The Psychology of Spirituality Part I

This is a topic that I have spent many hours thinking about in a very candid way. I have written about this exhaustively on my prior blogs and in my coming book. I think it is an essential but also slippery topic. It is hard to grasp without it squirting between your fingers and then you loosing track of it.

I will start with my premise. The very essence of most human behavior and introspection is the desire for self-worth (in my book I call it the “Economics of Self-Worth”). It is at our core. I can be theological about this and to say that this is the way God has created us . . . but that is not quite right. I believe that God created us all, with this longing totally satisfied. But that satisfaction has been lost in the fall of Adam. Now we are left longing for this sense of self-worth with a deep desperation.

God has solved this problem once and for all, in the creative act (we have tremendous value because we were created by God) and in the act of Christ on the cross (all of our moral failures have been erased forever). However, we never quite grasp that either . . . none of us.

So far, what I have said is consistent with what most Christian people believe. However, I will now diverge into the area that most Christian people will not fully agree with and that is in this area where psychology intersects with the idea of spirituality.

I was a hard-core evangelical for seventeen years, so what I am about to say I say with great confidence. We believed that once we became a Christian, that we immediately changed in tremendous ways and it was a supernatural change. We also believed that we would go on to change much more drastically over time through a process of maturation or “sanctification.” This process—so we believed—can be enhanced through certain rituals such as going to church, studying the Bible and prayer.

Here is where I piss off a lot of Christians by saying that no change comes in an instant (at least not a supernatural change), and the real change, which comes over time, is only a slight course correction through a very slow process. The reason it is slow and minor is that the human persona is housed in the material brain and the brain changes very, very slowly if at all.

So, if we believe that we change tremendously from our previous life as a non-Christian, but in reality, we do not, then we have to fake the exterior to look like we are different. The real—inside—change is only slight. In the end, the real us is really not much different than the non-Christian. Some of the non-Christians, who started off—through genetics and life experiences—much better than us, well, they may be much better morally than we are in the end. A simplistic example is where a serious kleptomaniac, who then becomes a Christian, may be more likely to steal than the non-Christian who never had those tendencies.

Sure, we can go through social change, just like any person joining any subculture . . . but the character, the tendency to do good versus bad, is really not that much different.  The social change includes things like smiling a lot, saying sweet things (nothing negative) and using a lot of God talk.

Don was a unique man that I roomed with for a few years while I was in graduate school. While he looked like any typical southern white boy, he was born and grew up in the remote bush of Africa. His parents were missionaries there. He would often say things that were so frank that people in our parachurch group would be offended.

We were once attending a weekend spiritual conference sponsored by our group. One workshop was “Determining God’s Will for Your Life.” After an intensive day of note-taking, we had a very complex technique worked out for always knowing God’s perfect will for every decision that we made.

Don just snickered. He commented, “So, what we were just taught was how to create an intricate story to explain how the thing that we always wanted to do—for selfish reasons of course—was really God’s idea.”

He went on to explain, to be more graphic, that if he saw a beautiful girl he would like to have a lot of sex with, we could spend months creating a narrative of how God had magically called her to be his wife. The narrative would be filled with all kinds of signs such as, “we both like [certain Christian singer/artist] and we each had the same life verse, we bumped into each other at the library twice in a week.” This process of spiritualization was totally new to his brand of Christianity.

Don would have said, “God gave me this desire to have sex with women I find beautiful.  It doesn’t matter which one, so that’s all the information that I need.”

He was not liked a lot, especially when he asked four different women in our ministry to marry him in a matter of a few months. He didn’t try to convince them that God had called them to marry him in some magically and super spiritual way, but that he thought they were beautiful and he would like to have them in his bed every night. He would say that God would bless the marriage if they would allow it, no matter what their motivation was in the beginning.

So how do I connect all of these dots? Christian spiritually is a game. The early (first century) Gnostics believed that God had created some people special and above all other people. By the luck of the draw (wink, wink) they happened to be the ones that God had picked to be special. Therefore, they looked down their noses at all other—non-Gnostic—Christians and way down their noses at their non-Christian associates.

So, really, all of us want very much to be loved by others and by God . . . yet, none of us feel loved. This lies on a spectrum. I would say even the narcissistic people don’t feel adequately loved. Therefore, most of what we do is towards that goal of feeling loved. It shouldn’t be that way if we truly understood the Gospel.

So, behind the scenes (the personas behind the curtain operating the puppets in the front) we are all desperate to be valued and love. All of us build up this idea, like the Gnostics, that we are more spiritual, more moral and more valued by God than others. We get this feeling because we believe we go to the right church, believe the right things and have higher thoughts than others.

When I come along and say, “Sorry, we are all self-absorbed and evil, but, the good news, covered by the cross” it can make people angry. Well, they don’t so angry if I saw it in those exact words, but if I say it in more practical terms, now that pisses them off. I also feel angered when others imply that I have faults. I am too desperate to feel loved and valued and most of the time, just like everyone else on the inside, I do not capture that feeling. All hurt feelings, all church splits, all wars, all racism and all hatred is tied up in this perpetual process of us trying to find personal value and others doing something to contradict that hope. Hold that thought until I come back. If you are starting to feel uneasy with these thoughts, such as not giving God credit for supernaturally changing us . . . then please come back and hear me out to the end.






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