Turning Faith and Works Inside Out: A Psychologist’s Perspective

For centuries, one of the biggest debates in Christianity has revolved around the topic of faith and works as they apply to our eternal salvation. Many have cited seemingly contradictory biblical quotes and Church traditions which either indicates that heaven is earned by faith alone, or through the conjunction of works and faith.  Many have attempted to find a common course between the two beliefs.  Many have maintained that these beliefs cannot coexist.  This article will attempt to do neither.

What it will undertake is the delineation of two perspectives that seem lost in this conversation. The first pertains to a simple premise that I assume most, if not all true believers, hold dear.  It is the idea that we hope our faith informs, and guides our actions.  Although all of us fail on a daily basis to fully live up to this idea, it makes sense that we aspire to more fully reconcile our actions with our beliefs.  Otherwise, it seems at best we are buying time, and at worst, on a course of serious contradiction.

Many might presume that the stronger our belief is, the more likely we act in ways that are consistent with these attitudes. In some ways, we would be right.  But psychological research has repeatedly shown that this correlation is not a foregone conclusion.  Although there is a wealth of research related to this topic, a few factors regarding attitude-behavior consistency repeatedly surface.  One is accessibility.  The more mentally accessible a belief is to a person, the more likely their behavior will coincide; the less it “springs forth” naturally, the less a person’s day-to-day behaviors will follow even deeply-held beliefs.  It is certainly why faith practices must regularly be in place if a person wants to live as they profess as we need constant reminders of just what we believe.  But it also speaks of how important it is for people to recognize faith in natural wonders, in others, in toil, in suffering, and everything in between.  So it is for our children, too.  Compartmentalized beliefs are never readily accessible, and thereby, unlikely to truly guide our regular actions.

Another factor is what could be considered as the “specificity issue”. Specific beliefs are better at predicting specific actions.  For example, if I think that a particular political candidate should be elected, it does not necessarily mean that I will be canvassing door-to-door.  In fact, few voters of any political leaning actually do this.  In order to find myself knocking on doors, I must believe that canvassing is one clear sign of a conscientious, democratic citizen.

In applying this to our faith in God, simply believing that God is good, faith is important, and heaven exists does not necessarily lead me to attend services regularly and volunteer at a local food pantry. Although general beliefs might predict that I would support various ministries (e.g., through financial donations), it really does not give me a sense of just how these beliefs would truly manifest themselves.  In fact, the belief-behavior consistency is often moderated by alternate options that might be available.  For example, if I believe that I satisfy my duties of the corporal works of mercy (e.g., feeding the hungry) through financial support or doing something else altogether (e.g., praying for those in need), then there is a good chance I will never actually find myself volunteering in a food pantry or visiting a prisoner.

But many may ask, “How do these beliefs lead to behaviors?” Well, it appears that those beliefs and attitudes forged in very personal, meaningful ways are most likely to not only lead to similar actions, but stand the test of time.  In essence, such beliefs come to have great relevance, and leave an internal mark that is not easily washed away.  Attitudes or ideas that are not formed in this way, and especially are the result of secondhand information, are likely to not stick.  It is probably why to this day, I still struggle to tell you whether prone or supine means lying on your front or back, or vice versa (How many of you know?).  Even though I have seen these words frequently in medical texts, and have looked them up more than once, they remain elusive as their relevance to me is almost nil.

But ask me to cite the “Psalm of Life” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, of which I learned in 8th grade through the unforgettable, and certainly controversial Mrs. Walls, and I can (and love to) belt out the words today.  For a long time, I wondered why I held onto this poem while countless literary gems quickly dissolved into the night.  But if you listen to the words, and feel the inner rhythm, and if you had known Mrs. Walls and her learning techniques, it made this poem hard to forget.  And I am very glad this is the case, as “life is [anything] but an empty dream.”

When this is applied to our faith-filled beliefs, Pope Benedict said it best in that Christianity is first and foremost “an encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” When it comes to faith and works in our kids, and our hope that this belief-behavior consistency will span a lifetime, there may be nothing more important than this.  Do they experience Christianity uniquely, and often counter-culturally through us—through moments of conversation, through worship, through athletic endeavors, through giving, through gratitude, through forgiveness, or whatever means?  How relevant and unforgettable, and even at times controversial, to them are we, or are we just a conformist or a collaborator to the worldly values experienced all around them?  Do our repeated encounters with them remain relevant when pressures contrary to their beliefs close in?

But there is another side to this whole discussion of faith and works that is worth having. Ever since I was a little kid, I always remember thinking that works are always outward acts that you do for others.  And of course they are, whether of a corporal or spiritual variety.  But more recently, I have begun to sense that maybe the works have as much to do with the “work” that you do within as the “work” beyond.  Take for a second the spiritual works of mercy:

Now, consider taking an introspective view of these. What if “instruct the ignorant” meant to pursue knowledge that would improve your faith and life altogether (which, by the way, also leads to better belief-behavior consistency)?  “Counseling the doubtful” could be talking yourself through a difficult situation (or as we describe in the psychology world, challenging and reframing negative and irrational thoughts).  “Admonishing sinners” might mean as much about challenging your internal pride to better acknowledge when you have gone wrong.   I could go on, but I hope you get the point.  I could also do the same for many of the corporal works, although some would involve a more psychological interpretation (e.g., “burying the dead… of past offenses” against oneself) or a measure of church-supported health practices (e.g., feed the hungry [i.e., you], but with healthy foods and only when you are not satiated).

In saying all this, some may regard this as a selfish interpretation. I promise you it is not.  Because when it comes to attitude-behavior consistency, nothing can derail the intended course of our beliefs like the loss of energy, of health, of acute awareness, of sustained focus, and of lucid thought.  Anything that threatens these treasured entities will affect our ability to put our beliefs into practice, and do works for others.  When we are bitter, fatigued, and disengaged, our message is filled with distracting noise.

When it comes to being an encounter for our youth, and thereby making faith real, we must be ready to meet them where they are. We can only give what we have— much of it from the work that we have done within. And what we have to give means so, so much.  I was recently reminded of this by a teenage girl in my office, who is enthralled with all the boys paying attention to her while her distracted parents remain in discord and disarray.  She is searching for an encounter of the most real kind, someone who will make her feel that she is so important and special, and will provide direction of where she should go.  The question is, “With who will that encounter be, and where will it lead?”

Much, much work is to be done.

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