Tag Archives: substitutionary atonement

Your worth: Check your attachment style before you decide

I am writing on Good Friday, when millions of Christians consider the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. The most popular interpretation of the meaning of Christ’s death is well-attested in the Bible: Jesus is “dying for our sins,” as my collection of atonement explanations can show you.

The story goes: We have become creatures unworthy of God’s love, since His justice cannot tolerate the betrayal of our duty to worship and serve him as we should. There are many more specific sins we carry, as you can probably  enumerate, which just makes things worse.  The good news is: we become worthy as God sees us through the lens of Jesus. We are free to live up to our new, official status as individuals saved by the grace of God.

This particular atonement explanation is especially good news for people with the “secure attachment style” they developed as a child. As for the rest of us, we might want to have another look.

Your attachment style matters

John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth did us a favor by exploring how we arrive at our sense of worth when they came up with “attachment theory.” This theory of infant development is so common, you’ve probably investigated your own style. I think such investigation is a good idea, as long as you don’t think the label you discover is more than a suggestion or a starting point.

When you consider what the death of Jesus means for you, your attachment style makes a difference. If you do not have a “secure” attachment style, you already felt unworthy of love when you heard about Jesus. So the story above resonated: “I need a Savior because I am unworthy of love.” I have had clients say, “I am perpetually unworthy. My only worth is what God imputes through grace by the work of Jesus.”  Their theology dovetails with their lack of self-esteem. If you keep the theory in your head and don’t let it get muddled up with your feelings, it kind of works; just don’t look too deep.

If you have a secure attachment style, the preacher may have to do quite a bit of work to make you feel unworthy so you can receive the Lord’s worth. I grew up hearing very convincing speakers who made me feel guilty and terrified if I did not confess how bad I was and get saved. But, I have to admit, I felt the love of God long before I was listening in on adult church meetings. I kind of added on “substitutionary atonement” to my general sense of living in God’s grace. Jesus has always been more of my friend than my lawyer.

Your view of yourself may cloud your view of God

One of my favorite descriptions of the atonement is the famous story of the prodigal son in Luke 15. God is described as a worried father of two sons. Neither are securely attached. That might be due to the fact no mother is mentioned in the parable. When their father talks to each of them, he needs to convince both of their worth.

But they were never unworthy. Their father was always sharing everything he had with the older son and was anxiously watching for the younger son to return. God sees us as children whether we are at home, sulking, or coming up the road, skulking. As a parent and grandparent, I understand the Lord’s story of love and hope much better than the courtroom picture of being freed from the consequences of my sin so I can appear before God with impunity. My children were loved little sinners. I saw the best in them.

The work of Jesus is described in various ways in the Bible and that may not be a  mistake. It seems like the ways are tailored to the intended audience and come from a particular style of person. I’m arguing that people with different attachment styles see themselves, God, and the atonement differently — that is realistic and good. I also think it is better to come to God as oneself instead of cramming yourself into a one-size-fits-all rubric from the 1600’s! What’s more I think we need a different side of the atonement at different developmental stages of our lives. At eleven years old, when I was baptized “as an adult,” I needed more substitutionary atonement than I do now.

The Bible’s view of our worth

No one writing the Bible is shy about naming the sinfulness of humanity. If we did not have the Bible, the Spirit of God could use today’s headlines to convince us of our bondage to evil. At the same time, she could use each individual as an example of the wonder of creation. It does not take long to meet up with the work of God alive in each human when you get to know them. In my work, I get to know a lot of humans intimately, and each one, even in their suffering, is amazing.

The Bible shares my view of humans, I think. The writers all obviously think they know God and have something to say, so their personal sense of worth is intact. When they talk about other people, they often reinforce the fact that God sees her creation as good. Jesus talks about his work as rebirth, assuming there is a seed planted in each of us that can multiply. Psalm 139 famously says,

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.

Our own sin and the sin committed against us does wreck us. We need to be saved and we can’t do it on our own. But once I get next to Jesus, I think it is a sin to keep seeing myself as contemptible. Being responsible for being contemptible may be the terrible lesson we learned as a child from which Jesus is trying to save us! If we continue to insist we are unworthy of God’s love, that might be more about our attachment style than God.

Some kids in Mary Ainsworth’s attachment experiments, when left alone with a stranger for a few minutes,  were quite unsure they would again be lovingly received by their mother, or if she would even come back!  They sound like the son who was coming back from feeding the pigs who only imagined getting back into the household as a slave. Other children in the experiments were so sure they would not be cared for, they didn’t even look for any care and stayed alone. If I stretch it, they seem a bit like the other son feeling all alone in the back yard while a party was going on in the house.

Paul, who was certainly good at sinning and felt sin at work in him even when he was writing his dense letter to the Roman church said, as he was ending up his treatise on the work of Christ:

[Y]ou did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,  and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:15-17).

Again, in those lines, there is that intimate, parental image right at the climax of his argument. There is no condemnation. The law of the Spirit is greater than any other law. You were always meant to be a child of God and now you know that, not in theory but in experience.

When Jesus bent to taste your death with you, it was surely because he felt you were worth it, wasn’t it? You were worthy even before you were born. You were the sinner worth dying for standing in front of the cross looking at Jesus helplessly. You were always the wonder he knew you could become, just as you were created to be. I don’t think God needs a Jesus lens to look at us. I think it’s we who need the new lens.

The love story about God and us: Another version on Netflix

I have slowly been watching The Last Kingdom on Netflix. I hope they don’t disappear it before I am done. It is a surprisingly religious show which my wife should like. But it is also bloody, which she does not like. So I watch it on very rare occasions when I am watching TV alone.

