Independently, I have always been an avid student of psychology. Yes, even from my earliest memories I’ve found myself analyzing the internal processes behind words and behaviors—intrigued, and a little obsessed with understanding everything within and beyond my intuition.
The mind, like all of nature, is a complex and beautiful thing. And like all of nature, both it and our understanding of it must be in harmony and balance.
Because beliefs play such a vital role in mental health, it can be fascinating to observe the interaction between various aspects of faith and psychology. And by the same token, at times it may be disturbing to observe the effects of religious misbelief on the mental and emotional health of individuals. Prone as we are to extremes, we humans tend to carry ideas far beyond the context of their intended application; in consequence obliviously teetering on the edge of a subtle zealotry and madness. (I’ll throw in here that zealotry is by no means confined to those of conservative persuasions.)
For unnumbered years, biblical principles and instruction have enabled believers to stay (in some ways) ahead of the science of psychology, yet ironically some people’s misapplication of religious maxims may perhaps keep them somewhat behind it.
I have observed that relatively new scientific ideas such as post traumatic growth, truth therapy, and many aspects of positive psychology, are actually popularizing a biblical philosophy/experience. And that, at times with a balance that some Christians seem to have partially lost sight of. My pet theme for today: talking faith.
Scores of Christians have heard the phrase “talk faith” but is it an empty cliche, a baptized repressive mechanism, or a powerful transcendent strategy? I propose that depending on how one applies it, it may become any of these. In my experience, our understanding of the relationship between faith and emotion does not always turn out to be in balance.
Sometimes we think that talking faith means denying reality. I’ve fallen into that trap before: the “things are great” facade when I’m really not okay, because I want to “talk faith.” Or the self talk resolutely stating to myself the opposite of what I’m feeling in an attempt to make it true. But that’s not talking faith, that is declaring a lie. Which is not to say that we should bare our souls to every stranger who says “how are you?” There is a way to be positive without being dishonest (as I will discuss), yet it has been my observation and experience that conservative Christians can tend to shun their emotions. And whether conscious of subconscious, this fear or aversion often leads to manifold psychological and verbal gymnastics in an attempt to put the “appropriate” face forward. In reality, it is the same emotionally detached, socially acceptable avoidance tactic that all people tend to employ. The only difference is that we as Christians plaster the justification of “faith talking” on it, effectively placing ourselves further from the possibility of recovery because we have now re-labeled the behavior as the “right” thing to do. Yet just like the child who is forced to say “I’m sorry” when he is not, this piling on of insincere positives not only teaches us to lie to ourselves and others, but it creates a psychological turbulence of unresolved emotional matter stuffed deep down under the surface.
Everyone recognizes when a person uses alcohol or partying to repress and avoid issues. We know that these are superficial anesthesias that can never promote true mental and emotional health. But what if we as Christians are trying to use something mis-labeled as “faith” to gloss over our struggles and make our feelings go away, neglecting to actually work through them and achieve true resolution.
We need to understand that faith is not to be a means of escaping emotion, though it does serve as a means of transcending it. There is a significant difference between the two. In order to transcend, one must still pass through. Faith does not involve denial. As the Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias says:
“Pain is a process. Don’t try to shortcut it.”
Nevertheless, surveying the landscape of believers, I cannot help but wonder if we are creating a Christian culture of emotional repression.
From creation, all of nature was designed for harmonious balance with laws to govern every dimension: the physical, mental and spiritual. The laws of the mind must be observed just as the laws of the body must be. If we find we hold beliefs that do not harmonize with these laws, it would behoove us to re-examine them. There are consequences to an incorrect application of faith talking, beginning with the reality that emotional-psychological tension remains unresolved, and cognitive dissonance is added to that tension.
“(Leon) Festinger’s …cognitive dissonance theory suggests that we have an inner drive to hold all our attitudes and beliefs in harmony and avoid disharmony (or dissonance)…An important factor here is the principle of cognitive consistency, the focus of Festinger’s (1957) theory of cognitive dissonance… A powerful motive to maintain cognitive consistency can give rise to irrational and sometimes maladaptive behavior.”
