In his book Attached to God, Krispin Mayfield tells the story of how Mr. Rogers, the patron saint of unconditional positive regard, questioned his own standing before God on his deathbed. Alluding to Matthew 25, Mr. Rogers asked his wife whether she thought he was a sheep or a goat, destined either to reign with the saints or suffer with the reprobate in eternal punishment. This story is shocking, and Mayfield includes it to do just that. After an entire career of teaching love and acceptance, how could someone who seemed so secure in that message struggle himself with it at the end of running a good race and fighting the good fight?
Mayfield’s answer is that attachment science helps us to understand the discrepancies between our known theology and our felt spiritual experience. Attachment science and its corresponding theory are not new approaches to counseling at this point, but do appear to be gaining momentum in Christian counseling circles. It is based on the work of mid-century psychologists such as John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, who studied how children reacted to various relational ruptures. Paradigmatic of this research was the strange situation experiment, wherein children would be separated from their caregiver and forced to encounter a benign stranger. Various reactions from the child, ranging from sheer terror to indifference to happy curiosity, are supposedly indicative of a child’s overall pattern of attachment. Identified attachment styles include secure attachment, or a variety of insecure attachments, including avoidant, ambivalent, and disorganized styles.
Ostensibly, these styles are consistent, persistent, and pervasive patterns of relating to other human beings. Mayfield quickly adapts this model onto our relationship with God, supposing that our own personal attachment styles impact how we interact with God. However, he augments and expands the styles a bit, claiming that pathological attachment to God falls into the three categories of anxious, shutdown, or shame-filled attachment. Although different in presentation and impact, each insecure attachment style represents a strategy for running from the steadfast love of God. Mayfield even provides a quick inventory at the end of the first chapter to help you identify your attachment style for the uninitiated.
Mayfield is not the first Christian counselor to wonder whether such attachment styles map onto spiritual experiences. However, his clarity of focus and practical emphasis on exploring, deconstructing, and reconstructing attachment to God make this work unique. These emphases also drive the book’s organization. Each insecure attachment style is given a full chapter of exposition, including various case studies, anecdotal reflections, tidbits of research, and Mayfield’s own theological insights (more on this later). Each style is given a corresponding chapter in the book’s second act which focuses on ways to overcome and heal from one’s various attachment styles and wounds.
A brief overview of his description of and prescriptions for an anxious attachment to God gives a good overview of what the book is trying to accomplish. Anxious attachment to God is built out of a need to feel God’s pleasure in us. Yet the anxious Christian’s strategy to feel this is to do more to earn God’s favor. We do this because we feel our fundamental badness before a holy God. This of course drives us to constant work and worry in order to, as Mayfield puts it, be “clinging to God’s skirt.” Yet such work is ultimately exhausting, and any sense of God’s pleasure in us may not come from a place of wholeness.
As an example, Mayfield explores the discrepancies between the personal and private life of renowned 20th century American preacher A. W. Tozer. Tozer, per reports, would spend almost all of his time in spiritual activity, often in prayerful struggle for himself or his congregation. While this appeared to many to be a holy way to live, Tozer’s family life was in disarray. He constantly neglected the emotional needs of his wife and children, and Tozer’s widow apparently much preferred the companionship of her second and unconventionally holy husband than that of the great preacher. For Mayfield, Tozer is a poster child of anxious attachment and its consequences: constant work and neglect of the weightier matters of the law.
Mayfield’s remediation for anxious attachment is a combination of various spiritual, cognitive, and somatic exercises. He urges the anxious to find rest in the loving arms of the Father. They can do this on the basis of the fact that God’s law for the believer is not meant to be a legalistic condemning presence but provides general guidelines for living in God’s family. Christians also need to develop a clearer picture of God and who He is. This can be accomplished through a variety of spiritual and somatic mindfulness exercises designed to activate the anxious believer’s right hemisphere. Suggested activities include making visible a reminder of God’s faithfulness, Sabbath rest, contemplative prayer, and breathing prayer exercises. Noticeably absent are practices that emphasize deeper interaction with Scripture or an explicit focus on the means of grace as forms of Christian growth.
