Doubt and Neo-Calvinist Psychology

"Bible with Cross Shadow," David Campbell, Flickr C.C.
“Bible with Cross Shadow,” David Campbell, Flickr C.C.

The folks at Desiring God decided to go edgy with a recent blog post where the author said among other things that “doubt” is “slander against God.” The author provided a set of proof-texts which “prove” that the more we mature in our Christian journey, the more “steadfast” and “confident” we’re supposed to be in our faith. He said it’s okay to have some doubts early on in your Christian journey as long as you grow out of them by the time you’re a mature Christian. As I read the article (which you can google since I’m not going to subsidize their pageviews), it struck me that my problem with neo-Calvinists like the author of this article has more to do with their psychology than their theology.

Neo-Calvinists seem to operate with a rationalistic 18th century conception of psychology. For example, if you’re feeling afraid, just find all the Bible verses that tell you not to be afraid (the subject of another recent tweet from Desiring God) and read these verses until you stop feeling afraid. If they don’t convince you not to be afraid, that means you have a rebellious spirit and you need to ask God for forgiveness. If asking God for forgiveness for your insolence in persisting in fear doesn’t convince you to stop being afraid, then it probably means you don’t actually have a relationship with God at all and you’re predestined for damnation, which is too bad.

Okay I’m exaggerating. Nobody says any of these things aloud. But when you present Bible verses as rationalistic instant fixes to psychological problems like doubt, anxiety, fear, etc, the implication is that people are supposed to be instantaneously reprogrammed like robots after reading verses that “correct” their psychological problems, which are understood in this form of psychology as nothing more than “unbiblical thinking.”

When a Christian community establishes the expectation that people are supposed to be instantaneously reprogrammed by Bible verses, there’s a tremendous pressure on members of that community to play along like it works. And in this way, your church becomes a giant masquerade ball where people banter theologically precise small talk back and forth with each other as everyone represses their doubt, fear, anxiety, anger, etc, until the pressure becomes unbearable and some kind of volcanic eruption occurs.

No matter how zealously devout we are in our faith, our human brains don’t work mechanistically like that. In fact, the more loudly Christians perform their piety, the more likely there is deep, unaddressed trauma that is being compensated for. If we were actually reason-ordered robots, then neo-Calvinist psychology would work. Scripture is certainly a powerful resource for dealing with psychological issues, but we can’t just feed our brains logical input from the Bible like computer code. What I’ve found is that scripture doesn’t erase my problems upon reading it, but it does give me powerful language for crying out to God.

For example, I’ve said the Hebrew words for Psalm 27:8 as a mantra prayer hundreds of times: “My heart says of you, ‘Seek his face!’ Your face, Lord, I will seek. Do not hide your face from me.” I say that prayer whenever it seems like God is hiding. It’s so powerful to me. God, you told me to seek you; that’s exactly what I’m doing right now; where the ___ are you? It doesn’t solve anything. It doesn’t make my doubt or fear go away. But it does give me a healthy way to channel my doubt and fear. And what I’ve come to believe is that the more I experience God’s absence, the thirstier I become, which intensifies my experience of God’s presence when it returns.

So at least in my own prayer life, my doubts and anxieties end up being the means to deeper communion with God. If I were disingenuously pretending to be confident and steadfast in my faith all the time, I would have a shallow prayer life because my prayers would be just part of a script to perform. Doubt doesn’t dishonor God; doubt pushes us more deeply into the arms of God.

The real danger isn’t doubt; it’s disengagement. Our relationship with God is like a marriage. We can have fights; we can be exasperated when God leaves the toilet seat up or lets the water boil over on the stove; we can feel completely out of love with God. All of this can be worked through as long as there’s a presumption that no matter what, we’re going to stay in relationship. The problem is when our doubts and struggles become the rationalization for disengaging. And I would contend that a complete rupture of our faith life is more likely to happen if we’re part of a masquerade ball church whose members feel pressured to project a perfectly confident, doubt-free faith life. The angriest atheists I’ve met have always been ex-evangelicals.

I’m currently in a counseling program that was founded by a conservative evangelical named John Townsend who has spent much of his career undoing the damage of bad psychology in the evangelical church. Townsend has taught us about a concept called containment that is one of the most important skills for us to develop as counselors. Containment means I’m able to “contain” my client’s doubt, rage, delusions, fantasies, and any other terror they throw at me. Containment is the ability to remain unshocked and non-judgmental through anything. The more verbally violent my client is, the more likely they are terrified of being rejected and thrown out because of the unspeakable things they’re saying. Containment doesn’t mean that I’m dishonest about affirming things I shouldn’t affirm. It does mean that my focus is on creating a gracious, safe environment for my client to self-reflect.

The antidote to doubt is not an argument that disproves it using Bible verses. The antidote is patient, lived grace, i.e. containment for the one who’s living through it. Humans are not rational creatures; we are creatures who rationalize. We do not need rational arguments to correct rationalizations that have deep emotional underpinnings. We need to feel safe and loved until the volcanic anxiety fueling our rationalizations is dissipated and the scandals that had plagued us no longer feel all that important.

There are many things about the Bible that perplex me. I am never going to be comfortable with the parts of the Old Testament where God seems like a petty ancient tribal deity. The reason my discomfort doesn’t create an obstacle in my relationship with God is not because some neo-Calvinist wrote a book with the perfect argument that proves exhaustively why everything ascribed to God in the Old Testament makes complete sense and is perfectly loving. No, the reason my discomfort doesn’t take me out of relationship with God is because I have received enough grace from other Christians to trust in God’s grace regardless of the perpetually unresolved hangups I will continue to have with parts of the Bible until I die.

There are many things that I have doubts about, but I believe in God’s grace. I want to embody that grace the best I can wherever I go with whomever I interact. That may be another reason my doubts don’t derail me. I’m completely invested in the vision God has given me for my life. When you’ve put all your chips in, it’s a lot harder to say nope, I disagree with that Bible verse so I guess that means I have to walk away from everything. My understanding of how to live out God’s grace may evolve, but I know that embodying God’s grace in some form of pastoral ministry will always be what I’m going to do with my life.

Psychology matters, even though traditions that besmirch “anthropocentric” theology tend to belittle it instinctively. It’s all fine and good to say it’s all about Jesus; it’s not about us, etc. Maybe that’s good theology. Just remember that Jesus made it all about whichever person was suffering the most wherever he went. He would stop his sermons in the middle to heal the sick and lame when he had six other days of the week to work with. So if it’s all about Jesus, be like Jesus and use your words and actions for healing instead of winning arguments.

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