Believing as we Behave
James S. Spiegel
It is common for people to think the causal connection between belief and behavior goes only one direction. As the German poet Heinrich Heine wrote, “The thought precedes the deed as the lightening the thunder” (Heine, 1986, p. 159). And a biblical proverb says, “As a man thinks, so is he” (Pr. 23:7). But the belief-behavior connection is a two-way street—they mutually impact one another. That behavior also impacts belief is borne out by psychological research on how people deal with conflicts between their conduct and convictions (Festinger, 1957; Albarracin and Wyer, 2000). Humans are naturally geared to seek consistency between them and thus resolve the cognitive dissonance such conflict creates. When there is a conflict, people prefer not to alter their conduct. Rather, they are more likely to achieve consistency by changing the way they think about their conduct such as by rationalizing their actions. Some will go so far as to deny what they know to be true, a condition known as self-deception (Fingarette, 1969; Pears, 1984; Mele, 2001). This explains why people are naturally stubborn and why it is so difficult to argue a person out of a moral conviction. Many people, including Christians, will go to extremes of irrationality to avoid having to take the more demanding route of changing their behavior.
This response is almost always unconscious, which makes for an insidious dynamic in contexts involving bad behavior. Over the years I have encountered vivid examples of this, even among clergy, some of whom have rationalized everything from embezzlement to adultery and pornography use. And we are all aware of the more high profile cases of celebrities who proudly defend their egregious behavior. Such cases display how sin corrupts the mind—a dynamic that the apostle Paul describes in Romans 1, where he says “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (v. 18). And a little later he says, “although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened” (v. 21). After this Paul describes how they descended into idolatry and the most shameful kinds of practices and finally God “gave them over to a depraved mind” (v. 28). What we see here is a downward spiral of disobedience leading to irrationality, which brings about more disobedience and then more irrational thinking.
Our cognitive functions are like our bodily functions, in that they were designed for a specific purpose (to form true beliefs), but this design can be warped so that it malfunctions more and more frequently (so we form false beliefs). This explains why disobedience naturally leads to doubts about God, the Bible and one’s own salvation. During my two decades as a professor at a Christian college, I have been approached by many students struggling with doubts about their faith. In the majority of cases, it turns out that these doubts trace back to some sin in their lives, whether it is an illicit relationship, resenting their parents’ authority, unfaithful church attendance, or some other sinful pattern. In some cases students’ doubts are strictly intellectual, but these are the minority.
The fact that sin corrupts the mind helps us understand the meaning behind Paul’s injunction to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). This does not mean that salvation is through our own works. Rather, it means that to be assured of our salvation, we must obey him. To disobey and fall into sin disrupts our ability to think straight, especially about moral and spiritual matters, even our own standing with God. And if a person falls too deeply into sin, without repenting, their actual convictions might even change. I have seen devastating cases of this—people who once firmly believed in Christ, who were enticed by sins of pride, lust, or a grudge and eventually abandoned their faith.
Fortunately, there is also a positive side to the tendency to believe as we behave. The Old Testament wisdom literature makes clear that God grants wisdom to those who humble themselves and obey (Ps. 19:7; Ps. 25:9, Pr. 1:4, and Pr. 11:2). While this might be seen as simply a matter of God supernaturally rewarding humble people with wisdom, I think we can also make sense of it as follows. First, because we tend to believe as we behave, our obedience to God’s law prompts us to believe even more firmly in his moral standards. Righteous living reinforces our convictions about God’s word, as we see his promises fulfilled in our lives, which then increases our assurance of salvation. This, in turn, gives us special insights about God’s ways, especially his faithfulness to his people. And this is the essence of wisdom. Second, by obeying God we minimize sin’s corruption of our cognitive operations. The more faithfully we live, the better we will think. So righteous living itself serves to renew our minds, a positive dynamic that Paul explains as follows: “I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Rom. 12:1-2). Notice that Paul begins with the admonition to behave obediently and improved cognition or mind renewal will be a beneficial consequence.
So for both the righteous and the wicked—the morally mature and chronically disobedient—conduct impacts conviction. The belief-behavior connection is a two-way causal street. This certainly places a premium on obedience or, as Paul puts it, living sacrificially. This is something that Christian leaders—such as teachers, counselors, and mentors—should take to heart, both for our own sake and for the sake of those placed under our care.
Albarracin, D. & Wyer, Jr., R. S. (2000). The cognitive impact of past behavior: Influences on beliefs, attitudes, and future behavioral decisions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 5-22
Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Evanston, IL: Row, Peterson, and Co.
Fingarette, H. (1969). Self-deception. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Heinrich H. (1986). Religion and philosophy in Germany: A fragment. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
Mele, A. (2001). Self-deception unmasked. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Pears, D. (1984). Motivated irrationality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Professor of Philosophy and Religion