And so continues Mayfield in like fashion with the other two attachment styles. Shutdown spirituality is characteristic of those whose attachment styles discouraged the proper and helpful expression of their emotional needs. This gets easily translated into our spiritual life, where our emotions may get smothered by expectations that we cannot approach God with our emotions, or may bypass them using cognitive theological protection. Such Christians are also at the risk of legalism, since they may want to sublimate their emotions into working for the kingdom. Shame based attachment to God occurs when a projected image of God’s displeasure in us is internalized as self-hatred, often in an attempt to earn God’s love. Mayfield worries that a preoccupation with personal sin and moral badness exacerbates this shame based attachment.
At a phenomenological level, much of this book will resonate with the average churchgoer. Although Mayfield doesn’t make this connection, easy overlaps between legalism and works-righteousness fit well with Mayfield’s conceptualization of anxious and shame-filled attachment. Similarities also exist between shutdown attachment and religious formalism and shame-filled attachment and lack of assurance. Many of the remedies Mayfield offers for issues with spiritual attachment, such as reframes on the kindness of God, will be warmly received. Further, those who have been formed in an American church context (and particularly an evangelical one) may find some of Mayfield’s interpretations of their experiences helpful or validating.
Yet Mayfield’s suggested remedies for poor spiritual attachment come entwined with a fairly explicit agenda to reinterpret central Christian doctrines and practices. For if Mayfield’s major premise is that we all suffer from poor attachment to God in the varieties described, his minor premise is that the reason for our attachment wounds is an internalization of evangelicalism, and particularly its traditional understanding of sin and moral badness. While intriguing, I suspect that this second line of reasoning will be unconvincing to Christians familiar with the Biblical teachings on sin and is ultimately distracting from the aims of the work.
First, a little more context on Mayfield’s analysis is needed. Mayfield’s key objection to evangelical theology (helpfully highlighted in blurbs entitled “Untangling Evangelicalism”) appears to be that an inward focus and awareness of sin might cross the line into an unhealthy global negative self-evaluation that might activate or be based upon prior trauma. Naturally, this in turn would further damage healthy attachment to God. To put the argument another way, Mayfield believes that evangelical Christianity teaches that we must focus on our badness, shut down sinful emotions, and dwell on our shame, all in order to maintain God’s love.
Thus, Mayfield identifies an inchoate tension between attachment theory and Christian orthodoxy concerning moral badness. Attachment theory as adapted by Mayfield emphasizes the need to recover an awareness of our fundamental goodness and belovedness before God. But how does that then square with the clear biblical teaching and the church’s consistent witness that we stand before God as morally bad? It would seem that acknowledgement of our sin would necessitate some admission of our badness. Yet, by making our badness a central part of our spiritual experience, we might run the risk engaging in attachment styles with God that are unhealthy.
This dilemma can be further traced in the competing pathogeneses offered by attachment theory and the Christian gospel. Attachment theory assumes that childhood wounds are delivered by an imperfect parent upon an innocent child, thus creating an all-pervasive attachment trauma. But that is not entirely the biblical story. Rather, it is us, the sinful children of God, who have brought the attachment trauma upon ourselves. We are the ones who have done badly and have provoked the wrath of a holy and immutable God. Of course, proponents of attachment theory will nuance this by stating that we project our human attachment wounds onto God. While true, this still does not fully explain how human sinfulness interacts with attachment to God. Any successful integration of attachment theory and Christian orthodoxy will have to deal with that clear and present biblical emphasis.
There is not an immediate resolution to this tension, and problems arise when one is sought. On the one hand, we could assume that the fall completely eviscerates the image of God in man, leaving us devoid of any goodness whatsoever. This would lead to an emphasis on our fundamental badness in the Christian life. To be fair, preaching and counseling from such a perspective is a very real phenomenon in American evangelicalism. Such a distorted focus has done real damage to God’s people. In fact, research shows that an overemphasis on sin at the expense of divine forgiveness is associated with higher levels of mental health pathology.
Yet the equally opposite reaction, and the one Mayfield and other proponents of integrating attachment and Christianity are prone to have, is to reinterpret sin, the law, and Christ’s atonement on the basis of attachment theory. In fact, Mayfield is quite explicit about this, proposing attachment theory as a kind of Copernican revolution to which the church must adapt. So for Mayfield, the law becomes just family guidelines, divorced from its other classical functions. Sin, while existing, is either discussed in systemic terms or reframed as an invitation to the Savior. The cross no longer becomes the center of Christian devotion, but rather meditation on God’s delight in us does. These kinds of assertions are likely to startle readers who wish to read psychology in the light of the Bible and not the other way around. Indeed, such reinterpretations may be counterproductive since they only serve to expand the conceptual gap between attachment theory and Christian orthodoxy.
