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The Unveiling of God in adversity

For a long time now, I have been aware of a discontent within myself regarding how we as Christians support those who find themselves struggle or overwhelmed. The most common phrases I hear thrown around is to “just pray about it” or “take it to Jesus,” and sometimes the idea of God rewarding these behaviours too is heard. I find these comments, despite being well intended, can come across quite condescending; I feel no more supported or closer to God, and if I am praying and people are suggesting this, does it mean I need to pray harder? Am I even praying right? I have been on a journey with this and want to offer a helpful critique in the hope that we all might experience a glimpse of God’s Kingdom – a glimpse that isn’t dependant on our efforts but that invites God to reveal Himself.

I will start by briefly discussing Attachment Theory and use it as a basis for my critique before thinking theologically on its implications, then offer a way forward, before concluding.

Attachment styles

Attachment Theory was pioneered by John Bowlby off the back of Mary Ainsworth’s research in which they created the Strange Situations experiment in 1969. This study observed children from 18 months to twelve years of age and watched their interactions with their mothers as well as strangers. This research led to four classes of attachment, which Aundi Kolber summarises as the following:

Secure attachment:

Those who carry a secure attachment into adulthood typically experience greater success in relationships, adjust to difficulties more easily and are able to draw upon better coping skills to self-soothe as necessary.

Anxious-Ambivalent attachment:

Those with this attachment style struggle to directly state their needs to their parents, fear abandonment by those closest to them, and carry a belief that though others haven’t disappointed them yet, they will.

Avoidant attachment:

They have learnt to isolate themselves to find calm, operating from a practical, emotionally distant, and self-reliant sphere as a way to disconnect from internalised feelings of rejection.

Disorganised attachment:

Those with this attachment style tend to show elements of all three other styles. This tends to be down to an experience of Trauma during childhood, where the body’s systems get overwhelmed and don’t allow the mind to process information properly, leading to not knowing how to react.

What I find fascinating is that Kolber confirms that research shows we will likely project whatever attachment style we adopt from our caregivers onto our relationship with God. So, if you have a secure attachment style with your parents/carer, you will feel more certain in your relationship with God and His steadfastness and find yourself being able to commune and hear from God. However, if you have an anxious or avoidant attachment style, you might be less aware of Gods closeness, or believes that God is disappointed in you, and could easily find yourself experiencing what the ancient mystic saint John of the Cross called ‘the dark night of the soul’.

Once again, we are drawn to the awareness that our previous experiences of relationships, especially those which occur during childhood/adolescence, shape our outlook on life, faith and relationship dynamics. We must be careful not to view those with less secure relationships (and those who have experienced more adversity) as people who have something less to offer. What we will find is they are the very place for God to reveal Himself.

Before we unpack an appropriate response to adversity, however, we must first critically observe common approaches and ask ourselves this question: is there a better way?

A critical observation of pastoral responses to adversity

One thing I notice when we offer support to those who are going through adversity is that we tend to project a secure faith onto them, one which I have no doubt a lot of us experience, but when our emphasis becomes about our response to adversity we can end up on shaky ground. I hear many people say things like “Just pray and trust God with it,“Draw near to Jesus and He will reward you,” as well as affirming that God is giving us these trials at this moment for a reason.

As much as these are very well meaning, when we make something about our response, instead of Jesus and His response, we come very close to a message of prosperity. Instead of wealth and physical health, the message is one of spiritual health, but neglects how the mind, body and spirit are integrated. Kolber suggests that when we prioritise this view and strive for more faith and to pray just that bit more about our situations, we can spiritually ‘white knuckle’ it. Kolber goes on to say:

We ignore, shame, or disregard our humanity. As a result, when we speak of God’s love, we don’t mean that He loves all parts of us; we mean that he loves our spirits. Or we pray as though we value our flesh and bones, but we don’t think the pain we experience in our bodies affects our whole person… through the lens of trauma-informed faith, we can see the consequences are dire.

What does it mean to not disregard our humanity then, when we face adversity in light of the God who heals, redeems and reconciles? To bring a more theological angle, I want to reflect on Jurgen Moltmann as what he has to say about ‘experiencing God’ within his book the Trinity and the Kingdom of God will prove to be helpful. Moltmann, while considering the modern implications of experiencing God within the self, draws his conclusion as such:

The only experiences perceived would then be those which confirmed the self and justified its condition; and interest in experience of the self is then in fact fear of experiencing the other. This means that the capacity for wonder and the readiness for pain are lost. The modern culture of subjectivity has long since been in danger of turning into a 'culture of narcissism', which makes the self its own prisoner and supplies it merely with self-repetitions and self-confirmations.

