Developing a Deeper Connection with God Shannan Crawford, Psy.D.

Wednesday, December 28, 2022 @ 9:29 PM


Development happens in relationship. Different parts of self emerge in response to experiences with different people, and those people teach us how to treat ourselves, as well as how to view God and expect to be treated by Him. When the way we feel toward God (God image) doesn’t line up with our theology (God concept), we may be projecting a relational dynamic from the past onto Him. The Restoring Self-Cohesion (RSC) model offers a framework for raising awareness of these projections, modifying the cognitions associated with them, and repairing relationship with oneself and with God as the counselor’s empathic attunement with the client creates a corrective experience.


Although faith is generally a protective factor and a beneficial support system promoting psychological health (Pargament, 2013), many individuals are discouraged in their faith—desiring an intimate relationship with God, yet feeling alone, ashamed, condemned, and unlovable. Even people who say they believe God to be loving, forgiving, and kind may experience Him as angry, distant, and disapproving. When there is a discrepancy between our God concept (theological understanding of God) and God image (subjective experience of God), there is a mismatch between what we think and what we feel about God (Rizzuto,1979; Lawrence, 1997; Moriarty & Hoffman, 2007; Ulanov, 1989; Spero, 1992).
An individual’s God image is a compilation of life experiences and interactions with authority figures of the past, which produce unconscious projections of God. The seminal work on God image, Moriarty and Hoffman’s God Image Handbook for Spiritual Counseling and Psychotherapy (2007), provides a thorough review of theoretical articles as well as quantitative and qualitative studies distinguishing between God image and God concept. This handbook also provides strategies to help counselors repair a client’s God image using different theoretical models.


God is one being (Deut. 6:4, Mark 12:29) with three parts (2 Cor. 13:14) and many roles (e.g., provider, healer, redeemer, shepherd, protector). Being made in His image (Gen. 1:26), humans also have separate parts, each designed to offer unique dimension to the personality. Like an orchestra playing a symphony, self-cohesion exists when all parts of self are playing in harmony—mirroring the unity of the Trinity.
Another illustration is to think of parts of self like members of a committee, equally valued while serving different functions and sharing mutual respect. With no dictator present and no parts hiding, each member is able to bravely fulfill its role. It is important to note that multiple parts form a single personality, rather than multiple distinct personalities, as in Dissociative Identity Disorder.


The parts of self within a person develop and learn how to interact with one another based on interactions with caregivers and others, such that intrapersonal relationships will mirror interpersonal ones. Emotionally responsive parenting is critical to the development of a cohesive self. Winnicott (1966) describes “good-enough” parenting as emotionally tuning in to the child and repairing the relationship when the parent-child connection is broken. However, many people grow up in families in which parents are unable to respond to the child’s emotions and/or they don’t discuss relational breaches, essentially sweeping them under the rug and going on as if nothing happened. In this family dynamic, children, dependent upon parents for security and attachment, learn to suppress their sadness and/or anger, expressing only positivity to their caregivers and dealing with unaccepted negative emotions alone. Since there is no internal rug to sweep our pain under, the soul is bearing the brunt of every hurtful thing we go through. To preserve relationship, the soul configures itself in such a way that pain is cordoned off and absorbed by a part of self that carries the sadness, anger, shame, etc. into the unconscious. The problem is that the part of self holding the relational breach remains stuck or “regressed” in the pain, frozen at the age at which it went into hiding.
These regressed parts of self, through breached relationships with loved ones, often develop inaccurate God images from those experiences. For instance, a child who experiences a painful event involving an authority figure may develop a belief that authority figures are unsafe. Thus, when relating to God as an authority figure, that belief will automatically be triggered, causing the person to unconsciously perceive God as unsafe and pull away accordingly.


From conception, neural networks begin forming. According to Hebb (1949), “Neurons that fired together wired together,” developing automatic processes of perception, thought, memory, emotion, and behavior. Early in life, the unconscious mind develops concepts of caregivers and templates of relationship dynamics which are created based on the major influencers in our lives. We then learn to automatically respond in similar ways to new situations and people, including God (Garzon, 2007).
For some people, the thought of calling God “Father” evokes warm, affectionate feelings. For others who had an abusive father figure, calling God “Father” could trigger intense feelings of fear, guilt, shame, or dread, causing them to subconsciously pull away from God, as they did with their father figure. It could produce feelings of emptiness and unworthiness for those who have been abandoned and/or neglected or disgust for those who have been inappropriately touched or looked at by a father figure. A multitude of visceral reactions can be instantaneously elicited based on the individual’s life experiences. The quandary is that this is an automatic process the person is not consciously aware of, leading them to respond to God as they did their caregiver without knowing why. This is precisely the disconnect people describe when they say they know God is loving, and yet they can’t shake the feeling that He is angry or disappointed in them.


