I bear witness to many people struggling to gain a toehold in their relationship with God. For some, God is like an unreachable guru on top of a distant mountain. If you find Him, He only speaks in riddles. For others, His face resembles the stern idols on Easter Island. Judgment is in the forecast, and soon. For still others, God is capricious, changing His mind about what good things He will or will not allow them to have in their lives. Now He loves me. Now He loves me not.
The most painful iteration of God, I think, is the silent one. He is the all-seeing, all-knowing monolith who keeps His own counsel despite the pleas for an answer. And then exist those for whom God is always available. They share their latest tidbit they received from Him, wax eloquent about their prayer vigils.
Many students ask me why God appears available for some and not for others.
This question has quite a few complicated answers, but I am only interested in one of those answers for now. Because God describes Himself as a father, we, who look so closely at our human fathers (or the absence of one) project onto God their images. Dear heavenly version of our earthly father, we pray without realizing the substance of that prayer. God uses the metaphor of fatherhood for this reason. If childhoods develop in His will, our earthly father’s love guides us to the love of our divine Father.
But the natural attachment that develops between children and their parents suffer interruption and sometimes worse. Our minds collect the data of parenting as we experience it, creating a filter for how we see relationship with others.
So before I list the attachment styles and how they influence our ability to fully experience God, let me first define a fantasy bond.
A fantasy bond mimics a real relationship, going through all the motions and role-playing of a relationship, without the actual heart level bond.
Sounds like a hypocrite? Before you judge the shallow faiths of those around you, remember that forming fantasy bonds or pretending to love God when inside one is empty, comes from a place of deprivation.
Studies of the brain and bonding show some interesting correlations. Bonding is formed in the frontal lobe of the brain. The more neural networks that form, the deeper and more cohesive the bond is. Here is the catch. Babies can’t develop more frontal brain activity than their mother actually has. What this means is that even if Mom is a great caregiver, caring for her baby in ways she herself was not cared for, she still cannot communicate more frontal lobe development than she has. The good news is that we can develop more and more of this networking by hanging out with people who have better development. The bad news is that we cannot give more than we have.
We cannot sow seed that we do not possess.
As you read through these attachment styles, you will find that one or more ring true for you. I include links to attachment style quizzes at the end if you aren’t sure. Armed with the knowledge of your attachment style, the hope is that you will begin to deal with the issues that helped form an incomplete bond.
- Avoidant attachment: As children, people with this attachment style suffered under non-responsive, emotionally unavailable parents. Children who do not seem to notice or care when his or her parent leaves or enters the room have voluntarily detached and have already made an internal decision to become independent. As adults, they become commitment phobic, expecting little from others. God seems far away, and it is up to them to take care of themselves. Adults with this attachment style do not experience love because they did not receive it. Affection is difficult for them, and God is more likely to be an intellectual concept rather than an involved, loving deity.
- Anxious or ambivalent attachment: These infants sometimes experienced the fulfillment of their needs and sometimes did not. These babies are anxious and demanding, clinging tightly when their often preoccupied Mommy or Daddy comes back on the scene. As adults, these people wax hot and cold in their relationships, but they always seem to be in one. They tend to over-romanticize relationships, holding others in higher esteem than themselves, but contrarily pushing others away before they can get hurt. They are sometimes jealous and controlling. For anxious or ambivalently attached adults, God is difficult to get to know. They think of Him as great and mighty, but unapproachable and probably not able to fulfill their emotional needs. After all, He is very busy. They blow hot and cold in their relationship with God, sometimes worshipping passionately and sometimes falling away for years at a time.
- Disorganized attachment: This attachment is actually more common than avoidant attachments. Sometimes the caregiver is simply unprepared for parenthood and finds the task overwhelming. Sometimes abuse is present. Whatever the reason, the result is fear. Mom or Dad’s lack of understanding and anxiety about the needs of the child result in fear or anger which is then mirrored in the child. Parents in this kind of bonding (or non-bonding relationship) often describe their child as out of control. An adult who suffered through a hostile or frightening childhood had to deal with a good deal of cognitive dissonance. The person they had to rely on was the person of whom they were the most frightened. For them, God is unpredictable and scary. They don’t have cohesive narrative or reliable way of relating to anyone, including their own selves. Their versions of God are often inaccurate or doctrinally bizarre. These individuals most need God with skin on: compassionate individuals who develop an earned secure attachment with them.
- Secure Attachment: A securely attached child is one whose parents know how to satisfy their needs while allowing them to explore the world. Easily soothed and unafraid, these children grow up loved by their peers and their teachers. Their view of God comes from a place that assumes that love is the language spoken by God. Just as their parents enjoyed them, they know themselves to be enjoyed by their Creator.
The real beauty of understanding a little bit of attachment theory is being equipped with the knowledge of what stands in our way of enjoying and being enjoyed by God. Our attachment filters hold God hostage. Not that we have the power to imprison God, but we, in our ignorance, limit our relationship with Him.
I dislike the condemning Christianese phrase I hear often in church by well- meaning believers. “You have as much of God as you want,” they say. But that is not true. Many times I see people reach out to God in desperation, wanting more of Him but somehow unable to move closer. A lack of knowledge prevents them from seeing the strongholds implanted from childhood.
Fortunately, countless pastors and therapists know how to gently remove some of these barriers. And God himself stands at the door. He hears you knocking. The door is open, has always been open. We must learn to walk through it.