I once worked in the office of a Christian Camp where we often pursued the important task of rubber-band wars. We got really good at popping each other, and we all tensed for that dreaded moment when we knew we’d get hit. My friend, Lisa, had the unfortunate timing of being in the office as one of these wars broke out. I had the perfect opening. Her face contorted and she let out the worst squeal, “NoOOo! That’s my worst fear!” Her flinch was classic and dramatic.
We all flinch. It’s an instantaneous wince and recoil to a known experience of pain. I do it while driving. Well, mostly when my husband drives, to his irritation. I’ve been blind-sided once too many. When you’ve seen headlights from the driver’s side window, you tend to flinch at even the possibility of impact. You look for it. You are wary. And you anticipate it even when there’s only a possibility that it might happen. Even if you know your husband is a good driver. My husband knows my tells. I wince with my eyes. I clench my fist for the briefest of seconds. Often he describes the situation or reminds me of his good driving. I know these things. I still flinch. Such is it with God. We flinch with Him, too. We’ve built a lifetime of experiences, some great, some horrific. We experience pain, betrayal, loss, confusion in so many areas of our lives. And when we come to God – we flinch. It looks a little different. It’s a flinch of the heart. Our tells may be anxiety, longing for His presence yet fearing it, trying hard to ensure His good favor because in our minds He is scowling. Or we may be avoidant, capable and comfortable and fearful of exposing the raw emotion of our inner worlds to Him, so we suppress it because it is easier to deal with.Many of us know good theology about God: He is loving, He is present, He is powerful, He is kind, etc. Yet, in experience, the image of God that our minds produce look strikingly like our mothers or fathers: distant, or angry, or weak, or manipulative, or selfish (Thomas, Moriarty, Davis, andAnderson, 2011). What are we to do when we know that God is loving but cannot feel His love? Do we simply mentally muscle through it, noting that our feelings do not indicate reality? How does this fit into experiencing God when we aren’t experiencing Him, at least not properly or fully?
Research has indicated that several factors shape the nature of our experience with God: early human interactions with parents, our relational interaction style, how we view ourselves, and how we form love relationships (Beck, 2006). These early experiences and ingrained interaction styles can provide us with good relational tools or with poor ones and these get used when we try to relate to God. The Bible describes our relationship with God in both parental and marital terms. It is not surprising then that our concept of God is tainted by our relational experiences. After all, half of this God relationship includes us. The factors that shape who we are get carried into every relationship we have, including how we interact with God. In other relationships, we simply call it baggage. Baggage in our God relationship means that we may struggle in our relationship with God either fearing His abandonment or avoiding His intimacy despite our theological convictions. We may know the truth of scripture yet still struggle in approaching Him. Instead of running to God, expecting warmth and security, we flinch. Those who have grown up in abusive homes know this struggle well. At times it may be difficult to even fathom what biblical kindness and love looks like. In such cases, knowledge of truth does not erase the experiences of error. These struggles not only hinder our relationship with God, they also create additional negative outcomes in our lives when it comes to loss, grief, meaning, purpose, and pursuits (Kelley and Chan, 2012). Secure God attachment has been defined as seeing God as loving, present, stable, warm, trusting, and intimate (Hall, Fujikawa, Halcrow, and Hill, 2009; Beck, 2006). This type of attachment to God is very biblical and the desired outcome of all Christians. He is, after all, our father and our husband. Our relationship with God has always been intended for our good, but often the sin of this life cripples us from experiencing Him truly.
Richard Beck (2006) makes a compelling case that, just as in any love relationship, there will be times of intimacy struggles, communication failures, and ebb of passion. Disappointment and dissatisfaction are inevitable. It is the nature of the messiness of life. Pain and hardship deeply affect us all. Solomon says it this way: “Surely oppression can destroy a wise man’s reason (or turn a wise man into a fool).” Rather than an indication of ungodliness, struggles with God may be seen as a flinch of our nature: the ingrained expectations of harm working against our knowledge and our willpower. The flinch inevitably happens, but we can learn to relax. The flinch can be softened, intimacy strengthened. Complaints with God can be taken to Him in a Psalm-like lament in order to share our hearts, even the pain and anger, with God (Snow, McMinn, Bufford, and Brendlinger, 2011). Individual counseling can help us recognize change our ingrained patterns and beliefs. Learning about and meditating on the biblical truth’s of God can help counteract our reactions to God. Experiencing nurturing, stable relationships can give us new insights into healthy relationships which can help us view God more accurately. Additionally, meaningful spiritual art, music, and stories about God can encourage new positive interactions with God (Thomas, Moriarty, Davis, and Anderson, 2011). Learning to abide in Him is learning to recognize that He is bigger than we can imagine and can handle our raw emotions. And often we find that He is closer than we think, abiding with us, despite our flinch.