Monday, November 26, 2007

Human Nature and Sin

I'm taking a class on Christian Ethics that has introduced me to the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr. He wrote about the origin of sin in such a way that illuminates the psychological concepts inherent in our faith. One could conceptualize his theology of sin with two equations:

Freedom + Finitude = Anxiety
Anxiety + Disbelief = Fear

Freedom lies in our free will. We have the power to choose right and wrong. But we are also finite human beings. We are limited by our life experiences and by our nature. The combination of our freedom and limits creates anxiety. We become aware that we are not self-sufficient and that leads to worrying that we will not be satisfied. This is part of how God created us and, in itself, is not sin. The anxiety that Neibuhr speaks about is a precursor for sin but is also the precursor for true faith.

Our reaction to this anxiety is what is important. If we choose not to place faith in God, but to live in disbelief, then we will end up with fear. Humans deal with fear in two main ways: pride and abdication of responsibility. We will accumulate wealth and power to maintain the illusion that we are self-sufficient. This requires self-deception. We need to lie to ourselves in order to believe that we can take care of ourselves.

But there is another sinful solution to the fear we experience. We can pretend we are not responsible for our actions. We become resentful of others or we engage in sensuality. At no point do we claim agency of our actions. Instead, we blame, repress, or rebel.

Psychologically, acceptance of our reality is the solution to this problem. But that leaves us at the point where we can easily despair. Facing the reality that we cannot satisfy our selves can be scary. From this perspective we see the advantage of faith in Go
d that allows us to trust God to satisfy our spiritual needs. By consciously surrendering our freedom to God, we can accept our limitations. Instead of inspiring dread, we gain serenity from our limitations because that only increases where God will work. As Paul wrote, "To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me." (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Shame On You

Shame is a loaded concept. There seems to be more than a few different ways of conceptualizing it. But I like to define it as a response to guilt that creates some degree of self-hate. I define guilt (at least the psychological version, not the legal version) as the belief that you have done something wrong. So shame takes the belief that you have done something wrong and concludes that there is something wrong with you.

I believe that we turn to shame for a reason. Because although we feel bad for what we did, we don't want to do the work to change our actions. Therefore I look at shame as a refusal to learn from what we did and try to change our behavior. Shame works against repentance. Shame is a form of self-punishment that recapitulates the wrong we've done.

Of course we can't discard the place of Christ's death in our shame. The work on the cross means that we are no longer guilty (legally) for our sins. Of course we are still psychologically guilty. But shame returns to the legal guilt and states that we must be punished by calling ourselves names and deprecating ourselves. Shame is therefore a lack of faith in the work of Christ.

Practically shame has the consequence of focusing our efforts on the punishment, rather than a solution. By the time we are done punishing ourselves verbally for something we have done (e.g. I'm such an idiot. Why did I do that again?!?), we have lost all motivation to learn and change. Rather than using our effort to punish, we can accept God's grace then begin the process of clarifying where we went wrong. Asking ourselves questions like: What was I trying to satisfy in myself that led me to do this? What kind of thinking did I have that led me to do this? What emotions led me to do this? Such an approach can allow us to identify problems before we do something wrong.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Divorce and Counseling

Counseling married couples will often lead to talk about divorce. How ought a Christian therapist handle this? Should they refer? Should they tell the client not to get divorced? I have some thoughts on the matter but I wanted to begin with my view of marriage. In Genesis 2, the institution of marriage is introduced as a relationship that places a person in a community. The person moves from being under their parents to being married to another person. I believe that this is because marriage was designed to be a place where people have the opportunity to be understood and cared for. Marriage is designed to produce growth. I like to compare it to Jesus' teaching about the Sabbath, marriage was created for people not people for marriage.

I believe that although marriage is a covenant that we ought to be committed to, there are times when the relational difficulties between a couple are so intense and so intertwined that they are nearly impossible to change. In these situations, when carrying on in a marriage will cause more harm than a divorce will, and all options have been exhausted, a divorce is permissible. As a therapist I would see it as my responsibility to discern both the extent of interpersonal conflict and the ability of the relationship to heal after new interpersonal skills are gained. Some marriages would create greater harm if they remain together than if they divorce - sometimes we need to be honest about the likelihood of recovery and how long such recovery would take.

Divorce is a painful experience for both the couple and any children. Therefore, if a couple comes into therapy with only one intent - how to get divorced with the least amount of damage to the children - I would make it clear to the client that I would first assess their relational skills and the possibility of recovering the marriage. But if I agree with their own assessment of the state of their marriage, that divorce is the best option, then I will have no problem with counseling them in how to have a peaceable relationship through the divorce and afterwards.