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Isn't Christian experience only psychological?

'If God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him.' Voltaire

Isn't it possible to explain Christian conversion and behaviour in purely psychological terms? This question can be rather threatening. Our faith in Christ is intensely personal, and we are right to feel deeply about it. But emotional feeling can also be a snare (Je 17:9, Pr 14:12.) If our conviction that Christianity is true is based solely on the fact that it 'brings us peace and joy', then we will be in trouble when those emotions fade, or when we meet someone who is equally 'sure' about another faith.

The first step in coming to terms with this question is in realising the basis of our assurance. Assurance is a three-legged stool. The first leg is the inner witness of the Holy Spirit testifying to us that we are children of God (Rom 8:16; 2 Cor 1:22). The second leg is the fact that we believe in Christ as risen Lord and Saviour (Jn 5:24; Rom 10:9; 1 Jn 5:9-13). The third leg is the reality of a changed life (1 Jn 3:18-19, 5:2). Subjective sensations, concious convictions and outward actions all work together: heart, mind and will.

The basis of our faith: fact not feeling

Our faith is ultimately not based on subjective feeling, but on objective fact. We know that Christianity is true because Jesus rose from the dead (historical fact) and gives us his word as his bond. This is the real basis for our emotional responses, heartfelt beliefs and wilful obedience.

This is why our security in Christ is not in jeopardy when our feelings change. Nor will we be disturbed when those of other faiths appear to have 'peace of mind' and 'conviction' that their way is equally right. The fact that a person sincerely believes something, or even dies for it, does not make it true.

The presupposition behind the question 'isn't Christianity only psychological?', is that by explaining psychologically why a person has Christian beliefs, one can disprove the belief. This is confusing two separate issues: how one comes to hold a belief and whether or not the belief is true. Just as a person can have false beliefs for good reasons, so he can have true beliefs for bad reasons.

It's just the way you were brought up!

The question often comes in the form of an accusation:'You only believe because of the way you were brought up.' The implication is that if we had been brought up in a Hindu culture, we would have been Hindus. This is easily countered by two simple observations. Firstly, many people convert to Christ from profoundly non-Christian backgrounds. There are now Christians from virtually every language group, cultural background and religious tradition in the world. The only thing they have in common is their love for Christ. Secondly, many who are 'brought up' as Christians later deny their religious upbringing and turn away from him.

You're only in it for what you can get out of it!

Sometimes it may be implied that we believe only because we stand to gain something by believing. In other words Christian belief is essentially selfish. This can be upsetting because Christian character is supposed to be characterised by selflessness. Before we tie ourselves in knots by trying to prove how altruistic our motivations are, we need to remember that we are Christians, not to gain heaven nor to escape from hell, but because we are convinced that Christ's claims are true. We are convinced not only that he died and rose from the dead, but that his death was on our behalf (2 Cor 5:14.) Believing this, what choice do we have but to be his followers? (Jn 6:66-69)

We can admit that we are pleased to live in hope of heaven and to escape hell, but we don't for one minute think that these are rewards for believing. They are unmerited gifts of grace. In fact the Christian life is not all peaches and cream. We have to follow Christ in the shadow of the cross and this is not easy. Being a Christian means that we will inevitably, at some stage, face hardship and persecution (Jn 15:20; 2 Tim 3:12; Heb 12:7.) We could reply to this sort of challenge by saying that the only reason the non-Christian doesn't believe, is that he is not prepared to 'count the cost' of being a Christian.

You're nothing but a ...

Another tack critics may take is to try and explain our beliefs according to some psychological theory of behaviour. For example they may take the view that our beliefs are programmed in our genes, or the product of punishment and reward (Skinner), subconscious drives (Freud) or biochemical reactions. We first need to acknowledge the element of truth in this. Man is a complex being, and each of these models does explain his behaviour, emotions and beliefs to some extent. However it is over-simplistic to say that man is nothing but a clever monkey, a stimulus response machine, a bundle of repressed drives or a complex chemical reaction.

This 'nothing buttery' excludes the possibility of the free will and independent consciousness, which is part of the every day experience of all of us. Man's thoughts and behaviours are not all pre-determined. If this were so we could not make objective judgments about anything, not even about our capacity to make objective judgments. If our friends insist that everything we do or think is predetermined then we only need respond that their thought that everything is pre-determined must be similarly pre-determined!

A hidden agenda?

There is sometimes a hidden agenda behind the question 'isn't it all psychological?' Sometimes the person asking it would like to become a Christian, but feels that their own upbringing puts them at a disadvantage. We need to be sensitive to this and take the opportunity to tell them about the power of God to overcome all obstacles. God understands all our difficulties. After all he has been a man himself (Jn 1:14; Heb 4:15). He knows that we are dust (Ps 103:14), and will never turn away anyone who comes to him (Jn 6:37). To the contrary, he promises that those who seek will find (Je 29:13). What seems impossible to us is always possible for God (Lk 18:27).

Bible References

Emotional feeling can be a snare.

Je 17v9
The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?

Pr 14v12
There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.

Assurance is a three-legged stool.

The first leg is the inner witness of the Holy Spirit testifying to us that we are children of God.

Rom 8v16
The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children.

2 Cor 1v22
(God) set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.

The second leg is the fact that we believe in Christ as risen Lord and Saviour.

Jn 5v24
'I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.

Rom 10v9
That if you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

1 Jn 5v9-13
Anyone who believes in the Son of God has this testimony in his heart...And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.

The third leg is the reality of a changed life.

1 Jn 3v18-19
Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence.

This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands.

You're only in it for what you can get out of it!

His death was on our behalf.

2 Cor 5v14
For Christ's love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died.

Believing this, what choice do we have but to be his followers? Jn 6v66-69
Simon Peter answered him, 'Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.'

We will face hardship and persecution.

Jn 15v20
'Remember the words I spoke to you: 'No servant is greater than his master.' If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also.'

2 Tim 3v12
In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.

Heb 12v7
Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father?

A hidden agenda?

God understands all our difficulties.

Jn 1v14
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Heb 4v15
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are - yet was without sin.

He knows that we are dust.

Ps 103v14
for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.

He will never turn away anyone who comes to him.

Jn 6v37
All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.

Those who seek will find.

Je 29v13
You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.

What seems impossible to us is always possible for God.

Lk 18v27
Jesus replied, 'What is impossible with men is possible with God.'

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