Ideally, there should be such unity and fluidity among the parts of self that, as the person shifts between parts, their God image remains stable and congruent with their God concept. For such people, they are able to experience God as emotionally loving and responsive even amidst life’s challenges, rather than projecting that bad things are happening because He is punishing them.
However, many of us generally experience God as loving and then suddenly feel like God is distant and unresponsive—and then feel shame for the “dryness” in our relationship with God. Since we know God does not change (James 1:17), the variability is actually within us. When we shift from one part of self to another, the God image associated with that part is activated.
Without understanding the dynamics of God image, many Christians succumb to every projection their internal world constructs of God. For one woman, she diligently worked hard in her relationship with God, treating it like homework that she had to “cram for” to earn a good grade. In interview, the woman divulged that she never realized, until asked questions prompting her to reflect, how “demanding” she experienced God. When brought to her awareness, she was able to identify the similarity to the dynamic with her military father, who was “always hard on me,” transferring his high expectations onto God. As she had with her father, she was working to earn God’s love by trying to please Him.
How many Christians are unconsciously reenacting dynamics with their parents in their relationship with The Lord?


In review, the difference between an individual’s God concept (their conscious theologically-based beliefs about God) and their God image (their unconscious projections of God based on their human experiences) has been well established (Moriarty & Hoffman, 2007). While God concept remains relatively stable, God image may shift depending on which part of self is activated because each part carries its own corresponding God image. Rather than conceptualizing God image as a static construct, it is beneficial to raise clients’ awareness of which part of them is activated and how their subjective experience of God may change accordingly. When there is a conflict between what they know to be true about God based on scripture and the way they feel about Him in the moment, the model described below to can help re-align their God image with their God concept.


The Restoring Self-Cohesion (RSC) model, developed through clinical practice, provides a framework for inviting regressed parts of self to come out of hiding and become mature members of the internal committee. As such, RSC also offers tools for repairing God image. By raising awareness of each part of self, we can examine the individual’s corresponding God images and facilitate authentic connection with God rather than re-enacting painful dynamics from their past. The counselor serves as a bridge, standing in the role of the offending party and providing a corrective experience by empathizing, validating and mirroring the client’s emotions (Kohut, 1977; Kohut, 1984; Siegel, 1996), and serving as a conduit of God’s love and compassion.
RSC is designed to be relationship-oriented rather than task-oriented. The genuine connection between client and counselor serves as a template for healing the relationships between parts of self and ultimately with God. Restoring self-cohesion is a multifaceted process that unfolds organically such that phases may overlap and/or occur in a different order than presented below. It may be necessary to return to a previous phase to process at a deeper level and/or repeat the process with another part of self.

Raising Awareness

Explore relationships with God and attachment figures using questions to bring underlying dynamics to conscious awareness:
• What roles are God and I in? (e.g., parent/child, teacher/student, judge/defendant)?
• What does my relationship with God feel like? (e.g., being sent to the principal’s office)
• How do dynamics of my relationship with God parallel those of past relationships?

When exploring the influence of past relationships on God image, keep in mind that even the absence of a relationship is a dynamic in itself. Also, be aware that an individual may have positive and negative experiences about the same person. Therefore, one attachment figure can produce more than one God image projection.

Renewing Cognitions

In order for regressed parts of self to have permission to sit at the table with the rest of the internal committee, dominant parts must agree to allow it. This occurs by bringing distorted cognitions and projections into conscious awareness, acknowledging that they do not accurately reflect reality, and embracing new truth. This process actually modifies the neural network (Leaf, 2007). In short, we can renew the mind through an act of the will.

• “I acknowledge and reject the false projection that God is like… [person from the past]” (i.e., 3rd grade teacher)
• “I reject that God will… [dynamic of the past relationship]” (i.e., criticize me)
• “I accept the truth that… [how God actually is, using Biblically-based truth to refute the lie]” (i.e., God is not condemning me but loves me unconditionally - Romans 8:1)

Repairing Relationship With Self

Regressed parts of self have usually been hidden and suppressed from conscious awareness, often rejected by other parts. Restoring cohesion requires repairing relationship between parts of self, a process that may include acknowledgement of regressed parts, forgiveness and releasing judgments, and reconciliation. For the believer, the process of learning to love the regressed part of self includes introducing that part to the One who is love Himself, thus continuing the process of progressive sanctification.

