Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Christianity

The Relational Cost of Moralism: Implications for Congregational Practice

Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Christianity

The Relational Cost of Moralism: Implications for Congregational Practice

Article excerpt

In modern evangelical Christianity, one's relationship with God has become central in one's experience of Christian faith. 'Knowing Christ' in an intimate way seems to be the goal of many evangelical services and the telos of many spiritual disciplines. Popular Christian author Philip Yancey, in his book Reaching for the Invisible God (2000), writes, "I see many parallels between getting to know God and getting to know a human person...I share happy times and sad times; we laugh together and weep together. I reveal my deepest secrets. I take risks of relationship. I make commitments. I fight and argue, then reconcile. All these stages of relationship apply to God as well" (p. 105). Relatedly, Brother Lawrence's The Practice of the Presence of God (2010), which invites readers into mindfulness of God's relational closeness, has become one of the most influential books related to the process of spiritual formation. Its scope of influence has been so broad and longstanding that it led Terry Glaspey to include it on his top ten list in his book Great Books of the Christian Tradition (1996).

In addition to these popular developments, there have been important theoretical shifts in the psychotherapeutic literature which have highlighted the centrality of relationships and have opened avenues for understanding the importance of one's relationship with others and with God. Object relations and self-psychology models of the person have proposed that the central human motivation is the desire for relationship, supplanting earlier models based on biological drives such as sex and aggression (Fairbairn, 1952; Kohut, 1984; Winnicott, 1971). Intersubjective and relational theorists have further prioritized the transformative role of relationships (Mitchell, 1988; Stolorow, Brandchaft, Atwood, 1995). Remarking on these developments, Jones (1996) asserts, "Within this interpersonal framework religion is understood as originating not from the need to ward off the return of the repressed or to gratify infantile wishes but from the necessity for every cohesive and energetic self to exist in a matrix of relationships" (p. 41).

Developing a vital relationship with God is not always easy, however. Take the case of Carl for example. Carl is a committed Christian believer who has a long history of active church attendance. He eagerly pursues opportunities for spiritual growth: He prays regularly, reads his Bible often, and meets weekly with a small group to discuss questions related to his pastor's weekly sermon. Despite Carl's faithful religious commitments, he consistently experiences God as a critical, persecutory presence. He feels constantly berated by a God who insists on reminding him of his "sinfulness" and his failures to live up to how God has called him to be. Regardless of the fact that Carl knows many biblical passages that speak of God's grace and forgiveness, and intellectually believes them to be true, Carl feels chronic condemnation and judgment from God. When talking about the difficult events of his life, he indicates that he feels God has been punishing him for his sinful desires and actions.

Carl's story demonstrates how, given the implicit nature of relational experiences of God, they have the potential to be profoundly skewed away from how the character of God is described in the biblical canon. One of the ways that these relational experiences can be skewed is through the impact of one's relational history. Abusive, neglectful, or otherwise dysfunctional relational patterns can become internalized into enduring relational maps or schemas, leading to expectations of similar patterns of relationships with others. Without explicit and tangible relational interchanges with God (e.g., a warm smile, a loving embrace, or any other kind of interpersonal feedback which would serve as a corrective to prior relational expectations), people often project on to God whatever relational expectations they have formed from previous relationships. …

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