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Seeking Relief in a Time of Distress: Part 1

by Elizabeth Pennington on July 06, 2020

I hesitate to be yet another voice moaning with outrage as I discuss the difficulties we have all come to know as 2020-The year of quarantine. My outrage, as yours also might be, is based on an expectation that “life shouldn’t be this difficult”. I reply to my own cries with a hard truth…maybe it really shouldn’t be this difficult. Maybe my struggle is more than discontentment or disappointment. Maybe the level of distress I experience is correlated to the level of belonging I experience in my relationship with my Heavenly Father.

For you did not receive the spirit of slavery, to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.

 

Romans 8:15-16

I have described my own relationship with God as a “spiritual orphan”. As you will recall from my post A Mind Full of God I am composed of mind, body, and spirit. The spirit of man is the intangible part of self that lives eternally. It is the source of self and connection to others. My spirit is not meant to live life as an orphan. Jesus Christ paid the fee for my adoption and has brought me into eternal security through relationship with God; experienced on earth through connection with the Holy Spirit. To conceptualize this transformation let’s look at the difference between an orphan and a beloved child:

Evidence of the infant attachment cycle was introduced by Bowlby and Ainsworth in the 1960s and 1970s. The attachment cycle begins with an infant experiencing need. This need signals the autonomic and neurological distress response producing physical reaction of crying. While the infant waits for the response of someone; not even knowing, but instinctively reaching for, a loving and powerful caregiver, connected to yet distinct from, self. In English we call this someone “parent”. The parent has proximity to the child, making him or her both physically and emotionally available to hear the child’s cry and to move toward the child in response to his or her distress. With the provisions of the parent come the initiation of relief, the calming stage of the cycle. The next time the child experiences distress, what will he or she do? The child will cry; eventually coming to expect that the parent will respond and the relief will replace the discomfort. As this cycle repeats, the foundation of mental/emotional, physical, and spiritual health develops.

A physical orphan is born with the same needs, the same vocal cords, however, in the absence of parent proximity, the child stops crying and the capacity for trust deteriorates. This disruption in the cycle sets the mental/emotional, physical, and spiritual development on a maladaptive course toward survival rather than relationship. As spiritual orphans we are separated from God, driven to survive a harsh and dangerous world, destined toward certain death, we develop maladaptive strategies for responding to our own distress.

Romans 8 declares that I am no longer orphaned. I belong. My Parent is close, He hears my cries, and He meets my needs! However, like many physical orphans, this transaction, which takes place on the desk of a judge, does not magically rewire those early patterns. The experience of belonging is very different than simply knowing I belong. To experience the safety, comfort, and relief of belonging, I must experience the distress, reach out to my Parent, and receive the relief. This cycle repeats…and repeats….and repeats… Imagine the thousands of times this cycle was forgone… I can anticipate God as a patient parent, willing to repeat this cycle, as many times as necessary. Until I have experienced something new, I cannot expect something different. God is willing. Am I?

With the foundation laid, the infant grows into a child. The trust is established and the child’s tolerance for distress is increased. The child now believes…no, feels with expectation the belief, that the parent will come through. The relationship strength can handle the weight of delay. Distress is uncomfortable, that is the nature of the word, but panic, despair, and hopelessness are not necessary within the context of a trusting parent-child relationship. 

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
Rom. 8:18

The only way to establish this tolerance for distress is by experiencing relief through relationship. The challenge for most adopted orphans is learning to cry and receive. God promises to be near and to respond. But we must choose to cry and take the risk of exchanging self-reliance for dependence on Him. In Part 2 on this topic we will explore how the distress of 2020 actually might be more difficult than it needeth be. We will discover, not a quick fix, but a new trajectory to increase our tolerance for the challenges of the future.

Tags: counseling, hope, despair, distress, 2020, quarantine

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