Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Touch: (spiritual) Attachment Disorder

You hear people say all the time that our image of God is often a reflection of our relationship with our Fathers. Just in case that's true, I give my sons about 20 hugs a day. (Okay, the hugs are mostly because I need them).

Last week I listened to an NPR broadcast on This American Life titled Unconditional Love. One of the stories dealt with an adopted son who struggled with Attachment Disorder. He grew up in an orphanage and never received the love, care, and attention he needed to develop emotionally, or morally. Children who have attachment disorders never develop a conscience so they are essentially sociopaths. The boy in this story was violent and destructive. He hated his parents and would reject any help or affection. The earlier treatment for AD (a couple decades ago) used to involve yelling degrading profanities at your child until they were completely emotionally beaten down. Then a family could hope to form a bond...Yikes! This therapy was so difficult to watch that many seasoned therapists could hardly stomach it.

Luckily, for this family a new, less harsh treatment was showing signs of success - proximity treatment. The child could not be further than three feet from his mother 24/7, for weeks (except for bathroom and sleeping). If the child refused the treatment, the proximity decreased. For Attachment Disorder children being around people is punishment, so instead of "time outs" they are given "time ins." The child also received treatments of prolonged eye contact and prolonged hugging and snuggling. The amazing thing is, it worked. The child explained it this way. (Paraphrased) "I just couldn't keep hating her. Because she was just right there next to me. If she told me I couldn't do something, I used to just shut myself in my room and hate her, but when she was right next to me, I had I had to stop hating her." When the boy graduated top in his Jewish confirmation class, he was awarded the honor of giving a speech at their synagogue. Listening in my car, I was almost moved to tears. I kept thinking this has such huge spiritual implications.

Recently I went to a harvest party to a church with my kids. It was fun. They got candy and balloon animals...and a tract to help them know how to get to heaven. It was all really standard stuff. The second spiritual law said that our sin separates us from God, because God can't be around sin. Bible Reference: some obscure passage from Isaiah. I started reading the little comic book style tract to my son because he thought it looked cool and he wanted me to read it. When I got to step two, I had to stop. Do I really want my son to believe that when he's naughty God won't want to be around him? Like God is ready to shun him and give him the silent treatment when he messes up? If that's the case, how do we understand God's grace, love, and forgiveness? I want my son to have an image of God's open arms not his cold shoulder. And also, if God is omnipresent, how can God be separated from us?

Why is Spiritual Law #2 so important for so many Christians? Are we threatened by God's grace? Is this law necessary to complete the neat salvation formula we have created? It seems to me that the New Testament describes holiness as Attachment Therapy, as Proximity Therapy for a humanity that has not had the necessary bonding with our Heavenly Father. Isn't that why Jesus came to dwell among us, to put his life on the line? To heal our image of God and to somehow reconcile us to God. To reattach us to God. Maybe when we act out, blow it, mess up, God pursues us even more. God increases God's proximity. He hold us close. One of my favorite songs to lead is a song by Enter the Worship Circle.

"Hold me near, when I'm restless. Hold me near when I'm bitter. Hold me near, when I'm rebellious. Hold me near until the end."

38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)


  1. Great insights, Brad. Enjoyed the connection between theology and psychology.

    It's only one parable, but I like the image of God we're given in how the Father of the Prodigal goes even beyond open arms and charges after his son--seemingly regardless of whether or not the son was genuinely repenting or just about to deliver his prepared speech. The Father seems to have wanted to be with his son--repentant or not, clean or unclean.

  2. I've been reading "The Science of Parenting" and have been struggling with the tantrum section. The book distinguishes between two types..."Little Nero" type (characterized by manipulating parents, more of an angry type), and a distressed type (involving extreme emotions and real tears, even though irrational). They say for the distressed type, you should just hold your child and comfort them, never give a time out. So I tried that with Zac today and he just kept throwing one tantrum after another, with no happy breaks. I finally gave up (for my own emotional sanity) and resorted back to my normal parenting technique...if I can't get the kid to calm down and see other alternatives, then I put them in time out and tell them to come out as soon as they are ready. I gave Zac lots and hugs and kisses along the way, told him I loved him, and that I hoped he could come out soon and join us. Then I laid him down and left. In about 3 minutes, he started asking if he could come out, I told him he could if he stopped crying, and now he's been content the rest of the night. All that to say, I hope that I am not creating some attachment complex with my sons to think that I can only be around them when they are "good". Also, maybe this 2nd spiritual law theology has more to do with our own psychological biases...we can't truly understand real, complete, unconditional forgiveness and love.