God-Attachment: Understanding the Role of God in Family Systems Theory

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God-Attachment: Understanding the Role of God in Family Systems Theory

God and Family Attachment

            Knabb and Emerson (2013) explained the emerging theme of attachment in the psychology of religion. This fourth wave seeks to establish God as a member of the family system. God serves as a secure base for human connection. They assert that the metanarrative of Scripture involves a circle of attachment between God and his people remedying in the life and death of Jesus. The fall represents humanity’s break in attachment to one another and God. The atonement represents Jesus’ sacrifice to repair said attachment rupture. A shift of enlightenment happens when one moves away from the illusion of self-reliance to the truth of being made in the image of God as one of God’s children. This union and intimacy with God provide relational restoration for all human relationships. A primary understanding of what it means to be made in the image of God involves the idea that humans are relational like God.

According to Knabb and Emerson (2013), emotions such as shame, estrangement, and separation are overcome through Jesus’ work on the cross. Israel is God’s family which continually abandons him. They continue to be exiled in various forms throughout the metanarrative of Scripture. This distinguishes Christian spirituality from some new age beliefs in the sense that there is a distinct need for salvation through Jesus’ atonement. A better understanding of what one needs saving from comes through an attachment lens of a broken relationship with God. Christian clients should be encouraged to turn to God as the ultimate secure attachment figure especially when faced with insecure attachment patterns. One-third of children exhibit an insecure attachment and therefore might present to pastoral counseling with chaotic relationships as adults. Furthermore, understanding a client’s attachment style will be telling in how they attach to God. The pastoral counselor can also become a secure attachment relationship for the congregant.

Knabb and Emerson (2013) reported that this concept is a very confusing one for Christians, but it appears that the end goal of mindfulness practices is union with God. This dynamic is different than mindfulness’s end goal of realization of the no-self. Yet, an awakening to one’s being made in the image of God on an experiential level is absolutely in alignment with Christian mystical tenants and sound theology. Again, the primary focus of Christian meditation is growing in the identity of one being created in the image of God. This could be considered Christian enlightenment.

            Per Hoover (2018), Jones et al. (2021), Knabb (2012), and Knabb et al. (2019), the effects of Centering Prayer include knowing God better, releasing the false self, letting go of loneliness, and reducing tension. Although God is already present, Centering Prayer allows one to know God better. It is not to be used to reap benefits for the self or propagate more self-help based on existential shame. Instead, the experience of knowing God serves to glorify God. Knabb (2019) noted two other studies that sought to establish the efficacy of Christian-sensitive practice in the amelioration of psychiatric distress. Therefore, the research provides weak evidence for the use of contemplative prayer as an integrative therapy intervention. MBCT and Centering Prayer have considerable overlap in intention and practice with Centering Prayer providing a needed Christian alternative for Christians.

            Knabb and Bates (2020) and Rosales and Tan (2017) likewise expand upon this understanding of contemplative Christian practices for use in healing mental-health symptoms. Buddhist meditation is an insight meditation used to understand impermanence, suffering, and no-self. Christian meditation is focused on developing an increased relationship with God. The goal is to increase our trust in God by simply resting at the feet of Jesus without agenda. Surrender is a key element in redeeming a fallen will. They noted promise for modalities such as the Cloud of Unknowing in fostering resilience and healing.

Family Systems Theory and Spirituality

            According to Heiden-Rootes et al. (2010), there is an emerging body of literature regarding the integration of FST and spirituality which involves a central focus on God as a member of the family system. Bowen (1976) described the use of triangulation by poorly differentiated family systems as a means to deal with the system’s anxiety. Interpersonal capacity in these systems deals with one’s emotional reactivity among members of that system. Differentiation involves balancing an emotional sense of togetherness and separateness in search of optimal relational functioning. Triangulation is a potentially dangerous emotional dynamic that involves the use of a third person to manage the relational anxiety of a dyad. Parents often triangulate a child to form emotional alliances against one another to handle the conflict of the marriage. Therapeutic intervention would involve helping survivors learn how to de-triangulate themselves from emotional conflicts. Survivors must also learn how anxiety motivates and drives their relationships. Survivors need to learn other means of soothing their anxiety in the face of relationship chaos to respond from a place of intentionality. Moreover, God can serve as a triangulated member of the family system to help couples manage anxiety. Survivors struggle with existential uncertainty, and perpetual doubting of unknowable truth.

