Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Psychology of Christianity

How much does our psychology affect our understanding of Christianity? After some thought, I decided it must have a very significant affect. Our psychology affects how we percieve and relate with the world, and spiritual matters are inherently connected with the physical world, so why would spiritual matters be unnaffected?

People's mindsets strongly control over their perception of Christianity - so much so I think we all underestimate the extent of this influence. In my own case, I think the factors of my upbringing and past have made me place great importance on building loving relationships by being a Godly person. Obviously, this isn't a bad thing, and it certainly makes me aware of this theme in the Bible.

However, I wonder how much it also blinds me to how others view Christianity, and perhaps other aspects of the faith. It seems our subconcious can block things from our awareness or attention without our even realising it, and I believe our Christianity is no exception. There are, it seems, two ways of dealing with the challenge of maturing as a person... The first is to accept the challenge and courageously grow stronger to meet it - the second is to ignore it and remain the same. The first is often painful, the second seems less so.

When I find something that challenges my faith, my way of living, my security, or even my very identity - I generally try to have enough courage to accept it and seek to grow from it. I accept I do not know it all, and need to grow. I do not base my identity in being sure of what I know, or in knowing everything, or in being right, or in being "good". Far from it, I identify myself far more with learning, growth, and development that with being all knowing, all wise, or all good. I am secure in how I deal with problems, not because I don't have anything to worry about.

Persons who lack such courage, however, do not seem to have such a will to learn and grow and develop. They seek to protect their sense of identity from the challenge that - if they were to accept it - would mean they weren't quite as knowledgeable, wise, or good as they thought they were. They train their mind not to adapt and grow in strength by dealing with new challenges, but to protect itself from challenges dealing with them brings pain. Indeed, it seems their minds fortify their own stability at the cost of decreasing their ability to deal with new challenge.

The result is that their subconcious blinds them to the things that they don't want to see. They can't even contemplate what they are not seeing, because their minds block even thinking about it. In Christianity, this often takes the form of suppressing doubts and anything that would bring their beliefs into question. In other words, they become bound by their own fear to grow and mature as Christians and suffer the emotional pain that comes from maturing.

I struggle to think of examples of this subtle trickery our the subconcious as it is more about the way we think, rather than what we think. Perhaps, it is why when some people read the Bible, some teachings just don't seem to register. And, if an undesirable challenge is raised with them, they simply reject it - finding "reasons" or by "forgetting" that it was raised at all. The result is their Christianity becomes one based on a Bible full of holes, and they do not accept any notions that perhaps there is more to it than they believe.

The most common things left out are, of course, the challenging teachings. Parts of the Bible that clearly state the necessity to forsake sinful things and to live a disciplined and truly devoted life are somehow glossed over and never mentioned. The mind protects what it holds dear, and if someone holds onto sinful things or an undisciplined lifestyle, their mind will do whatever it can to ignore challenges to what it wants to keep. And they justify their ignorance. "We don't need to be disciplined, for we're under grace." "God always forgives us, and loves us just the same no matter what we do." "Oh, God doesn't expect us to be perfect..." "It's so hard to not be influenced by the sinful things of the world, God will understand."

People don't even realise they're justifying themselves so that they don't have to face the challenge of reality. Yet, what's worse - far worse I think - is creating a faith that justifies what they want... What becomes of Christianity when it is used as a phychological drug to cover over the real issues? What happens when you stop wanting to learn more and more of God's true character and how He wants us to be, and instead believe God to be how you want Him to be?

"Each of us has a hole in our hearts that only God can fill... Just accept Him, and He will fill it." No, just invent Him and He will fill it - your very own custom-designed God... He'll be everything you want. He'll "love" you no matter what, and because of this "love" He won't care if you stay as a spiritual infant and won't challenge you at all to become more like Christ. He'll forgive you always, so you know everything you do is "alright". He'll always "be with you", to comfort you and give you warm fuzzy emotions when life actually challenges you.

