Tenderness underpins our capacity to see, hear, and hold the people in our world.
7 MINUTE READ
When you think of the words ‘child of God’, what images come to mind? What sensations do you feel? What words or memories or relationships are you prompted to reflect on?
My understanding of these words has been shifting. Shifting away from an understanding of myself as a dutiful and diligent daughter who earns her place in God’s family through obedient decision making, learning scripture, and serving others. Instead, I am learning to sense myself as loved, as belonging to a wide welcoming family, as created with love, and beloved by one who sees me, knows my human limitations, and seeks to reach out and hold me.
I recently was struck by one of Eugene Peterson’s sermons in his book As Kingfishers Catch Fire.1 He took a verse I usually see as a command to discipline children and turned it around to help me see the deeply relational embodied way that our God attends to us. Eugene made note that the Hebrew verb often translated ‘to train up’ in Proverbs 22:6 means “to rub the gums of a newborn child with oil before it begins to suck it’s mother’s breast”.1 Others add that this verb relates to rubbing a child’s palate with chewed dates or oil by midwives.2 To me the words ‘train up’ have meant very cognitive instructions and behaviours such as memorising scripture, learning wisdom, knowing my place, being agreeable, and complying with what is expected of me. They have implied processes of being observed, critiqued, and corrected by my elders or by revelations through the scriptures.
Eugene’s re-translation of those words seems to be more aligned with helping a child to sense that God tastes good, to prepare a child for being satisfied by nourishing food. It seems to have a tenderness thats whole aim is to connect the child to a safe relationship. The role of the midwives seems to bring a sense of communal warmth and wisdom. This experience is not one of control or critique, it is a warm sensory welcome. Eugene calls this process of rubbing the gums of the infant an ‘act of personal intimacy’. He speaks of the trust it implies and describes how the midwives initiate the child into ‘a life of receptivity and love’. He says it is warmth, celebration and ‘tender welcome’.1, p.188
Understanding ourselves as children of God is only helpful if we have a rich relational understanding of what it means to be a child and a sense of God as a safe parent. Of course, none of us have experienced family relationships as they will be experienced in heaven, so all of us can benefit from having our palates rubbed with tenderness that invites us to taste that God is good. For those who have experienced early life adversity with distracted, disconnected, confusing, or invasive parents it is difficult to open our mouths to these tastes. For those of us who experience ourselves as shameful or disobedient children, it is hard to believe there is any safe midwife or parent who would want to feed us and welcome us to snuggle up close.
Being welcomed, nourished, and held in safe intimacy is exactly what people need to grow. In fact, decades of attachment research confirms that safe connection facilitates changes in the brain that enable self-soothing, language development and expression, internal organisation, and learning.3-6 Safe connection also widens perspective, enabling reflective function, or what some call mentalizing7,8 – the capacity to attend to both one’s own and others’ inner worlds and heart’s intentions. Tenderness and ‘felt security’ underpin our capacity to see, hear, and hold the people in our world.
Of course, all that I write here is influenced by my recent doctoral research and the book it became.9,10 That generalist research into whole person approaches to distress has taught me so much about who we are as people. I interviewed patients, Australian Indigenous academics, mental health clinicians, and GPs, asking ‘what does the phrase ‘sense of safety’ mean to you?’, ‘what causes threat’, and ‘how do you sense that you are safe?’. I discovered the importance of sensation. Over and over people described sensing safety as an integrative whole person experience that included awareness of self, other, and context. These processes, which I came to name, “Sense of Safety Dynamics” are broad awareness, calm sense-making, respectful connection, capable engagement, and owning yourself. These dynamics are relevant across the whole person in seven Whole Person Domains that include environment, social climate, relationships, body, inner experiences, sense of self, and spirit or meaning. Sensing and sense-making seem to connect us to ourselves and our world. Sensing seemed to be more important than language or reason in understanding how people experienced their world.
“Sensing seemed to be more important than language or reason in understanding how people experienced their world.”
A wide literature search across the disciplines revealed that safety is relevant to the health of the whole human organism.9 From the immune system responses to danger and the endocrine, metabolic, and neurological responses to stress, to the quality of relationships, inner dialogue, and wider to cultural and political experiences that impact access to food, water, and justice.9,10 This work drew attention to humans as multi-layered – incarnational embodied people embedded in environments and communities of interconnected relationships. It drew attention to the sense of self, spirit and meaning alongside our senses as integrative and intrinsic ways to make sense of the world we live in.
While trying to find an appropriate research methodology to research the whole person,11 I discovered the limitations of evidence that elevates reason above experience. The biomedical research that I admired for its capacity to explain and predict and reveal reality had an Achilles heel – it was reductionist, objectifying, and deterministic. It highly values the rational and disembodied12 observer who explores the body as an object.13 Reductionism intentionally leaves out variables such as the voice or sensations of the person. Reductionism cannot attend to that which is incarnate. It cannot notice the person’s interconnected relationships and stories that could reveal movement, growth, or healing. Reductionism cannot attend to the interconnected whole being. As hand therapist Kielhofner reminds: “while they treat the body as something that is alive, they persist in ignoring the body as something that is lived”.14, p.57
This fundamental disrespect towards bodily experiences and senses is often mirrored in theologies that highly value reason, see the ‘flesh’ as sinful, and are therefore wary of sensations and desires. These biases that do not attend to the whole may have narrowed how we see ourselves as children of God. We are so much more than objects to be observed or reasoned with. We are woven together with love. We know that love through our senses and our connections to others and our world.
