Good-enough God

How do you grow from being an emotionally fragile baby who cries at the drop of a hat to being an emotionally stable adult who can tolerate a large degree of distress? Psychoanalysis has one answer, that of Good-enough Parenting. But what implications does this have for how we see our Father God?

Paediatrician and Psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott had a concept of child development he called Good-enough Parenting. When an infant is young, it needs its primary care giver there pretty much all the time. Gradually you are able to go into the next room without tears, and then its time for a couple of hours birthday party, a sleep-over, a cub-scout camp and - before you know it - they are off to University at the far end of the country! As I am currently working through getting my six month old baby to sleep through the night I am painfully aware of how fast and how slow you can do things!

A good parent gradually withdraws, stands back and increases the distance, and in turn the child learns to slowly carry round inside itself [to internalise] a mental image of the care giver which comforts and reassures. The greater the distance that can be tolerated the greater the security of the attachment. However, no parent ever gets the speed of the withdrawal exactly right. At times they will back off too much, with resultant tears, and at times they will be too protective, with resultant rebellion. But there is an allowable margin for error - that of 'good-enough' parenting. The kids turn out fine and develop a degree of elasticity. In fact, imagine a parent who never made a mistake - how inferior would you feel as an average child, living in the ups and downs of an average life!

This concept is one of the great truths of parenting - no parent would doubt it! But it is interesting to draw some parallels with how Christians often want their Father God to be. I guess our goal is the same as the baby, to have an internalised image of our caring father within us, that we can stay here on earth and do his will without being buffeted by each and every thing that comes our way. Tears on occasion, but not every day.

1. People who want too much of God.

There are some people I know whose goal is to always have an intense feeling of the presence of God. They say things like 'wouldn't it be great if you could go to church and worship God every day'. To be sure, there are times in our lives when we want to do nothing else than feel God?s presence close [like when a child has fallen over and just wants to be snuggled], but I'm not sure this is a good goal for every day. We might become dependant on the moment of the 'worship experience', never able to internalise God in a deep way. This has implications, such as when the chips are down we may say 'where has God gone?' and God would be well within His rights to say 'You never learnt to know me deeply enough - I am still here but am outside the distance you are able to know me at'. Or, like the teenager wanting to break out of the parental routine, this may even increase our chance of rebelling one day. Such an atmosphere will surely make the independence and pride of our sinful nature thrive! Having a parent around all the time is great - for a while'.

2. People who want too little of God.

There are other people I know who say that they have enough, now that they have made a commitment to follow Christ, and don't need to know God any better. Once-saved-is-always-saved, or 'I've been christened so that is OK'. Again, there are times when this is a good starting point, but to me it smacks of people who have tried to stand on their own too soon. We all want to do this [look at a one year old child learning to walk] but usually end up needing some help from parents. A superficial faith wil get you many things but, like the person who is too clingy above, will usually let you down at some point. We may say to God, 'You have become too small in my life compared to these attractions of the world I now see around me', and God would be well within his rights to say, 'You never let me become big enough in your life, and the truth is that I am actually within and around this career/family/retirement you now seek and could have made it so much richer for you.'

3. Transitional objects.

Winnicott speaks of certain objects, such as a favourite toy or teddy, being used as 'comforters?' that allow us more bravado than without. A young child will be more adventurous when holding it's toy than when not. These objects represent to us something of the parental figure we are trying to internalise and, like an extra battery pack, give us a bit more go for a while. But like the battery pack they are only extensions and not perfect replacements. Eventually we will need to plug back into the mains - or develop the skill of in-flight refuelling. Before I lose you with a mixture of metaphors, let me explain. When we are young Christians we are plugged straight into the mains, caught up in either our parents faith or the buzz of our new found salvation. Intermediate maturity is marked by helpful use of man-made yet divinely-inspired structures like a good church, a weekly bible-study group or a helpful liturgy. [Modern churches may wish to add worship band and coffee shop to this list as modern sacraments!] The goal is to go beyond these things and to have internalised large portions of scripture, the essence of discipleship and the cycle of the christian life. Not that we ever leave the bible or church behind, I am not saying that, but that we have internalised the essence of them so that we can return to them afresh and discover deeper and deeper pools - this is an ongoing cycle of maturity.

4. Good-enough God?

So where does this leave God? Is he just a good-ENOUGH parent or is he perfect as we have been taught. This is where the theology and psychology get really applied and, I humbly think, find a perfect fit! The beauty of God is that he does not move and is the same yesterday, today and forever. This means that we can push and pull against him, work out and negotiate our distance for this season of life, and slowly [slowly, slowly, slowly] internalise the heart of the father. We do this in harmony with his holy spirit who has the same goal. Unlike the model of Winnicott, God is the perfect father and doesn't make mistakes. We, however, perceive that he does and this dates right back to Eve who first thought that God did not have her best interests at heart and so fell into sin. This means that although God is perfect, we continually test our relationship with him and in doing so he redeems our sin and the result is a perfect father, a mature child and a soft-yet-strong, firm-yet-elastic relationship with our father in heaven.

So there is always hope. Like Peter, my prayer is that you may 'grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen.' [2 Peter 3v18]
Rob Waller, 18/07/2009