The Cognitive Distortions of Legalistic Preaching

Why We Need to Be Reminded of the Grace of God Every Sunday

A recent slew of articles by Jonathan Haidt (along with his coauthor Greg Lukianoff) have drawn together research that suggests people of a liberal and progressive political bent — and, among them, young women in particular — are experiencing higher levels of mental health problems and depression than their conservative peers.

Why? Well, the gist of it is that the adoption of particular ways of thinking, say identifying with, or privileging victims and a victim status, tends to disempower people because it puts someone else in charge of your life. Yes, for sure there are people who — most of us at one time or another —  have been and are victims of an unjust institution, a bully, an abusive person or group, or a road-rager in traffic, but the response to such events doesn’t need to become one’s only or complete identity and reason for being.

“If you allow that person to speak on our campus, you are harming me, putting my life in danger,” would be another way this shows up, one that could be called “catastrophizing.” Again, it’s not simple. Words do matter and words can lead to harmful acts. But the “harm” and “deeply problematic” cards can be overplayed. More to the point, Haidt argues, they habituate with some of liberal or progressives a pattern of thinking that engender diminished agency and depression.

Lukianoff, steeped in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), asks if certain patterns of thinking that have become prominent in liberal/ progressive spaces incline people toward mental illness:

In CBT you learn to recognize when your ruminations and automatic thinking patterns exemplify one or more of about a dozen ‘cognitive distortions,’ such as catastrophizing, black-and-white thinking, fortune telling, or emotional reasoning. Thinking in these ways causes depression as well as being a symptom of depression. Breaking out of these painful distortions is a cure for depression.

Reading this, I wondered if there is some cross-over to all this in churches. I’ve been in many congregations, some as a pastor, other times as a consultant or teacher. I notice that often the highpoint, in terms of energy, seems to be as people gather for worship at the beginning of the service. The morning coffee has kicked in. People are greeting one another. There’s some sense of anticipation.

But too often it’s all downhill from there. By the end of worship in many such churches it’s as if the air has gone completely out of the balloon. Which is sort of the opposite of what you would want to happen. You would hope that energy would increase not decrease. Why? What’s happened?

In my more liberal and progressive church context, there’s a lot of emphasis on the problems of the world, and on what you should be doing about it. Which begins to sound a lot like law, not gospel. It’s all about what you should do or feel or think. If God is in the picture, it’s about what God needs us to do, demands that we do. There’s little emphasis on what God has done or is doing on our behalf or on God’s capacity to bring good out of or in the face of evil. So it’s kind of all on us.

Is it possible that under the sway of “the Law,” our churches are practicing a kind of reverse CBT? Think about it. The Law in its worst forms gives us this constant message: it’s never enough, you’re never enough. You have to do more. You must try harder. There is no rest. No grace — for you, or for everyone else who doesn’t measure up. It’s not about what God in Christ has done for us, but about what we must do for God. Do enough and God will love you, maybe. This is what Paul meant when he said the Law brings death.

I’ve been in church services where people do manage to get into praising God for God’s mercy, for changes in lives, for recovery. But inevitably, or so it seems, someone will rise up to say, “I just think its awful, all your praise and carrying on, when there are children in our community who go to bed hungry at night” or “when the earth’s climate has been destroyed by us.”

By the end of such a worship service people are often overwhelmed by the unendurable responsibility to fix the world and be much better people, when they were perhaps looking for some grace, some encouragement, even comfort, in the face of life’s challenges. Sermons in such churches are often what some call in the trade refer to as “lettuce” sermons. That is they end with a lot of “let us.” “Let us go forth and bring peace to the world.” “Let us go forth determined to end the climate crisis.” “Let us be more kind and generous.”

I remember a young woman who thanked me for a sermon. She was a school teacher and mother of small children, up to her eyeballs in work and demands. She said, “Thank you. I don’t need to be reminded every Sunday of my responsibilities. They are staring me in the face. What I do need to be reminded of every Sunday is the grace of God.”

