A Healthy Faith?

In Pastoral Care and Pastoral Counseling, it is generally believed that the faith of the individual can be a vital part of the healing process. This belief is built from a more fundamental assumption that faith is healthy. Yet, what is faith?

One of the best works I have seen on faith was written close to 40 years ago. Wayne E. Oates, a Christian Psychologist (and writer and seminary professor) wrote a book in 1973 called The Psychology of Religion. The final chapter (19) is titled “Toward a Psychology of Faith.” As a Christian, Oates valued faith. However, as a Christian Psychologist, he understood that some understandings of “faith” (both inside and outside of faith communities) may be psychologically destructive. So Oates sought to find a good understanding of the Biblical view of faith, informed by psychology, while avoiding unhealthy faith (or unhealthy things that are called faith by some).

  • Unhealthy Faith involves allegiance to the irrational
  • Unhealthy Faith involves trust without demonstrated trustworthiness
  • Unhealthy Faith is absence of, or denial of, doubt

The following is an excerpt from the chapter, under the subheading of “Faith as an Act of Surrender.” The chapter looks at faith in terms of faith in God, but also faith in other relationships. Thus it doesn’t look simply at “saving faith” but healthy faith in its many forms.

… faith involves a surrender of one’s childish sense of omnipotence, that is, an acute sense of total responsibility for everything other people do. One sees it in clinicians of every kind— doctors, ministers, social workers, psychologists, and so on— who feel themselves a failure unless they can be everything and totally succeed with persons in their care. One sees it in parents who accept total responsibility for the thoughts, values, and acts of their children. Faith as an act of surrender in such situations can be expressed in the account of a World War II solder who volunteered for combat without his father’s explicit approval. Upon sailing for Europe, his father said to him, “Son, your mother and I have done all for you we can. You’re on your own now. You have made your bed and you will just have to lie in it.” Then nearly thirty years later he says, “I thought he was angry, then. But being a father now, I can see he was telling me that he cared but that there were limits beyond which he could not go in doing so.” He exercised an act of surrender, or a life of faith, in order to survive the pain, the anxiety, and the helplessness of seeing his son in war.

Yet surrender is not a once-for-all giving up of one’s need to be totally responsible and all-powerful. It is a daily, twenty-four-hour-at-a-time exercise of faith. It must be done again and again, not as a work of merit but as a means of spiritual survival as a finite self in one’s own right before God. Without this faith, all sorts of substitutes— drugs, alcohol, work— become the insulation of terror, the inducers of sleep.



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