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Dread and our Troubled Hearts – Part 4


Dread of shame; dread of death or annihilation; dread of self-repeating patterns that are destructive or futile; dread of repeating painful relational encounters that may leave us alone or lost; dread our efforts are meaningless, trivial, or empty.   If we practice a Christian psychology or any psychology, indeed, if we are but human, we cannot escape an encounter with any number of these nuanced expressions of dread as they present in our clients, colleagues, and our own personal experience.   Doubtless we are avoiders of dread.  We have any number of strategies to buffer direct encounters with dread and although not all are pathological, many distort our experience and hamper our capacity for healthful engagement.  For a more clichéd example consider the procrastinator, steeped in dread of an inevitable deadline the avoidance strategies abound, as do the various self-preserving strategies that rationalize and justify delaying.  And while procrastination can become stultifying or downright crippling to some, most of our clinical work is with those whose dread of emotional and relational certainties complicates their life in deep and profound ways.  Our clinical energy is often spent untangling the complexities of defense and resistance to feeling, doing, and being what must inevitably be felt, done, and experienced if one is to live a life of healing and wholeness.


Last week I suggested that surrender was an essential constituent for the regulation and abatement of dread.  To build on this comment I want us to consider positioning surrender as a dispositional ideal when dealing with the dreaded elements in our life.  More specifically, surrender can be thought of as a stance of yielding, often power or control, but in our case yielding our desire for certainty, predictability, and a sustaining existence. At least two questions come to mind at this point: 1) To what do we yield?  2) How do we yield? Lets take these questions one at a time.


First, it is no small thing when Scripture addresses the experience of dread (Deuteronomy 20 and John 14 – see Part 2 of this blog) in the face of certain war, abandonment and death.  The Word calls the people of God to hold onto their belief and in both instances God promises a continual being-with his people in their times of dread.  The Old Testament promises the truth of God’s alliance and presence in battle and Christ promises his continued presence in the form of the Holy Spirit. To draw and analog, perhaps a Christian psychology suggests that abating dread is accomplished as one surrenders into the relational certainty of God’s abiding presence.  In his book The Beautiful Risk, Jim Olthuis (2001) uses the term withing to describe this process in psychotherapy & counseling “. . . withing is not simply sidling up beside, agreeing, condoning, being nice.  Withing is a normative calling, relating appropriately in love, which includes calling into account, confronting, struggling – especially suffering-with.  The fact that love – God’s compassionate love – is astir and aflutter in the world is of tremendous significance for a therapist” (p. 63).   Surrender is, at its most profound, a relational process. The yielding of one’s humanity to the sustaining presence of God in the world can be operationalized in the incarnating relational experience of therapy (Benner, 1983).


Second, how do we yield?  While specific and nuanced to each person I think there are common elements in the process of surrender.   The relational experience of empathically connected safety allows us to explore and increasingly tolerate our sometimes-frantic feelings of dread that push us to avoidance.  In the presence of an other we can untangle our powerful emotions, separating the past from the current, so that we do not relive our painful traumas and loss.   In addition, as we allow ourselves to feel vulnerable, undone, weak, and scared we are able to attune to our human fallibility as simply human.  We can experience our temporality and historical placement as part of the grand classic narrative of God’s redemptive purpose (Fowler, 2000).  We need not sweat creation of meaning, merely the alignment of meaning as we struggle to realize that regardless of the context or givens of our life, no mistake has been made in our creation.


My concluding assumption is that all dread can be held in a relational space.  But not any space, dread is only quieted in those relational connections where surrender is possible.


Benner, D. G. (1983). The incarnation as a metaphor for psychotherapy. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 11, 287-294.

Fowler, J. W. (2000). Becoming adult, becoming Christian: Adult development and Christian faith. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Olthuis, J. H. (2001). The beautiful risk: A new psychology of loving and being loved. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.



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