Killing God, Finding God
By Brad D. Strawn
Those who believe in a controlling God will have a harder time coping with tragedy, as it makes it difficult for them to bring their anger to God.
After a period of complaining angrily and deeply grieving, my patient said to me, “Maybe God is not who I thought [he] was.” My patient had finally killed God and now was in the position to begin to know God in new and different ways.
D. W. Winnicott, the British pediatrician-turned-psychoanalyst, was an important figure in contemporary psychodynamic psychotherapy. Winnicott believed that children initially come into the world utterly dependent on their caregivers and in some ways undifferentiated from them. For the infant, there is no “mommy and me” there is just “me.” If the infant has a vague discomfort (e.g., hunger) she becomes upset and presto something arrives (e.g., food) to ease the pain. From the infant’s perspective it feels like they were responsible. If the infant could speak, she might say, “Look what I created!”
Winnicott described this first stage in an infant’s life as a period of omnipotence in which the child experiences the world as pure projection. “Look, I created this!” Over time through a normative series of non-traumatic disillusionments the child learns to give up her omnipotence and by doing so comes to recognize the real and objective other (e.g., mommy).
Over time, children learn that they don’t entirely create the world; they also discover the world. But this is not an easy transition and Winnicott warns us that it usually involves much protest on the part of the infant—what he calls “destruction.” The child “destroys” the parent (in fantasy) through aggression (complaining, protesting, saying “no,” etc.) and if the parent survives (i.e., does not retaliate or abandon the child) the child learns that they are not omnipotent, cannot control others and will begin to experience the parent as a real other, not simply a product of their projections.
However, if a parent is not able to withstand these “destructions” (e.g., crying, tantrums, saying “no,” etc.) without retaliation or abandonment, the child learns that her feelings are not allowed and are overwhelming to the parent. This last point is important because if a child feels that her feelings are overwhelming to the parent she may stay locked into an overvaluation of her impact on the world. In Winnicott’s language the child stays locked in a world of their own projections. They have a terrible and overwhelming sense that they can control others and that they themselves are dangerous.
The Old Testament theologian and scholar, Walter Brueggemann, actually uses the work of Winnicott in his article, “The Costly Loss of Lament.” In that paper Brueggemann argues that if we can’t raise our voice in protest to God, we create false selves (another Winnicott term) that can only sing praises to God. And we also create a false God that can only hear praise. God is a controlling dictator, possibly narcissistic, who doesn’t change and doesn’t want to hear from us. Lucky for us, Brueggemann points out that there are numerous examples in scripture in which the Israelites cry out to God, protest to the Holy One, and even demand that God give an account. These go back as far as the Israelites’ groans under the slavery of Egypt and include the numerous psalms that are categorized as laments. When persons are able to engage in this kind of address toward God it is a reestablishment of the covenantal relationship in which both parties have a voice. Both parties are free, if you will, and cannot be controlled by the other. Humans can speak, God will hear, and both parties can respond.
But if there is no lament, there is no voice, and we end up with this false self of compliance and a false God tyrant who must be responsible for our pain. Not only does this mean that humans live by means of “coercive obedience” but that questions of theodicy must not be voiced. If God can’t take our complaint (i.e., our aggression) then how do we go to the throne demanding that something needs to change?
I want to suggest that there is a corollary here for some Christians when they go through a period of pain, trauma or heartache in their lives and subsequently can’t square their experience with their understanding of God. Some individuals give up God altogether, because they can’t reconcile their previous idea of God (what psychologists commonly call God representation) with what they have gone through. Others cling to their original image of God and reframe their understanding of their pain. They may say things like, “God is using this to teach me something,” “I have brought this on myself”, or “If I just have more faith and patience surely God will deliver me.” These individuals can’t be angry with God—they can’t destroy or kill God and subsequently they stay locked in a world of their own projections. They stay stuck in the image of God that they have created (with the help of parents, faith tradition, etc.) unable to see their way clear to a new, possibly more accurate image of God. They develop a false self (i.e., one that can only praise) in relationship with a false God (controlling).
But some lucky believers may find a community (or therapy) that can come alongside them and support their grief and even anger at God (destruction). If these individuals are assisted in finding and giving voice to their pain and sorrow they may be able to go through a similar process to the young infant described above. They need permission to angrily complain to God, to call God to give an account, to “kill God” and see if God can survive. Of course what these individuals are killing is their projection of God. They are destroying the image of a controlling God that they have created from the fragments of their history. On the other side of this process, they just may find the more open God of uncontrolling love.
My client arrived at the conclusion that perhaps God was not who she had always thought God was only after a period in which we created space for her to destroy or kill God… with her complaints, groans, and protests. And believe me, she had lots of legitimate reasons to be angry! When God didn’t strike her dead, or abandon her, and when I didn’t leave or shame her (beliefs she had internalized from her faith community and her interactions with parents), there was space for her to begin to “find” God in new and different ways. Maybe God had not rescued her from a life of trauma, maybe God had not delivered her from the consequences of that evil, but maybe—just maybe—God was still at work. Perhaps she could get to know this new, more open, uncontrolling God without throwing him away, living with a false self, or living with a false God.
Brad D. Strawn is the Evelyn and Frank Freed Chief of Spiritual Formation and Integration, Dean of the Chapel and Chair of the Integration of Psychology & Theology at Fuller Seminary. He is co-author of Enhancing Christian Life: How Extended Cognition Augments Religious Community and other books. He has a private practice and is an ordained elder and part-time pastor in the Church of the Nazarene (https://www.fuller.edu/faculty/brad-d-strawn/).
To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Love Does Not Control: Therapists, Psychologists, and Counselors Explore Uncontrolling Love