In my estimation, a limitation of this work is the straw manning of Protestant teachings on sin and God’s love. It’s just unclear who is doing the straw manning — Mayfield or evangelicalism itself. While morbid introspection and emotional shutdown do occur to Christians preoccupied with their own sin (think of the pre-Reformation Luther), one gets the sense that Mayfield assumes such excesses are normative, desirable, and even encouraged by the church. This, of course, is not universally the case. Where this gets tricky is that, depending on the church, it may in fact be the case. Some of the negativity and shame-filled spirituality that Mayfield describes runs rampant in parts of the American church. But it does so in defiant ignorance of the historic and nuanced Protestant teachings on the relationship between sin, penal substitutionary atonement, and God’s love. It seems that both Mayfield and evangelicalism are at times unaware of other Protestant ways of answering these questions.
Perhaps this confusion is due to a poor retrieval of the Reformation understanding of the image of God. Delineating this doctrine was difficult, and there may have been some semantic issues in how it was presented or understood by the magisterial Reformers. In essence, the Reformers landed on the idea that although the moral image of God has been completely lost in the Fall, other marks of the image related to man’s faculties or his created being persist, albeit with significant flaws. So humanity is simultaneously radically fallen and radically valued. This is a tightrope to walk, and falling off of either side would be very easy to do and would have great implications for how one counsels and preaches.
Relatedly, Mayfield’s deeper concern with an emphasis on sin becomes clearer in the last act of his book. Here, he claims that a focus on our badness can actually be a misdiagnosis of trauma wounding. Such a misapplication would both unhealthily appeal to and harm those who have independently been convinced of their defectiveness by their trauma. This argument is more compelling, as there are stories of counselors and pastors further harming their traumatized charges by discussing a counselee’s sinfulness without a proper emphasis on or awareness of trauma-informed care. Mayfield’s concern about current care practices is therefore valid and should be taken seriously. It also explains why Mayfield’s solutions for improving attachment with God focus less on the means of grace and more on contemplative and experiential practices, since it would be the latter that are normally used in clinical settings when treating trauma.
Yet this does not mean that we should completely substitute traumatology for hamartiology. The two are separate but sometimes intertwined phenomena for sure, but totally confounding them results in negative outcomes for all involved. Few argue for such extreme positions, but a lack of nuance or discernment on the part of helpers will occasionally land us in these spaces if we are not aware. Thankfully, a misreading of trauma as sinfulness is the theological exception rather than the rule. A proper emphasis on sin does not necessitate that Christian counselors and pastors will further shame their traumatized counselees. Rather, what has been missing in conservative Protestant circles is the recognition of a qualitative difference in the shame that comes from trauma and the guilt which comes from sin. What is therefore needed is not a revision of the gospel, but a better and more biblical understanding of this difference. Alongside this understanding should come an increase in practical wisdom, better methodology, more competent trauma practices, a refusal to label trauma as sin, and a clearer understanding of God’s heart for the traumatized.
Again, much of the blame for missing this nuance lays at the feet of an evangelicalism ignorant of its theological groundings. Yet Mayfield is not always fair to his interlocutors either. For example, consider Mayfield’s attempt to untangle Sinclair Ferguson’s quote in The Whole Christ from its alleged unhealthy evangelicalism:
Sinclair Ferguson wrote, “It is misleading to say that God accepts us the way we are. Rather, he accepts us despite the way we are.” Teachings like this can give us a picture of a God who begrudgingly welcomes us, rather than a God who runs to embrace us.”
This blurb is set in the shame-filled spirituality chapter, and one might understand how a misinterpretation of Ferguson could lead to a shame-based reaction. Yet it appears that Mayfield has done just that. In its proper context, this quote is written as a challenge to antinomian licentiousness, not as a refutation of the Father’s love for His children. Further, just prior, Ferguson takes pains to clarify God’s “love for me is not based on my qualification or preparation.” This, of course, is the problem with using blurb quotes: they tend to obscure context.