• “I acknowledge the part of me that [name regressed part]” (i.e. has held all my anger toward my sister)
• “I release judgment against [name judged part] and ask forgiveness for [offense done to or by that part]” (i.e., release judgment against angry part and ask that part of me to forgive me for suppressing it)
• “I choose to unconditionally love this part of me.”
• “God, I trust you to unconditionally love this part of me.”

Repairing Relationship With Others

As mental health professionals and pastors, we have the rare privilege of stepping into the sacred space of people’s deepest wounds and serving as a bridge between those who hurt them and the God who loves them. Healing happens as the client is able to experience and express emotions that were previously unsafe, in the presence of one who attunes and responds appropriately to their pain.
• Acknowledge defense mechanisms—making it safe to lower them. Intellectualization, denial, or other defenses may have been engaged and even successful at protecting the client to this point. Honoring those defenses and perhaps even thanking the protector part of self is often a first step for gaining access to the regressed parts of self they have been shielding from pain.
• Instill confidence that you can handle the full intensity of the client’s emotions, reiterating they do not need to stay in control or temper themselves for your sake or to earn your approval. Your role is not to judge but to love them unconditionally. Your facial expressions reveal the empathy, delight, and genuine care you feel for them when they are in the part of self they thought was too angry, ugly, rebellious, or hateful to be loved. As they experience you loving the “unlovable” parts of them, they come to believe that God can and will as well.
• When they are ready, guide the client as they use their imagination to re-enter the painful experience. Encourage them to step back in time, visualizing being in the moment and actually confronting the person who hurt them as if you are that person.
• Remain fully present with the client, maintaining empathic attunement and validating feelings without swooping in to try to fix or calm them. Jumping in prematurely can abort the grieving process, pulling them out of their heart and back into their intellect. If you inadvertently invalidate their pain, you risk activating and further entrenching defenses, which will be counterproductive. Allowing the client to process raw “ugly” emotions provides a corrective experience that challenges dynamics that distorted their God image in the first place (e.g., “Quit your crying, or I’ll give you something to cry about!”), giving them hope that like you are demonstrating, God, too, can handle the full intensity of their toughest emotions.
• When the client’s words and emotion begin to taper, respond by stepping into the role of the one who hurt them. Validate the legitimacy of their pain, anger, and sadness. Acknowledge the injustice of wrongs done to them. Speaking in first person and without making excuses, apologize for the damage that you, as the abuser/parent/teacher, have caused them. By proxy, you are offering what, many times, the actual person was not emotionally healthy enough or capable of offering.
• While still in the role of the offender, ask the client for forgiveness. It is appropriate to acknowledge that you are not asking them to forget or say that what happened was okay, nor are you asking for your own benefit. Rather, present it as an opportunity, if they are ready, to release what they have held against you (the offender by proxy) so that they no longer have to carry around the pain of that wound in their soul. Typically, by this point in the process, most clients are able to forgive.
• Once the tension with the offender is resolved, it is appropriate to step out of that role and back into the role of the counselor. Again serving as their guide, you can walk the client through visualizing some form of reconciliation (e.g., hugging the person they just forgave) or at least release (e.g., escorting them out of the internal world).
• Continue to remain present and tuned into the client, giving them time to assimilate their experience of what has just happened. They may need a few moments to simply be still and take a breath before being ready to debrief and discuss what the process was like for them.

Once the regressed part of self has been brought into conscious awareness and relationships with self and others have been repaired, that part should no longer remain stuck at the age at which it was frozen. As counseling continues, emphasis will shift toward helping that part mature into full healthy and adaptive functioning.


Just as painful experiences with others can damage parts of self and our relationship with God, positive experiences can restore parts of self, bringing them back into harmony with one another and with God. The RSC model provides a framework for doing this in the context of the counseling relationship, offering healing to one part after another. The greater the degree of self-cohesion, the more personality functioning in daily life resembles a symphony—all parts playing in concert with one another. Because each part of self carries its own God image, increased self-cohesion also results in a more stable God image—and one that is more congruent with the individual’s God concept, resolving dissonance between what one theologically believes about God and their emotional experience of Him. Relating to God as He is rather than based on projections from past relationships ultimately allows us to experience more vibrant connection with Him.


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