Transference: A Biblical Perspective


Transference is simultaneously one of the most commonly experienced and, yet, one of the most frequently overlooked mechanisms of dysfunctional behavior today. This article combines biblical examples and personal insights while revealing some of the developmental roots and hidden workings of transference in our lives.

Defined by Love

God purposely designed mankind with the capacity to experience remarkable personal significance through a loving relationship with Him. God’s original plan, as initiated with Adam and Eve, was that we would understand that our self-worth is determined entirely by the fact that we are created in God’s image. We were designed to discover personal value and purpose through the fact that we are created in His image and through the unhindered realization of God’s plan for our lives through His unconditional love for us. Man and woman were created with the ability to enjoy and appreciate relationship with God, one another, and the rest of creation (Gen. 1:26-31). Man’s individual sense of personal significance was considerably enriched through these loving, healthy relationships.
Through the mirror of these relationships, mankind found the means to identify and personally appropriate a positive definition of self. Man discovered purpose of being and realized personal contentment while glorifying God through the enjoyment of fellowship with Him and obedience to His decrees. In this godly fellowship, man had the opportunity to daily experience the fulfillment of his greatest need, a dynamic love relationship with God.

Spiritual Identity Crisis

Ever since the intimacy in mankind’s relationship with God was displaced by sin, our souls have keenly missed the magnitude of the love that man once intimately realized with God. The absence of a close personal realization of God’s love has created a spiritual identity crisis for mankind. Where once we found secure definition, direction, and fulfillment of self as sinless recipients of God’s love, we now struggle with the incessant misdirection and selfish inclinations of the sinful nature (1 John 2:15-17).
Lacking a close, personal, experiential realization of our Creator’s full and perfect love for us, many of us today are given over to the relentless intrigues of our love-famished souls, as we seek compensation through the unhealthy behavioral mechanism called transference.

Great Expectations

Transference is, essentially, a desperate attempt, usually initiated by our subconscious to bring temporary relief from the pain or anxiety of unsatisfied needs, unresolved conflicts, or emotional traumas from the past. It is a behavior that arises from the desire to either deny or soothe past emotional pain through the present day utilization of a vicarious replacement. The unsettled subconscious mind frequently motivates an individual who is in denial to seek consolation for unresolved past disappointments by punishing with anger or demanding unrealistic compensatory affection from people today. Using the mechanism of transference as a tool, we try to gain some degree of compensatory relief or satisfaction through our present day relationships.
One example of transference is the expression toward people in our lives today of the anger dwelling in our hearts; an anger which is often a consequence of judgments we have formed in reaction to people from our past who have sinned against us. Or, very commonly, we may place heavy demands and expectations, whether spoken or unspoken, on people we are in relationship with, inwardly desiring them to compensate us for the love we may not have received as children.
Another form of transference is an excessive need for complimentary recognition from people who are in positions of authority (parents, pastors, teachers, bosses, etc.). We often desire this recognition as a positive affirmation, hoping to medicate the pain from prior disappointments where we feel we have been overlooked or unappreciated by a significant person in our life. The failure to receive this recognition in a timely fashion can provoke a negative emotional recall, dredging up many of the feelings of disappointment from the original circumstances. This disappointment then provides the initiative for the wounded soul to vicariously “punish” the person[s] from the past, by subjecting the person in the present to a barrage of judgmental thoughts, words, or actions (Luke 15:25-30; 1 John 4:20).

Hiding From the Pain

A person who is in denial and is transferring is often unaware that their current dysfunctional behavior is motivated by past issues. By remaining in denial through transference, a person is able to temporarily suppress or relieve the pain behind the feelings associated with the original causative event. It is important to realize that feelings of emotional pain, desperation, and powerlessness over past events are the primary motivations drawing one to this kind of behavior in the first place. An underlying fear of regressing to this painful emotional state from the past causes the person that is transferring to steadfastly avoid examining their motivations, even if the underlying motivation is clearly revealed to them.

