Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
My hope in the future is to get further education in mental health, either through the medical route to become a psychiatrist or the PhD route to become a psychologist. One of the reasons I feel lead in this direction is the amount of spiritual problems I have witnessed over the years. While I have come to know many people whose faith has been a source of spiritually healthy direction from the Gospel of Jesus Christ, I have also witnessed many dysfunctional religious beliefs that have set in that have created many problems in people’s lives. My hope is to be able to help people to see the Gospel more clearly, away from the most dysfunctional religious beliefs that people may hold to and act upon.
One of the biggest sources of religious dysfunction I have witnessed, and have even experienced even in myself, is the way that being a Christian is though to mean that we are supposed to be ‘passive’ in our stance. We see this reinforced in various ways when we tell Christians that they should surrender to God, that by forgiving it means they should move on from problems of the past and to not bring it up, that people should be nice, which subtly means compliant with what others expect of them, that they shouldn’t be ‘selfish,’ etc. All of these statements have the appearance of truth and wisdom, as the Scriptures do speak of our submission to God, that we should forgive, that we should be merciful, loving people, that we should place other people’s interests above our own. However, each of the things mentioned above are facsimiles of what the Scriptures call people to. Each of the the exhortations mention above have been translated in terms of power relations, explicitly or implicitly, in which we unintentionally portray the Gospel as calling us to be “passive” with God, with the faults and expectations of others, and to let go of one’s own wishes and wants. Such a worldview portrays the world in terms of authority and power: that we submit to those who are greater than us, which means our self becomes abnegated in the end. Such a worldview tends towards a form of authoritarianism that goes beyond the acceptance of authority, but that those people vested with authority are to be honored simply in virtue of being given that authority. For instance, we may be tempted to worship and surrender to God because He is the unquestioned authority over people in virtue of his unmatchable power, not as much because He powerfully loved us and redeemed us through the giving of His Son Jesus Christ.
The problem with such a worldview is it isn’t actually that Scriptural. It is the result of trying to translate the calls of the Scriptures into different idioms, to which we have situated the Scriptures into an implicitly authoritarian worldview. This is perhaps largely due to the influence that Calvinism and the Reformed tradition has had on the evangelical wing of Western Christianity. Whatever the cause, it has had a negative effect: it has had the effect of taking from the Gospel that Jesus Christ an important part of the message that He came to proclaim: liberation.
To state in advance, I am not liberation theologian, at least in the traditional sense of the term, as I feel most liberation theology is focused on social liberation of specific groups over and against the oppressive powers. Rather, it is my conviction from the study of Scripture that Jesus proclaimed personal liberation to those who accepted the Gospel, which would then spill over into the social and relational realities they were a part of. When one compares the Beatitudes to Isaiah 61, which I have previously written about, there is a good reason to suggest the Beatitudes are about the liberation of people who receive the Gospel. The first three Beatitudes describe people in a relative state of powerlessness, whereas they then begin to passionately crave righteousness in the world, which then leads to the next three Beatitudes describe people who are more active in showing mercy, in having their purposes as represented by the heart be rightly directed, and bringing peace/shalom to others. Rather than a social-political liberation per se, Jesus’ Beatitudes speak to a personal, spiritual liberation in which people go from being passive recipients of the negative realities of life to active agents in bringing about and seeking positive outcomes.
However, Jesus does not portray this liberation as leading to entirely positive outcomes. The same blessed people will also face persecution for seeking the very righteousness that they were said to crave in the fourth beatitude. While this personal, spiritual liberation leads people to be effective in bringing about positive outcomes, they will also face wrongful treatment directed towards them as a result.
This reality that Jesus speaks forth is a useful place to make a distinction between agency and control. Both words are commonly used with the idea of a person taking some sort of action to have an effect on the situation around them, but there is a important nuance and distinction to make as to how I am using the terms. I am using agency to refer to a person’s capacity (and the person’s belief about their capacity) to bring about desired changes in the circumstances they witness and face. This is related to the concept of internal self-efficacy in psychology. Having a sense of agency entails that we are able to modify and change outcomes through our own actions. Agency does not mean, however, that we necessarily have the ability to make outcomes perfectly fit in accordance to our wishes and desires. For instance, a husband and a wife who healthily love each other without codependency will each take efforts to help better the relationship by the way they communicate, share tasks, deal with each other’s expectations, etc., but yet neither spouse will be able to get everything that they want. They will have to make sacrifices. They have agency to improve their relationship over time, but they do not have control over all the outcomes of their relationship.
