What happens in your early years can have profound consequences on the way you connect with God, says Christian therapist Krispin Mayfield. But regardless of whether your childhood was happy or horrendous, we can all experience more of the love of a good Father
When you were born your first instinct was to reach out for connection. You cried hoping that someone would soothe you. You burrowed into your mother for warmth. And while your eyesight wasn’t yet fully developed, you sought out your parents’ faces. Like every other baby you wanted to know you weren’t alone. You called out into the world, hoping that someone would hear and respond.
As you grew older, you found other ways to connect with your parents or caregivers. When you were a toddler, you could waddle up to them for hugs. You could begin to talk about feeling sad, mad or worried, in the hope they would respond, perhaps picking you up or talking in a soothing voice to calm you.
If they responded with love and care enough of the time (after all, no parent is perfect), it created a secure attachment between you. It cemented a belief that if you found yourself in need of connection and closeness, all you needed to do was call out – to share your feelings and let your parents or carers know that you needed them. If we experience this secure attachment in childhood, it creates a secure internal blueprint for our future relationships.
YOUR ATTACHMENT STYLE SHOWS THE UNMET RELATIONAL NEEDS YOU EXPERIENCED GROWING UP
But unfortunately, not all of us had this experience. Some parents struggle to respond to their children in the ways they need, for a variety of reasons. Mental health challenges, financial stress, a difficult relationship, or their own childhood traumas are just a few of the many reasons that adults can find it hard to be present enough for their children to create a secure attachment.
If you grew up in a home like this, you likely realised early on that creating an emotional connection was not as straightforward as simply calling out for it. You had to learn some strategies.
For many of us, the strategies that develop in early childhood inform all of our important relationships later in life – with partners, close friends, children and even God. In fact, your attachment style has much to say about your spiritual life, especially about the times you feel disconnected from God – and the strategies you use to feel close to him again.
These strategies, designed to cope with insecure attachment styles, often show up even if you remember having a happy childhood. Children in healthy families can still learn the nuances of how to get and keep emotional connection in ways that are dependent on the personalities and relational styles of their parents or carers. As you grow up you use these strategies in other relationships – including in your spiritual life.
We all have occasions of insecurity in relationships – times of miscommunication, rupture or conflict. To understand your attachment style and why you might be feeling far from God, consider how you deal with times of disconnection. Behavioural patterns we observe in our earthly relationships can provide clues to the kind of attachment style we developed from our family of origin and help us in our relationship with God.
When there’s a rift with your spouse, friend or family member, for example, what strategies do you use to reconnect? Do you frantically try to sort out the problem, anxiously seeking to close the distance? Or maybe you stuff down your feelings of discomfort, pretending that everything is OK while you wait for the smoke to clear?
Perhaps you criticise yourself for causing friction in the relationship? These different methods of dealing with disconnection fall into three primary categories of attachment: anxious, shutdown and shame-filled.
Anxious attachment is when you take it upon yourself to work hard to keep God close. You’re convinced that the moment you relax, you’ll lose your connection. You feel it’s entirely your job to maintain the relationship and might seek that closeness through prayer, reading scripture, going to church events or ensuring that you’ve confessed every single sin. It’s exhausting to live your spiritual life this way, but it makes sense if you’ve been told that it’s your responsibility to maintain close connection with those you love.
It’s not unlike the person who constantly worries about their relationships, always asking: “Are you angry with me?” or: “Is there a problem between us?” – even when everything is going smoothly. If you can identify with this person, you know that you don’t choose to engage in this way. You learned early on in life that connection is easily lost, so being hyper alert to potential problems was the most effective way to keep connection.
Perhaps your parents or carers expected you to be the model child, pulling away or shaming you if you fell below their unreasonable standards. You learned to read body language, attuning yourself to any potential fallout that could cause a rift in the relationship. It makes sense, therefore, for you to anxiously work to keep others close, including God.
A different way of managing closeness with God is through a shutdown attachment style. In the shutdown spiritual life, theological truths take precedent over feelings. You enjoy studying Christianity, hoping it will help you escape emotional experiences, and you conquer any emotions that seem at odds with faith, such as fear or sadness, for example.
You might find yourself doing acts of service as a way of connecting with God, while avoiding the more vulnerable parts of the life of faith – like sharing intimate emotions with God or others. You might love learning about doctrine or Church history, but feel uncomfortable with personal conversations that arise in small groups.
GOD IS DELIGHTED TO HAVE OUR PRESENCE, EVEN IF WE’RE COVERED IN PIG SLOP AND WE’VE LOST OUR WAY
This pattern usually develops when you grow up in a home where emotions aren’t welcome. Perhaps your parents punished you, or pulled away from you when you showed vulnerability, fear, sadness or anger, so you learned to hide your emotions in order to keep connection.
Now, you keep others at arm’s length, though you really do want connection. Life can feel like a balancing act of wanting others close, but not too close. You take this same approach with God, worried that if you’re sad, anxious or angry, God will pull away. You use Bible verses, or statements like: “Oh well, God’s in control” to pretend you’re not feeling certain emotions. You’re afraid to share your feelings with God, believing that he sees them as a lack of faith, so you bury them deep inside, sometimes beyond your own conscious knowledge.
Lastly, some relate to God through a shame-filled attachment style. Convinced God could never like you as you are, you strive to change, all the while shaming and blaming yourself for never being able to change enough. You can’t become holy enough, but at least you can prove to God you know how truly disgusting you are. Faith becomes about focusing on how unlovable you are, even though God has chosen to love you.
This style develops in a family where you don’t have a sense that your parents or carers like you. If they don’t like you, it’s easy to conclude that you’re the problem – you’re broken or defective. Seeking closeness just ends in painful rejection.
