The Psychology of Bad Christians And Why They Become Legalists

One of the things this blog aims to do is not focus on how unbiblical certain behaviors of Christians are, but rather to speculate why Christians do what they do..,.. The premise of such investigations is that a lot of our “beliefs” can be better understood by understanding our psychological nature and realizing that perhaps the verses we focus on to justify our beliefs (and ignoring the verses that speak against our specific beliefs and religious habits) are partially the result of our psychological make-up.

People may be going all ire at such a hypothesis, but if we are all fallen humans, it’s not insane to think that our fallen nature may have a say in how we interpret the Bible and God.

For instance, there is a common psychological theory of humans that points out that our opinions and views regarding politics/religious/the arts is more or less having a reflection of the opinions of a group of people we want to get approval of, even if we know consciously that we will never get the approval of some of these people.

For instance, if I listen to a pastor’s podcast whose views I find well thought out or am drawn to the charisma of his personality/preaching style…. unconsciously, my views will starts conforming to the views of that pastor.

When I first started studying theology I would find the theologians whose beliefs I admired because they seemed to me to be very smart people. Most of these theologians, like Soren Kierkegaard or Paul Tillich were dead mind you, so it’s not like they would ever approve of me. However, my views over time very quickly came to be  quite in line with the views of Kierkegaard/Tillich. Except of course my views/beliefs were never as intricate and intelligent as those of the theologians. I usually simplified their views even though I never consciously realized this either.


Trivia: Tillich and Kierkegaard were both existentialists and more or less did philosophy but did so within a Christian framework. I still like them a lot.

 Especially Kierkegaard. To the left is a possibly inaccurate portrait of him.

You should read Fear and Trembling. It’s by Kierkegaard. It’s free to read online here or can be bought in book form here . It’s basically a meditation on Abraham and his near killing of Isaac. It’s awesome and you’ll feel awesome and be a better and smarter person for it. And if you read it and want to find the arguments that nicely and with all reverence prove Kierkegaard’s thesis wrong, read this essay by Emmanuel Levinas or summary of the debate here. An interesting rebuttal against Levinas’ rebuttal in defense of Kierkegaard, click here.

Okay… now shifting gears without explanation…

Here is one example of  where Christians just start acting stupid: When Christians call their angry rants against those they hate an act of Love for God  (like those who “compromise the Apostolic Identity”) . Similarly these can be the same people who call self-hate an act of devotion for God.

How does this work out?

Well first comes the self-hate part. Humans tend to have this thing called guilt. And they don’t like it.  Freud developed much of his psychoanalytical theories based on guilt. I get a whole table full of guilt on a monthly basis. If you’re a Christian, guilt is a result from the Fall. If you’re a non-believer….well there’s a lot of good evolutionary theory about the advantages of guilt.

So let’s say you’re a human being, which shouldn’t be that hard? And let’s say you aren’t religious at all and you feel a lot of guilt. And it’s not even about anything you’ve done wrong, because more or less you follow all the rules and even do some good things from time to time. And yet, you still feel this massive sense of guilt about who you are as a person. What do you do? Well Christianity is a popular answer. Guilt and the cross kinda go hand-in-hand. So let’s say you convert because you figure out that the whole guilt thing is because of the sinful condition you possess as a human being and also you completely dig how Christ took care of all that sinful condition business by dying on the Cross for you and your sins. But, and here’s where it gets tricky: A few months after all the glitz and glamour of being born-again wears off, you begin to feel the sense of guilt again. Yes this goes against the Bible. But this is about how you feel. Maybe you even believe that this guilt is a lie from the devil. Like it’s Satan trying to convince you that God really doesn’t love you. Okay, but the feeling persists.

Naturally, the guilt turns into a bit of self-hate. Like the idea that not only do you feel guilty but also because you have now started failing God (besides, sinning just doesn’t go away at conversion).  So how to get rid of this self-hate? Practice my friends. A lot of practice and hard work of not sinning and doing good work. Christians usually pray and read their Bible and this helps the guilt. Sometimes. If you’re Apostolic, standards become very helpful to this whole thing….. separating yourself from the rest of the world solidifies that you are different from the rest of the sinning world. So let’s say you try the holiness thing for a bit and it eases the guilt even more…

‘But the sucky part is at the end of the day, you still hate yourself and your inability to please God through your actions.You still feel guilty.  Of course you know Christianity is not works-based, but it only makes sense to do everything you can to please God which is not really an act of trying to earn your salvation/not feeling guilt, but more of an act of sacrifice and obedience to please God for all he has already done with you.

Yet there’s still this stupid “fortheloveofGod please stop feeling the guilt” kinda attitude. But somewhere along the line something else has changed about your Christianity. God has went from becoming this sacred “I love you I love you I love” kinda God that lives inside you into a God that you feel when you pray at church, but He is also now this God who lives somewhere in heaven that is a persecutor and judge of your whole being. You feel like God’s pointing the finger entirely at you and no matter how much you tell yourself that this isn’t really God, you still feel like God hates you and how you can’t live up to everything He wants out of you.

Think about the mystical Christians who basically treat God as residing in the spiritual realm and in order to make things right inside you, you’ve got to get on your knees and go to that good old-spiritual warfare prayer combat.

Point being: God is still loving you… but somewhere there’s a sense that He’s also kinda confrontational towards you. And you feel like this is a war between your sinning self and your spiritual self. Which is entirely dualistic and not very logical, but it’s only the best way to describe how you feel inside.

So is there an out from all this madness? It just so happens that there is and it explains a lot of the legalistic hate that we hear from some Pastors both in the UPC and outside the UPC (e.g. Mark Driscoll).

The solution is called projection within psychology. It occurs when a person transfers their inner-turmoil (“I’m such a failure to God”) into being the truth of a certain group of people out there in the world.

Basically all the self-hate goes away when unconsciously you start getting angry at people out there who are sinning more than you or not doing as much as you do to be a good Christian.

And literally once this happens (keep in mind it’s not a calculated projection, but something that happens almost naturally because the guilt was getting too much to bear), it won’t be too long afterwards that you stop hating yourself so much and lo and behold you start hating others. This explains why ministers that are caught in sexual impurity like adultery are also some of the most angry hating people you know of. They literally don’t feel like they are doing anything wrong and just focus their would-be-self judgment onto others….This explains why some men can go on as awesome preachers with a life-changing ministry for so long without their secret sinning lifestyle get in the way: They hate other people exponentially and if allowed the opportunity would probably kill a dude or two just because their hate is that much. This also explains why liberals stay just as bitter once they leave the church as they were against liberals when they were legalistic Christians: They go from transferring the projected hate from one side of the conservative/liberal spectrum to the other side.

Okay, now in philosophical jargon that is way more accurate to everything I have said in over-generalizations above:

In religion, the struggle of a believer dealing with guilt is transferred onto the Other and thus strips oneself of the bad-within one’s self. In fundamentalist-legalistic-Christianity that is obsessed with a kind of Christian law “God fills the decapitated evil by now being a protector of the subject.” But he also becomes tyrannical and demanding resulting a paranoid subject whose cleansed self is still never enough over time and thus this tyrannical God demands more violent and hateful projections of the Other (Christians of a different denomination for instance).

This also explains why the people legalistic Christians hate the most is not the one’s in the world or those belonging to a different religion, but rather the one’s whose beliefs are closest to one’s own but a little more conservative/liberal than the own self is.

This loop of fundamentalism is like a pencil endlessly sharpened to remove any symptoms of dullness until there is no pencil left.

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