Letting Off Steam

There is usually considerable anger, anxiety, emotional abuse, and, sometimes, deviant sexual activity in relationships where extensive transference is occurring. Self-righteous indignation, combined with a sense of powerlessness to change what happened in the past, contributes to the striving of the soul to seek relief – no matter what the cost to the relationship. The subconscious mind has nowhere to go with all the anger and heartache from the past that is stored up in an unforgiving, unrepentant heart. So, through the opportunity afforded by the mechanism of transference, it finds a temporary pressure release by blaming, manipulating, and making unreasonable demands of others (Psalm 4:4).

“It’s Not My Problem, It’s Your Problem”

One of the most common aspects of transference is that, most of the time, just like the perpetrators, the victims of transference are not even aware of what is really happening. You see, people who frequently and successfully transfer onto others, really believe that their issues originate in their current relationship and that their cause is both honest and fair. Being convinced of this, those doing the transference become very proficient at convincing others onto whom they are transferring, that they are both current and justified in their present stance. This maintains a readily available human “well” into which they may dip, as they desire, to satisfy their insatiable thirst for unhealthy recompense.
The critical, judgmental, and persistently analytical mind of the chronic transference initiator is practiced at discovering existing opportunities with which to take personal offense. When the offense is determined, the event is often slowly and meticulously dissected, so that the guilt of the offender may be proved beyond a shadow of a doubt.
So, because of the determined and complex focus on current relationship issues by the one who is transferring, it is not really surprising that, most of the time, people are not even aware that others are actually transferring their unresolved disappointment from past events onto them. What they are keenly aware of is the discomfort, pain and shame they are feeling as a result.

Marketing the Lie to Support Transference

The prideful secular psychological spirit of the age fondly embraced by society today has helped to advance the self-gratifying illusion that happiness can be obtained exclusively by human efforts and through human relationships. Hoping to further advance this illusion to the point of hopeless delusion, the “god” of this world (Satan) spends a considerable amount of time and energy trying to seduce us through the propagation of his definition of the true source of contentment (Mat. 4:1-11).
From the beginning, Satan has introduced and marketed the lie that what we truly need and really want is available to us without having to even consider God (Gen. 3:1-5). Satan proposes through temptation that we ought to use whatever is attractive, readily available, and seemingly beneficial for immediate personal gratification. Immediate self-gratification is an especially attractive notion to the sin nature of man and the soul is quite practiced in its application (Exo. 15:22-24; 16:1-3; 16:20; 17:1-7). It is, in fact, temporary self-gratification, sought through the manipulation of human relationships that is the desired result from transference.

Looking For Love in All the Wrong Places

The Bible characterizes a person’s habitual concession to the gratification of the flesh as tantamount to “a dog returning to its vomit.” Although this example may be repugnant, a dog returns to its vomit because the dog’s sense of smell has indicated to him that it is attractive. Also, “A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud” (2 Peter 2:20-22). Quite simply, the sow returns to her wallowing because it feels good – right now!
These scriptures illuminate for us a basic principle of the nature of sin. Sin can smell good, look good, taste good, sound good and feel good – without being truly good at all. True goodness is not something mankind is able to define, much less practice, apart from the supernatural influence of God’s healing grace in our hearts. Thus, where there is the absence of God’s healing influence in the soul, man may attempt through transference to find what feels good right now using his corrupted desires to guide him.

Bible Characters in Transference

Although transference is often rooted in hurts from the past, not all motivation for transference is located in some mental archive, buried long ago in the deep recesses of the human psyche. Consider the transference activities of these well-known biblical characters as they responded to current events in their lives.
Experiencing a separation from God’s goodness and love through sin, Adam, in desperation, attempted to minimize the shame of his irresponsibility by an act of transference, spreading the blame both to God and to Eve and away from himself.