McLeod, S.A. (2008). Cognitive Dissonance
There are several ways this might play out. An individual may experience difficult emotions alongside the belief that as a Christian they should not feel a certain way. They might attempt to reduce this dissonance by adapting their words and behavior to reflect what is appropriate in their belief system. As their words or behavior clash with the reality of the emotional experience, they may further attempt to reduce the compound dissonance by “reducing the importance of the cognitions”(Mcleod). In other words, leading themselves to believe that their emotions are not important or relevant or (in extreme cases) even real. For some this may perpetuate a state of internal turbulence, while for others it may lead to partial or complete dissociation from their emotions. This does not mean they will not experience emotions and the adverse results of irresolution, but they may not be consciously aware of them. They will essentially lose touch. And this not only causes disharmony in one’s own mind, but also dysfunction in one’s most intimate relationships.
So where did we get the idea that we should deny our emotions? Quite simply it was by taking instructions out of balance and out of context. Folks, this is not a biblical philosophy. The Biblical system is in all respects, one of truth.
O Lord, who may abide in Your tent? Who may dwell on Your holy hill? He who walks with integrity, and works righteousness, and speaks truth in his heart.”
One cannot be fully honest with others before he is fully honest with himself. We have so many examples of transparency in scripture and yet so many of us still have not caught on. Honest expression is a human psychological need and essential for emotional health. God has not asked us to be something other than human. He has asked us to be holy humans. Let me offer some examples.
Just read through the book of Job and you will see the intensity and transparency of the man God says was perfect. This man was real. He was real in his devotion, he was real in his anguish and in his expression of his spiritual and emotional experience, both to God and to his friends. Job did not understand the dynamics of what he was going through, but in spite of his raw and extensive verbal processing, scripture says that he passed the test. In all this Job did not sin, and at the end of the book God says that Job had spoken the truth!
The one who in his youth tried to secure spiritual blessings through deceit, is the one whom we find wrestling with God and in his brokenness overcoming. We can never have the victorious experience of transcendence before we get real with ourselves and with God. Too many times we want to avoid that, but it is through the struggle that restoration comes.
Another stunning example of emotional honesty is the psalmist David. Let’s be real, some of his Psalms are actually a little frightening in their intensity. Particularly ones such as 109, where he passionately wishes calamity and death upon even the parents and children of those who have done him wrong. But these things are examples for us of how transparent the prayer life should be. It legitimizes the processing out of our deepest emotions to God. After all, He already knows it all, yet we need to acknowledge and express it. Obviously, death wishes for others may not be the appropriate thing to share with our friends. Some things are better only shared with God. But several other biblical examples show us what a large percentage of transparency we should also foster with each other.
If you’re still unconvinced about emotional honesty, look at Jesus. Christ, while ever dignified, was transparent as the sun. He did not hide his sorrow or his joy. He wept openly. He poured out his heart in prayer aloud. As God and man he acknowledged his human emotions as well as his transcendent faith in the Father. Look at Psalm 22, a prayer that begins with the words that Jesus shouted publicly in the hearing of his whole nation (though penned by David, the psalm is Christ’s experience at His crucifixion).
“My God, my God, why have You forsaken me? Far from my deliverance are the words of my groaning… I am a worm and not a man, a reproach of men and despised by the people…”
He goes on to graphically express the reality of his situation. And also, the feelings—the emotions he is experiencing.
“My heart is like wax; it is melted within me… And You lay me in the dust of death.”
But he doesn’t stop there. He expresses and acts on the promises of the Father. He looks beyond the present circumstance, talks faith, and while passing through it, transcends.
“I will tell of Your name to my brethren; In the midst of the assembly I will praise You. You who fear the Lord, praise Him… For He has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; nor has He hidden His face from him; But when he cried for help, He heard… The afflicted will eat and be satisfied; those who seek Him will praise the Lord… All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord… It will be told of the Lord to the coming generation. They will come and will declare His righteousness to a people who will be born, that He has performed it.”
Christ remained honest throughout His experiences. He cried “My God, why have You forsaken me?” And yet He grasped the promise and prayed “Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit.” His final dying words were words of victory—of transcendence. Even as His heart split forming streams of blood and water, he trumpeted the cry of victory, “It is finished!”
But we are uncomfortable with such transparency. Many of us prefer the facade. We forget that what makes the psalms of triumph most powerful is having seen the psalms of despair.