Control, by contrast, is a specific type of agency: it is an agency where one is able to make things happen as one wishes. What someone wants is what someone gets. For a different spousal couple to use an analogy, imagine a codependent relationship where one partner is always able to get their wishes and the other partner is always sacrificing. Control is the form of agency in which one partner is able to act to get the partner to do whatever they wanted to occur. Control goes beyond simply having one’s actions effect the outcomes, but that one’s wishes (almost) entirely determine the outcomes. On the other hand, non-controling agency can better one’s outcomes, but it also allows space for the outcomes to differ in appreciable degrees from what one expected or wished.
For some people, they are content with non-controlling agency. They simply want to be heard, for their actions to have a meaningful impact, even if they don’t get exactly what they want. Such people are able to endure, a Scriptural virtue when it comes to persecution, the bad stuff and the less than perfect outcomes. Other people, however, have trouble tolerating anything less than their ideals of perfection. Such people find tremendous fault with others when their control is impinged upon, using extremely negative labels. Furthermore, given their all-or-nothing mindset, they tend to project their desire to control on others, interpreting other people’s agency that does not accord with their wishes as a form of controlling, rather than seeing their agency as a non-controlling agency.
I make this distinction to point out that the way we talk about our relationship to God and others in Christian circles, we often subtly inculcate a sense of dominant-subordinate relationships where one person gets their wishes, usually a person deemed as the authority, and the subordinate who is to give in to the wishes of the other. Because we lack the nuanced vocabulary to cognitively distinguish between controlling and non-controlling forms of agency, we tend to paint human agency in almost purely negative terms, unless of course one has been ‘authorized’ by God to have authority, in which case one should expect to get as one thinks things should be done.
However, the Gospel of Jesus Christ calls people not to dominant-subordinate relationships. In fact, Jesus’ training of His disciples specifically undercuts such a worldview and form of relationships with each other. Jesus ultimately calls His disciples His friends, suggest a form of social equality, rather than continue to see them as servants. In virtue of being the Son of God, he suggests those people who have been empowered to have the agency to make peace/shalom are socially on his level in also being called children of God, even though in terms of ontological existence and power there is a marked difference between Jesus and us. So much of Jesus’ ministry is integrally related to empowering His disciples to proclaim and make the kingdom of heaven known through word and signs. They won’t have control of the world; they will be persecuted. However, they will have a non-controlling agency to effectively seek God’s Kingdom and His righteousness in this world.
When we inculcate ideas about fundamental powerlessness and subordinate social position of believers, however, we undercut this telos of the Gospel liberation. We work against the Gospel of Christ, and instead inculcates a dominant-subordinate view of the world where believers are subordinate unless they are authorized to be in the dominant position. Consequently, we risk harming people’s emotional, mental, and spiritual health by inculcating an external sense of self-efficacy that makes people feel powerless, whereas people who have a positive, internal self-efficacy are found to be healthier people. By talking about surrender, giving up control, etc. without serious qualification and nuance, we risk turning the Gospel into a message that erodes people’s sense of self-efficacy, which means they may be trained to to play the victim if they are powerless, both in making one susceptible to victimization and not taking charge for ones own well-being after one has feels one has been harmed (no matter the severity of the harm). Or, if they happen to be in a position where they feel empowered, the person may play the vindictive aggressor as the bad outcomes weren’t their fault (they had no control over the bad outcomes because if they did things would have gone the way they wanted, i.e. external self-efficacy), but it was the fault of others who should be “disciplined” or “taught a lesson” (i.e. vindictively punished). So, not only does the authority-subordinate social worldview reinforce negative mental health in many persons who feel powerless and lack any meaningful sense of agency, but it also inculcates vengeance. How different is the good news that Jesus proclaims.
One of my goals in the coming years is to be able to more clearly make these distinctions in Scripture, in theology, in therapeutic language, and in more commonly understood vernacular so that the personal, spiritual liberation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ may come to bear much fruit in our lives who confess Jesus Christ as Lord and follow Him, so that through people being appropriately empowered as agents without feeling like they control outcomes we may witness better relationships and better social and political engagement for the betterment of the world around us. If I were to be able to change the world in some way, this is one of the ways I would want to be able to do so.