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The Deepest Human Formation Work A Catholic Can Do

Sep 21, 2022

Dear Souls and Hearts Members.

Get ready. In this reflection we are about to get into some of the most important human formation work a Catholic can do.

A brief review of needs, God concepts, and God images

Let’s review of the ground we have already cultivated to prepare for this weekly reflection.

Two weeks ago, in the weekly reflection The Top 10 Needs That Fuel Modern-Day Idol Worship, we explored the definition of a modern-day idol, and how what people often think of as common idols today (i.e., money, sex, power, influence, comfort, etc.) can be understood as maladaptive attempts to have the five basic attachment security needs and the five basic integrity needs met.

Last week, in the weekly reflection titled Are You a Heretic? Distorted God Images Catholics Hold… I offered a very different way of looking at our personal idols. I introduced the important notions of the God concept and the God image.

So often, Catholics do not think clearly about God, and part of the confusion stems from a failure to distinguish between one’s God concept and one’s God images.

Your God concept is what you profess about God – it is your intellectual understanding of God based on what you have learned about God through your formal education and your private study. Your God concept is what you have freely chosen to believe about God in your conscious awareness. Your God concept is what you hold to be true about God’s nature, and the God concept of faithful Catholics is informed by Scripture, Tradition, and the teaching Magisterium of the Church.

In contrast, your God image is your emotional and subjective experience of God, who you feel God to be the present moment, your heart’s impressionistic notion of God right now. Your God images are often latent and unconscious, and you can be disconnected from them and not even know you have them.

Before the age of about three, God images are formed in us pre-verbally, without words. If negative preverbal God images are not later acknowledged and integrated in our psyches, we will not have words to express them or to even think about them.

Almost all God images are distorted and inaccurate in some ways, failing to reflect who God truly is. We do not choose our initial God images, and we cannot, simply by the sheer force of will, make them go away. Each person generally has many God images, reflecting different states or modes of operating.

Research, clinical experience, and pastoral experience all indicate that God images are formed into us initially by our experience of relationship with our caregivers (usually our parents). The ways our very young minds made sense and interpreted those relational experiences also contribute to God image formation. In my August 17 reflection, Through the Eyes of a Catholic Toddler, I described why and how toddlers experience their mothers and fathers as god-like; it is not surprising that the negative God images of these little ones are formed in the likeness of their parents during their worst moments.

As I noted in last week’s reflection, the distorted God images that we have and the material heresies that stem from those God images are not sinful. Why?

Because those God images are not chosen, they are formed into us, and we do not choose to believe the heretical notions implied by these God images.

You might say that the initial God images and material heresies formed into you are your original poker hand — you are not responsible for the cards you were originally dealt.

But you are morally responsible for how you play the hand of God images that was dealt to you.

In this draw poker game of God images, every hand can be a winner – if you play it well enough (with respects to Kenny Roger’s song The Gambler). And every hand can be a loser if you let those distorted, heretical God images take you over, drive your bus, and become your God concept.

As Kenny Rogers teaches us in his song, “Every gambler knows / that the secret to surviving / is knowing what to throw away / and knowing what to keep…”

We want to keep a God concept that is faithful and true to the teaching of the Church, a God concept that affirms that God is love, that He is our Father, Who treasures us, and cherishes us, Who saved us from death by sacrificing himself on the Cross, Who sustains us in love.

We want to throw away the cards representing the negative, distorted God images we have, that misrepresent God as unloving, uncaring or in other heretical ways.

God, in His permissive will, has allowed original sin and the sins of others (including our parents) to instill deformed and distorted God images within us before we reached the age of reason – not because He approves of sin, but because in His divine plan He wills to bring us even greater goods through those distorted God images than if we never had to deal with them.

Romans 8:28 applies to our negative God images – “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” “All things” includes our negative God images.

You might ask me “Well, Dr. Peter, how can having negative God images be better than having good God images?”

I am glad you asked.

First, consider just how much importance God places on allowing people, including parents, to exercise free will. In our fallen world, that means God allows others to sin, rather that violating their free will and making them his puppets. So, part of the reason we have negative God images is that God allows those who form us to be free to make mistakes, to be imperfect and to sin.

More importantly though, God seeks to draw a deeper intimacy, a closer connection to us, by helping us work through our negative God images – the process of working through will allow us to trust God more deeply and give ourselves more fully to Him.

I invite you to consider a time where you worked through significant conflict and misunderstanding in an important intimate relationship with another person. Did you not feel closer and more connected to the other person as a result of that effort?