In fact, this "God" is everything that "solves" all the emotional problems you have. If you feel alone, "He's there". Tired, "He gives strength." In financial trouble, "He provides." In danger, "He's in control." In sickness, "He'll heal you," but if He doesn't, "It was His will." When things go well, "God is blessing you." When things don't go well, "It's all for the best." When you find something or someone you want, "I feel God's telling me..." The list is endless.

The sad thing is that many times nothing really changes. The God who created them would probably love to help them, but they don't really know Him - they only know the God they created. In other words, by decieving themselves with a false god who makes them feel better, they block the way for a true relationship with God to really help them mature to truly overcome the problems of this world.

I believe God does not want to remove our problems or remove us from them - He wants them to be His tools to fashion us into maturity, and the likeness of His own character. So, naturally, by not dealing with problems we fail to use them to mature. Instead, failure to mature through problem-solving is characterised by immature faith - one based on a God we want and reality we invent to suit us. No one can persuade such a person that reality differs from their imaginations, for their own minds will prevent them understanding it. There is only one way such people can change their immature faith, and it is by being committed to maturity and the reality it is founded on. This is my committment. So, while I know I still have plenty of psychological barriers to having truly Godly character, I know I am heading in the right direction.


Andrew said...

Good post.

Nato said...

Good post in terms of content. Not sure I like the title, because it implies that what you outline is the psychology behind christianity, when its more how psychology and christianity interact. Anyway, that's just pedantic.

A small quibble (Man, that's a cool word, cheers Andrew):
I would try and avoid the 'others are like this', because in reality, this is an issue for all of us, it's not a either you've dealt with it, or you struggle with it. Everything we do will be tainted by this, and by broadly categorizing it into people who have overcame, and those who haven't, you run the risk of forgetting just how easy it is to be like this.

So I'm not sure of the last line. Do you really know you are on the right direction? You sound too certain for my liking, like you've finally worked it out. While I wouldn't like argue that you are heading in the right direction, I don't know one can ever be that certain. 'He who thinks he stands, let him take heed, lest he fall'

Scott said...

If we can invent our own God, perhaps we can also invent our own path/journey to salvation/enlightenment.

Christina said...

nice post reubs :)

incognito said...


Point taken, quibble and all =). We all have to deal with how our phychology affects how we think, I am no exception as you mentioned. However, my point of contrast is that I am determined to not let it get in the way of maturing as a Christian, no matter how difficult, painful, or costly the journey. In other words, I have troubles with my subconcious just like we all do, but I'm determined to not be afraid to deal with them in order to mature.

It is for this reason that I know I will mature - because I want to and am determined to not remain immature. I haven't "worked it out" - I'm just determined TO work it out.

As for everything about me at the moment - I can't be certain if that's good... but I know the direction and determination of my heart, and it is for good. If that determination were the only thing good within me, then that would be enough.

Regarding your quote of "He who thinks he stands"... In fact, the Greek word for "thinks/seems" does not weaken the sense, but usually strengthens it. Looking at the context (1Co 10), you can see Paul is clearly saying "listen to me and don't do bad things like I've mentioned, lest you fall from your faith." He is not saying "If you think you're righteous you might not really be."

Perhaps you should also check out 1 Pe 2... particularly 2Pe 1:10: "Therefore, brothers, rather be diligent to make your calling and election sure [firm], for if you do these things, you shall never fall."

Also check out 1 John, which is replete with statements that seem to state quite explicitly that we can be sure about whether we are "standing" or "fallen". Like 1Jo 2:3 for example. In fact, there are so many clear descriptions in the Bible of what it means to be Godly that if one reads it regularly one can hardly be left in much doubt about it.

Thus, I am quite confident that I am a child of God - not because of my opinion about my inner self (for I may be wrong), but because I know what outward actions define a Christian, and I know my actions fit well on most accounts. How could I teach others with a clear concience if I did not have this confidence?


We definately can invent our own path to salvation/enlightenment. That's why it's so important to understand clearly what Jesus meant by statements like "I am the Way."

My understanding of "the Way" may be wrong in minor or major aspects (hopefully minor), but I am not afraid to question it. I am happy to doubt it, reform it, tear it down and start again if I must - the point is that I am determined to understand the truth, and have that truth transform my life into one that God intends. While the integrity of my understanding is clearly important, what's far more important is that am willing to change it for the better.