Heiden-Rootes et al. (2010) noted that spiritual seeking has been growing as a movement since the 1950s. Seeking is actually a mature form of differentiating from the family of origin. However, there is a form of spiritual seeking that is driven by relational anxiety and emotional reactivity. A healthy birth family allows for a healthy exploration of a unique spirituality with healthy boundaries. This study found that spiritual seeking might be a means of garnering additional space in an adult survivor’s birth family in an attempt to achieve a preferred sense of self that is distinct yet connected to the birth family. Anxiety-driven seeking is not inherently pathological and can lead to growth. Emerging adulthood is normally characterized by differing seasons of being closer and farther apart from one’s family of origin. Spiritual seeking may actually be a necessary developmental task toward maturity and health for an adult survivor. Table 3 presents the reader with direct access to the most pertinent parts of the data set to draw their own conclusions regarding how to apply the findings.

Examined by Glenn (2014), the importance of pastoral counselors in assisting adult survivors of family betrayal to navigate complex issues associated with familial trauma and spirituality. In this space, survivors can explore safe relationships and overcome shame by shedding new light on their identity as children of God made in his image. It is common for this group to embark upon spiritual seeking as emerging adults. Unlike Christian or secular clinical counseling, pastoral counseling offers a unique perspective on attachment restoration between both God and humans. God-attachment seems to play an integral role in the healing of insecure attachment patterns with avoidant caregivers. Family systems included God as a member of the family system in certain cases and worldviews.

Family Betrayal

            Delker et al. (2018) examined the emerging term family betrayal (FB). This term is used to identify a very specific subset of betrayal trauma associated with the betrayal of the family of origin in enabling abuse. This can happen through propagating abuse itself, or by failing to believe or defend the abused in the face of admitting the abuse. This abuse can be especially painful in the context of attachment failures. Lack of support, failure to believe the confession of abuse, or blaming the victim for the abuse could potentially hurt worse than the abuse itself. Often, survivors rely on their abusers for necessities of life and are, therefore, subject to betrayal blindness. They began to lose the ability to identify unsafe people and suffer from chronic relationship chaos. Each incident of family betrayal in childhood greatly increased a survivor’s odds of developing PSTD rooted in family trauma.

Family Systems Theory

            Mitchel and Anderson (1981) made a unique correlation between family systems theory and pastoral counseling. They assert that the emotional process of leaving and cleaving is biblically mandated, and a central prerequisite to marriage often overlooked by pastoral counselors. They recommend that the pastoral counselor help the engaged couple navigate the emotional crisis of leaving home. It can take years to emotionally leave home due to the intensity of the emotional bonds people form with their family of origin. This process of leaving the mother and father is the primary task of marriage. Their theory is based on the precept that the family system as a whole is greater than the parts. Per FST, each member maintains a role in the system to maintain its balance. Healthy families can navigate leaving home without much fanfare, but unhealthy systems will protest any attempts to emotionally leave home.

Continued by Mitchel and Anderson (1981), pastoral counselors are encouraged to assist the couple in making sure adequate emotional distance exists around the marriage to ensure the development of a unique identity as a couple. The pastoral counselor must also help the couple understand how they operated in triangulated systems in their birth family. Often, one spouse will emotionally join the other family, and the new spouse will be considered an outsider to the new family system. The role of a scapegoat should also be identified along with other roles family systems use to avoid their emotional work. Often, the ways one is emotionally attached to the family of origin remain unconscious. The differentiation process is important regardless of whether one marries. An example of leaving home might mean continuing to have a close relationship with the birth family without playing one’s assigned role in the system anymore. Yet, leaving home is vital if one wishes to form a primary attachment bond with a spouse. In-laws who are upset that the child is leaving home tend to project their anger onto the perceived problem: their new in-law. This new daughter or son-in-law is responsible for the separation in their eyes.