Without some greater framework of meaning, without some sense of a a mysterious yet persistent grace at work in the world, it tends to be all on us. Throw in the a few “cognitive distortions,” like catastrophizing or black-and-white/ all-or-nothing thinking, and emotional reasoning,” or the big one — “There is no Other to whom we can turn, upon whom we may rely; no grace; it’s all up to us,” and yep, it’s a downer.

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21 responses to “The Cognitive Distortions of Legalistic Preaching”

  1. Eliza Morrison says:

    Liberal and/or progressive thinking inclines people toward mental illness?? Are you serious right now?
    Hard nope. This article is just awful. Insulting and awful.

  2. Jim Moore says:

    Very well said, thanks for this. As I often say, “If you’re outraged, you haven’t been paying attention.” Which is not to say that outrageous things aren’t happening. But instead to see the greater truth that Martha confessed in John Chapter 11, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, God’s Son, the one who is coming into the world.”

  3. Grace reminds us that God does the work, which is very offensive to us. If being liberal means you are trying to do it yourself then, yeah that will be a downer. Though being a conservative can be a downer if nothing is happening… both have issues.

    The secret sauce is learning to rely on God’s Grace, being aware of what the Spirit is asking of us and relying on the power of His Spirit in us. It is much less depressing to be aware of Him working through us and being content with that being enough.

  4. DLE says:

    The Church in America seems stuck at the poles of either “God will do it for us” or “Get out there and help God do it.”

    But as a Christian of many years and of much observation of what happens in real churches, neither of those polar positions seems workable. Yet someone at one pole will inevitably write a piece critiquing the other pole and everyone at that “correct” pole will feel good about their position. At least for a few minutes.

    This is not working. No one seems to know where the middle ground is or what it might look like in praxis. So we keep ping-ponging, and people ask, “Where is the Church in dealing with this?”

  5. MJ says:

    Oh, the irony….Perhaps it should be stated that the author is pointing to the research of a couple of non-conservative authors. It isn’t some mean, random idea pulled out of a hat. A victimhood mentality while simultaneously attempting to live as a moral busybody for the world is a recipe for humorlessness and misery. A lack of agency for sure. And the “righteous” causes are often so self-evidently true to the righteous “victims” (despite loads of facts to the contrary), that the only option they see (I imagine) is to continue to claim victimhood and/or try shutdown, dismiss, or cancel any opposing ideas, facts, and people. It’s graceless!

  6. Ian Kellogg says:

    Yes. But what do we mean by Grace and the Good News? Each week, I tried to preach that universal Grace means we are already saved, which implies, among other things, that we can strive with others for a society more in line with sacred values of love, compassion, equality, abundance, and joy but without attachment to the outcomes of that struggle.
    Today strikes me as a moment particularly in synch with the original Good News of Mark and Paul. Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in the Year 70 meant that illusory dreams of a new Christ (or Messiah, or King) like David were exposed, but which also allowed Paul to realize that the King or Christ could live within everyone (“I have been crucified with Christ; and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” Galatians 2:20). The crucifixion of Jesus (or Jehovah the Salvation) showed that dreams of a new tribal god like Jehovah were illusory but that a new universal God of Love was available to people of all backgrounds.
    We are already saved even as terrible events of social injustice — from climate disaster, to weapons of mass destruction, to the rise of anti-democratic misleaders — roil our hearts and minds. Jehovah’s Temple may be destroyed and David’s throne is still empty, but we are already saved. So, let’s go out there and fight for justice.

  7. Dustyn B says:

    Is there less, “what we should be doing” in consecutive churches?

    That’s not been my experience. They just tend to be more “holiness” and internal todos while liberal legalism tends to be geared more towards external.

    There is no “them”, there’s only us – and our hearts are inclined toward earning (it’s have everything else in the world works) and so we must be reminded of God’s grace and kindness without attaching application points to it other than to respond to Him and our neighbor out of the love we’ve experienced.

