Know Thyself

The more we surround ourselves with people who are different than us, the better we understand who we are. And the better we understand who we are the more emotionally and spiritually healthy we can become.

Several years ago, a Christian friend asked if I identified as an Evangelical. I was confused, however, because he knew that I was a Christian as well. At the time, those words to me were synonyms. Because I was raised in an Evangelical church community, I did not appreciate that my values and beliefs were specific to my cultural upbringing and not necessarily valued by the greater Church as a whole. Even though we both identified as Christians, we had different ways of practicing our faith.

To best explain this, I’ll use this graph based on the work of Dr. Gary Burge of Wheaton College. It has been a helpful tool for learning about myself as a product of the faith tradition in which I was raised. If we identify as Christian, we may fall somewhere on this continuum. It can help to identify what we have been taught to value and the pitfalls of becoming too extreme in the way we practice our faith. The goal would be to fall somewhere between the two dotted lines on the continuum. However, no one will land dead center. Explanations are provided below the chart.

NOTE: No metaphor is perfect; you may find that both sides characterize you. These descriptors are not all-inclusive, i.e., this is limited to a Protestant, educated perspective and likely neglects the experiences of some Christian traditions.

On the right are those who hold to their convictions in their religiosity; they are typically dogmatic, principled, and value symbols that remind them of their righteousness (e.g. regular church attendance, following the “rules,” being disciplined, identifying a specific time when they were saved).

When this type of religious practice becomes extreme it looks like legalism and potentially works-based righteousness. When you relate to God, you probably see him first as a righteous judge and second as a gracious lover. And what I am concerned with here is not your theological convictions. Rather, I’m describing your experience of God. The recurrent need of an individual on this side who lands beyond the dotted line is to be reminded of Galatians 5:1, “it is for freedom’s sake that Christ set you free.” Or, as St. Augustine said, “Love God and do as you please.”

On the left are those who value civility in their religiosity. These Christians are comfortable resting in grace but are at risk of taking it for granted. They value symbols and practices that remind of them of their security in Christ (e.g. infant baptism, frequent partaking of communion or the Eucharist, perhaps a theological stance that God predestines the salvation of believers). They are more comfortable sitting in the mystery and ambiguity of theological matters.

Here, the risk of becoming too extreme would be to practice what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called cheap grace, “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” Here, you likely experience (not view) God first as a gracious lover and second as a righteous judge. These Christians who have strayed beyond the dotted lines need to be reminded that they were saved by grace to “…do good works...” (Ephesians 2:10).

This chart helped me to understand some of the why behind the values, practices, struggles, and thoughts I have as a Christian. Gaining that cultural self-understanding has made me more spiritually healthy and as a result more emotionally healthy as well. Christian or not, have you considered how your spiritual upbringing (or lack thereof) now impacts your beliefs, values, and even emotional health? If not, you may consider exploring these ideas with a mentor, pastor, or one of us, here, at the Well Clinic. We are here to help!