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:
Theology:How should we approach this conflict?
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
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."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.
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?"
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.