Episode 23. Sinning, God Images, and Resilience
July 6, 2020
Intro: Welcome to the podcast Coronavirus Crisis: Carpe Diem, where you and I rise up and embrace the possibilities and opportunities for spiritual and psychological growth in this time of crisis, all grounded in a Catholic worldview. We are going beyond mere resilience, to rising up to the challenges of this pandemic and becoming even healthier in the natural and the spiritual realms than we were before. I’m clinical psychologist Peter Malinoski your host and guide, with Souls and Hearts at soulsandhearts.com. Thank you for being here with me. This is episode 23, released on July 6, 2020 and it’s called Sinning, God Images, and Resilience.
I am really excited to be with you today, we have a great episode coming up, where we will be bringing together all the conceptual information from the last three sessions and seeing how it all works together in real life, in real situations, real adversity and real hardship, all from a Catholic worldview.
Let’s start with a brief review, spiraling back to the critical concepts that we have been studying about resilience from a Catholic perspective. If you are new to the podcast, first of all welcome, I’m glad you’re here. All you need to know conceptually we will cover in the next few minutes or so. You can review the last three episodes, episodes 20, 21 and 22 if you want to get into more detail about the concepts in this brief review.
Let’s start with the definition of Catholic resilience – you will see how it is really different from secular understandings of resilience. For our purposes, I’m defining Catholic resilience as “the process of accepting and embracing adversity, trials, stresses and suffering as crosses. Catholic resilience sees these crosses as gifts from our loving, attuned God, gifts to transform us, to make us holy, to help us be better able to love and to be loved than we ever were before, and to ultimately bring us into loving union with Him.
That is what I want for you. For you to transform your suffering into a means of making you holier, more peaceful, and more joyful. Not to take away any necessary suffering from you – not to take away the crosses God has given you. I am here to help you reduce, to eliminate your psychological impediments to not only accepting those crosses but embracing them, and transforming your suffering into the means of your salvation. You have to be resilient to do that, and not as the world sees resilience, but resilience firmly grounded in a Catholic understanding.
Remember how we need a deep and abiding confidence in God, especially in God’s Providence in order to be resilient? That resilience is an effect – it’s a consequence of the deep, abiding confidence in God, especially in God’s Providential care and love for us. If you have the deep, abiding confidence in God and His providential love for you, you specifically, you will be resilient. Repeat.
Remember also how the main psychological reason why we don’t have that deep abiding confidence in God is because we don’t know him as He truly is. We have problematic God images. Our God images fluctuate, they can be as unstable as water. These are the subjective, emotionally-driven ways we construe God in the moment. These are automatic, spontaneously emerging, and they are not necessary consented to by the will.
These God images stand in contrast to our God concept, which is the representation of God that we profess, that we intellectually endorse, that we have come to believe intellectually through reading, studying, discerning. It is the representation of God that we endorse and describe when others ask us who God is.
When our problematic, inaccurate, heretical God images get activated, they compromise our whatever confidence have in God, whatever childlike trust we have in God. So here’s the key causal chain:
Bad God images lead to lack of confidence in God, which leads to a loss of resilience.
And psychological factors contribute to these bad God images. Here’s the idea. Think about al little child. 12 months old or 18 months old, looking at his father. To that toddler, his father seems like a God – really huge – probably 10 times his weight, more than twice his height, so much stronger than he is, able to do so much more in the world. That toddler, as he comes into awareness about God, is going to transfer his experience of his parents and other caregivers into his God images.
Here’s an important point for you to know as you wrap your mind around God images. God images are always formed experientially. God images flow from our relational experiences and how we construe and make sense of those images when we are very young. And that’s critical – we shape our first God images in the first two years of our lives. Those first two years of life have huge impact on the formation of our initial God images. And that makes sense, because our first two years of life have a huge impact on how we experience and understand relationships generally. Our experience of other important caregivers, especially parents, but also grandparents and others shape our psychological expectations of what God is like. And often we are not aware of those expectations. Our assumptions may be unknown to our intellects, to our conscious minds. Simply put, our God images are often unconscious. Our God images may be unconscious, but they still affect us, they still impact us and exercise influences on us. We can choose to accept that we have these problematic God images and deal with them directly, or we can deny that they exist and try to shove them away, ignore them, suppress them, and drive them into the unconscious.