Intergenerational Trauma, Attachment, and Spiritual Healing

Addressed by Doucet and Rovers (2010), the phenomenon of generational trauma in the context of attachment transmission. A trauma of this magnitude impacts a survivor’s ability for relational capacity. Survivors also end up with perpetually high levels of arousal and limbic activation that disrupt their ability to function. Generational trauma is the transmission of trauma from parents to children. Parental attachment disorders are the primary culprit of generational trauma. A renewed sense of agency is vital for the recovery of adult survivors. Spiritual interventions prove efficacious to this end. Religious interventions can aid in resiliency and protective factors. Children attached to an avoidant mother showed increased religiosity in adult life because the role of God was compensating for a suitable attachment figure in childhood. It is common for those who lacked adequate attachment bonds as children to seek God and the faith community for help meeting their emotional and security needs. Adult survivors can rely on a benevolent theistic deity to restore a sense of personal identity and innate trust. For this reason, the role of the pastoral counselor is unique in the ability to aid survivors in relying on God to meet unmet attachment needs. Table 4 presents pertinent quotes from the data set for the reader to make their own judgments regarding the interpretation of the data findings.

The argument regarding Christian yoga appears to draw more specific and heated debate regarding whether or not CAM should be utilized by Christians.

Christian Yoga Opposition

            As explained by Brown (2018), evangelicals have a long history of adapting cultural issues to Christianity with debate regarding whether or not the item being adapted is inherently adaptable or not. She asserted that Americans spent $16 billion on yoga in 2016. An argument exists regarding the ability of practice such as yoga to be a neutral container or tool. Proponents of yoga claim that it does not offer ways to believe in God, but rather ways to know God on a path of self-realization. The end goal of Ashtanga yoga is samadhi defined as becoming one with God. Yoga falls under the category of embodied mindfulness practices. Brown (2018) explained that few people still believe that yoga is a purely spiritual practice. Rather, the debate that exists centers around whether it is a complementary or antagonistic practice to faith. She pointed out an argument that one cannot have Christian Ouija boards or astrology, and therefore one cannot have Christian yoga. Brown highlighted the common argument that yoga is Hindu, and therefore not available to Christians to adapt or repurpose.

Brown (2018) also argued that most American Christians lack an understanding of yoga’s roots. Some contend that if something is dedicated to Jesus, it is, therefore, a Christian practice. This is a traditional evangelical argument stopper. Holy Yoga is a popular form of Christian yoga. She mentioned a void in Christian spirituality that sometimes gets filled by attending a yoga class or enrolling in a school of supernatural ministry to learn prophecy, healing, and raising the dead. Furthermore, the yoga centers are filling up as the churches seem to be emptying. She shared her journey of serving as an expert witness regarding the introduction of yoga into the public school curriculum in Encinitas, California. This has historically been the home of Yogananda’s Self-Realization Fellowship. She was surprised at the lack of protest from evangelicals regarding both yoga and meditation given their associations with Buddhism and Hinduism. She brought up the accusation of being called yogaphobic in response to these concerns. She advised the introduction of more education for evangelicals to catch them up to speed with their fundamentalist predecessors regarding yoga culture wars.

Furthermore, Brown (2019) explained a generic spirituality common in CAM practices. Practices like yoga and meditation are framed as nonreligious despite their alleged roots in Eastern practices. She has a long history of researching CAM and Christian spiritual healing. She pointed out that embodied mindfulness practices are marketed as secular or universal despite ties to Buddhism and Hinduism. Yet, those who claim to use the practices for non-religious reasons often report spiritual experiences. She shared the story of a man who recovered from a terminal diagnosis after seeing Kathyrn Kuhlman. Pentecostals tend to view healing in a more complementary fashion, and thus might be more open to CAM.

CAM Pros and Cons

Warren (2018) also noticed the growing popularization of CAM in America. Preliterate societies failed to distinguish between religion, medicine, and magic and therefore priests would provide medical care for the most part. The two categories of CAM include mind-body practices and natural products. Homeopathy and naturopathy arose in the 19th century in response to the toxic practices of that day. She noted Reiki’s roots in non-Christian practices, along with the potential for harm to be done when CAM is misused. She noted how opponents of CAM often also denounce Pentecostal faith healing. Yet, she thinks Brown is being too restrictive in denouncing all of CAM. She admonished us to stay humble being that modern medicine does not have all the answers. Christians range in acceptance of CAM as completely fine to completely evil. She noted a phenomenon of criticism toward the Pentecostal movement for generalizing the energy of the Holy Spirit’s healing power into something that’s easily translated into a metaphysical concept of the divine.

