The Shack of God’s Counter-Transference

You may have read Paul Young’s best-selling book, “The Shack,” and perhaps have seen the movie now showing in most first-run theaters.

You may have also heard of the term, “transference,” as used in the context of psychological counseling. And if you actually studied hard in that Intro to Psychology class, you may even remember the term, “counter-transference.” Either way, I’d like to write a few things about the important connection to be made between the fictional story of “The Shack,” and these old terms from that dusty Psychology textbook of yore.

The word “transference” as used within the broader field of mental health counseling applies to a theory within the Psychoanalytic school of early physicians like Sigmund Freud. This theory was that the relationship we experience with our earthly parents gets transferred onto each other relationship with an earthly authority figure. Every desire, every fear, and every human hang-up in between gets transferred from our childhood experiences of the past into our adulthood experiences of the present. What we like or dislike about any person present is the very same as what we liked or disliked about our parent of that particular gender in our childhood.

Anyhow, that’s the theory.

Paul Young’s story of “The Shack” plays this theory out in grand form, as we find a badly traumatized young boy whose mother did not protect him from his own abusive father meeting up with a mothering God who most recently failed to protect……………well, go see the movie and find out.

It’s a story of “transference.” The mother who merely stands at the window watching cannot be trusted for protection. The father who punishes with pain cannot be trusted to love. That’s God. Yet, as even an abused child feels strangely drawn to the only mother and father he has in this world, so the son who grows up to become the father feels strangely drawn to meet God. And say to God that which he could never dare say to his own negligent Mom and abusive Dad. That’s what “transference” would look like if it were made into a book or movie.

Are you with me so far?

If you get how it is we all carry over and transfer our childhood traumas into our adult relationships, including that with the God of our own understanding, then the next step becomes super important. Because it involves “counter-transference.”

You see, in theory the counseling treatment for those persons suffering in their present adult relationships from the unsolved pain of their childhood involves use of “counter-transference” on the part of a counseling therapist. And while the use of such a time-consuming relationship in psychoanalytic counseling is now about as common to our healthcare industry as the old Packard sedan is to our automotive industry, it did serve a useful purpose in many cases. The therapist would assume the role, say, of a passive mother or a verbally aggressive father just long enough to draw out the full voice of pain and anger on the part of a suffering client. But after such a blasting forth of pent-up emotional baggage, the healing would come by way of the “counter-transference,” in which the therapist would now issue a response of perfect unconditional love and positive regard for the client. This love would take the form of identification with the client’s suffering. It would involve a total gift of empathy and understanding.  It would involve a  “transference” of the therapist’s love for, say, his own child onto the suffering client.

Such therapy served, as I say, a useful purpose at times. Most times it did not. Because most of the therapists were themselves bad parents and no better at loving their clients than they were their own children. Yet, even the best of parents and best of therapists found themselves limited by having never had an intimate personal relationship with God the three-in-one, soul-mind-body, all in same place at the same time.

That’s my own theory of why psychoanalysis usually fails.

Or so I thought until I saw “The Shack.”

Because “The Shack” is a story about both our human “transference” and its power to keep us suffering in our pain, and God’s divine “counter-transference” and its power to heal us of that same pain. This triune God whose mind and soul bears the scars of his own body’s painful suffering is the source of perfect love. Love that identifies with all who are suffering, who then casts out all fear and heals all pain. And forgives all sin. When we treat God as our own combination of too passive and too aggressive parents, our own “transference” attracts God’s treatment as his or her own suffering child (which Christians would name Jesus Christ) through God’s “counter-transference.”  God bears our own scars as if we were his own body, the Christ.

So what does this mean for you and me?

I believe it means that when we get totally honest with God about our own pain and suffering, even daring to unload the fury of our pent-up rage onto God like never before, God is there to do exactly what God does in the movie, “The Shack.” God is there to heal us, to reassure us, to help us by using God’s love to cast out all our own fear, and in that way grow our own mess into a beautiful garden.

Some who have read the book or watched the movie have made it all about their own theology. That’s their “transference” talking. Paul Young has written the “Shack” to instead be all about God’s own psychology. That’s God’s “counter-transference” talking. And God’s knowing our minds far better than our own “transference” can ever know God. It’s about God’s own psychology, knowing us enough to heal every ounce of psychological pain we might ever present.