Ok, now for a little speculative Malinoski theology. Bur first, you need to know that I could be wrong about some of these concepts that I am discussing. Now I’m really serious about this. As a professional who has teaches publicly and speculates publicly about the intersection of psychological and Catholicism, I am acutely aware that I can be wrong about things. If any of you listeners, particularly those who are well formed theologically and philosophically, detect that I am ever teaching anything that contradicts the Faith, I want you to tell me. This is really pioneering work we are doing together. For more than a decade, I didn’t teach this kind of thing publically. I wasn’t sure about getting into God images and God concepts, for example. What if I was wrong? What if I started leading people astray? How can I be sure that don’t make mistakes? And then I realized I was making the bigger mistake of burying my talent, the mistake of omission. I needed to become more resilient. To become more resilient, I needed to have a deeper and more abiding confidence in God. I need to know at a deep level that whatever public teaching I did wasn’t happening in a vacuum, with God millions of miles away, leaving me to my own devices, letting me persist in my errors. No. God is near. God is minding me, minding this store. And if I fell down, if I went astray, He would come looking for me, like the shepherd who lost one of 100 sheep and left the 99 behind to find the stray one.
So here’s the thing. We hear about the First Commandment still from time to time, right? You know, the first Commandment, the first one from the Ten Commandments. I am the Lord thy God and Thou Shalt have no strange Gods before me. You might recall from Exodus 32 that Moses brought the that as Moses was bringing the Ten Commandments, newly inscribed in stone tablets by the finger God, the Israelites were dancing around the golden calf. Bad news. Truly terrible. OK. So we know that God really doesn’t like the worship of idols.
But now I have to say, I have never been tempted to melt my wife’s jewelry and make a golden calf and dance around it. No, I mean it, I’ve struggles with a lot of temptations in my life, had my ups and downs, but this calf making business – in all seriousness, calf-making and the dancing and all that has never been on my radar. I listen to people a lot and this whole crafting and worshiping molten idols doesn’t seem to come up much nowadays in Catholic circles, it’s just not a thing, nowadays. Not many confessions lead off with “Forgive me Father for I have sinned, it’s been two weeks since my last confession, and I did it again, I stole some of my Father’s bling, including his favorite gold Saturday Night Fever medallion and some cuff links and stuff and melted them into a calf and I was glorifying it, I was dancing around it again… Did it two times, last Thursday and last Sunday.
So what are the false gods, the idols that we practicing Catholics struggle with in the present age? It’s common in Catholic circles to hear about how money could be our god, or fame, power, career success… Popularity may be our god, or our carefully curated images on social media, or physical health, or a sense of security, or a mansion in Martha’s Vineyard. Yeah. Ok. I get it. These are things that people can pursue with an intensity of religious fervor. But do they really mistake them for God? Really? Like the Israelites did with their calf idol? Let’s go back to Exodus 32. The Israelites were saying to each other “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” So now really. Does anyone say that about money, power, health, social image, security or a mansion in Martha’s Vineyard? No.
Now I’m going to share with you what I think is the number one most prevalent modern day offense that Catholics commit against the first commandment, against the great commandment.
The number one most prevalent sin against the First Commandment that we serious, practicing Catholics commit is….
Allowing our problematic, heretical God images to dominate us, to exert influence on us in subtle but powerful ways. The most prevalent sin against the First Commandment among us serious Catholics is defaulting to our negative God images, and letting them rule us, not resisting their pull on us, letting them draw us away from God.
What I’m saying is that it really harms our relationship with God when we give in to those problematic god images, and when we don’t resolve these problematic God images to reduce their pull on us. It’s not that we create a physical idol and worship our God images directly, usually, but we let them hang around. We give them space and time, we don’t seek to resolve them. We might not even know about God images, we may not think about them or we may try to ignore them, or we just chalk them up to being temptations, or we think just deny or suppress them. So how does that happen?