According to Warren (2018), new age spirituality’s common belief is that there is no such thing as evil. Furthermore, the system focuses on a belief in life force, prana, or chi. She noted Brown’s observation that Christian appropriations of non-Christian holidays like Easter lose their religious connection over time unlike appropriating yoga. A non-personal life force that permeates most of CAM is considered demonic by some. Yet, many CAM practitioners are not practicing the spiritual roots the practices originated from. Furthermore, it may not be wise to simply baptize all of CAM as Christian without discernment. It would also be unfortunate to provide evangelicals with a list of rights and wrongs. The Holy Spirit will guide us in our exploration of CAM. Rather, she advised the implementation of more education for evangelicals regarding CAM. She also advised the implementation of more Christian spirituality into evangelical Christianity. She advocated for Christian contemplative practices and more charismatic engagement with the Holy Spirit. She does not advise pastoral counselors to tell people whether or not they should see a chiropractor. Instead, it is advised that pastors teach congregants how and what to adapt or reject in CAM and think critically for themselves about the secular market.

Christian Yoga Support

            Jain (2012) contended that people have been attaching different meanings to the term yoga for more than 3,000 years. She highlighted both the Hindu-roots and yogaphobic positions regarding the opposition to modern yoga. The resistance exists on both the Hindu and evangelical sides due to the alleged Hindu roots of yoga. Popular dissenters include Mark Driscoll, John MacArthur, Pat Robertson, Albert Mohler, and the Catholic Church. Hindu opponents of Christian yoga alleged that yoga is the victim of intellectual property theft. These allegations are based on the idea that yoga came from the Hindu ur-system in precolonial times. This definition of yoga involved systematic techniques for control of the mind-body system.

Furthermore, Jain (2012) identified the term yoga, meaning to yoke, that appeared in the Rig Veda Sahita in 15th century B.C.E. in reference to a yoke used on a war chariot. Later, the term arose in the Bhagavad Gita in the Mahabharata dialogue to describe yoga as a path of liberation and devotion to Krishna. Eventually, Patanjali’s created his commentary on the Yoga Sutras. This was known as the classic text which offered an eight-fold path to enlightenment. This path focused on meditation as the tool for becoming liberated from bodily experience. Next, Haribhadra melded this thought with the Jain religion. In the 10th and 11th centuries, hatha yoga came to the surface. This system views the body as a microcosm of the universe and focused on the practitioner’s direction of the flow of subtle energy. This was a change from prior yogic thought in that it was non-dualist. The goal of this process was to achieve God-consciousness in human form.

As described by Jain (2012), modern yoga is a recent phenomenon based primarily on British colonial thought. Vivekananda was one such proponent who proselytized modern yoga in America. He focused on meditation and the psychological aspects of yoga within the context of holistic health. He interpreted the Yoga Sutras, Hindu non-dualism, and new-thought to form the basis of modern yoga. Equating postural yoga with the ancient ur-system fails to account for the evolution of yoga across religions. Postural yoga emerged out of British military calisthenics, medicine, gymnasts, body-builders, and contortionists. Krishnamacharya and Saraswati were the first major teachers of postural yoga. Their students included Iyengar, Jois, Desikachar, and Vishnudevanada. These founders were the instigators of mass-marketing the phenomenon of modern postural yoga present in America today. Each of these brands of modern yoga focused on mindful embodied practices that linked the breath with a series of postures. Each of the modern brands claims its practices are suitable for persons of any religious background. Anusara yoga is an exception in that it is inspired by tantra. Finally, Brooke Boon established Holy Yoga in 2003 as a brand of Christian yoga. It claims that yoga is not a religion, but a universal set of tools than can be used in service of strengthening one’s faith.

Jain (2017) purported that there is nothing essentially Hindu about yoga. Historically, yoga has both required and not required devotion to God as central to the practice. It has never belonged to a single religion. Yoga fails to have a solid theology from which to judge it as compatible with Christianity. The debate is rather regarding what exactly is it about yoga evangelicals contend betrays their faith? Jain (2014) noted a phenomenon where protestors of Christian yoga expect adherents to choose between yoga and their faith. This stance alleges that irreconcilable differences exist between faith and yoga. The Hindu and Christian arguments against Christian yoga represent religious fundamentalism. She defined yogaphobia as social anxiety characterized by suspicion and fear of modern yoga. She noted examples of those who have committed suicide as a result of the persecution of their yoga practice by Christians in their day. She noted that modern yoga became popular in the 1960s, but the fear of it did not go away. She conveyed Christian thoughts that yoga will tempt one with the lie that they will become God.

