The Table Video

Todd W. Hall

We're Loved into Loving

Professor of Psychology / Editor of the Journal of Psychology and Theology at Rosemead School of Psychology, Biola University
January 31, 2014

Todd Hall (Professor of Psychology at Biola University) suggests that loving connection can repair the fragmentation and brokenness seen throughout modern society. He shares principles based on years of psychological research on relationships, exploring concepts in human attachment that start even before we’re born.


Hi everyone, thanks for checking out this video. This is from the Center for Christian Thought’s Table. The Table Conference, Mind Your Heart, where we were exploring the intersection of psychology and spirituality. This video is Dr Todd Hall, who is a psychologist, and he’ll be addressing the importance of relationships in spirituality and mental health.

And I want to start by setting the record straight. In the email from Steve, inviting me to speak, he said, “17 to 20 minutes”. Okay, so, I have the email if anyone needs proof of that.

Just use the minute.

Okay, good, all right let’s move on. [laughter] It’s great to be with you. I look forward to some rich conversations tonight and over the weekend. I want to start off with a question. What is the one thing you need to know about spiritual transformation? If you could boil it down to one thing, what would it be? I’m gonna come back to that question, but I wanna first share a little bit of my story with you. 20 somewhat years ago, I sat in these very pews as a Biola freshman. And when I came to Biola as a freshman, there were some painful realities in my life that I hadn’t faced. The short version is that my mom checked out emotionally when I was very young, and left the family, the summer after my 4th grade year. And I saw her periodically after that point, but she wasn’t very involved in my life which caused a lot a of pain and confusion for a 9 year old boy. That same summer that my left, I became a Christian. And one of the ways I coped with the pain from my family was I worked really hard in my spiritual life. But when I got to Biola as a freshman, that all started to fall apart, because God gave me a room mate who tried even harder, which really ticked me off. [laughter] You see, Greg was of paragon, of virtue, and discipline. He spent long hours studying the Bible.

But the thing that irritated me the most, is that he would often spend all night praying. I can’t tell you how much this irritated me. I would wake up in the middle of the night, and there would be Greg on his knees praying. And I would think to myself, “the nerve of this guy, “who does he think he is, praying all night, “making me feel guilty for sleeping.” Because I wasn’t about to give up my sleep for God. But as much as I wanted to blame Greg for my guilt and irritation, it really wasn’t his fault. You see, I was trying to find the spiritual bar of approval at Biola, so that I could use my spirituality to cope with my pain, to keep it at bay, and to avoid my sin. And I did that in different ways throughout my life. Up through college I subscribed to different times in my life, to three of the four common approaches to spiritual growth. There were times in my life when I subscribed to the Nike approach, ‘Just Do It’. And I thought, “if I just tried hard enough, “if I just gave it my all, then spiritual growth “would just happen, and all this pain would go away.” But Greg set the standard too high, and ruined that one for me. And there were times when I subscribed to the intellectual approach. And I thought, “if I just knew enough about God, “if I just knew enough about Scripture, “then, I would grow spiritually, “and all this pain would go away.” But Greg was studying Greek, and reading the New Testament in the original language, so he ruined that one for me too. And then there were times when I pursued the spiritual, emotional high approach. And I thought, “if just could hang on to a spiritual high”, you know what I’m talking about right? The camp high, the retreat high, then I would grow spiritually, and all this pain would go away. But you know what, in the long run it didn’t work. You see, we are prone to use our spirituality to disconnect from emotional pain, which then disconnects us from ourselves, from the people in our lives, and from God. Over time I learned that it doesn’t have to be this way. Looking back, having Greg in my life for my freshman year, was a severe mercy, because it put me on the path toward the fourth approach to spiritual transformation, which is the one thing you need to know about spiritual transformation.

The fourth approach to spiritual transformation is the relational approach, which involves living a connected life. A life in which your spirituality empowers you to face your pain with the help of loving relationships, and with that love, to create more loving relationships with God and with others. It turns out we’re loved into loving. To grow spiritually, you must open yourself to be loved into loving. And we’re gonna spend the next few minutes, up to minute 17, unpacking what this means for your spiritual growth. I want to talk this evening about three principles of a connected life. Relational connections. The process of spiritual transformation. Attachment filters. How relationships shape our capacity to love, and spiritual tipping points. How little experiences cause deep change. First, relational connections. Part of the reason that I used my spirituality to push away my pain is it felt safer than being vulnerable with God, and with other people. There were times when I reached out to others hoping to be seen and known. Only to be hurt in the end. Do you ever have those moments when you feel like being vulnerable with someone is absolutely the stupidest thing you could ever do? I think we all fear the pain of not being accepted for who we truly are. And so we disconnect from others to protect ourselves from emotional pain. And this is totally understandable, but it is also deeply tragic. The tragedy is that when you disconnect from emotional pain, you also short circuit the very relational connections that transform your soul through love.