The man said, “the woman you put here with me – she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”
-Genesis 3:12 (Italics mine)

In Genesis 4:2-8, we observe Cain’s anger when the Lord rejects Cain’s offering, but accepts the offering of his brother, Abel. Cain, in a classic transference, lures Abel to a field and kills him in his anger. Instead of honestly dealing with his anger at God for rejecting his offering, Cain makes Abel into his scapegoat. His issues were really with God and his own personal shame, but, unwilling to repent, he sought relief by expressing his anger at someone else.
Genesis 37:1-24 gives us another account of the use of transference to deal with a perceived rejection. Verse 4 states, “When his brothers saw that their father (Jacob) loved him (Joseph) more than any of them, they hated him (Joseph) and could not speak a kind word to him.” Verse 20 reveals the direction and depravity of the brother’s transference: “Come now, let’s kill him (Joseph) and throw him into one of these cisterns and say that a ferocious animal devoured him.”  (Words in parenthesis mine).
Disappointed that their father Jacob loved Joseph more than any of them, Joseph’s brothers directed their anger toward Joseph, in an attempt to find temporary relief from the unresolved conflict (feelings of rejection) within. A bitter heart is a poison root, which grows up quickly, to defile many (Heb. 12:15).

The Antidote: Wisdom for Discernment and Repentance

James 1:5 reveals God’s promise of wisdom to those who desire to know the way of truth. We are instructed to ask from God, without doubting, believing that He is a “God, who gives generously to all without finding fault.” Without finding fault means that God has no intention of shaming us for our previous folly, but instead, He desires that we come to the knowledge of the truth so that we may choose to be set free. He will share His holy wisdom with us, that we may come to believe there is a better way. If then, we will believe in His way, we can be freed from the many entrapments of fleshly enticements that deceive us with their promises of fulfillment through dysfunctional compensation.
God’s position regarding transference is the same today as it was in the beginning, when God gave Cain the opportunity to make the right choice:

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?”
-Genesis 4:6-7

Cain had made an inappropriate offering to the Lord, but was angry about what he perceived to be personal rejection. Although given the opportunity of restoration, Cain chose to continue in his anger instead of looking honestly at his behavior.
We have not always had the opportunity or means to deal constructively with past rejection, abandonment, and traumas at the time they occurred. Sometimes, the situation may have been out of our control because we were too young, too frightened, or we were deceived about what was actually happening. It is often the case that we were unavoidably the victim of another person’s evil intentions. But, with God’s help, we are able today to examine our hearts, repenting of the lies we have come to believe and the sinful attitudes and ungodly behaviors that have risen up from our reactions to past personal victimization.

Transferring Our Dependence onto God

In the end, most of the seeming complexities of transference are little more than an idolatrous dependence upon others to satisfy the flesh. Using a dysfunctional psychological mechanism, we use people to bring us temporary satisfaction, enjoyment, or relief. This kind of dependence on creature, instead of Creator, is idolatry. Psalm 4:2 exhorts us:

How long, O men, will you turn my glory into shame? How long will you love delusions and seek false gods?

In transference, whether we are punishing with anger or demanding compensatory affection, we have turned to the wrong source and are using the wrong method to effect either lasting resolution or restoration. The true source is God and the only truly effective method is repentance and forgiveness, which brings freedom from bondage and emotional healing to us, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
When our eyes are finally opened by God’s wisdom and we truly forsake our misdirected fleshly determinations, the Holy Spirit begins to heal our hearts from past hurts. He does this, not by trying to fix the past, but by supernaturally separating us from the effects of those past events which have been luring us toward temporary compensation through transference (Rom. 2:28-29; Rom. 8:13).
After the Holy Spirit frees us from the misdirected desires that originated in past events, we begin to grow into the new person we were always meant to be in Christ Jesus, able to experience the kind of peaceful, loving relationship with God and man for which mankind was originally designed. This peace is realized as we experience the resurrection life of Christ in those previously unrepentant, unconverted segments of our hearts.
No longer need our lives be ruled by the relentless intrigues of our love-starved souls, but, instead, we can enjoy the fulfillment of our greatest need, a dynamic and intimate love relationship with our  Redeemer.

Redefined by Love

And I pray that you,
being rooted and established in love,
may have power,
together with all the saints,
to grasp how wide and long and high and deep
is the love of Christ,
and to know
this love that surpasses knowledge –
that you may be filled to the measure
of all the fullness of God.

-Eph. 3:16-19

Copyright © 2000 by R. Thomas Brass
All rights reserved.