Noted by Jain (2017), John MacArthur and Mark Driscoll as primary opponents of yoga. They specifically are concerned about adopting the meditative techniques associated with yoga. Non-Christian forms of meditation are supposedly dangerous or faddist. Mohler likens yoga to Gnosticism and warns that yoga serves as a gateway drug into the new age. Mohler expressed deep concern regarding the growth of the new age in America. She alleged that modern yoga should be judged on its own merits rather than valorized as an extension of an ancient Hindu practice. She noted that the real struggle the church in America faces is American consumerism. In this culture, Americans are allowed to decide whether or not to attend a yoga class, the same way they are allowed to choose whether or not to attend Mars Hill Church. Choice is a fact of contemporary American culture. Yoga has a long history of being adopted by Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, Christian, and new age adherents. Hence, the symbols and practices vary widely across the United States. There are no original ideas and practices, or unchanging essence of yoga.

Christian Meditation

            Knabb (2012) and Knabb et al. (2021) observed the phenomenon of utilizing mindfulness practices in psychotherapy to treat mental illness. Yet, these practices are rooted in Buddhism, and he, therefore, advised the use of Christian-sensitive practices instead. Approximately 78.4% of adults claim to be Christian in America, and therefore might prefer to use Christian meditative practices to alleviate their suffering. He described the evolution of secular Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) from Jon Kabat-Zinn’s into Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). 400 million people are Buddhist, and this religion is 2,500 years old. It focuses on an eight-fold path to enlightenment which involves the realization of the concept of no-self. There is therefore no god in Buddhism. It is based on karma, or the cycles of action and reaction. It uses meditation as a tool to look within instead of to God as in Christian meditation. Christian mysticism is an alternative to mindfulness and includes Theresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, and Thomas Merton. There has been a recent revival of these classic Christian practices including Lectio Divina. This is a practice of contemplative and meditative reading of scripture. The Cloud of Unknowing described the cloud of glory Moses experienced as a means of unknowing what one knows in order to experience more intimacy with God. Centering Prayer is a combination of these practices.

            Garzon and Ford (2016; K. Ford & Garson, 2017) and Wang and Tan (2016) also noted the hesitation of evangelicals to adopt mindfulness due to its Buddhist roots. They offer a variety of examples of how and what Christians need to adapt. One tenant is the idea that God is present and relational. Another accommodation is a focus on God’s grace. They describe different Bible verses that support Christian meditation. They also advise the use of Christian-sensitive methods in lieu of mindfulness. Rosales and Tan (2016) and Tan (2011) explained that the roots of the third wave of incorporating mindfulness into behavioral therapy began through attempting to overcome the system’s limitations. They assert a deep level of compatibility between mindfulness and faith. Hathaway and Tan (2009) agree that discernment is needed in continuing to navigate the nuances of adapting these elements to biblical truth. Caution should be taken even when encouraging the use of desert father contemplative practices for conservatives. These models may however prove useful as they have focused on the sacrament of the present moment for centuries. Centering Prayer focuses on mindfulness.

            Knabb, Johnson, et al. (2020) and Knabb et al. (2019) observed that meditation has become a common daily practice for Westerners. Approximately 14% of people report meditating on a daily basis. Mantra, mindfulness, MBSR, and MBCT practices were used by 2.4% of adults. Mindfulness has become a billion-dollar industry. Christian meditation and contemplation have been practiced for centuries but have only recently been studied in the psychology literature. Frederick and White (2015) noted surrender as a key component of Centering Prayer used as the mechanism of action for catalyzing healing for evangelicals concerned with mindfulness.

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Brees, Amanda Lynne, “The New Age of Christian Healing Ministry and Spirituality: A Meta-Synthesis Exploring the Efficacy of Christian-Adapted Complementary Therapies for Adult Survivors of Familial Trauma” (2021). Doctoral Dissertations and Projects. 3168.

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Contemplative Neurotheolgian, Yoga therapist, pastoral counselor

Hi, I'm Dr. Amanda -
Yoga Therapist & Pastoral Counselor

I'm here to help you streamline the work of trauma healing using faith-based contemplative methods grounded in science. Working exclusively with brokenhearted adult women means I already speak your language & know what's working in the world of recovery. 

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