I am aware that due to the style I post in I in can come across in a condescending way, but I am simply trying to explicitly state what I currently think. In ten years I may laugh at what I think now - although I hope I won't. I write for other people who are looking to refine their understanding of "the Way", hoping that my thoughts may be of help to them - even if it is by way of disagreeing.

Katherine said...

Hm. The whole 'creating the God you want' thing scares me. I often wonder if that's what I'm doing in revising my theology. Was talking about this issue last night in fact: maybe I'm just trying to make God into something that seems more fair and more sensible to me. Maybe I like these ideas so much because I don't like some of the claims of the Christianity of my upbringing, and don't want to admit they are true - for example, the idea that hell is a place for people with the wrong beliefs.

How can we possibly know whether or not we are 'creating God', or whether we're onto the real thing? Well obviously we can't. One might argue that holding beliefs that you don't like, or that require you to do hard things, is evidence that you're not just placating yorself with a nice God. But then that could just be masochism, or based on an assumption that the world is a hostile place. And it could proclude the possibility that things really might be arranged in a way that happens to sit well with us. Probably it's one of those cases, like Freudian psychiatry, where any evidence can be interpreted to fit the proposition (i.e. that one's beliefs are psychologically motivated, rather than truth-dependent). One can always interpret an action in such a way that it looks selfish.

Note: I'm not disagreeing with you here; I agree that this is something that happens all the time - the whole projecting oneself onto God thing. Just throwing some ideas into the pot. Good post.

incognito said...

Yes, Kat, a valid point. I think one of the primary means of finding out what God is really like is studying the Bible... I try to do it in as scholarly way as I can, considering several options for interpretation before choosing one that seems most likely - not necessarily most likable. But even then I'm biased as we all are somehow.

This is why I apply my rule for changing my faith that I believe is a good measure of whether I'm moving in the right direction: To be accepted, any new idea must aid me to love both God and others more, both in how I feel and how I act.

Scott said...

But by using this 'rule' you are assuming in your current state you are able to judge progress accurately. Can we make this assumption given that our will and desires are so mixed?

incognito said...

The comment I deleted was spam.


I don't think it's much of an assumption that our lives should increasingly look like the life exemplified, taught, and instructed by Jesus. So, I think it's quite reasonable to use those teachings as a benchmark against which I can compare my own life.

It is senseless trying to use my feelings about myself to assess whether I'm going on the right track, because as you rightly mentioned these simply are a good guage. However, I can quite accurately observe what I do, how I act, how others act in response. What's more, many guidelines of Christianity are expressed in practical terms. So, I can directly compare what happens in my life to what I see instructed by the Bible, and therefore guage my progress at least to some degree.

The Bible also clearly describes how a Godly heart thinks, and so again I can assess things like what I am thinking about, desiring, and giving attention to see if they match.

So, when I consider a new idea, I don't just consider how I feel about it or whether I want to believe it - I think about how it will affect my life and my heart. If I choose to adhere to the new idea, I like to check every now and then what affect it's having on my actions, and how they'd be if I believed something else.

I cannot think of any better method to check my spiritual growth with wisdom, care, and discernment.

Knowledge Sensor said...

It is hard to believe.

Incognito has written a post accepting that perception plays a role in matters of the spirit.


After all the debating that has occured on this topic in the last 2-3 years too . . . .

Good for Incognito to raise the issue. (Look at the clappichino!)

Liked your point on 'creating the God we want" Katherine. Thoughtful.

Theology challenging is an intersting undertaking I agree.

Glad there has been some discussion on the role of humanity in understanding the Bible, rather than adhering to the persisting (and in my mind, mistaken)belief that humans can know the thoughts of God 100% for the entire Bible.

(Yes, yes, I know of devine inspiration and devine knowledge sensing etc.)

In the bigger picture (or smaller depending on your viewpoint), is challenging theology in the 3rd decade of life [which most people do] simply a reflection of each human's attempt to come to grips with their role in the wider world and its inherent inter-personal relationships?

After all, as we age, humans do become more selective with who they relate to and express their lives with.