In Ephesians chapter 3, Paul prays that the Ephesians would experience this very love. He prays, “may roots go down deep into the soil “of God’s marvelous love, and may you have the power “to understand and all God’s people should. “How wide, how long, how high and how deep “His love really is. May you experience the love of Christ. “Though it is so great, “you will never fully understand it”. Spiritual transformation is a relational process, in which you become more loving, by taking in more and more of Christ’s love for you. But to take love in, you have to be vulnerable, and that’s scary. We grow not only through a direct relationship with God, but also in relationship with each other in the body of Christ. You know, after working so hard to use my spirituality to push away my pain, and to not look at my sin, it all began to fall apart in my junior year. A lifetime of pain was crashing in on all my relationships, and I just couldn’t make them work. And no matter how hard I tried, I felt empty and distant from God. And it was probably the first time, but by no means the last, that I came to the end of my self. And I realized that I was trying to do this spiritual journey on my own. And I realized that I needed God, and I needed the people in my life to help me.

And so, inside my soul I turned to God. And God showed up. One day after some relationships had fallen apart, I was wandering around campus, and ironically, I wandered into this very chapel, for no apparent reason. Someone was speaking, and I sat down on the back, right over there, for about 5 or 10 minutes, and to this day I have no idea who the speaker was, or what to topic was, which may be your experience after hearing me today. But the speaker said something, and through it, I heard God speak to me. And this is what I heard, “there are some things “inside of you that you need to face, “and you need Me and others to help you. “And I will be with you, and I will guide you”. And that put me on a different path. That day I began a process of opening myself to God in new ways, and of reaching out to others in my life. And it was scary, but God was present. And he used some wonderful friends and mentors along the way, to help me accept the call, to heal and grow. To grow spiritually, you must open yourself to be loved into loving. I mentioned it was scary for me to open up to others. The reason is that I had a filter operating for close relationships that said something like this, “if I open up to others, if I’m vulnerable to others, I’ll be hurt and let down”. This is what I expected to happen at a deep, gut level. And this caused me to become very self sufficient, until the walls I built came crashing down. So what are these attachment filters? And how do they change? This is the second principle of a connected life. Attachment filters. How relationships shape our capacity to love. Let me explain with a Disneyland story. When our children were much younger, we decided to get Disneyland passes in order to take advantage of our close proximity to the happiest place on earth, and the most expensive I might add. And as we were talking about this, I remember thinking, “you know, I went to Disneyland “a number of times when I was a young child “and I don’t remember anything”.

So I started to wonder, why are we going to spend all this money on these passes when our kids aren’t gonna remember anything? And so with my impeccable timing as we’re in line to buy the passes, I said to my wife, “do we really want to do this, “you know, our kids aren’t gonna remember “any of these experiences”, and my wife gave me the look. You know what I’m talking about. And guess who went to Disneyland many times that year? But I said this in jest, and part of the reason my wife gave me the look is that we knew that our kids would remember these experiences at Disneyland, it’s just they wouldn’t remember them in words. You see, neuroscientists have taught us that there are two very different kinds of memory. One of these types of memory, gut level memory, the kind that records your Disneyland experiences when your 2 or 3 years old, is the kind of memory that filters your moment to moment experiences in relationships with God and with others. This gut level memory operates in all our relationships, but it shapes us in profound ways in the context of our closest relationships, what psychologists call attachment relationships. The clearest examples of an attachment relationship are the parent child relationship, and your relationship with God.

But, you can also become attached to a close friend, a mentor, a spouse, a boyfriend or girlfriend. You become attached to someone when you rely on them for two things. Comfort when you’re upset, and an internal sense of security that allows you to explore your world. Both your internal world and your external world. What happens is that patterns that occur in your important relationships, are etched or encoded in your gut level memory, as expectations of how relationships work for you, based on your experiences. You remember how important people in your life feel about you, not in words, but in your emotions. And these memories function as attachment filters that shape how you experience and relate to God, and others. We all have attachment filters that cause us to repeat unhealthy relational patterns. Because we relate to others on the basis of what we know through or own experience. And the bad experiences sometimes seem to drown out the good ones.