God allows Himself to remain veiled behind the negative God images we project onto Him in a way that allows us the freedom to choose to know Him as He really is – and to choose to avoid Him, to turn and walk away as so many fledgling Christians did in John 6 when they misunderstood Jesus’ teaching on the Eucharist. God honors our freedom. There is enough light to see, and enough darkness to hide.

Self concepts and self images

Before going further, we need to understand two more terms. Stay with me here, it won’t be that hard.

Your self concept is what you intellectually believe about yourself, who you profess yourself to be, what you understand about yourself, your mental construct of yourself. The self-concept of a practicing Catholic, for example, likely includes being a beloved child of God. There is a parallel between the self-concept and the God concept – both are chosen, both are embraced as true. God concepts and self concepts go together, they harmonize. For example, if a faithful Catholic believes and professes Jesus to be the Good Shepherd (a God concept), he or she will likely freely embrace, at least intellectually, an identity as a little beloved sheep (a self concept).

Your self image is who you feel yourself to be in a particular moment. Self images are much more emotionally driven, much more intuitive, subjective, and they vary much more from moment to moment.

Self images go together with God images – they impact and complement each other. Self-images can flow from God images, conforming to God images. But self-images can also impact God images. If we have negative God images, no amount of self-affirmation work is going to bring us to mental health.

An example

Last week, I shared with you a downloadable PDF chart of the 14 negative God images and their corresponding self-images according to William and Kristi Gaultiere, together with my ideas about how those God images develop, starting in childhood and how the COVID crisis might have exacerbated the God image. Let’s take an example from that chart to show how God images and self images influence each other.

Preoccupied managing director God image: God is very busy, with no time or energy to relate to me and my problems. He cares about me from a distance, but He allocates resources to those who are most in need, and I am not included.

The corresponding self image may be felt in this way: I am not important enough. I am not worthy enough for God’s care. God cannot be bothered with my trivial or insignificant concerns. He has bigger fish to fry, people who need His attention more, and who maybe deserve His attention more. I am therefore not on His radar.

You can see how the distorted preoccupied manager God image and the unimportant, unworthy self image can mutually reinforce each other. Little ones in families with distressed parents who are burdened with financial concerns, time constraints, health problems and limited resources may be rewarded by their parents for being “low maintenance.” Those little children try not add to their parents’ problems by voicing their concerns and needs. But that leads those little children to experience themselves as neglected and devalued due to the lack of parental attunement, and then the children assume that there is a defect in themselves rather than a lack of care from the parent.

The main danger of false God images and false self images

As I briefly noted in last week’s reflection the main danger of these false God images and full self-images is that they will exert a subtle impact on us, and either gradually or suddenly take us over, hardening into our God concepts and self concepts. If that happens, we move from the realm of material heresy into formal heresy, including blasphemy. This is much more common than it might seem at first glance.

Let’s look at an example from my life. In the wee hours of a Sunday morning in the spring of 2021, unpredicted, powerful straight-line winds hammered our homestead. In our back pastures, the winds tore up ten huge pine trees along our fence line, yanking them out of the ground and demolishing our perimeter fence. The wind tumbled our livestock sheds into the neighbor’s pasture (destroying one), and flung our portable chicken huts all over our back paddocks, crushing some and hanging one high on a fence post.

The early Sunday morning sunshine revealed the ground littered with the mangled chicken carcasses. Our cows, sheep, and pigs were wandering in a daze into the neighbor’s acreage. It was another extremely frustrating homesteading moment for me, and a negative God image surged up in me. Internally, I felt a strong impulse to say:

Why O God, did you allow this to happen? This is terrible, this is brutal to the animals, so demoralizing, how can I possibly recover from this? You don’t care and you won’t help me. I try and try on this homestead to raise the kids and tend to all that needs to be done, and You make it impossible, allowing heavy burdens to land on me like this and not lifting a finger to help. I don’t know how I can even begin to solve these problems or even temporarily contain this situation before I’m supposed to go to Sunday Mass and worship You!

Look that that impulse – it corresponds to the statue God image on the PDF chart of the 14 negative God images. And it is blasphemous. I was tempted to make that God image my God concept in that moment – in my distress, I was tempted toward embracing that idea of God with my will, to condemning God as uncaring, unhelpful and unloving. There was a risk that I would make that distorted God image my idol (at least in that moment) by choosing to profess it – and in doing so, I would be in formal heresy.