You find yourself caught in a dilemma: do I come close and risk the pain of rejection again, or do I stay safe by keeping my distance, but live with incredible loneliness? You might end up relating to God in the same way. Though you know you’re saved, it’s hard to not feel like God is just tolerating you.
As a teenager, and even into later life, I always felt like God was keeping me around only because one day I would be made perfect. I thought God wanted that version of me, not the current, flawed version that existed on earth. So, seeking connection with God was difficult. I wanted closeness, but I also believed I would be met with constant disappointment and judgement.
How to connect with God
If you have an anxious attachment style, here’s an exercise that can help build security. Set aside some time for prayer. Rather than trying to accomplish something during this time (like hearing from God or petitioning him) simply quiet your body and mind and relax in the presence of God.
There is no goal and no ‘wrong way’ to do it. Just sit quietly and, if you like, remind yourself of God’s ever-present love. Set a timer on your phone – perhaps five minutes – so you can be quiet and present. This teaches your mind and body that being with God is not about striving but resting.
If you have a shutdown attachment style, it can be hard to know how to engage emotionally – but here’s one idea. Pick a narrative passage of scripture, whether it’s a story from the Old Testament, one about Jesus or a parable. Rather than rushing to understand what it means, choose one of the characters and imagine what it would be like to be in their shoes. Before you begin reading, take a moment to clear your mind.
Slow down to notice any particular details about the person mentioned in the text, and consider what this says about the story of their life. Ask yourself: What is this person hoping for in this situation? What is important to them? What are they feeling as these events take place? This can be a way of balancing out the ‘left brain’ theological approaches you might be accustomed to in order to engage your emotional response to scripture.
If you have a shame-filled attachment style, it can be hard to imagine that God likes you. Changing this belief can be difficult because feeling delight is more of a sensory experience than a statement. You can tell if someone likes you, not always because they say it, but because of their facial expressions, tone of voice and body language. Unfortunately, none of these are present when we are connecting with an invisible God.
So, try this: take a few minutes to sit somewhere quiet. Think of someone who likes you. Imagine how your body feels in their presence and what their face looks like. Next, remind yourself that this is a tiny reflection of how God feels about you. This simple exercise helps connect our day-to-day life with the reality of God’s never-changing compassionate stance towards us.
Secure with God
Your attachment style shows the unmet relational needs you experienced growing up and points the way to how God wants to meet those needs and bring healing. Whether it’s anxiously clinging, shutting down emotions or shaming ourselves (or all three), these behaviours illustrate the kind of love we truly long for, and that we were created to receive.
If you recognise yourself in the anxious attachment description, you likely have a hard time relaxing into relationships. While rest is one of the hallmarks of Jesus’ teaching and Hebrew law, we’ve often been given messages in the Church that make resting with God impossible. We’re told that the life of faith means being constant in prayer, Bible study or spiritual activities, in a way that doesn’t allow for respite.
To move into a more secure way of relating to God, finding ways to practise rest is key. Contemplative prayer practices (see box) can help calm your mind and body so that you can experience God’s rest in a concrete way.
THE UNCONDITIONAL LOVE OF THE FATHER LEADS TO FEELING SECURE WITH GOD
If you identify with the shutdown attachment style, the path to security is through engaging emotionally in your spiritual life. Intimacy with God – and others – comes through identifying your feelings and sharing them.
We see this theme throughout scripture and in particular through those people who share their emotional experience with God – in the Psalms, the prophets and Paul’s letters. Even Jesus shares his fear on the night before his crucifixion.
However, it’s important to recognise that if it has never felt safe to share emotions in your relationships, this can feel like a big risk. It can be helpful to find safe people with which to take that first step. Sometimes just identifying an emotion and sharing it with God in prayer is a good place to start.
If you find yourself with a shame-filled attachment style, the way to security and healing is discovering God’s delight for you. In the Church we often misunderstand God’s grace, even though we know that Jesus came to save sinners. As we see in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), God is simply delighted to have our presence, even if we’re covered in pig slop and we’ve lost our way.
In order to feel less shame with God, we need to experience that kind of delight. Consider the pure joy that comes over the father when his son returns. His response is not: “I love you despite who you are”, it’s the true pleasure of being in the presence of his son. There’s no qualifications or caveats to this kind of love.
Just as a baby and young child receives great comfort from a close relationship with their parent or carer, adults need to experience the unconditional love of their Father to feel more secure with God.
Finding that kind of delight can happen in your faith community, where you can experience love through the smiling faces and warm body language of others. It can also happen through engaging with the stories in scripture where we see God’s love and compassion on full display.
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus draws close to people. Reading some of these accounts might be a good place to start: Jesus touching the leper in Mark 1, compassionately engaging with the widow in Luke 7, or dining with Zacchaeus in Luke 19.
SECURE ATTACHMENT IN CHILDHOOD CREATES AN INTERNAL BLUEPRINT FOR FUTURE RELATIONSHIPS
As a therapist, I’ve had the privilege of walking with many clients, helping them understand their attachment style and the tools and techniques they use for connection, both spiritually and with the people in their lives. Once they have identified their style, they use it as a roadmap towards healing – and many have discovered restorative practices that build attachment security.
Greater emotional freedom has come as they have found new ways to engage with God and others, resting in their relationships, engaging in an emotionally healthy way and seeing themselves as loveable.
When we understand our attachment style, we see more clearly the steps we can take towards a healthy and secure relationship with God. It can inform our spiritual practices so that moments of disconnect and rupture become less, and our experiences of rest, emotional engagement and delight in the Father’s presence become more.