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Once upon a time, I was suspicious of psychology. It was an enemy of faith. Psychology purported that healthy, balanced people did not need religion. Psychology was an explainer-away of all things sacred. Religion was an illusion, wish fulfillment, the opiate of the people.
Over time, unintentionally, pretty much unaware, something changed. It now often feels like I look at everything through the lens of psychology. Honestly, I don’t quite know how to evaluate my unplanned transition. Have I become a gentle, mature, insightful pastor? Or have I succumbed to the elixir of our age?
What do I mean? And how, when, and why did this change happen?
Thinking about it, I believe the emphasis on story that we hear so much today, could be what has brought about my new awareness. Add in my appreciation for the enneagram, and I begin see why and how I have changed. Compared to many people, I’m not that into the enneagram. Nonetheless, I do find it helpful for understanding myself and others, especially the way it touches on the need or wound that drives us, which can also be our blessing, our gift.
As I encounter people and also as I look at myself, I am increasingly curious about their stories, their journey. Where did they come from? What have they experienced, especially what burdens, traumas, and tragedies are the carrying? What were their early experiences of love, God, and the church?
I hear it in myself when I say “It took me thirty years to silence the voices of sadistic high school PE teachers and experience exercise as fun, not miserable and humiliating.”
I hear it when a friend who struggles with procrastination shares that as she approaches tasks she asks herself things like “What am I afraid of? What is my shame voice trying to convince me of? What do I need from others?”
Most noticeably, I sense the predominance of psychological thinking in the way I look at my parishioners. Obviously, the characters below are amalgamations and airbrushed to guard their privacy.
- An older woman who is outwardly friendly, but inwardly is unsure of me and my ministry. I hear backchannel that she can be rather critical of me in certain settings. I probably talk about “change” too much. There are times I am exasperated, even angry with her. But when I’m healthier (or so I tell myself), I think behind her suspicion and anger are really sorrow. She grieves for a church where she was once an influential leader, but now knows fewer and fewer people. She is not fully at home in a church that doesn’t live by her 1974 standards. She sorrows over her own physical diminishments. She is a nostalgic for a time that in retrospect is much rosier than it was in reality. When I see her this way, I no longer see her as an antagonist, but as someone needing love and deserving attention.
- A father who, long before I arrived here, lost a teenager in a terrible accident—it was, I hear, a frazzled, tense relationship. Now, he scours the Bible as if it were a secret code book, and expects doctrine to fit as precisely as the all the moving parts of a twelve-speed transmission. I would say he is seeking answers to the loss of a child, while simultaneously wanting protection from the deep pain that is still there. I try to listen respectfully to his concerns, even as I try to nudge him to wonder what is behind his obsessions.
- Or how about an early retiree? Relentlessly competitive. Everything is numbers, comparisons, rankings. He lives with a pretty big chip on shoulder. Resentful, gruff, but actually tender-hearted. Is “short-man syndrome” an actual diagnosis?
Why am I ill at ease with the way I use psychological categories and language?—although not enough to stop. I wonder if we don’t risk being inadvertently patronizing. We act as if we can see into others’ souls, and evaluate their deepest motives and dreadful scars. Obviously this needs to be done cautiously and humbly. Is it?
Even more, I am still somewhat reluctant because our psychological terms and categories are not terms of scripture or theology. Of course that doesn’t make them bad or wrong. But what of terms like justice, righteous, faithful, steadfast, hard-hearted, blind, good and evil, and many more? We don’t want to lose such terms.