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.


When Behavior Modification becomes the treatment of choice

I noticed yesterday that during debate in the British Parliament, our new President of the United States (POTUS) was described at one point as being “a petulant child.”

Figured I may as well weigh in on this a bit using my prior years of service as a family therapist, sometimes in response to “a petulant child” presented by forlorn parents. True, no one has asked me to come out of retirement and play therapist for any good purpose. But there are different ways to assume one’s patriotic duties, and at least offering a few words of suggestion to my fellow Americans seems not so far out of bounds at this point in time. By now you may be desperate enough to even consider a new suggestion or two.  .

For one thing, I’m a bit tired of hearing the diagnosis of our new President, no matter how well formulated or agreed upon that may be. I say, let’s get on with a treatment plan. At least let’s discuss such a possibility, before it’s too late to intervene at all. Why wait for the house to burn down before addressing Junior’s anger issues? With this many matches laying around and no way to remove them all, maybe now is the time to attempt some treatment.  ASAP.  How about today?

Even “a petulant child,” if one is presented to us, can be helped. Behavioral healthcare does not always require an adult to child consensual contract. I’ve written many treatment plans for which the child’s signature was irrelevant. The adults simply had to get together and themselves act appropriate to the needs of that child.

Such a child may be helped by a behavioral modification plan. Which would look something like this in relation, say, to our new POTUS. This President obviously craves praise and behaves in the way that reinforces his craving. Praise is his primary motivator. It is his drug of choice. Hint: flattery will get you everywhere. And attention for the child’s bad behavior will quite equally get you nowhere. So our treatment of choice has to center around our own praise. Call it the “art of the deal” if you’d like, but the fact is we people of the world have much leverage and power when it comes to “dealing with” this President who craves attention but above all flattery and praise. For example, try this experiment using the comment section below. Finish this statement: Donald Trump will be the greatest President in the history of the United States and receive my greatest praise ever for any world leader in power today when he __________________________.

Go ahead and make a list. If you’re willing to do so, you may share it below in the comment section. Such an experiment may net a few such statements as building a border wall with Mexico, lowering taxes for wealthy Americans, reducing regulations for small businesses (even though it is large businesses through their paid lobbyists who typically write these regulations to benefit themselves), or to rid the world of radical Islamic terrorism. But there may be other statements such as stopping Russia from advancing further into Ukraine or any other Baltic state of sovereign independence. My personal list would include his finding a way to legally and successfully end Citizens United and district gerrymandering.  And to automatically register all U.S. citizens 18 years of age to vote, just like they used to register 18 year old boys for the military draft when I was that age.  As all praise reinforcement statements are tallied up, they then become leverage in modifying behavior. Obviously, the more participants in the process, including people in other nations willing to join the praise for the “greatest world leader of the 21st Century” plan, the more likely some behaviors, like building a wall, will lose loud appeal. A world “rally tour,” or even a state by state USA “rally tour” for praise upon accomplishment of the top 3 behaviors of a “greatest ever” President, might make the current red-state supporter rallies look like Arnold’s Apprentice ratings. Way down by comparison.

Show me 3 million people who would promise to attend this President’s 2020 inauguration in Washington if he successfully organizes, attends, and actively listens for a full 60 minutes at any Congressional Black Caucus meeting, and I’ll show you at least one small behavioral improvement by that POTUS. Consequences do influence choices, and not just the other way around.

Behavior modification plans work. Except for one thing.

As with petulant children at home or in school, they are easily sabotaged not by the child but by, you guessed it, the adults who refuse to cooperate. Let’s say you have a teacher who goes along but a principal who continues to reinforce the disruptive behavior, or a Mom who goes along but a Dad who continues to praise bullying behavior, etc. Whoever offers, in such a case as our new POTUS, the loudest level of reinforcing praise will determine the success or failure of such behavior mod treatment. For some kids, it comes down to which adult blows up the most and biggest balloons.

There is something every family therapist faces whenever a petulant child comes into focus. The treatment is never up to the child. The child can always be helped. The question is whether the adults in the room are willing to help, or if they in their own pain will choose to be like hurt people who only hurt people. The latter is what I see going on now in our United States.