Or consider Mayfield’s example of how a Charles Spurgeon sermon on sin to an audience of traumatized orphans received a very positive response. Mayfield wonders whether it was the trauma shame of the orphans instead of their conviction of sin that brought them to Christ that day, and it is possible that was the case. But isn’t it also equally possible that the gospel was doing what it always does, which is to be well received amongst the outcasts of society who most acutely feel their need of God?
So while Mayfield might be right about certain segments of the evangelical world, he also often misreads the best of Protestant theology in light of the worst. He also is not interested in considering alternate solutions to this tension other than a reframing of traditional hamartiology. For example, a consideration of counterevidence found in Scripture would have been very challenging to incorporate into his argument (cf. Ps. 51; Rom. 2, Rom. 7; Is. 6), and a discussion of Luke 7 would have been particularly instructive. Here, a prostitute barges into a dinner between Jesus and a Pharisee. The prostitute (a “bad” woman, after all) shows great devotion to Jesus by anointing him with her tears, kisses, and precious oils. When the Pharisee recoils from this interaction, our Lord tells a parable of how a moneylender forgives two debts, one worth 50 denarii, and the other worth 500 denarii. Jesus turns to the Pharisee and asks which debtor will love the moneylender more, who answers rightly by saying “The one, I suppose, for whom he canceled the larger debt” (v. 43).
The implications, which are at least twofold, should not be lost on Christian advocates of attachment theory. First, an awareness of our sinfulness in interaction with God’s grace yields love for God. Second, the greater the awareness of one’s sin, the greater the love towards God. While it might be too much to say that an awareness of our sinfulness produces attachment and love towards God, we can certainly say that an awareness of the magnitude of our forgiveness produces love and affection towards Christ, of which an awareness of our sinfulness is a logically necessary part. The key element here is that a reflection of our sinfulness should always be accompanied by a greater reflection on God’s grace. So then it appears, ironically, that an awareness our sinfulness can actually facilitate attachment to God, as long as such an experience is handled rightly in the context of God’s forgiving and redeeming love. This assertion would be uncontroversial to what the church has taught throughout the ages, and Mayfield’s strong reaction to it and similar themes throughout his text are puzzling.
And this brings up perhaps the biggest tension with Mayfield’s work and historic Christian teaching, which is his obfuscation of the difference between rightful conviction of sin and shame-filled badness. His failure to distinguish between these two demonstrates a truncated understanding of the riches of Protestant theology. This leads to a characterization of traditional Christian understandings of sin as unhealthy. The ultimate result of such a reframe is to dismantle the historic Christian message regarding sin and repentance. It also, ironically, precludes the including the possibility of improving our attachment to God through repentance.
So where does historical Protestantism strike the proper balance on this issue? A consideration of how John Owen anticipated and resolved this problem four centuries ago serves as an example of a way forward. Because of the reality of sin,
[Owen] is concerned that Christians tend to look at the Father ‘with anxious, doubtful thoughts,’ with harmful consequences to their understanding and experience of his love…’At the best, many think there is no sweetness at all in [the Father] towards us, but what is purchased at the high price of the blood of Jesus’
For Owen, the death of Christ did not purchase the Father’s love, but is the way in which that love is communicated. The death of Christ is not the cause of the Father’s love, but its effect.”
It is rather easy to only consider God’s “terrible majesty, severity, and greatness” without seeing His “everlasting tenderness and compassion.” Accordingly, Owen exhorts us to
“not see the Father as one who is angry, but as one who is most kind and gentle. Let us see the Father as one who from eternity has always had kind thoughts towards us. It is a complete misunderstanding of the Father that makes us want to run and hide from him…Consider that it is the greatest desire of the God the Father that you should have loving fellowship with him.”
There is no question of a “reluctant Father” here, and the cross confirms this.
And how do we know this to be true? Owen’s answer is that we are to contemplate the love of the Father in faith. Interestingly, this does not sound so far off from Mayfield’s thesis. The Christian is to remap their view of God in view of the Father’s overwhelming love through a process of contemplation and reframing. Yet Owen’s answer differs in at least two fundamental ways from that of Mayfield’s. The first is that the reality of sin in the life of the believer does not alter God’s eternal love, but does alter “the dispensations of his grace,” including God’s rebuke, discipline, and conviction in our lives. Scripture is clear that Godly discipline is consistent with God’s love (cf. Heb. 12), even though this may not feel like the case. Where Mayfield sees an unhealthy tension between the experience of sinfulness and God’s love, Owen notes that “those very things which seem to be demonstrations of the change of his affections towards us, do as clearly proceed from love as those which seem to be the most genuine issues thereof.” Further, Owen argues that hatred of sin is consistent with God’s full love and acceptance of us as His children. Arguing that these two things cannot go together, therefore, seems simplistic.
