In his letter to the church at Rome, the apostle Paul revealed to us that we all have taken the truths of God and turned them into lies. Then, proclaiming ourselves wise, we became fools. And in his letter to the church at Corinth, he asserts that we see life as if we are looking into a dimly lit mirror. We see so little…and so little accurately.
I’ll never be able to prove it. But I believe that it is a reasonable guess that all the defenses we use to dodge truth flow from our spiritual condition of both willful blindness and utter foolishness. That strategic blindness…our arrogant foolishness…and the emergence of our defenses against truth are our psychopathology. And it is a pathology you and I play out in our lives every day.
We are birthed inherently conflicted.
Within a Biblical frame, we are born sinners, alienated from the very life of our heavenly Father. That’s why Catholic Christians are so eager to baptize infants, hoping to wash away that fundamental rift (original sin) through the sprinkling of the waters of Baptism. It is also why Protestants either baptize infants or christen them as a sign of our willingness to train that child in the ways of the Lord, hoping they receive the Spirit of God along the way, nevermore to be alienated from “Our Father who art in heaven.”
Within a secular frame, there are two central ways we grow up inherently conflicted.
First, we are born with a developmentally primitive animal part of the brain, and a uniquely human part. (For the Christian, the package taken together makes us a spiritual being in relationship to God, though that relationship is broken.) The animal brain is the source of sexual longings and intense aggressive impulses. Rape uses both of these in the very same moment. Walking into McDonalds with an Uzi and slaughtering 21 people (1984) was driven by such primal rage, mobilized and directed by a deranged mind.
It is the human part of the brain, deranged or not, which guides the primitive. Those impulses are wrapped tightly by our culture and our particular upbringing. Whether we act out the impulse for sex within marriage or not is guided by our beliefs about how the game of life should be played. Some choose to save sex for after saying “I do”; others choose “friends with benefits.” Still others choose to be promiscuous, going more with the moment-to-moment flow of their animal longings. The primal drive to reproduce and with it its seductive pleasure can feel overwhelming, putting those who want to wait until marriage in enormous conflict. That’s why certain denominations are now teaching that it is no longer sin to have sex outside of marriage. The primal urge is just too overpowering, they say.
Why is it that arguments between spouses can—and very often do—become like that 1989 movie War of the Roses? There are a number of reasons, but one is that the primal part of the brain built for aggression—aggression in both males and females—believes it’s fighting for its survival. That’s why couples name-call, verbally hit below the belt, throw things, actually hit one another, or smash something instead of their spouse.
In the more “normal” course of the day—not that there is anything really that defines normal—we have to constantly manage our urges and direct them in ways that are at least sane. Beyond that, I cite the Boy Scout Law I memorized as a teen. We need to direct our impulses so that we become “trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.” Most people agree. But doing so puts us in conflict from day to day. We’re constantly having to monitor ourselves, redirecting our urges so we “fight fair” with our spouses rather than scream at them; training our children rather than yelling at and just punishing them; respecting others rather than having sex with them in our imaginations; loving others we can’t stand rather than hating them; and understanding others rather than stereotyping them. And so on.
The second way we grow up inherently conflicted is by family members, church leaders, and teachers pitting one part of our human brain against another. They train one part of our mind to believe one thing while training another part to believe another. An angry mother, for example, calls her daughter “stupid” enough times that her daughter comes to believe it; she becomes imprinted with that belief. Yet she learns from teachers that she’s smart. Whom does she believe? Her mind does battle wondering, what’s the truth? The battle can last a lifetime.
Or a boy is brought up in a strict religious home and church. Parents and church leaders train him to repress his sexual longings, and even convince him that such animal urges are inherently bad. In fact, he may end up thinking that his sexual feelings are so wrong that he can’t hold a girl’s hand for fear of being sinful. I had a client who believed just that. When such a young man meets a girl who grants him permission to be affectionate, it throws him into a tailspin. Now what? Whom does he believe? Does he believe her, going against his religious leaders and parents? Should he believe his affection for her is healthy, or keep the belief it’s sinful? How does he determine the truth? Should he trust himself with the emerging cascade of sexual longings she mobilizes within him?
The tough fact of life is that conflicts are built into us from both our phylogenetic history and our families…long before any of us had a choice. In dealing with the built-in conflicts, our defenses evolve at a very early age—I once again see them in my grandchildren—in our attempts to create a cultured life.
But remember: our defenses are also our pathology…and it’s a pathology we play out daily, like it or not.
Frank Barbehenn is an expert on integrating psychology with faith. He is the author of Faith of a Father: from Torment to Trust—Forging Our New Identity in Christ. This book has received industry recognitions including being an International Illumination Book Award Winner and an International Next Generation Indie Book Award Finalist.
Frank is a licensed psychologist in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and has been in practice for 35 years. He specializes in relationship and trauma therapy. He also trained in theology. He is a Clinical Fellow with the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and a Fellow with the American Psychotherapy Association.
He is an elder at First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, Pa. and has been on the Permanent Judicial Committee of his Presbytery. He has been a middle school and high school teacher, as well as adjunct faculty in psychology at the college level. He has led seminars, taught Adult Education, year-long discipleship programs, and led church committees.
Frank has been married for forty-four years and is a father of three——Paul, Matt, and Kristen——and the proud grandfather of five (as of this writing): Dylan, Leah, Jacob, Hannah, and Sarah. He loves to sail and play golf, along with launching model rockets with his grandchildren and chasing them around the house as the “Grampy Monster.”
Finally, Frank is the survivor of multiple traumas, including emotional trauma at the hands of his own parents, beginning in infancy.
Sponsored by Frank Barbehenn