Is this what theology questioning is doing in the supernatural sense?

Look at that cat dance with the pigeons. . . . . !

Will have to return to read the blogs more fully.

But, only when the time is right as other issues press in again. . . .

Scott said...


No there's nothing wrong with lining up our lives with the standards in scripture.

I was concerned with how you said you change what you believe based on your conceived progress in godliness. You say that if something improves your behaviour etc, it shows the likelihood of the truthfulness of that belief.

This still assumes that I have the capacity to judge my own progress based on my current beliefs.

I'd like to know where in scripture we are instructed to take such a pragmatic approach to truth? If indeed this is the best way to grow in the faith we would expect to find numerous examples of this teaching surely? But as far as I know, instructions towards holiness are based on the assumption that we have already accepted the authority of the witness of the prophets and the apostles.

Where in the Bible are we told, "Judge truth based on the practical changes it will make in your life." ?

Scott said...

"So, when I consider a new idea, I don't just consider how I feel about it or whether I want to believe it - I think about how it will affect my life and my heart."

"Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true." Acts 17:11

incognito said...

Knowledge sensor (who is my brother for those who don't know)...

Perhaps you could use better English and group more than one line into paragraghs to aid the readability of your comments? =) Perhaps also you could try and use more useful analogies instead of ones like, "Look at that cat dance with the pigeons.....!" =)

Incidentally, I'm not sure why you consider this post incredible for me - as I have had these ideas for a number of years.

Re: "rather than adhering to the persisting belief that humans can know the thoughts of God 100% for the entire Bible"

What ever gave you the impression I believed that?


Re: the Bereans, note the next verse that says "Therefore many of them believed." - it doesn't suggest it's a bad thing.

Re: "judge my own progress based on my current beliefs."

I get the feeling we're not seeing each others points of view clearly... I never said I judge my own progress based on my current beliefs - I said I judge my own progress based on my current actions... very different. The beliefs I hold that lead me to those actions may be entirely spiritually jouvinille - but they serve as a step in the right direction towards maturity.

"If indeed this is the best way to grow in the faith we would expect to find numerous examples of this teaching surely?"

I can think of several already...

"instructions towards holiness are based on the assumption that we have already accepted the authority of the witness of the prophets and the apostles."

Yes, of course we must treat the Bible as authoritative instruction... but just saying that doesn't change my life at all does it? It's only when I understand those Biblical instructions and live by them that am a "doer" rather than just a "hearer" of the word.

I take such a "pragmatic approach" because I have found that people make mistakes in their understanding of what the Bible teaches (myself included). These mistakes are influenced by the changes in language, and perhaps what people "want to find" in the Bible. So, I test teachings by the fruit they bear - and only then can I be sure of their worth.

Furthermore, I expect and encourage other people to correct my beliefs based on the fruit my beliefs generate. There is more doctrinal safety when you a open to being corrected by others.

If you think most Christians have a good understanding of what the Bible teaches, then I guess you wouldn't approach teachings so pragmatically. I think most Christians unforunately niether have a good understanding, nor a pragmatic approach to deal with it. The ignore the fruit of their beliefs, and so unwittingly fabricate beliefs that suit them and their own pschological needs.

Knowledge Sensor said...


Point 1: Re: 'impression I believed that?'

The numerous debates (2004 - McKenzie Country in particular)we have had when I have expounded the essential nature of perception in all aspects of life and you have argued (what appeared to me) the opposite point for hours.

Point 2:

I admit that I do like the seperate my thoughts on a page. I find it more useful to read. Others do not seem to find my approach useful for them it seems.

Point 3:

Now, what is the use of a pseudonem (fake name) if you want to tell everyone who it allegedly is?

Point 4:

You are aware of the saying from which the dancing cat refers to?

It seemed more interesting (at least to me) than stating "Now this is an issue which I believe may need further consideration in much more detail by interested parties at a later date. . . "

Plus, it was shorter to write, and I was trying to lighten the tone of my post with some humour too.

Point 5:

Of note: I did try to give more constructive comments AND clappichino this time too . . . .

Yet the reply . . .