Toward the end of college, I began to open myself up to God more. And as I did that, I began to realize how my experiences with important people in my life affected my relationship with God. There was one day in particular that I was praying, and I realized as I was praying, that I had this deep feeling in my gut, that I needed to hurry up and finish my prayer, as if God had something more important to do. Now it’s not difficult to connect the dots between that experience of God and some experiences that I had with important people in my life, with some of my attachment filters. Now, it wasn’t the ending point of my journey, thankfully. But it was a starting point of realizing what I really believed about God, deep in my gut. Your relational patterns and your gut level expectations of God can change. But the first step is that you have to become aware of them. And so I would encourage you to spend some time reflecting on this question, and then share your experience with God, and with a friend. Imagine God thinking about you. What do you assume God feels when you come to mind? For a long time my attachment filter with God caused me to feel that God wasn’t there for me. By God’s grace, that wasn’t the end of the story.

When I began to gain access to this deep gut level belief about God, I was able to bring it into relationship with God and with other people in my life. As I did that, I had a number of very particular experiences that caused a spiritual tipping point. A deep change in my gut level expectations of God and others. And this is the third principle of a connected life. Spiritual tipping points. How little experiences cause deep change. Malcolm Gladwell, as you probably know, popularized the concept of the tipping point in his book called, just that, “The Tipping Point”. A tipping point is the moment when deep change takes affect. These moments are only possible however, because of many smaller changes that have come before and prepared the way. And you can’t manufacture spiritual tipping points. But you can participate in the kinds of experiences that facilitate them. Spiritual practices, for example, prepare the way for spiritual tipping points. But they don’t function like a vending machine, doling out spiritual highs. I found in my own life and working with clients for 20 years now, that tipping points are often caused by moments of deep connection that shift your gut level expectations of how relationships work for you. What we might call a moment of meeting.

I wanna close with a clip from a movie called “The Martian Child”. For those of you who haven’t seen it, “The Martian Child” is a story about a recently widowed science fiction writer named David Gordon who adopts a boy named Dennis, who believes he’s from Mars. And this is based on a true story. Dennis who’s been abandoned numerous times expects David to leave him too. But as he opens his heart, a little bit at a time, he finds that David is different than the previous parental figures in his life. This was a tipping point for Dennis. He expected deep down, that yet another parental figure was going to send him away. His gut level expectation of rejection was online, in the moment with David. But instead of that experienced being reinforced, David meets his fear with perfect love for that moment, by showing Dennis, that his love for him is unconditional. It was a moment of meeting that shifted Dennis’ attachment filters. But you know, before this tipping point, there were many moments when David the father, felt like nothing was going to change. But he held on, and he continued to open himself to connection with Dennis. He could’ve shut down, but he didn’t. Somewhere deep down, he knew Dennis loved him too, and it was just waiting to burst out of him. And when he saw that he had access to Dennis’ deep seated expectation of rejection, he knew he had an opportunity for moment of meeting, and he took it. When you see in your friend, a deep seated expectation that others will send them away, or reject them, or criticize them, or be intrusive, and it’s live in the moment, and you have access to it, you have the opportunity to meet your friend’s expectations with perfect love for that moment. You have the opportunity to bring about a spiritual tipping point in your friend, if you cease the moment of meeting.

Before this tipping point, there were many moments when Dennis felt like nothing was going to change. You see, for him, parents always send you away. That’s just how it works. But some part of him held on, and opened himself to connection with David. And when David invited him into a new relational space, a space where you can break each other’s stuff, and still love each other, he opened his heart just a little bit more. God is calling you to the journey of a lifetime. The journey of a connected life. Your mission on this journey should you choose to accept it, is to do three things. First, you must find the friends and mentors who will accompany you on this journey, and help you face your pain. Second, you must open your heart to love just a little bit more everyday, and step into new relational spaces that challenge you to grow. And third, you must look for moments of meeting. And when you see them, you must cease them. As you proceed on your journey, you will encounter risks and perils. You will face opposition from without, and you will face opposition from within. People will let you down. And you will be tempted to disconnect. And to push away the people who love you the most. But if you overcome the opposition, you will be connected to a love that comes from God, that is so deep, and so profound, that you will spend the rest of your life discovering it. Thank you.

Thanks for watching everyone. If you want to watch other videos from the same session, check them out right here. And if you really want to follow all the videos that are coming out of the Center for Christian Thought, make sure you subscribe to our channel.

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