I’ve had my share of cases over the years where the teachers, aides, cafeteria workers, principal, etc. at school did their part in helping. But if the louder parent in the home refused to make the right noise at the right time, the child made little improvement. What such a micro problem means on a macro scale is this: the other nations of today’s world may, like the British Parliament, all figure out how to use flattery and praise of the POTUS to win their own desired trade deal with the USA, etc. They may all agree to shun or ignore “petulant” behaviors (no State Dinner for the Donald). But if we Americans at home don’t get our own act together and find our own way to flatter and praise good behavior more than bad, then the problem child will not get the help we all need to see happen. As always, the first behavior to be modified must begin at home with the adults, not the child. Especially not “a petulant child.”

Okay, your turn. Any reactions, comments, questions?


Trickle-down theology

Some of you are well acquainted with the language of “trickle-down” when used in the context of money and economics. Simply stated, trickle-down economics involves the idea that money in the hands of wealthy individuals is spent in ways that provide jobs to those below as if in a virtual waterfall, where the bigger a river is above the bigger a lake is below. In theory, say, tax cuts and increased profits for the wealthy in any economy will mean more jobs flowing down and growing more wealth for everyone else.

Count me as a skeptic where such a theory is concerned. I’m one of those folks who doubt the rich spend their money when, by nature of their acquired wealth in the first place, they more likely save it to invest in greater profits to come. I’ve seen plenty of wealthy spendthrifts in my day. They know how to save and invest far better than how to spend and consume. The river on top gets dammed up and one ends up with a bigger river on top and what waterfall remains trickles slowly into an evaporating lake beneath.

That’s my view.

I’m equally skeptical when it comes to what may be called “trickle-down politics.” That’s where the centralized powers share authority with those below in efforts to expand the local governance.  I just don’t see that ever happening. In fact, I see that as having cost the Democratic party this past election and a few ones prior.

One of the great ironies of American politics is that the Republican Party espouses trickle-down economics, which does not work, and trickle-up politics, which does. The Democrats work in reverse, and now are victims of their own failed trickle-down politics. The Republicans have built a successful party from the ground up, not from the heavens down.

Okay, and here’s where I’m another skeptic. I doubt that trickle-down theology works either.

Bigger river on top, perhaps, but beneath the dammed up waterfall lies a smaller lake below.

Waiting for God’s Kingdom of Heaven to trickle down to earth may take forever, or so it would seem. The high-powered churches are like institutional dams up top, and they work to enlarge the river above to supply their own energy needs and investment income.  They see the dwindling waterfall beyond, yet they loathe removing the dam for fear they’d run out of their own bigger river on top.

These churches simply don’t get it. Trickle-down theology doesn’t get it. So I’m a skeptic.

God gets it.

God gives us Jesus as an infant born into an impoverished family living in an oppressed region of a foreign occupied land inside an ancient and primitive period of human history. Why?

I believe it is because God understands that trickle-down doesn’t work. Trickle-up does.

Just as God’s mighty oceans form the basis for our weather patterns, causing our clouds to gather and our rains to fall and, yes, our inland rivers to then form and beautiful waterfalls to refill our oceans, so God came to us in the form of Jesus. Out of the ocean of God’s love we find ourselves nurtured not from the kings of this world but from the children of this world who represent God’s Kingdom trickling up. The last shall be first. The least of these represent the Christ who represents God’s oceanic wisdom and love. And the bigger the ocean below, the more rain falls to supply the rivers above and the waterfalls expand in circular success.

Works that way in economics.

Works that way in politics.

And, God knows, it works that way in theology as well. That is where I place my faith. That is the one place where my lengthy skepticism finally goes to die.


God’s all-inclusive resort

Back from our Cancun vacation this week. Wife and I decided to try out a Mexican all-inclusive for once.

There won’t be a twice.

Oh, others love this idea and take the whole family. Open bars and buffets for everyone. Drink up and dig in. You may be among all those lovers out there. And we might have been, also, had we started in our 20’s instead of waiting til our 70’s. Now, it’s two Margaritas before dinner, try to stay awake through the entertainment after dinner, then ready for bed. And all this after that handy siesta following lunch at 2 p.m. when the sun gets warmer and the cabana gets softer.