So – how do we redeem our understanding of ourselves as children of God? Do we need to return to a Hebrew understanding of tender relationships towards children? Do we need to learn to see God not just as disembodied reason but as incarnate or embodied love that we can sense? We need a widening of our gaze – a more generalist gaze – that integrates sensations alongside sense-making.9 I wonder, can we see God’s love in the wise connectedness of Hebrew midwives who entrust us to His embrace because they know that is where we will flourish?
I recently heard a couple of new songs that speak of the tender place of being loved that is being a child of God. One spoke of prayer as ‘talking to Jesus’ and said ‘Just talk to your Father like you are his kid’.15 The other sings:
I could run a thousand miles to win the race of life
But what’s the value without You?
I could write a thousand psalms to captivate Your heart
But more than offerings
Lord, You seek the depths of me
When You see me, You see my heart
Through the eyes of Your mercy
In the light of Your Son
You love me with open arms
And the pride of a Father16
For those of us who had difficult fathers, perhaps this is difficult to read – it may make us observe ourselves from outside, it may narrow our view of ourselves (and them), it may cause us pain or shame. For some believers who have experienced overwhelming disconnection or invasion in their childhoods or in current exhaustion or distress, we have numbed senses that cannot sense connection with God. This is not because we are not loved, it is not because we have been left out of His warmth, it is not because we do not deserve connection. It may simply be that our bodies and hearts have not felt safe.
We may need to be reminded of the Hebrew midwives who offer a warm invitation to tenderness, to connection, to tasting that God is good – a template for a way of being loved. Perhaps then we can relax and let our incarnate bodies sense the belonging that is at the heart of the experience of being a child of God.
Dr Johanna Lynch Dr Johanna Lynch is an Australian general practitioner of 25 years who has spent the last 15 years working with adult survivors of childhood trauma and neglect. She is a Senior Lecturer at The University of Queensland and President of the Australian Society for Psychological Medicine who has turned her doctoral research into a book entitled A Whole Person Approach to Distress: Building Sense of Safety.
- Peterson EH. As Kingfishers Catch Fire: A Conversation on the Ways of God Formed by the Words of God. WaterBrook Press; 2017.
- Brown F, Driver S, Briggs C. Hebrew and English Lexicon. Hendrickson Publishers; 1996.
- Maunder RG, Hunter JJ. Attachment and Psychosomatic Medicine: developmental contributions to stress and disease. 2001;63(4):556-567.
- Kimball C, Boyatzis C, Cook K, Leonard K, Flanagan K. Attachment to God: A Qualitative Exploration of Emerging Adults’ Spiritual Relationship with God. Journal of Psychology and Theology. 2013;41(3):175-188.
- Schore AN. Effects of a secure attachment relationship on right brain development, affect regulation, and infant mental health. Infant Mental Health Journal. 2001;22(1-2):7-66.
- Allen JP, Manning N. From safety to affect regulation: Attachment from the vantage point of adolescence. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development. 2007(117):23-39.
- Allen JG. Understanding Mentalizing: Mentalizing as a Compass for Treatment. http://www.menningerclinic.com/education/clinical-resources/mentalizing. Published 2015. Accessed 09/02/15, 2015.
- Fonagy P, Steele M, Steele H, Moran GS, Higgitt AC. The capacity for understanding mental states: The reflective self in parent and child and its significance for security of attachment. Infant Mental Health Journal. 1991;12(3):201-218.
- Lynch JM. A Whole Person Approach to Wellbeing: Building Sense of Safety. London: Routledge; 2021
- Lynch JM. Sense of Safety: a whole person approach to distress. Brisbane: Primary Care Clinical Unit, University of Queensland; 2019.
- Lynch JM, Dowrick CF, Meredith P, McGregor SLT, Van Driel M. Transdisciplinary Generalism: naming the epistemology and philsophy of the generalist. Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice. 2020:1-10.
- Barnacle R, ed Phenomenology. Melbourne: RMIT University Press; 2001. Bowden J, ed. Qualitative Research Methods Series.
- Kirkengen AL, Thornquist E. The lived body as a medical topic: an argument for an ethically informed epistemology. Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice. 2012;18(5):1095-1101.
- Kielhofner G. A meditation on the use of hands. Scandinavian Journal of Occupational Therapy. 1995;2(3-4):153-166.
- Brown C, Lake, B., Furtick, S. Talking to Jesus. In: Bethel Music Publishing; 2018.
- Hobbs H, King, A., Wagner, M. Pride of a Father. In. Hillsong; Young and Free. Hillsong 2021.