God’s grace and the bugbear of an authoritarian God: Why do Christians need psychology to relate to God?

This post was published earlier. I repost it here.

What contribution does Christian psychology make to the relationship between Christians and God? I shall argue that Christians who need psychology to come to God are deceived. They may need psychology because they often do not understand or refuse to accept the biblical view of coming to faith in Christ. 

According to Pastor Steven J. Cole, who had been deeply involved with Christian psychology, psychology contributes hardly anything to an understanding of how a person comes to Christ. But the worst of it is that Christian psychology claims to enable a person to come to Christ by cutting through all the authoritarian stuff such as God ordering one what to think, what to believe, what to do. Cole relates the following incident:

…the elders assigned to another elder and me to check out the book that the proposed “Recovery Group” led by my associate wanted to use. This elder and his wife had been on Campus Crusade’s staff for about 20 years and he taught at their seminary (my church was near Crusade’s headquarters and many of our people were on staff). His wife was one of the emotionally “hurting” people who wanted us to start these recovery groups.”

The book we read was Henry Cloud’s When Your World Makes No Sense [Oliver-Nelson, 1990]. I was told that it would help me understand these hurting people. I tried to give it every benefit of a doubt, but there was one part early in the book that troubled me, where Cloud asserts that for these hurting people, the “standard Christian answers” (dealing with sin, faith, obedience, time in the Word and prayer, etc.) did “not work.” He compares such things to the counsel given by Job’s friends, calling it “worthless medicine.” Then he proposes his solution, which is essentially a baptized version of developmental psychology.”

Here’s the mother load (my italics):

As this elder and I were discussing Cloud’s approach, he told me that people like his wife who were from dysfunctional homes could not relate to my preaching because I emphasize obedience to God’s Word. Because they had strict, cold, authoritarian fathers, they don’t relate well to authority. I replied that I thought that I also put a strong emphasis on God’s grace as the motivation for obedience. But he responded that his wife couldn’t even relate to God’s grace — it went right by her. I was a bit taken aback, and so I said, “You mean that the many times I have spoken on God’s grace, she didn’t hear me?” He said yes, in her 20 years on Crusade staff, never once had she felt God’s grace and love on a personal level.”

I thought about what he had said and asked some clarifying questions to make sure I understood him. Then I responded, “If your wife has never felt God’s love and grace, she is not converted!” I had been reading Jonathan Edwards’ classic, A Treatise on Religious Affections, in which he makes a strong biblical case that saving faith is not mere intellectual assent to the gospel, but that it affects the heart. This elder got very upset with me. But I stuck to my guns then and do so now, that if a person can sit in church for 20 years and never be moved by God’s grace and love as shown to us at the cross, then that person is not truly converted.”

As I thought about what this elder, my associate, Henry Cloud, and others in their camp were saying, I realized that, in effect, they were saying that the transforming power of the gospel, which has sustained the saints in and through every conceivable trial, was not sufficient to deal with the emotional problems of these late 20th century Christians. And, I came to realize that the psychologized approach to Christianity was built on the inadequate theology that equates conversion with making a decision to invite Christ into your heart. But the two are not necessarily synonymous.”

And here’s where Arminians (a sinner participates in being born again) and Calvinists (God does all the “rebirthing”) disagree. 

Biblically, conversion is the supernatural act of God whereby He imparts spiritual life to a person who is dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1-5). It is not something that man can effect at all (John 1:12-13). As Calvin (and Edwards) helped me to see, invariably God has revealed to the truly converted person something of His awesome majesty and holiness.”

Arminians are synergists (erg – work, syn -with) ; they believe they co-operate with God in their regeneration – “born again”), while Calvinists are monergists; they believe that the dead cannot regenerate themselves, and so God does all the work in “rebirthing” the sinner.

The heart of the matter is this: Nobody in their “right” mind (that is, natural mind) wants an invisible force lording itself/himself over him/her. That is why regeneration is a unilateral act of (a living personal) God. Here is the Apostle John (Gospel of John 1):

9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural (flesh) descent, nor of human decision (the will) or a husband’s will, but born of God.

