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Turning Faith and Works Inside Out: A Psychologist’s Perspective

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Jim Schroeder - published on 03/04/15

It's time to reconcile our beliefs with our actions

For centuries, one of the biggest debates in Christianity has revolved around the topic of faith and works as they apply to our eternal salvation.  Many have cited seemingly contradictory biblical quotes and Church traditions which either indicates that heaven is earned by faith alone, or through the conjunction of works and faith.  Many have attempted to find a common course between the two beliefs.  Many have maintained that these beliefs cannot coexist.  This article will attempt to do neither. 

What it will undertake is the delineation of two perspectives that seem lost in this conversation. The first pertains to a simple premise that I assume most, if not all true believers, hold dear.  It is the idea that we hope our faith informs, and guides our actions.  Although all of us fail on a daily basis to fully live up to this idea, it makes sense that we aspire to more fully reconcile our actions with our beliefs.  Otherwise, it seems at best we are buying time, and at worst, on a course of serious contradiction.

Many might presume that the stronger our belief is, the more likely we act in ways that are consistent with these attitudes. In some ways, we would be right. But psychological research has repeatedly shown that this correlation is not a foregone conclusion.  Although there is a wealth of research related to this topic, a few factors regarding attitude-behavior consistency repeatedly surface.  One is accessibility.  The more mentally accessible a belief is to a person, the more likely their behavior will coincide; the less it “springs forth” naturally, the less a person’s day-to-day behaviors will follow even deeply-held beliefs.  It is certainly why faith practices must regularly be in place if a person wants to live as they profess as we need constant reminders of just what we believe.  But it also speaks of how important it is for people to recognize faith in natural wonders, in others, in toil, in suffering, and everything in between.  So it is for our children, too.  Compartmentalized beliefs are never readily accessible, and thereby, unlikely to truly guide our regular actions. 
Another factor is what could be considered as the “specificity issue”.  Specific beliefs are better at predicting specific actions.  For example, if I think that a particular political candidate should be elected, it does not necessarily mean that I will be canvassing door-to-door.  In fact, few voters of any political leaning actually do this.  In order to find myself knocking on doors, I must believe that canvassing is one clear sign of a conscientious, democratic citizen. 

In applying this to our faith in God, simply believing that God is good, faith is important, and heaven exists does not necessarily lead me to attend services regularly and volunteer at a local food pantry.  Although general beliefs might predict that I would support various ministries (e.g., through financial donations), it really does not give me a sense of just how these beliefs would truly manifest themselves.  In fact, the belief-behavior consistency is often moderated by alternate options that might be available.  For example, if I believe that I satisfy my duties of the corporal works of mercy (e.g., feeding the hungry) through financial support or doing something else altogether (e.g., praying for those in need), then there is a good chance I will never actually find myself volunteering in a food pantry or visiting a prisoner.

But many may ask, “How do these beliefs lead to behaviors?”  Well, it appears that those beliefs and attitudes forged in very personal, meaningful ways are most likely to not only lead to similar actions, but stand the test of time.  In essence, such beliefs come to have great relevance, and leave an internal mark that is not easily washed away.  Attitudes or ideas that are not formed in this way, and especially are the result of secondhand information, are likely to not stick.  It is probably why to this day, I still struggle to tell you whether prone or supine means lying on your front or back, or vice versa (How many of you know?).  Even though I have seen these words frequently in medical texts, and have looked them up more than once, they remain elusive as their relevance to me is almost nil.

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CatholicismPsychologySpiritual Life
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