  8. Chris Timby says:

    This is so true. For many years I served and volunteered myself into every church activity, trying to get God’s attention with all my Johnny B Good church participation. And one day found myself burning out as if I was spinning on a hamster wheel. And then Christ broke out of the cage. Grace. Mercy. The stuff that truly sets us free. (Galatians 2:20)

  9. Jennifer Jensen says:

    Grace has no polarity. Jesus called us to go and make. The unironic naming of legalism as a “liberal” trait amuses, since the traditional appellation has been that progressive/liberal churches don’t categorize sin as sin. If pointing out the sin of injustice and inequity makes the hearer a victim, then offering the beauty of grace in the form of the Eucharist is the appropriate response. It is the favor of a Savior who pronounces your worth on a cross and incites hope standing before an empty grave. Our doing good in the world is receiving that grace and pouring it out on others. If that’s liberal, progressive, victimizing than so be it, because it is also proclaiming the Good News!

  10. Rev. Doug Moffat says:

    People need a Gospel where Christ isn’t another cheerleader, pundit, or good idea. A gospel that restores, that does not demand more stuff to do….
    “The Law says, ‘we got to’ – the Gospel says, ‘we get to’.” (+Rev. Dr. Robert H. Smith)

  11. Vivian Baker says:

    I do not like categories like “conservative” and “liberal.” We would be more together in our churches if we got rid of labels.

  12. F Rutledge says:

    I’ve spent a lifetime inveighing against “lettuce” sermons. I learned homiletics from a great man who insisted, “Don’t tell us, show us!” Put another way, don’t exhort us, empower us! With gospel power!
    Ian Kellogg and Dustyn B, above, have a good handle on this.
    Lesslie Newbigen always had the law/gospel balance right. The news of God’s prevenient grace calls forth an undiscriminating love for all of God’s unworthy creatures and an urgency to join in God’s work of new creation wherever we are planted.

  13. Chris K. says:

    I really identified with the teacher at the end of the article and I think it goes beyond also being an educator for 23 years. For about 5 years now, I just want to hear about the supremacy of the living Christ. I’m doing the best I can to follow after him and to partner with him. I just need a weekly reminder of his sufficiency and victory.

  14. Lara says:

    To those put off by the premise of liberal legalism leading to depression, please read Haidt’s stuff. Data is showing worse mental health for liberals, especially women. Haidt has some great exploration of why. As a liberal leaning woman, I see myself in it. This article does a great job asking how we these patterns might live in the church. Thanks for the challenge and invitation.

  15. LuLu says:

    Thank you for this edifying article. As a recovering addict who has just finished a hellish year of withdrawal/recovery,the very last thing I need on Sunday morning is pharisaic virtue signaling, moral brow-beating,or a political: ”I-care-so-you-must-do” list. I can’t/won’t attend the “religious social forum”ever again.Ever. Their “works-based- world-centered religion” is exhausting,life-draining,Christ-less and hopeless. Wow…kind of like addiction.

  16. Hey Lulu,
    Thanks for this. If you’re attending the late April MB conference in NY, let me know. I’d love to chat, hear more about your experience.

  17. LuLu says:

    Hey Tony,
    At this point,not planning on going anywhere,(except a “Gov’t Mule” concert in May!) Living life by the drop. Really appreciate your asking and I’m ready to share.

  18. Eliza Morrison says:

    I find this quote by Brother David Vryhof, Society of Saint John the Evangelist, very helpful:
    “Worship is an expression of love for God, but it does not remove the need for tangible acts of service that reflect God’s love, mercy and compassion. Love of God must always lead to love for our fellow human beings, and that love must always involve a deep concern for their well-being and an untiring advocacy for justice on their behalf.”

  19. Janell Downing says:

    The irony (and yes, damaging) evidence of those of us raised in the typical conservative Evangelical Church in 80s and 90s America, is that all the moralism and obsession with “keeping up good appearances for Jesus” seems to have crossed the aisle into more liberal progressive churches now. Us 90s Evangelical kids can smell it a mile away and are desperately seeking church bodies where we can rest and grow in the saving grace of God.

  20. […] The Cognitive Distortions of Legalistic Preaching by Anthony Robinson over at Mockingbird […]

  21. […] progressives, or even more specifically, young progressive Christians. Our own Anthony Robinson already explored some of that in his reflections on Haidt’s research. Instead, I wanted to explore the […]

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