Have you given up anything for Lent? Sweets or sodas? Or did you take on something new—like a spiritual practice or a volunteering opportunity? Whatever you did, you outdid me.
I’m definitely below average when it comes to Lent. I am not one to give up something (although my 9-year-old wants me to follow her lead and give up my daily Diet Dr. Pepper) or to begin a new spiritual discipline. But a question by a pastor friend has gotten me thinking about a new practice.
This pastor is in the middle of a Lenten series looking at Celtic Christianity and is wrestling with the Celtic idea that creation is inherently good, even after the Fall. “How can that be?” questioned this Reformed pastor given what we see around us, especially natural evil and sinful acts “both conscious and unconscious.” It was that last part—unconscious sin—or what psychologists often refer to as cognitive bias that grabbed my attention.
Cognitive bias reveals the patterns and motives behind much of our mind’s inner workings. We all have biases and few of them work for the common good. So as a result of that one question, this Lent, I am now considering the practice of illuminating my own cognitive biases.
Cataloguing our biases
You largely trust your own mind, right? It is a source of reliable knowledge, except, maybe for those moments you can’t remember where you left your keys. Well, psychology tells a very different story. There are dozens of biases that impact how reasonably, or accurately, or unselfishly our minds function.
Why do we have these biases? Several reasons. First, our minds can’t process all of the information taken in by our senses, so it creates mental shortcuts. These can either be innocuous or harmful, depending on how our brains absorb and process certain information. There is also the issue of what we should remember—again, our minds have mechanisms to determine what we remember and what we forget. This can be sinful when, for instance, a stereotype impacts how we think about or treat people. Thirdly, we often need to act fast—we can’t expend the time or mental energy to accurately process all the information available to us in order to react. So again, our mind has mental short-cuts to help us avoid decision paralysis, but those shortcuts are often biased, and won’t always lead us to a godly decision.
The final reason is that we are a meaning-making species—and that meaning-making often manifests itself in religion and faith. Our minds pursue narratives that give us meaning and purpose. But much of the information we process is narrative-less, so our minds find patterns, or utilize generalities, or simplify things, or make them familiar with what we know or connect them to past experiences. We are good at creating narrative—or adopting the narratives of others, even when they may lead us to act in very unchristian ways.
Learning and understanding more about cognitive bias can give you plenty of illustrations for your next lesson or sermon. It can also give you a humbling perspective on the nature of our minds. Spend some time on Wikipedia (or this companion piece) for a relatively quick primer on the subject.
How to connect this to ministry and/or Scripture? Here are a few ideas:
- The Lake Wobegon effect (or illusory superiority) suggests all of us believe we are above average and we all underestimate our undesirable qualities. Compare that with verses like Matthew 20:16 (“the last will be first”), Luke 9:48 (“the least among all of you is the greatest”), or 1 Corinthians 1:26-31 (“God chose what is foolish/weak/low/despised”). Perhaps more apropos for Lent, how do we confess our shortcomings when we always underestimate them?
- The negativity bias raises its ugly head everywhere: It’s harder to focus on the good things when bad things are happening. How do we proclaim hope when we tend to dwell on bad stuff?
- Business Insider has a helpful chart that shows how biases affect decision-making. How do we help our ministry’s leaders to overcome them?
We could go on, but you get the point.
- You might need this visual to make sense of all those cognitive biases.
- Or perhaps to take in all these biases, you’ll want some organizing principles.
- A bias toward optimism is not necessarily a bad thing.
- The confirmation bias runs deep in all of us, and seems to have little impact on truth.
- A Christian psychologist reflects on bias and humility.
- What do we do about “confirmation bias Christians”?
Fallen Image Bearers
So what about my pastor friend’s Lenten quest? Are humans, like the rest of nature, fundamentally good as suggested in Celtic Christianity—even after the Fall? Or are we misguided to our core, capable of tripping up both intentionally and unintentionally?
Well, as is often the case in faith and science themes, I think the answer is complicated and probably a bit of both. I believe humans (and perhaps all of nature) are image-bearers of the goodness of God. I also believe we are fallen (and these biases show how our fallenness has taken root in our minds).
So what do we do? Well, we can utilize the science to identify the places we fall short of the glory of God. This science is relevant to ministry shedding light on ourselves and all of those involved in our ministries.
It also calls on some Lenten discipline—asking the Spirit to illuminate our biases and confess them to God. So I’m going to start here:
Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, in spite of my biases that work against You … and forgive me my biases as I forgive the biases of others …