-risk neighborhoods install elaborate electronic security systems with many locks, alarms and even counter-attack measures. Similarly, the mind of a child who grows up in a physically and emotionally safe home will have minimal locks on the doors to her innermost self/heart. And the mind of a child growing up in a physically and/or emotionally unsafe home will find ways to close and lock the doors between her heart and the deep physical or emotional pain she’s learned to expect.
Positive core beliefs about self and others allow mental and emotional doors to open and close easily while negative core beliefs keep doors tightly closed, usually locked, often barricaded. Intense or pervasive sadness, anger, or fear in self or nearby caregivers can all give rise to negative core beliefs that shut inner doors.
Unfortunately, the doors that close to keep the vulnerable heart/self safe from these disruptive emotions simultaneously keep new information from reaching that self who remains “in that locked room”, a captive to the past. It’s as if the child mind that formed the belief doesn’t get any older or more sophisticated than when the belief came into being within that limited worldview. By protecting the self from pain, the well-meaning security system unintentionally deprives the self from new, potentially transformative and healing information. Those early negative beliefs are like apps downloaded 20 or 50 years ago on the smartphone that is your mind, apps that never got updated.
With these three concepts in hand—projection as a way our experience of persons in our past distorts how we experience a new person, core beliefs as convictions we develop about self, others and life at a very early age when our thought processes are not very sophisticated, and the predominance of our need for safety as what makes negative core beliefs so resistant to change—let’s turn back to considering the spiritual journey towards God who created us and wants a real, personal relationship with each of us.
Since God is transcendent, He is like the white wall mentioned earlier. He has told us the way to know Him most accurately is to project what we know of Jesus onto that wall: “the one who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9) And Jesus told us that to know God we must project the best human father onto that wall: “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead?....If you then…know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in Heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” (Luke 11: 11-13)
When a child’s experience of her father is primarily positive and that father remained a reliable caregiver into her adulthood, she is likely to respond very positively to the idea that she and all the world was created by an all-powerful being who loves her even more than her daddy has loved her. All of Christianity’s teachings about God’s love, forgiveness and discipline will make sense to her and make a relationship with God appealing to her. She will have enough positive thoughts about God to help in her struggle with the Bible’s more difficult and challenging teachings about God’s judgment and his anger at sin. But we have seen that many kinds of negative experiences with human fathers can set a person up for a very difficult journey toward (or away from) God.
Even if you can eliminate most distorting projections and see God as He truly is, you may have negative core beliefs about yourself with deep roots in childhood (or later) that prevent you from believing the Good News of God’s forgiveness and love applies to you. You may believe you’re not good enough, or that you’ve disqualified yourself by something you’ve done or left undone.
If you’ve struggled in this way, you may find the following guided imagery exercise helpful. God has created us in such a way that the imagination can open a pathway for Light and Truth to find its way through our mental security systems. You can do this on your own or you might prefer to have a trusted brother or sister in Christ be your guide and conversation partner.
· First, find a place where you’re comfortable and you won’t be disturbed. You might want to play some soothing, non-intrusive background music.
· Invite the Holy Spirit to be with you and guide this healing journey.
· Now picture being with God or Jesus (your choice how you picture Who) in a place you feel completely safe and comfortable sitting for a visit or taking a walk together. If you can’t picture a real place, feel free to imagine the perfect setting in fantasy.
· Now ask the Lord to bring to mind the youngest “you” holding a negative core belief that’s getting in the way of your relationship with Him. Picture that younger you and allow God to show you the experiences that shaped that core belief. Allow what you know now as an adult, and anything new insights the Holy Spirit reveals to you, to revise that core belief. Allow yourself to feel sadness for that younger you who carried the burden of that negative belief. Picture coming alongside him or her, maybe holding the child in your lap and comforting them or sitting beside them if that’s more comfortable for them. Whisper to that child of whatever age the truth God wants them to know.
· Let yourself progress slowly along your timeline, at whatever pace feels right, asking the Lord to show you any other negative core beliefs that took root, beliefs that perhaps took hold because of “the captions” earlier ones were projecting onto your experience. With each one, come alongside that younger you with compassion and ask the Holy Spirit to guide you into truth.
· When you sense that your cleansing, releasing journey is done, ask the Lord to let you rest in the Light of His love.
· And now, ask the Holy Spirit to walk that timeline of your life again with you, showing you evidence of God’s presence and love along the way. Write down the evidence of these times and places and circumstances to help you retain what you can now more clearly see. God instructed many Biblical figures to set up stones as markers of His presence and actions at key times in their lives, physical reminders to help anchor and guide them in the future. You might find it useful to get one or more small concrete objects to remind you of what you’ve seen in this meditation.
From the moment you were created and every moment since, you have been loved by God who is love and who wants a close relationship with you. You have never needed to earn it, nor have you ever done anything to lose it. Yes, you are flawed, but the desire to do and become “better” is rightly a response of gratitude to God for His abundant grace, not a requirement for earning it. May you know the truth of this at the core of your being.
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Some Commonly held Negative Core Beliefs affecting our Relationship with God
Note: to say "I am a sinner" or "I have sinned" or "I need to become more like Jesus" are spiritual/theological truths God wants us to recognize from a mature point of view. The Negative statements below are psychological self-evaluations arrived at via secular criteria, often at a very young age. The positive (life-giving) core beliefs are my adaptations of cognitions regarded as psychologically healthy truths.
Negative core beliefs healed into ..........positive ones
I'm not worthy I don't have to be worthy; God loves me as I am
I'm stupid I am smart enough to learn
I don't matter I matter
I'm a bad person I am becoming a more loving person
I don't deserve to be alive God created me and wants me to be here
I'm not lovable I am lovable
I did something wrong God is showing me what He wants me to learn from my mistakes
I should be better I'm cooperating with God to become who He wants me to be
I should have done more I did the best I could at the time
I should have known better I've learned from my mistakes
I can't trust anyone to be there for me I can learn who is trustworthy
I'm not good enough I'm loved by God who is helping me become more Christlike
I'm unimportant I was created by God and I'm important in His overall plan
I'm a disappointment I'm a work in progress
I don't belong God knows--and will show me-- exactly where He wants me
I'm shameful I have dignity as a redeemed and forgiven child of God