False Righteousness and Reaction Formations

The Wikipedia entry on reaction formation describes something that is of great significance for preaching, teaching, personal ministry and counseling:

" . . . reaction formation is a defensive process (defense mechanism) in which anxiety-producing or unacceptable emotions and impulses are mastered by exaggeration (hypertrophy) of the directly opposing tendency . . . Where reaction-formation takes place, it is usually assumed that the original, rejected impulse does not vanish, but persists, unconscious, in its original infantile form.Thus, where love is experienced as a reaction formation against hate, we cannot say that love is substituted for hate, because the original aggressive feelings still exist underneath the affectionate exterior that merely masks the hate to hide it from awareness. . . . In a diagnostic setting, the existence of a reaction-formation rather than a ‘simple’ emotion would be suspected where exaggeration, compulsiveness and inflexibility were observed."

I can’t remember which Christian psychiatrist I read many years ago who first brought this term to my attention, but I think that he wrote, and I would agree, that this is a very good explanation of what is happening in the lives of believers who are trying to deal with their problems in an unscriptural manner. Their reaction to a display of or even a series of incidents which displayed their character flaws is to try to be the opposite, in a highly exaggerated fashion.

In scriptural language, the behaviors described as ‘reaction formation’ would be a way in which believers can try to ‘cover their sins’ (Proverbs 28:13) rather than do the work in the heart necessary to purify both the heart and the outward behavior. They try to become something that they are not rather than to deal with the sinful thoughts, desires, attitudes, words and deeds at their roots inside their hearts. They are trying to show others that they are not what they have demonstrated themselves to be, often in order to preserve and perhaps even try to enhance their reputations. Usually this becomes a case of trying to display opposite behaviors to what was previously displayed.

In many cases it’s easy to see how a repetition of second hand formulas and catchphrases – what has been called formula driven Christianity – can be in fact ‘reaction formations’. I think that this often explains why someone in church drops a catchphrase or formula to someone going through a difficult time and then runs away – not only is that person saying something that seems spiritual, but the formula is part of the behavior that that person has taken on to avoid having to face his or her own pain and deal with his or her own heart and unresolved sins, disappointments and difficulties. Even more, I think that this kind of behavior would also be characteristic of the proud heart – the person who has a higher estimate of himself or herself than his or her behavior would warrant, and that person would again put on an exaggerated effort to try to present himself or herself as different than the person that he or she has displayed before others.

I venture that this is the kind of thing that Isaiah wrote about: “ . . . all our righteous deeds are like filthy rags . . . “ (Isaiah 64:6). This also looks a lot like what Jesus, the infallible diagnostician of human nature, saw in the lives of the religious leaders of his day: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside” (Matthew 23:25-26; the whole chapter is worth pondering in the light of what Jesus said).

Charles Finney did call this ‘the religion of the legalist’ and wrote about this tendency like so: “The religion of the legalist is one of resolutions. He resolves to serve the Lord. He makes up his mind, as he says. He gets the idea that to serve the Lord is to go to work–to pray in his family–to attend meetings–to visit, and talk, and bustle about, and do the work of the Lord, as he calls it–and this with a perfectly legal spirit, with none of that love, gentleness, meekness, long-suffering, and those fruits of the Spirit which characterize true Christianity.”

All scripture references taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION, copyright 1973, 1978 by the International Bible Society and used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

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