Okay, you’ve figured me out to be a party-pooper who should have known better than to venture into an all-inclusive resort for a week, sight unseen, thinking it was any kind of good idea for us in the first place. Cut me some slack for noticing the TripAdvisor rarely publishes the 70 year old dudes that write to complain. Their other four and a half stars go to the crowd that still drinks and dances the night away. We old codgers keep those resorts from scoring a perfect rating!

But then I decide to read Matthew 20 in the Bible’s New Testament Gospels this morning.

And I see myself glaring right into the mirror of Jesus.

It’s when Jesus shared the one about God’s Kingdom resort. Spoiler alert: it’s all-inclusive.

Starts out with Jesus assuring those who come to work at the last hour they are entitled to the same wages the other laborers will get for working the whole day. That’s like charging the mostly lemonade drinkers like me the same bar-tab as those who put away that case of beer sometime between breakfast and black-out each day. So I’m the guy that starts to push back against this Jesus idea that God’s Kingdom is all-inclusive.

One size fits all. Really? How is that fair to me, the long-working lemonade guy?

Later on in this same chapter Jesus goes to even more trouble to assure the last that they will be first, and the first last. James and John, among the very first disciples called per Matthew 4, now get the same as those called last. Parable of the vineyard laborers (verses 1-16) plays out in real life (verses 20-28). Message is clear: “…..just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (MT 20:28).

Hola! That’s me needing this wake-up call. That’s me with James and John and the guys who arrived early to work the vineyards and expected better………than to subsidize that 485 lb. guy walking back from the buffet with his 8th plateful of food when all it took for me was two plates. Or to subsidize with my two drinks what has to be by now number 12 for that other guy.

Ouch! That’s me, Lord! The guy who complains to TripAdvisor about your all-inclusive Kingdom! That’s me who still lives in a westernized Christianity of zero-sum games where fear casts out love. The kind of fear that I’m not getting enough because someone else is taking too much, when in reality I’m getting all that I wanted in the first place (see Matthew 20:13). The kind of fear of neighbor that keeps me from love of neighbor. That renders me the same kind of judgmental Pharisee I’ve always tried saying I wasn’t.

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love” (I John 4:18).

Well, I’m a long ways from being ready for another Mexican all-inclusive resort vacation. An even longer journey away from reaching perfection in love. But at least now I feel I’m a bit nearer to the Kingdom. Near enough to see it really is a positive-sum. And really is God’s all-inclusive resort where the first make it possible for the last to afford it. And everyone gets what we’ve honestly wanted all along.


How to Wash Your Own Brain

Have you ever had someone with a bad case of a winter flu bug come up and shake your hand?

I know. Kind of a personal question. None of my business, really. But I’m pretty sure your answer is “yes” if you can permit your mind to wander about into that bit of memory trivia. Disgusting as it may feel to even recall such times gone by.

We have all been given advice from multiple directions when it comes to warding off the demons of winter influenza, “remember to wash your hands often.”

Having a bit of an OCD tendency myself, I’m rather quick to follow such advice. But not so quick when it comes to another kind of advice seldom rendered despite risk of contagion.

Now I am referring to something I’ll call, “remember to wash your brain often.”

Hate to say it, but there is an epidemic of crazy thinking, speaking, acting……even blogging?…….in our world today. When even our English language dictionaries are beginning to define terms like “fake news” and “post-truth” within this past year, and now the term “alternative facts” is used in defense of our new executive administration in Washington, well, we’ve got a sick society out there coming up to shake heads with us. That’s right. Whether we know it or not, we shake heads daily with people who aren’t feeling well, and who care very little if any about how we’re going to feel after they’ve spread their crazy thinking all over us.

So I was asked this question on Facebook earlier today, “Are there any techniques for sane people to survive this??” Context being a meme about the current state of political affairs in Washington. By the sounds coming from my therapist colleagues in area counseling clinics these days, this is the question of the year, and we’re only just beginning. People are coming out of the woodwork asking for help in staying sane.

Since I’m not getting paid for this, I will venture to grant others their money’s worth with this seemingly glib advice, “remember to wash your brain often.” But the thing is, I’m serious. We really do have to take some precaution to protect our own sanity in a world of increasing insanity, as in epidemic head shaking contagious “let me brainwash you with my own latest alternative facts” insanity.