Considering our pastoral response to those in adversity, it is helpful for us to understand ourselves through this lens and to reflect on whether our well-meaning responses are really helpful, or whether we are fearful in truly accepting the reality of the person in front of us? Have we lost the readiness to offer compassion, or to use its latin origin, to co-suffering? I think we have.

Moltmann reminds us to consider God’s experience of us as a way of allowing God to draw near to us.

The more [we] understand God's experience, the more deeply the mystery of God's passion is revealed to [us]… At the moments of God's profoundest revelation there is always suffering: the cry of the captives in Egypt; Jesus' death cry on the cross; the sighing of the whole enslaved creation for liberty. If a person once feels the infinite passion of God's love which finds expression here, then [we] understand the mystery of the triune God. God suffers with us - God suffers from us - God suffers for us: it is this experience of God that reveals the triune God.

It appears to me, that there is then something sacred about going through adversity, or not having a security of relationship with God. I want to offer a different approach for us when we find ourselves needing to pastorally support a friend, one that doesn’t rely on us projecting our faith experience onto the other but seeks to allow God to meet them where they find themselves.

A shift of focus

When we talk of healing, our minds tend to focus on what our over medicalised culture views as curing, which is to have the absence of something negative, whether that be illness, pain, or negative emotions. As we have discovered, however, through Kolber we notice that when living a trauma-informed faith it is virtually impossible to be fully absent of previous negative experiences, as Bessel Van Der Kolk famously puts it: the body keeps the score. We also see through Scripture nowhere where this mentality is encouraged or explicitly mentioned.

John Swinton highlights the closest thing to our current understanding of healing is found in the idea of Shalom. This word means peace, but a deeper peace that incapsulates attributes such as liberty, justice, mercy and wholeness; but at its core it is to be in relationship with God. And the beautiful thing of our relationship with God is that it is entirely dependent on Jesus’ faithfulness. It is why in 1 Corinthians 12, when Paul asks for the thorn in his flesh to be removed, Jesus’ response is that His grace is sufficient, or in the Doxology of Jude: Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of His glory… It is Jesus who makes us whole.

When our approach is not to bring someone out of pain, but to offer compassion and to simply be present with them (this is a Daniel Siegel idea, who is a psychologist that believes being present is what people genuinely need most to heal and feel seen/known, and be secure in a relationship - it is also what Moltmann means when he says experiencing the other), we open the possibility of someone experiencing a deeper kind of healing. Not meaning there is an absence of pain, but there being the very presence of Jesus through His Spirit.

What I anticipate will happen will be something similar to that of the story of Acts 10, where Peter meets with Cornelius and through his interaction with this gentile, someone deemed outside of Gods promise, Peter proclaims in v.34 ‘truly now I understand’. Where Peter thought it was his mission to convert (to turn others to God), there seems to be a conversion of Peter himself as He corrects His understanding and turns more securely in a Godward direction. Similarly, when we open ourselves up to being present with those who struggle and allow ourselves to experience what they are going through I believe we too will be able to say ‘truly now I understand’, as we become aware of God, who meets us in our adversity and reveals Himself there.

To conclude

So what should our response be to those who find themselves in adversity, but haven’t got the certainty of God’s closeness? Or for someone who feels that God is disappointed in them? It appears that saying “just pray about it” or “just press into God and He’ll reward you” are, despite being well intended, far short of capturing a glimpse of God’s Kingdom.

In reality, we must allow ourselves to experience what the other is going through. We must not be afraid to experience the pain but allow it to enter us. (Those of us who are more emotionally driven might tend to feel the emotions/feelings of the other.) This invites us to a slower but better way. And I think as we begin this journey, we might too, like Peter, proclaim “truly I now understand” as we discover that God is already at work in the midst of suffering and pain, revealing Himself. As Moltmann puts it: God suffers with us - God suffers from us - God suffers for us. It is this experience that reveals the triune God.

Or to put it even more simply, we cannot allow God to reveal Himself if we are always certain and secure. Those who find themselves experiencing adversity are fertile ground ready to receive new life and are therefore a blessing to the Church and should be valued as such.

1 Comment

Ellie Gionis
Ellie Gionis
Sep 09, 2023

The day my mum died, a friend of the family came and sat with my dad and I on the couch as we cried. Our friend is a counselor and trained therapist, so I thought he would be able help to stop me crying. I asked, "How do I make it stop?" He said, "You can't," and then he continued to sit with me as I wept.

All I wanted in that moment was an answer to make it not hurt so much, but my friend, very wisely, knew that there was nothing that would immeditaly take the pain away - even prayer. God never once took my grief away, and, for that, I am so grateful.

In that moment,…

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