By Dr. Brad Strawn
After a period of angry complaining and deep grieving, my patient said to me, “Maybe God is not who I thought [he] was.” My patient had finally killed God and now was in the position to begin to know God in new and different ways.
The British pediatrician, turned psychoanalyst, D. W. Winnicott is an important figure in contemporary psychodynamic psychotherapy. Winnicott believed that children initially come into the world utterly dependent on their caregivers and in some ways undifferentiated from them. For the infant, there is no “mommy and me” there is just “me.” If the infant has a vague discomfort (e.g., hunger) she becomes upset and presto something arrives (e.g., food) to ease the pain. From the infant’s perspective it feels like they were responsible. If the infant could talk she might say, “Look what I created!”
Winnicott described this first stage in an infant’s life as a period of omnipotence in which the child experiences the world as pure projection. “Look, I created this!” Over time through a normative series of non-traumatic disillusionments the child learns to give up her omnipotence and by doing so comes to recognize the real and objective other (e.g., mommy). Children learn that they don’t entirely create the world, but they also discover the world. But this is not an easy transition and Winnicott warns us that it usually involves much protest on the part of the infant – what he calls “destruction.” The child “destroys” the parent (in fantasy) through aggression (complaining, protesting, etc.) and if the parent survives (i.e., does not retaliate or abandon the child) the child learns that they are not omnipotent and will begin to experience the parent as a real other and not only a product of their projections. It is essential that the parent withstand these “destructions” (e.g., crying, tantrums, etc.) without retaliation or abandonment. If the parent retaliates or abandons the child she learns that her feelings are a) not okay and b) overwhelming to the parent. This last point is important because if a child feels that her feelings are overwhelming to the parent they stay locked into an overvaluation of their impact on the world. In Winnicott’s language they stay locked in a world of their own projections.
The Old Testament theologian and scholar Walter Brueggemann, actually uses the work of Winnicott in his article, “The Costly Loss of Lament.” In that paper Brueggemann argues that if we can’t raise our voice in protest to God, we create false selves (another Winnicott term) that can only sing praises to God. And we also create a false God that can only hear praise. Lucky for us, Brueggemann points out that there are numerous examples in scripture in which the Israelites cry out to God, protest to the Holy One, and even demand that God give an
account. These go back as far as the Israelites’ groans under the slavery of Egypt and include the numerous psalms that are categorized as laments. When persons are able to engage in this kind of address to God it is a reestablishment of the covenantal relationship in which both parties have a voice. But if there is no lament, there is no voice, and we end up with this false self, what Brueggemann calls “yes-men” and “yes-women.” Not only does this mean that humans live lives of “coercive obedience” but that questions of theodicy must be rejected. If God can’t take our complaint then how do we go to the throne demanding that something needs to change? But cries against injustice are a huge part of what the Gospel story is all about. And if we can’t ask these questions of God, Brueggemann worries that we begin to believe we can’t ask them anywhere.
I want to suggest that there is a corollary here for some Christians when they go through a period of pain, trauma or heartache in their lives and subsequently can’t square their experience with their understanding of God. Some individuals give up God all together because they can’t reconcile their previous conceptualization of God (what psychologists commonly call God image or representation) with what they have gone through. Others cling to their original image of God and reframe their understanding of their pain. They may say things like, “God is using this to teach me something”, “I have brought this on myself”, or “If I just have more faith and patience surely God will deliver me.” These individuals can’t be angry with God – they can’t destroy or kill God and subsequently they stay locked in a world of their own projections. The stay stuck in the image of God that they have created (with the help of parents, etc.) unable to see their way clear to a new possibly more accurate image of God. They develop a false self in relationship with a false God.
But some lucky believers may find a community that can come alongside them and support their grief and even anger at God (destruction). If these individuals are assisted in finding and giving voice to their pain and sorrow they may be able to go through a similar process to the young infant described above. They need permission to angrily complain to God, to call God to give an account, to kill God and see if God can survive. Of course what these individuals are killing is their projection of God. They are destroying the image that they have created.
My client arrived at her conclusion that perhaps God was not who she had always thought God was only after a period in which I helped create space for her to “destroy” God with her complaints, groans and protests. And believe me, she had lots of legitimate reasons to be angry! When God didn’t strike her dead, or abandon her, and I didn’t leave or shame her (beliefs she had internalized from her faith community and her interactions with parents), there was space for her to begin to “find” God in new and different ways. Maybe God had not rescued her from a life of trauma, maybe God had not delivered her from the consequences of that evil, but maybe, just maybe, God was still at work and maybe she could get to know this new God without throwing him away or living with a false self and false God.
 This does not mean that parents cannot set limits. Limits that are set in loving and non-shaming ways for the protection of the child are not the same as retaliation.
Prior to joining the faculty of Fuller’s Graduate School of Psychology in 2012, Brad Strawn was Professor of Psychology at Point Loma Nazarene University, practiced as a clinical psychologist, and served as Vice President for Spiritual Development and Dean of the Chapel at Southern Nazarene University. Strawn recently published, with W. S. Brown, The Physical Nature of Christian Life: Neuroscience, Psychology, and the Church (Cambridge University Press, 2012) and is currently writing, with E. Bland, Christianity & Psychoanalysis: New Dialogues (InterVarsity Press). He is an ordained elder in the Church of the Nazarene.
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