Christ has called us as believers to a community of truth—a community of sharing. We should not be so concerned about keeping up “the right face” that we are ashamed to be transparent. The ground is level at the foot of the cross, and unless we nurture such relationship amongst ourselves, we will never become the community that Christ intended. We are encouraged,
“Confess your faults to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”
I have a best friend who I thought for years was on a certain “level” where she could never understand or relate to some of my deeper, darker struggles. There was a whole side of my experience that I never shared because I was ashamed, and I felt she would see me differently. So I suffered alone. I felt it was my duty to always be a bright influence, a shining beacon of faith. I remember clearly one night, my best friend really opened her heart to me regarding a struggle she had been having for years. She wept and told me she hadn’t shared it with me because she was so ashamed, and she feared that I would see her differently. Shocked, I realized that we both suffered in silence, keeping up an appearance, an “appropriate Christian face” when what we really needed was transparency. That night we became closer than we ever would have become otherwise. We prayed for each other and encouraged each other, and the fellowship was sweet indeed. This is what Christ wants in the community of faith. Though manifested in different ways, we are all in the same condition, though we realize it or not. And God places us in community because we need each other. Please don’t misunderstand me, I do believe that we should be a bright influence on others. Yet many times we can be a much greater encouragement through our shared struggles, than we could ever be through feigned sublimity.
How many children of God feel as though they struggle alone, ashamed to share their experience with those who have been placed around them for mutual encouragement in the faith? Many, many. Even when people do share their struggles, encouragements can seem very empty to someone who does not truly believe you can relate to them experientially. Oh what lost opportunities for fellowship, due to our valiant facades!
I used to try to only put my best face forward, always the “faith” face, always the “joy” face. But now I make an effort to show my honest struggles and bare humanity. I can’t say I know the perfect balance. Yet I pray it might help other strugglers not to be so ashamed of sharing their own, and I hope, add credibility to the encouragements I offer.
One thing however is certain: we need to stop stuffing ourselves into the socially acceptable mold of avoidance. Instead we should acknowledge, “I feel like this, but God will do such and such. I’m waiting expectantly for it. I’m praising Him before it happens, so that it will happen.” That is talking faith. We should only contradict our feelings when our feelings themselves are a lie. For example, if I feel like I am no good and will never amount to anything, I must contradict that feeling! Yet even so, I should acknowledge that I feel that way, and then tell myself the truth: I am valuable, and I can become anything I work hard for. This creates not dissonance, but liberation.
Faith has nothing to do with how I feel, but I still must acknowledge my feelings before faith can take action.
We need to stop using pretty words to gloss over our issues and instead face reality head on, working through our issues intelligently and trusting God to accomplish our transformation.
In an earlier example I used a child who is forced to say “I’m sorry.” Instead of parents forcing insincere apologies, they would better require an acknowledgment that what the child has done is wrong. This is an objective truth. Then the parent should help the child process through the issue that has caused the misconduct until hopefully, an apology springs naturally. If one does not come, that is not their responsibility; the heart condition is God’s sphere to work on. But we need to teach and practice truth.
It’s about time we threw out the empty cliche, and dispense with the baptized repressive mechanism. Let’s embrace the powerful, transcendent strategy.
The steps to transcendence as modeled in scripture:
1. Acknowledge your present reality – internally
2. Express reality – externally
3. Acknowledge the promise – internally
4. Express the promise – verbalizing really helps. Genuine faith talk does change things! Much as the psychological tool of telling yourself the truth does in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
5. Act on the promise – this varies in application depending on the particular circumstance
6. Let God instate your new reality – as humans we cannot really change our emotions, we can only choose what to do with the emotions we have. But God can change our emotions. And we must wait for Him to do it, not try to force a change ourselves. Fortunately, God has offered a divine exchange:
“To comfort all who mourn,
to provide for Zion’s mourners,
to give them a crown in place of ashes,
oil of joy in place of mourning,
a mantle of praise in place of discouragement.”
Don’t try to shortcut it. Detours end in dissonance and dysfunction. Be transparent. Acknowledge emotions, face issues and work through challenges. Only in this way will we in each circumstance achieve transcendence.
Many years ago, with the characteristic insight of a child, I wrote this very simple rhyme:
I can hide how I feel
But I’ll still feel the pain
You won’t see on the outside
The tears I refrain
I can make up my face
So I look good to you
But at home in my mirror
I’ll still see the truth
I can fool my own self
If I lie everyday
But the truth of the matter
Will not go away
Being honest with me
Is the safe thing to do
So be honest
And I will be honest with you