The other difference between Mayfield and Owen is that Owen does not see contemplating one’s sinfulness and sin’s remedy as barriers to attachment to God, but rather as facilitators. For it is at the cross, in the very presence of our moral badness, that such love is most magnificently demonstrated. Owen was no slouch on sin, and yet found no tension between both preaching our sinfulness and our belovedness. In fact, he saw the interplay of this tension in the life of the believer to be a great source of growth in communion with Christ, all of which strongly suggests that repentance itself provides a means of improving attachment with God. The remedy for our sin — the cross — is no enemy to attachment to God, but perhaps its dearest friend.
Many issues in the interaction of theology and psychology can be resolved through assuming the stance of “both/and.” Mayfield makes a strong case that American evangelicalism can conceal the love and mercy of God with harmful results. Yet Owen, and Christian tradition prior, would argue that sin has a role to play in the life of the believer as well. But why can’t we have both? For without both, we tend to lose a truer picture of who God is, and it is very difficult to attach to someone you don’t fully know.
Thankfully, Christian theology, when taught and applied properly as Owen does, holds well the tension between the realities of human sin and God’s love, and does not see them as being in conflict. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when perceptions of sinfulness are balanced with a recognition of God’s loving mercy, mental health pathology due to beliefs in sinfulness among religious believers virtually evaporates. In the end, Mayfield’s work is thought-provoking, practical, and often very moving. Yet his attempt to integrate the two, if followed to its logical conclusion, steers one into perilous theological waters. Perhaps retrieval is often better than revision.
Which still leaves us with the question of what to do with Mr. Rogers. No doubt Mayfield would recommend to him the same resources found within his book, many of which he helpfully collates in an appendix. Most of these exercises are contemplative in nature and seem designed to experimentally reprogram one’s internal image of God. Yet one wonders if Mr. Rogers would have also found his final thoughts wandering outside of himself to Calvary. For here, and nowhere clearer, would he be able to see the extent and security of the Father’s love for him. Here he could have assurance of the promises of God for him, and here he could know his justification, adoption, and glorification. For there was no reluctant Father there.
Krispin Mayfield, Attached to God (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2022). ↑
Lenny Van Rosmalen, René Van der Veer, and Frank Van der Horst, “Ainsworth’s Strange Situation Procedure: The Origin of an Instrument,” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 51, no. 3 (2005), 261–284. https://doi.org/10.1002/jhbs.21729 ↑
The approach broadly taken by Jay Adams. See Jay E. Adams, The Practical Encyclopedia of Christian Counseling (Hackettstown, NJ: Timeless Texts, 2003), 106-107. ↑
Jeremy E. Uecker, Christopher G. Ellison, Kevin J. Flannelly, and Amy M. Bernadette, “Belief in Human Sinfulness, Belief in Experiencing Divine Forgiveness, and Psychiatric Symptoms,” Review of Religious Research, 58, no. 1 (2016), 1-26. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13644-015-0232-3 ↑
See a separate but similar therapeutic pushback against penal substitution in Mark R. McMinn and Megan Anna Neff, Embodying Integration (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2020). ↑
Mayfield would have benefited from an exploration of the Reformed threefold use of the law on this point, on which he might find agreement than expected. ↑
Cf. Michael Horton, The Christian Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 434-437. ↑
Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Whole Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 154. ↑
One recalls Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s recommendation that “for every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ.” Andrew Bonar, Memoir and Remains of the Rev. Robert Murray McCheyne, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1966), 293. ↑
Sinclair B. Ferguson, John Owen on the Christian Life (Edinburgh, UK: Banner of Truth, 1986), 76-77. ↑
John Owen, The Works of John Owen, Vol. 2 (Edinburgh, UK: Banner of Truth, 1965), 32. ↑
John Owen, Communion with God (Edinburgh, UK: Banner of Truth, 1991), 27, 31. ↑