So how do you wash your own brain?

In today’s counseling clinics, one often hears the term, “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.” As generally applied, this means learning to “re-think” life as soon after it happens as we can. And by re-thinking, I mean taking a look at what our minds say to ourselves about life situations we face and then taking a second look. A second opinion we render for ourselves. Only this time re-wording whatever it is the mind first said to self. Quite often, the mind first says what it has heard others say. Others who may well be speaking crazy talk. And while others are not brainwashing us in any literal sense, it is as if they are shaking heads with us and spreading their own crazy and insane thinking all over us. By repeating someone else’s statements of fact(?) within our own minds, we may come away with one of two basic states of emotion.

Consider yourself for an example.

If your own emotional state is that of “self-love,” that is not a sign of disease. You’ve probably just shaken heads with someone who has told you the truth in love. Someone who loves you as he or she loves himself or herself. When love is spread, leave well enough alone. In fact, go shake someone else’s head and spread your good health.

Notice I didn’t say “self-obsession” or absorbed, preoccupied, conceited. These are all opposite of self-love.

If your own emotional state is that of “self-fear,” then you may well have shaken heads with someone who spreads his or her own self-fear and you may have just been brainwashed not in a good way. You’ve been in touch with someone who is self-obsessed, absorbed, preoccupied, conceited. And now you’re starting to feel self-obsessed yourself. This is when you know it is time to go and wash your own brain.


1.           Rewind the tape. Imagine a remote in your own hands. The camera captured the whole scene, and you can re-play it to see and hear what just happened. What was said to you that you first took to be true? What did you then tell yourself about what this would mean about you if it really was true? If it was an item you just read that left you feeling this “self-fear” state of emotion, go back and read it again before asking what you believed was true at first glance.
2.         Reword the message. Imagine the camera is now on you and you are being asked to have the final word about whether you agreed or disagreed with the earlier comments. And why or why not? This time say it in your words and not those that were just spoken or written to or about you.
3.         Rewash your brain. Imagine the camera had failed to capture your message and you needed to do another take on what it was you believed is true or not true. Consider it a rinse cycle in your wash by saying it again, perhaps using even different words just to get the point across on what you really agreed or disagreed with and why.
4.         Rewrite your response. If at all possible, put your own thoughts into writing as a way of re-minding yourself about what is true and false. Even if you choose not to share what you just wrote, re-read it for your own benefit and know these are your own words for yourself and not someone else’s talking or writing about you.
5.        Reward yourself. Say something positive to affirm yourself for having your own thoughts, beliefs, voice, pen, or post. You have just taken a step forward to survive in today’s world as a sane person! You have just defined yourself as a person of self-love and not self-fear. You have something important to now give to the world, to neighbor as self, and you no longer need to feel self-absorbed or preoccupied with your own insecurities.

We need not be the equivalent of germaphobes in relation to this insane society we live in. Just as we shake a few sick hands, so we will converse with a few sick minds out there. There are a lot of bugs going around these days. Self-fear, obsession and conceit is becoming an epidemic from the top on down in our land.

No worries. When you feel yourself starting to come down with something, and even well beforehand, just go ahead and wash your own brain.  Often.


Treating America’s “dysfunctional family”

For those of us whose academic and professional work has included the treatment of sick marriages and families over the years, it may be helpful for us to share a few insights here and there about how to find hope in this new 2017 of turmoil as Americans living in the United States. Or at least to stir a conversation.

Many folks going through 12-step recovery programs have found help and hope that also can bear much fruit in social media discussion, and elsewhere. Churches are in particular need of such discussions these days among their members.

Of course, we know at the outset that most dysfunctional families resist treatment or recovery. Starts with such psychological defense mechanisms as denial, or repression, or displacement, or projection, etc. But for those who do begin the hard work of recovery, these families have a remarkable resilience in “getting well” and becoming functional in the future.

Dysfunctional families begin in isolation. They have a sense of their own exceptionalism, or even superiority. They assume their strength comes from unity and so they often unite against a common enemy which they regard as “otherness” or “differentness.” They form tight bonds and boundaries; walls, if you will, to protect them from “stranger danger.” And they conserve the status quo at all costs. They are, by their very nature, conservative and prefer both an inward focus and a backward focus.