King Alfred’s daughter in need of a rescue

I won’t tell you the whole medieval plot: soap opera, action/adventure, theological Ted talk all rolled into one. The heart of the plot, usually, is what it means to love. Last night King Alfred had to decide whether to give all the treasure of Wessex to ransom his kidnapped daughter from the Vikings (a daughter who fell in love with a Viking and spiced up the plot, since we all hate her husband). Alfred asked his wife if he were being selfish not to let his daughter die for the sake of the country and impoverishing peasants to get the silver required to pay off his enemies. She told him, “Your honor and hers cannot be ruined by the shameful spectacle of leaving the symbol of God’s anointed in the hands of the pagans.” Another advisor told him he was, indeed, betraying his duty as king for the love of his daughter. It was another interesting Christian thought problem. Should the king sacrifice everything for the love of his child? Should the child sacrifice herself for the good of the country? Is justice or love the main question? Is there another way?

Much of the conundrum (in a TV show!) circled around the doctrine of “substitutionary atonement” which began to develop into the preeminent doctrine it is about the time Alfred was king. I am not a fan of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement as it is generally taught, although I work with it since it is one of the atonement explanations offered in the Bible [here is a short explanation of all of them]. At the basis of the explanation is the idea there is always a law to be honored, a principle to be served, some justice that must be satisfied. Jesus pays the ransom due; he takes the judgment we deserve; God sacrifices his own son to save us from the consequences of sin.

This can sound legal and distant, just the facts. It already happened, just receive the gift. In King Alfred’s case there is a deep love to be expressed. He will give all his treasure, even at the risk of denying his vocation as king and risking the capacity of his beleaguered country to survive, because he wants his daughter back. People take the love out of substitution, as if the whole thing is happening in a courtroom. But The Last Kingdom offered a scene that shows how it is the king’s love that offers everything to the evil in which the child is held. He is working with the evil deal that runs the world. He satisfies the false justice and does it extravagantly for the sake of his beloved child. God did the same for all of us in Jesus.

There are other explanations, other ways

As if turns out, the still-pagan warrior who is pledged to Alfred (for a variety of reasons) manages to free the daughter and upend the Viking conquest plans. There are many other ways for God to rescue us, too. The plotline of God’s love for humanity is extensive.

Aethelflaed saved

Sometimes I feel like a pagan warrior surprising one of my Christian clients with an escape route they did not imagine. The worst side of the dogma of substitutionary atonement is the idea that we are so bad we are about to be sentenced to death for our many sins. Justice must be satisfied, because King God must preserve the basis of his kingdom, which is his holiness, his sovereign rule, his law. My clients often feel like a stench in God’s nostrils (as they have been told they are). At best, their inner critic is always matching them up with who they should be according to the law instead of the wretch who causes the blood of God’s Son to be shed. In their heads they know they have been saved, but it is hard to dislodge the deep wound of shame for causing Jesus to die — especially since they are quite sure they will sin again.

On the other side of Christianity, the one before the Roman Empire became the Roman Catholic Church and beget all the other Eurocentric churches, lies J. Phillip Newell and his deep appreciation for Celtic Christianity. This pre-Roman faith is still soundly Biblical but not infected so deeply with the law-oriented dogma with which so many are familiar. Here is his experience of sloughing off the worst aspect of substitutionary atonement as taught in the church of his youth.

I had an epiphany moment in my early adolescence. It came through someone else [than God] who looked to my heart, my mother’s mother. She lived with us when I was a boy. Granny Ferguson, from Banffshire in Scotland, was a presence of unconditional love in my life. I could do no wrong in her eyes even though she knew full well I was a mischievous “scallywag,” as she called me. But she looked at my heart. I knew that to her I was precious….I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that there was nothing I could so that would make my granny not love me. And so my epiphany moment came when I realized that Granny was more loving than the God of my religious tradition.

I had been given the impression that God somehow required payment to forgive, whereas I knew that my granny would never need to be paid to forgive me. The doctrine of substitutionary atonement, and the general religious atmosphere that surrounds the dogma, struck me as a violation of everything I most deeply knew about love, that it is entirely free. Who are the people who have truly loved us in our lives? Could we imagine them ever needing to be paid to forgive? In my mind, it was like the prostitution of God, payment for love. I did not have theological tools at that time to unpack the implications of this realization, but I knew deep within myself that there was something wrong with my religious inheritance.  – Christ of the Celts: The Healing of Creation by J. Philip Newell (2008)

King Alfred thought his daughter was precious (and so did the Viking who saved her life from abuse in captivity!). She was loved. That’s why she was going to be ransomed. That’s why he made a binding deal for her, as was customary in that time. That’s why King Alfred was willing to give everything.

Love is the heart of the story

But I think Newell has a better answer for the depressed, anxious, fearful and angry Christians I meet in therapy. It may take a long time for many of them to become porous enough to feel the love of others or the love of God. It could take a long time to let the idea of being precious to someone or to God get through their wall of constant self-criticism. They are living the famous line from Groucho Marx: “I do not want to belong to any club that would accept me as a member.“ Self-loathing may be human, but elements of the church have made things worse. As a result of bad teaching, many of us look at ourselves in ways God, like Newell’s granny, never would.

Rather than seeing Jesus receiving the sentence we deserve, which is more a reduction of the Bible explanation than the whole of it, I think I might prefer to see Jesus as a wild warrior, driven by love, available at just the right time, against all odds, to save us from what has us in its clutches – like the grip of condemnation that keeps some of my clients committed to their captivity. Many depressed, angry, critical Christians are stuck working out a piece of logic in which the facts are all stacked against them and God is so interested in justice he will kill anyone who stands in its way. They perform goodness to stay off his radar or exact justice to please him. But they would rather be loved. Thank God that is really at the heart of the story!