The Psychology of Christianity: Part 12, The Holy Spirit and Locus of Control

Having discussed the psychology related to God the Father and God the Son, we now turn to the third Person of the Trinity, the pneumalogical experience associated with the confession “I believe in the Holy Spirit.”

Jesus promised his followers that after his ascension into heaven he would send them the Spirit to be a paraclete (“comforter,” “advisor,” or “helper”) for the church (cf. John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7). Christians believe that the fulfillment of this promise occurred on the day of Pentecost as recounted in Acts 2. In the wake of Pentecost the early Christians confessed to experiencing an “indwelling of the Holy Spirit.” Consequently, Christians believe that the Holy Spirit dwells “within” each believer. There the Holy Spirit fulfills its role as paraclete: guiding, empowering, revealing, prompting, assisting, convicting, helping, gifting, and transforming the Christian during her spiritual journey. Theologically and psychologically, then, the Christian experiences her relationship with the Holy Spirit as a kind of spiritual and moral partnership.

From a psychological perspective, the most interesting aspect of this "partnership" has to do with what psychologists call locus of control.

Locus of control refers to the degree to which persons believe they have control over the events in their life. When things happen to us we consciously or unconsciously try to identify the causal links. We ask, "Why did this happen?" Locus of control refers to a tendency to answer this question, regardless of circumstance, in a stereotyped manner.

The two main loci of control are internal and external. An internal locus of control puts the self in control of events. We answer the question "Why did this happen?" with "I caused it."

An external locus of control places the cause of the event outside of the self. Factors outside of my control cause things to happen to me. The two most common external loci of control are Chance and Powerful Others. When people see Chance as the main locus of control in their life they feel that events afflict them randomly, with no rhyme or reason. A Powerful Other locus of control puts the control of events in the hands of governments or bosses (the proverbial "The Man," "The System" or "City Hall"), the powerful people pulling the strings on our life.

These contrasts are relevant because one's locus of control is known to play a significant role in coping with negative life events. For example, when facing a cancer diagnosis having an internal locus of control is known to predict a good outcome. By contrast, an external locus of control (Chance or Powerful Other) is predictive of a poorer prognosis.


In the face of battling cancer an internal locus of control is symptomatic of people who take ownership of their treatment. It is up to them, the patient, to take charge of the treatment. This internal locus of control predicts patient engagement and involvement. These patients are not passive. They are active in getting answers, seeking information, soliciting second opinions, and generally expecting excellence from their doctors. They take nothing for granted. Getting well is, after all, up to them. An internal locus of control.

Patients with external locus of control tend to be much more passive. It's up to the doctor--the Powerful Other--to fix them. These patients don't push back. They are docile. They don't seek second opinions or educate themselves. And such behavior predicts a worse outcome.

Worse, consider someone with a Chance locus of control. The cancer is just their unlucky fate and nothing can be done about it. Such a locus of control predicts giving up.

In sum, when life gets difficult it helps to have an internal locus of control. You'll be active and engaged in fighting back. By contrast, an external locus of control--waiting for Powerful Others to fix it or feeling set upon by the gods--will keep you passive and inactive.

So how does all this relate to the Holy Spirit?

Well think about it. If relying on a Powerful Other (think: Holy Spirit) is generally bad in the face of life trouble, then what does this have to say about leaning on God? Is leaning on God, psychologically, a bad thing to do? Does it keep us passive?

By contrast, an internal locus of control has been found to be, generally speaking, a good thing. But within the Christian tradition isn't leaning upon yourself considered to be a bad thing, even a sin?

In short, we have a tension here, a conflict between theology and psychology:

Internal Locus of Control = Bad Idea
External Locus of Control (God) = Good Idea

Internal Locus of Control = Good Idea
External Locus of Control (Powerful Other) = Bad Idea
How should we approach this conflict?

First, I think we can make the case that people can be too reliant upon God. Now I want to be kind here, but I think I've seen this in people. Some people, in the face of trouble or illness, can effectively stick their head in the sand and "wait on a miracle." I think there are times when people can stop meeting God halfway and stop participating in their own rescue. It reminds me of that old preacher joke:
One day a terrible flood came. Everyone evacuated the town except one man. "Get out of town, the flood is rising!", yelled his neighbors. The man responded calmly, "Don't worry about me. God will save me."

The flood waters started filling the street. A neighbor drove by in a car and shouted to the man, "Get in, before the water closes the street!"

The man replied, "Don't worry. God will save me."

The car drove away.

The water filled the street and then flooded the man's first floor. He went upstairs and looked out his window at the rising flood waters. Some rescue workers came up to the window in a boat. "Get in!," they yelled, "You better get out of there before you drown!"

But the man waved them on. "Don't worry. God will save me." With that the rescue workers left in the boat.