So let’s say your dark place is feeling alone and abandoned by other people and your mood is depressed. In this dark place you don’t feel like anyone understands you, that no one cares about you. And subtly you generalize this feeling to God. Your Deistic god image is activated, your image of a god that is distant, uncaring, a God who made the world, but then left all of us to our own devices. And now let’s say that you give this Deistic god image some room and space to grow. Since you’re feeling that God is distant, uncaring, unkind, disinterested, not connected, you go with your this feeling, this God image, rather than your God concept, the knowing that God is loving, caring. You let your distant, uncaring, Deistic God image drive your behavior, you don’t resist it. And you know what? You begin to drift away from God. You don’t pray any more, because what’s the point? It feels like God just isn’t listening. You roll with your feelings, let that apathy get a tighter grip. And now things seem even worse. You ask yourself, see how God doesn’t love me? See my sorry plight? But you may not be giving God a chance to reach you. You might not be letting him find you.
God isn’t separating from you – the opposite is true. You are separating from God – it wasn’t primarily your negative God image that separated you from God – it was your response, your giving in to your Deistic God image – buy not seeking God, by acting as though he were indeed uncaring, distant, and uninterested in you, you distanced yourself from him. You treated him, you gave him the worship that was due him if he was indeed and uncaring, distant god.
Here’s the kicker. The more we give into our negative, heretical God images, the more they color our God concepts, leading us to entertain doubts in our intellect about God’s love, his power, his mercy, his goodness. And once we abandon our God concept to the notions of our heretical God images, look out! We are headed for blasphemy.
Let’s go back to Genesis 3 – we started that story last time, let’s pick up where we left off.
7 Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons. 8 And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” 10 And he said, “I heard the sound of thee in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.”
After eating the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve’s eyes were opened. But those opened eyes were still not seeing God accurately. Adam and Eve allowed themselves to be dominated by their problematic God images – we are not absolutely certain, but perhaps they had images of a wrathful god, a god seeking vengeance. This was not who they had known God to be in their original God concept and God image. After the fall, Adam and Eve let their fear drive their behavior – God was looking for them, looking to reconnect with them, reaching out to them, letting them know he was coming so as not to surprise them… think of the tenderness and consideration in that… And they hid. They hid from God. God reached out to them as a tender, loving, firm Father and they hid from Him, they wanted to get away, to flee, to try to “save” themselves.
Now those God images that trouble us usually correspond to the difficulties we have with relational bonds with other people, in our attachment style. Our attachment style is basically how we relate, and connect in close relationships with other people, and there are a variety of psychological factors that impact it. Brown and Elliot describe five conditions for secure attachment and secure relating. I’ve modified these to describe the issues that people experience in negative God images. If there is a problem with a God image, it always is because one or more of following conditions for a secure relationship with God are not met.
1. Feeling seen and known by God
2. Feeling safe and secure with God
3. A sense of being comforted and reassured by God
4. Having a sense the God cherishes you, rejoices in you, and delights in you.
5. Knowing at a deep level that God wills what is best for you.
Note that these do not include the dimensions that are spiritual, this isn’t including the theological virtue of faith. But the grace of faith is still going to perfect nature, it is still going to work with your nature, so even though these psychological factors are obviously not the whole story, they are still important, they still exert an effect.
Now is the last episode, you did a dark place exercise, where you reflected on your God image when you are in one of your own particular dark places. Now you can go back to that God image from that dark place or another one. Get descriptive about how you feel God to be in that place. You can expand your description, maybe include a drawing if you are inclined, but really get back into seeking out that God image, not to give into it, of course, but to identify it.
Now let’s go through the five conditions for secure psychological attachment to God to see which ones you struggle with. Write them down. And now you may be able to reach out relationally to God in the specific ways you need, in order to develop that secure attachment. So if you are hiding like Adam and Eve in the bushes, you can come out and experience being seen and known by God.
Sometimes it’s too much for people to start with God. We might start with Mary. Or St. Joseph. Or a guardian angel.
If you join the Resilient Catholics Carpe Diem community, put it up on the discussion board there – that’s private only for the community members. You can also email it to me at email@example.com
or leave me a voicemail at 317.567.9594 – if you call, be warned that sometimes I pick up the phone and answer, just saying…
And here’s the next big thing. Friday, July 10, 7:30 PM to 8:45 PM Eastern time, I am hosting a Zoom meeting for RCCD community members to hang out and discuss together this podcast episode and the next one, Episodes 22 and 23. So put that on your calendars, register in the Zoom meeting section of the RCCD community discussion boards. It’s going to be great. Friday, July 10, 7:30 PM to 8:45 PM Eastern time. And pray for me, I’m praying for you.
Patronness and Patron