We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are.”1 Is this true about how we see God? Is this true about how we see others? And, ultimately, is this true about how we see ourselves?
As we go about our everyday lives, most of us operate on the notion that how we experience things is how they are. We may not have the capacity, interest, or ability to deeply reflect on the true nature of everything we constantly experience. Yet we all know that my experience of reality may differ radically from someone else’s—even from those we love and live with. How can it be that reality is experienced so differently?
This also applies to our images of ourselves, others, and God. My image of myself will often be different from my parents’, my spouse’s, my children’s, my friends’, and my colleagues’. When I see someone, my image of that person will often be based on rather limited knowledge and understanding of who that person really is. Therefore, I may be lacking significant aspects of truth and reality regarding that person. When it comes to images and experiences of God, there are thousands of religions claiming to know what truth and reality is, yet what they claim differs and is often in conflict. Within the faith tradition of Adventist Christians, there is diversity in our beliefs about God and images of Him. How are our images of ourselves, of others, and of God formed and shaped?
IMAGE OF SELF
How we see ourselves is very much formed and shaped by how we are seen by others. People tend to become what they are told they are. If while growing up I was told by significant others, such as family and friends, that I was bad, stupid, or worthless, then it’s possible I would come to believe such negative “truths” about myself, develop a negative self-image, and maybe even become precisely that. Or I might create an inflated narcissistic self-image as a self-protective defense, believing I am the opposite of all that, and instead project those negative traits onto others. On the other hand, if I experienced that I was loved, that I was worth something, and that others believed in me, then it’s likely that I would develop a positive self-image and become a loving person who does worthwhile things.
Psychiatrist and psychotherapist Irvin Yalom acknowledged the preeminence of relationships in our lives:
“We are intrinsically social creatures. Throughout life, our surrounding interpersonal environment—peers, friends, teachers, as well as family—has enormous influence over the kind of individual we become. Our self-image is formulated to a large degree upon the reflected appraisals we perceive in the eyes of the important figures in our life.”2
IMAGE OF OTHERS
How we see others is predominantly formed and shaped by our previous relational experiences. Do I have positive or negative expectations when interacting with others? Do I approach them with trust or fear? Such relational patterns are often based on assumptions we make based on our past. That’s why psychology often seeks to understand the past in order to change the present and the future.
Our brains become wired by experiences, and rewiring, when necessary, is a biological process that requires development and growth of new neural pathways. Repeated positive experiences may gradually change a negative image of others to a more positive one. Likewise, what initially was a positive image of others may be changed toward a more negative one through painful and traumatic experiences.
IMAGE OF GOD
How is our image of God and attachment to Him formed and shaped? Psychological research reveals that our image of God is formed in similar ways as our image of others. What we experience with others, especially parental figures early in life, often has significant impact on how we come to see God. We may not be consciously aware of how our relationships with significant others influence our God-image and attachment.
Most people may not see a resemblance between their God-image and parental figures, yet research consistently reports a relationship. In early life there will often be a correspondence between our image of our parental figures and our image of God, yet as we grow, develop, and gain new experiences, our image of God may become more detached from our parental images. When we haven’t been sufficiently loved and cared for in our earlier relationships, God may become our friend and refuge, the one who compensates for what we needed but never received. Our God-image may then morph from a negative image associated with unfulfilling interpersonal relationships to a positive image based on our understanding and experience of God.
GOD-CONCEPT VERSUS GOD-IMAGE
It is worth noting that our intellectual and emotional understanding of God may not align. I’ve seen patients and others whose beliefs and theology about God—their concept of God—may be positive, but whose relationship and emotional experience with Him renders their image of Him rather negative. In a battle between beliefs and experience, experience often emerges stronger. For a relationship with God to be secure and healthy, a theoretical knowledge of God must be supported by experiential knowledge of Him. Thus, “the right” theology and preaching alone is not sufficient to bring people close to God. The relationship must be a lived experience. While our God-concept may be primarily informed by reading, teaching, and preaching, our God-image is informed primarily by relational experiences with God and others.
British psychologist, psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst John Bowlby contributed one of the most significant models in psychology for understanding the dynamics of close relationships and the human quest for “security, meaning, and self-regulation,” known today as attachment theory.3
In his 1988 book, A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development, Bowlby states: “Attachment theory regards the propensity to make intimate emotional bonds to particular individuals as a basic component of human nature, already present in germinal form in the neonate and continuing through adult life into old age. During infancy and childhood bonds are with parents (or parent substitutes) who are looked to for protection, comfort, and support. During healthy adolescence and adult life these bonds persist, but are complemented by new bonds.”4
Attachment theory provides a profound understanding of the human need for bonding in close relationships and our dependence on others, including God. Bowlby specifically argued against the idea that dependence on others is immature or pathological at any age, or that grieving a loss is pathological or undesirable. He understood that even fully mature and relatively autonomous adults—especially when threatened, in pain, lonely, or demoralized—benefit from seeking and receiving other people’s care. When attachment relationships function well, a person learns that distance and autonomy are completely compatible with closeness and reliance on others.5
Beyond that, attachment theory also explains the dynamics of struggles and insecurity in those relationships. Whenever an attachment figure—whether a parent, partner, friend, or someone else who is a go-to for protection, comfort, and support—is not available, sensitive, and responsive, then that may cause significant distress and anxiety. Consciously, or subconsciously, an alarm may go off: “Am I safe? Can others be trusted? Will anyone be there for me when I need them? Can I manage this on my own?”