Paging Dr. von Hildebrand, paging Dr. von Hildebrand to the back pasture, stat!

In that moment, I remembered the guidance Catholic philosopher and phenomenologist Dietrich von Hildebrand gave in his book Transformation in Christ for dealing with these kinds of intense situations. He wrote:

By an act of our free personal center, we can either sanction or disavow our emotional attitude, which involves a far-reaching modification of the inmost nature of our attitudes. A mood of malicious satisfaction, for instance, which we expressly disavow in our mind is decapitated as it were; it is revoked and declared invalid, and thereby deprived not only of its outward efficacy, but to a large degree even of its intrinsic virulence….

A further distinction commands itself: it makes a considerable difference whether the personal sanction (that is, the ultimate act of assent or disapprobation relative to our spontaneous feeling [e,g, my Statue God image]) is issued isolatedly in any random event, as it were, or whether we expressly refer it back to our permanent and moral principles, our habitual basic intention [e.g. of my Catholic God image]. In the latter case, it has far more meaning and weight. (p. 226, emphasis in original)

The rest of the story

By God’s grace, I did not embrace that statue God image. I was able to resist and disavow that distorted image, refusing to grant it the sanction of my innermost self, my free personal center. I had the grace to profess that God’s Providence was still active, even though I did not understand how in that moment. I professed that God still loved me, even in those circumstances. I could, by God’s grace (maybe just barely) hold on to my orthodox Catholic God concept.

The ways it might have turned out differently

One alternative would have been for me to allow my distorted statue God image to take me over and then to actively endorse that God image, making it also my God concept — to scream the accusatory words out loud and mean them, with the force of my free consent behind them. Then I would have moved from having a material heresy within me to engaging in formal heresy – blasphemy. Then the statue God image becomes my idol.

An alternative road to formal heresy is more passive and indirect. That path is not to actively endorse my statue God image, but not to repudiate it either – to give that statue God image space to fester, to allow it a seat at my table and, as long as it is not too loud or obvious, not to question or challenge it. Then, in an insidious, subtle way, that God image could gain power over time, gradually driving a wedge between God and me. This is an infiltration model, which works outside of direct awareness, but still with the tacit permission of the will. The infiltration model is common in those who gradually fall away from the Church without some major disrupting event. And when the consolidation of the supremacy of the statue God image is far enough along, the God image becomes just as much of an idol as in the active endorsement scenarios, and it is even trickier for being so subtle.

So, what do we do?

In future weekly reflections I will write much more about how to constructively work with God images — that is a huge part of my work in Souls and Hearts. For now, I want to introduce you to four little words that can help so much in the balance of acknowledging and not repressing or suppressing negative feelings toward God while at the same time not falling into formal heresy and idolatry. Here there are:

“God, I feel like…”

When we preface sharing our God image with God with “I feel like…” the danger of formal heresy goes way down. On the early Sunday morning in 2021, I told God, “God, I feel like You don’t care, and that You won’t help me. I feel like You make it impossible for me, allowing heavy burdens and not lifting a finger to help.” I could acknowledge my pain and distress and share my feelings with God, without falling into heresy. By qualifying my statement with “I feel,” I still allowed myself a much more positive and orthodox God concept.

And God wants us to be humble, small, and real enough with him to bring the intensity of our emotions to Him, to bring all that is disordered in our God images to Him. Why? So that in the experience of actual relationship, we can learn who He truly is and who we really are. And He wants to help us. He just needs us to invite Him in.

A measure of spiritual health and a measure of mental health

One measure of spiritual health is when both your God concepts and your God images converge in conformity to who God really is. One measure of mental health is when your both your self-concepts and your self-images come together and reflect who you actually are — because then your sense of identity is grounded in reality, the truth that you are a beloved and cherished child of God.

Discovering your distorted God images and twisted self-images

I encourage you to look at the 14 negative God images and their corresponding self images in the PDF chart. Also, here is a downloadable PDF of Bill Gaultiere’s 28-item God Image Questionnaire with scoring instructions – you can take the questionnaire and see what problematic God images you might hold inside. This quiz does not have the psychometrics of a psychological test, but it might stimulate some insights about your God images.

Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,

Dr. Peter

P.S. If you are a Catholic psychotherapist, counselor, or a graduate student in a mental health field, check out my Interior Therapist Community – we are nearly 100 Catholic mental health professionals who are working on improving our God images and our self-images, as we journey on a pilgrimage toward better human formation together.

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