We know some things about dysfunctional families through the work of treating alcoholism and addiction, but I’ve always had the opinion all families have some level of addiction, secrecy, and self-protection from external reality. All families are susceptible to becoming little “post-truth” or “post-fact” societies.   Indeed, all of us as humans have some denial of reality that works to destroy us even in our quest to survive. It’s a bit of “chicken and egg” speculation as to whether our self-destructive tendencies begin with the individual or the family giving birth to the individual.

Doesn’t really matter.

What we do know is that dysfunctional families have role assignments that fly below everyone’s radar. And everyone becomes addicted, or dependent upon their own role for the family system itself to survive. Typically we have the user, the enabler, the hero, the scapegoat, the mascot, and the lost child. Every member plays a key role in conserving the family dysfunction or preserving the enmeshment from any healthy outside interference.

In case you’re not familiar with the terms I’m using here, the roles may be briefly defined this way:

User = the one who most often suffers from narcissism caused by deep personal insecurity (the Bible calls this person an idolater whose only ability is to love things and use people instead of being able to love people and use things).

Enabler = the one who keeps the user’s bad judgment and harmful consequences from becoming a source of his or her even deeper insecurity, makes excuses for him or her, puts out the fires started by his or her bad judgment

Hero = the one who tries to fix everyone else’s problems instead of covering them up (usually the one that seeks treatment for the user or even the family rather than conserving the secret, but never until he or she is totally burned out from trying to first fix it all alone)

Scapegoat = (also called the Bad Guy role) the one that family blames for the whole mess by having rebelled in ways that draw the fire and attention away from the user (giving the user all the more excuse to use)

Mascot = the entertainer who distracts the family from its own pain by making people laugh or otherwise avoid having to face their reality

Lost Child = the one who just goes along in order to get along and feels quietly miserable in ways others don’t even notice

Understand this: each of these roles is a miserable role. No member of a dysfunctional family is happy. Even the mascot burns out after awhile.

Were such a family used in a parable or allegory for today’s USA, there is a chance in my own opinion that each role could be identified with a particular segment of our citizens. And my guess is you might even find yourself to be living within one of these segments.

But if not………….

If you are able to define a different role for yourself, then you are the hope we all need here in America. This is especially true if you can honestly say you used to be in one of these dysfunctional roles but have now gotten free and found a healthier way to live. Given that, you are now part of the solution instead of the problem. You need to help those in your former role learn your new role. They will block you to hold onto the devil they already know, but you need to gently remind them that life doesn’t have to be this way. There are healthy roles to change into through recovery and therapy.

If you are not able to yet differentiate or separate yourself from one of these dysfunctional roles, if you feel like the burned out enabler or hero or scapegoat or mascot or the unrecognized lost child nobody even notices, then here is where your hope lies. It is inevitable that a crisis will come about in which these roles no longer function to preserve the system. Then, people will be forced to learn new roles that do function for survival. Every dysfunctional system will eventually implode. After which it will become reborn and free to become functional.

Yes, it is hard for such change to happen. It’s hard for it to happen even in one single family. The crisis has to await some new member entering the family to play a healthy role, or some old member leaving and removing an unhealthy role player (the loose rock that starts the landslide).

It is even harder for it to happen in a macro community or system such as a nation. Takes a lot of loose rocks to start that big of landslide. But there is always a first and second rock. The second is all important for reasons I may offer in a future blog.

On a global level, all of humanity is one big dysfunctional family awaiting our next crisis. As a Christian, but also a family therapist and pastor, this is where I view Jesus. He’s the assigned family therapist who helps start the rockslide, helps create the crisis, helps create the new reality with the new roles, and who gives hope to the hopeless and treatment to the sick. Does God have other therapists on staff? I believe so. But Jesus is my therapist. And I in my own sick human family have high hopes that if we do what he says, and assume new roles he prescribes, we really can get well. And we really can live in that functional family Jesus calls The Kingdom of God.

What is more, if we can play a role in the incremental changing of the macro system of all humanity, just one person at a time, then we can create a crisis big enough to easily re-form and heal this single nation even TIME magazine has now named the Divided States of America.