Finally, the waters filled the house and the man was forced out onto his roof. A helicopter came by and yelled to the man, "You better get out of there before you drown!"

The man refused to move and replied, "Don't worry. God will save me."

With that the helicopter flew away.

Finally, the floods washed over the house and carried the man away. After struggling, he succumbed and drowned.

When the man next opened his eyes he noticed that he was in heaven.

He saw God and asked, "Oh God! Why didn't you save me from that horrible flood?"

God replied, "I sent you a car, a boat, and a helicopter! What else do you want from me?"
In short, even religious people would agree that reliance upon God needs to be mutual and collaborative. People need to be actively engaged, struggling alongside God, in facing the ups and downs of life.

Empirically, there isn't a lot of literature on this subject, but what research has been done seems supportive of this notion, that a collaborative approach in relating to God is associated with the best coping outcomes. In short, despite a surface contradiction, there is a deeper agreement between psychology and theology on this issue. Basically, lean on God, trust in God, rely upon God. But when the car, boat or helicopter comes.

Get in.

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16 thoughts on “The Psychology of Christianity: Part 12, The Holy Spirit and Locus of Control”

  1. I wonder if the doctrine of the Holy Spirit actually provides a synthesis of the theological and psychological recommendations for the locus of control, since it's both internal and external.

  2. Right. What does an "indwelling spirit" mean if not an agency that acts as if it were the self? And is not the idea of "transformed character" the idea that I actually become the thing itself? Thus "yet not I, but Christ lives in me" functions as an affirmation that I am becoming a little Christ, not simply that I am posing in Christ's clothing.

  3. I've just begun following your blog as you started this Psychology and- series (I'm excited by your work btw) and If I may, I would like to expand the context here.

    A question I've begun to pose goes like this:

    We've assumed as Christians, that God's core concern is obedience.

    As a theological thinker who's worked in design and engineering, I look at this assumption and wonder, If God's core concern is obedience, then he shouldn't create something that has will other than his own. But God does: by the billions.

    And more amazingly, all of these billions of wills are separate from each other; you and I are made of the same "stuff" yet there's a will at work in each of us that keeps organizing the same stuff into the you that seeks to become you, and the me that seeks to become me.

    How can such a thing even happen?!

    So, I would argue, either God is stupid, or God's core concern is something else as represented in such an amazing feat that the Human will is: what is this something else?

    I don't know yet, though I have inklings. It seems to me, that a core difficulty we encounter in being fully human, entails our task of becoming a fully fledged will/self/agent, without going about our task by becoming "ego".

    In this context, whatever the work of the Holy Spirit is, it seems that the work would focus on developing internal loci of control, not in the way of ego, but in another way.

  4. I'm not sure in what sense you are using the word 'concern;' but, I would say that God's 'purpose' is to be glorified (i.e., to be seen as He really is) by a redeemed creation. He is orchestrating all of 'this' to that end. It is not about me, or me becoming a fully functioning whatever. Or me trying hard to be like Jesus; never happen in my strength. Only when I see Him as He really is will I be 'obedient.' Until then, it's all about me and what I think is right. And, that is in conflict with His purpose.

  5. Yet David, to say God's purpose is to be glorified ties God, or couples God with a human emperor motif- one that Christ's embodiment of God vs. Caesar's embodiment of God, dispels.

    I'm wondering if God's "purpose" is to connect as colleagues with fully adult people, and make life together; that is to co-create a life of sustainable flourishing.

    Considering Christ's life, an idea like this strikes me as more plausible.

  6. I don't say it is God's purpose to be glorified; Scripture does.

    The view you state may be more plausible to us; but, it requires us to disregard Scripture. God is not our colleague in this adventure. He is God and He says (through the Scriptures) that He intends to be worshipped. And this, regardless of what Caesar may have desired.

  7. The plausibility comes exactly from the Scriptures; where else do we witness Christ's life and His invitation to be colleagues with Him?

    If God is not to be our colleague in co-creating, who is? And what's the purpose of Human life then, if it's not creating life with the One who endowed us with a creating ability, that is second only to God alone?

    Creating flourishing human lives together is hard. Worship is easy. There's plenty of time for worship, we may be running out of time to get the human life right. If I'm to take the Human life seriously because I take Jesus's life seriously, then I want the One who knows creating best, as my colleague in our joint venture.

  8. Clearly, you and I understand the Scriptures very differently. :-) You say "Worship is Easy." Well, that depends on one's definition of worship, no?

    I see Romans 12:1 defining worship (Greek - latreia) as 'presenting yourself as a living sacrifice, set aside for God.' Now, does that truly seem easy to you?

    Do you really believe that 'we' are going to get the human life right? That 'I' can improve who I am by trying harder, gaining more knowledge, reasoning more deeply, etc? If so, why did Jesus go to the cross instead of just improving his colleagues by his teaching them more?