People who predominantly have experience with attachment figures who are available, sensitive, and responsive will typically lead a more robust and resilient life when faced with challenging situations. They are what we call “securely attached.” Their primary strategy when distressed is to seek closeness to an attachment figure, whether a person, God, or something else that gives a sense of safety. Or they return to their depository of comforting and soothing experiences in their past, draw on them, and are thus comforted in the present. They are typically trusting of others and feel assured that they are not alone in this world. Thus, they are well equipped to manage closeness and distance in day-to-day life.
Mikulincer and Shaver summarize the characteristics of securely attached people:
“Secure people openly disclose their personal thoughts and feelings to relationship partners (even if they lead to disagreements), expose their vulnerability and need for support even if it leaves them open to disapproval, open their cognitive schemas to new information even though it entails uncertainty and reorganization, explore challenging and changing life circumstances and new experiences, and commit themselves to the personal choices they make in their career and close relationships. They make leaps of trust and faith.”6
Secure attachment is based on a positive image of others, and a positive image of self.
People with insecure attachment styles often struggle with their image of themselves and/or of others, including God. They are less resilient when faced with emotional distress. Since they lack assurance of finding comfort in others, they have typically developed one of three strategies for maximizing closeness and minimizing distress: fight, flight, or freeze.
The fight response is a hyperactivation of the attachment system. Since they do not trust that others will provide the closeness they need, they will fight for it. They have what we call an anxious attachment style. They are typically in a state of chronic activation of the attachment system, constantly seeking closeness with attachment figures and hypersensitive to signs of rejection, whether real or perceived.
The other strategy—the flight response—is a deactivation of the attachment system. Instead of fighting for closeness, those who have an avoidant attachment style walk away from it. Their assumption is they won’t get the comfort they need from others, so there is no point in even trying. Typically, they shut down their sense of need for comfort and their need for others. The deactivated attachment system leaves them with no option other than to manage on their own, being independent and self-sufficient.
A third type of insecure attachment is the disorganized attachment style. We typically see it in people who have gone through traumatic and severely confusing attachment experiences. The disorganized aspect of their attachment pattern is that neither fight nor flight has consistently worked for them. Thus, they are left without any preferred strategy for dealing with insecurity and distress. They may be caught in the trap of longing for comfort, meanwhile fearing the ones who potentially could provide it. They may long for closeness, but at the same time fear it. Thus, they may be lost at sea with no engine or rudder to direct them into the safe harbor of comfort and security. It is a painful place to be.
TOWARD BETTER RELATIONSHIPS
In this imperfect world of imperfect people in imperfect relationships, how can we gain more security and confidence as we relate to others and God? What makes attachment more secure is positive experiences with attachment figures who are available, sensitive, and responsive. Whether we are secure or insecure, we need positive experiences repeatedly and consistently. We need to be surrounded by attachment figures who want to give comfort and safety. And it does not have to be given perfectly. What is needed is care given often and consistently enough to make the relationship a safe place to be.
As we grow beyond the small world of our parental figures and families of origin, we enter into a world of many new potential attachment figures, including spouses, siblings, family members, friends, colleagues, and others. Beyond that, God can become an important attachment figure as people go through a life of challenges. If one believes and trusts in God as someone who is loving and caring, who is available, sensitive, and responsive, then He may be a secure attachment figure for that person.
If God truly is the way He is presented in the Bible, then He will always be with us whatever we go through. He will never abandon or leave us. He will be someone we always can come to, whatever our situation or life circumstance. Being in a relationship with Him will provide comfort and safety on the journey through life. He will be our Father, and we will be His sons and daughters, His children. He will compensate for the shortcomings and failures of people. In the book of the prophet Isaiah, God says: “Do not fear, for I am with you. Do not be afraid, for I am your God. I will give you strength, and for sure I will help you. Yes, I will hold you up with My right hand that is right and good” (Isa. 41:10, NLV).7
When our distorted image of God is transformed into an image of God as the loving Creator and Father, then we are transformed into His likeness. When the image of God is reproduced in us, then our self-image may rightfully be a positive one. Ellen White so aptly said: “Through belief in Satan’s misrepresentation of God, man’s character and destiny were changed, but if men will believe in the Word of God, they will be transformed in mind and character, and fitted for eternal life. To believe that ‘God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life’ (John 3:16, KJV) will change the heart, and reproduce in man the image of God.”8
Whether our attachment figures are our parents, others, or God, we never outgrow the need for having others who are lovingly available, sensitive, and responsive in our lives. When we have that, we can move toward a greater sense of security in our relationships. The preeminence of relationships and love in the life of humans is recognized in science, philosophy, art, and religion alike. And for the believer, God is also included in the universe of relationships and love. When asked by one of the intellectuals of His time, Jesus summarized the essence of life, what the fundamental message of the Bible is, and what the conviction of any Christian should be: “One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, ‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’
“ ‘The most important one,’ answered Jesus, ‘is this: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”
“ ‘The second is this: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
“ ‘There is no commandment greater than these’ ” (Mark 12:28-31, NIV).
There is no better prescription for life than to be loved by someone who is available, sensitive, and responsive. The essence of Christianity is that God loves us like that, and that the greatest commandment is that we are to love others like that.“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is . . . just to love and be loved in return.”9
1 Origin unknown.
2 Irvin Yalom, The Gift of Therapy: An Open Letter to a New Generation of Therapists and Their Patients (New York: HarperCollins, 2001).
3 Mario Mikulincer and Phillip R. Shaver, Attachment in Adulthood: Structure, Dynamics, and Change, 2nd ed. (New York: The Guilford Press, 2017).
4 John Bowlby, A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development (New York: Basic Books, 1988).
5 Mikulincer and Shaver.
7 Texts credited to NLV are from the New Life Version. Copyright © 1969, 2003 by Barbour Publishing, Inc.
8 Ellen White, Selected Messages (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958, 1980), book 1, p. 346.
9 Eden Ahbez, “Nature Boy” (1947).