I said that “regeneration” is a unilateral act of God. Once the sinner has been raised out of the grave, he is enabled to convert (to turn to Christ), that is accept Christ. He does so willingly, and joyfully, of course, because he not only is made free to do so, but he discovers that he was made free to do so. Eureka. Much more joy.

How is it that most professing Christians don’t get it? See; born not of your dead nature, not of your will (two ways of saying the same thing).

When God draws sinners to Him, they don’t yearn for a counsellor to ease them into their prospective role as servant son or servant daughter of Almighty God. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day” (John 6:44). Why are you so concerned about your democratic rights when you have been assured that if God draws you to him, you will live eternally: “I will raise them up at the last day.” If a divine promise of living forever in joy and peace does not cut it for you, then go and emasculate yourself.

Instantly, continues Cole, like Isaiah after his vision of God, the sinner is struck with his utter defilement of heart in the presence of this unapproachable light, and he cries out, “Woe is me, for I am undone!” Rather than feeling better about himself, he feels much worse as he realizes his true condition before the Holy God. Like the man in Jesus’ story, he is even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but he beats his breast and cries out, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” (Luke 18:13). And, of course, God is merciful to all who truly call on Him.”

Post haste: Not all Arminians need the authority of a psychologist to ease them into the harness of divine authority. And hey, there’s also bound to be a Calvinist or two who are not averse to a little psychological help in matters religious.

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5 thoughts on “God’s grace and the bugbear of an authoritarian God: Why do Christians need psychology to relate to God?

  1. In the old testament there are stories of fallen angels who actually where chosen before any human being was chosen. There is also in the Gospel the idea of knocking on the door. And what about people who could personally account of having lost God very young and then they found him again after having praying and knocking on His door many many times to be again in His company. There are too many account of pleads to become friends again with God in the Bible to consider that could be only one way relationship. No relationship that I know among human being is only a one way relationship of love or sometimes even hate. Dear Raphael speaking about psychology the Calvinist input does lack of understanding about the human nature and therefore perhaps only perhaps the way God would presumably prefer His relationship to be with human beings…after all as I have written on this blog before we have been made in His image not without some good reasons

    • Maria, good to hear from you again.

      Re Calvinism and a one-way relationship with God. What is one-way in Calvinism is not the relationship but regeneration where only God is involved, for the reason clearly explained in Ephesians 2. A dead person cannot bring himself back to life. Remember Lazarus.

  2. There are feeling that are not shared or mutual but we are then not speaking about a love, hate, friendship relationship etc. What are we speaking about when one of two persons considers himself a friend and the other doesn’t? We say that one of the two is deluded…But of course I am completely wrong in this case…God is above everithing and every possible Human feeling…He loves us but why does he have to impose Himself without being wanted? Somehow at some level…even in our errors we could search for him….Perhaps even more in our errors…as a philosopher wrote when he spoke about the fase of the law…But as I have seaid before this topic is not my strenght. Anyway evil is considered even by Augustine (your loved Augustine 🙂 a lack of partecipation in the light of God and evil the obstruction of light. There could be a very mortally sinful lack of light but still a wanting of light

    • Maria, your “There could be a very mortally sinful lack of light but still a wanting of light.”

      The sinful lack is a sinful rejection of the light of Christ. The wanting of light in mortally sinful man is not the desire for Christ but for every other kind of “light,” which if not the life of Christ is darkness.

  3. I will quote something psycologically enough about this ‘wanting’ 🙂
    “Many cognitive terms describe bodily states that arise when strong behaviour cannot be executed because a necessary condition is lacking. The source of a general word for states of that kind is obvious: when something is wanting, we say we want it. In dictionary terms, to want is to “suffer from the want of.” Suffer originally meant “to undergo,” but now it means “to be in pain,” and strong wanting can indeed be painful. We escape from it by doing anything that has been reinforced by the thing that is now wanting and wanted.

    A near synonym of want is need. It, too, was first tied closely to suffering; to be in need was to be under restraint or duress. (Words tend to come into use when the conditions they describe are conspicuous.) Felt is often added: one has a felt need. We sometimes distinguish between want and need on the basis of the immediacy of the consequence. Thus, we want something to eat, but we need a taxi in order to do something that will have later consequences”

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