  9. David,

    Wouldn't you admit that Sunday morning worship services center on entering oceanic states of experience?

    You mislead yourself somehow as you read my thoughts here by insinuating that I'm suggesting a program of self help. Where did I do that? I made explicit that our most difficult task is to be fully human, and this is where we should want the help of the Holy Spirit.

    Richard intelligently pointed out the paradox that part of being fully human is to have an internal locus of control, yet to reach out for help suggests an external locus of control.

    I'm suggesting that two thousand years past the Christ Event, Evangelical Christianity is focused on piety; that is, the basic decent behavior we teach three year olds. I think God is more sophisticated than we give Him credit for, and that He means human life to be more than perfecting the curriculum we learn as three year olds.

    The life of co-creating is exponentially more difficult than the life of piety. Why did Jesus go to the cross? Not to establish a life of piety where people gather together to meld a self made womb and wait for Heaven. Piety was well in place at the time of Jesus. And we think we can distinguish our life of piety from the Pharisee's by claiming their piety stemmed from law while our's stems from Grace.

    When Jesus confronts the Pharisees of His time, what does He confront? I would argue that Jesus confronts them for living from an ideology, rather than from being a fully fledged human person: "It's the Sabbath; your neighbor's ox falls into a big hole; quick-waddaya do?" This example of Jesus's confrontations doesn't confront their answer, but instead, confronts the way they went about determining their answer; they were unable to live from a fully fledged heart, and still needed a code of piety. An instruction manual.

    People who live in states of oppression have an innate right to hope for Heaven. For us Christians who live in the first world though, Heaven can't be a hope, because it's a responsibility.

    Why do I think Jesus went to the cross? Certainly not to change God's view of His creation. I think His way through the cross leads us into our responsibility- the difficult work of living as colleagues with God, and creating lives that feel heavenly now.

  10. I think that sometimes "leaning on God" becomes an excuse for not doing anything. As MacDonald points out, faith is not a mere mental exercise. Abraham "believed God" by going out into the unknown. If he had "believed God" and just sat on his can, would that have been "reckoned as righteousness"? I don't think so. I grew up in a framework of those who use their theology to excuse themselves from doing the work life requires, relationally, physically, mentally, and spiritually.

  11. Thank you Patricia,

    I'm experiencing exactly what you're saying in my marriage. At one time, I drank this kool-aid of churchianity - that is, "trusting God" meant placing the center/locus of control/responsibility upon God. I pathetically misunderstood "faith"/"obedience"/"trust", thus failed to perform due dilligence in facets concerning my career and ... my choice for a wife. Let's just say we are currently in process of a divorce after 15 years. I don't mention that for sympathy - only to illustrate the point of this article - that perceived center of trust while trying to live this life as a "Christian" is not trivial.

    Misplacing that "trust/responsibility upon God" in an unhealthy dillusional manner severely distorts expectations upon God. When God doesn't "deliver", answer prayers, or allows bizarre injustices, it is devestating to one's "faith"/"relationship" with God.

    Thank you again Patricia!
    Gary Y

  12. Hi Gary.
    It took me more than 40 years to see the poison in the kool-aid. MacDonald really rescued me from toxic theology. I guess I'm still trying to work out how faith fits into life, but I do know now how it doesn't.

    That crippling version of Christianity dominates a lot of churches, and like the pharisees, they see themselves only as perfectly "Scripturally" right. When you cease to buy in, because you realize there's got to be more to it, they pitch a fit. I told one person that what you believe is not what you verbally profess -- it's what you live out, in engaging your heart/compassion, your mind/intellect, your soul/personality, and your strengths/abilities (Matt.6:21-27). The first two passers in the Good Samaritan story were "theologically correct" for their day, but couldn't be bothered to give a damn about the injured man in their proximity. I've been pretty summarily disowned as a result, because that perspective just doesn't flatter them.

    I wish you only the best as you recover from divorce and from toxic theology. Blessings, Patricia

  13. You and I both say we are Christians and yet I can't even begin to parse how you describe the purpose of the cross. Serious questions: What have you done this week to 'live as God's colleague?' What would a life that 'feels heavenly' look like?

  14. Patricia,

    You write- "That crippling version of Christianity dominates a lot of churches, and like the pharisees, they see themselves only as perfectly "Scripturally" right. *When you cease to buy in, because you realize there's got to be more to it,* they pitch a fit. (Asterisks mine.)

    I'm resonating with your voice through out your comments here, and especially this one.


  15. Hi Mike,

    Thank you. And you are exactly on the mark when you say that the objective in many churches is a kind of straight-jacket piety.

    MacDonald writes of how God's objective is to fill His house, not with mere cowering servants or selfish, prideful, fat children, but with sons and daughters who really get how to love as He loves in all the messy business of life.


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