Human behavior – more complex than most realize

Why do people continue in behavior that is notorious for the misery it brings on them?

  • Why does the addict return to his drugs or gambling?
  • Why does the abuser return to his violence?
  • Why do the abused remain in abusive relationships?
  • Why do the depressed remain in cycles of depression?

There are often deeply complex reasons for why people do what they do. The reason for this is that we are complex beings. Physical, psychological, social and spiritual dimensions of life must be considered when understanding human behavior. Any one of these dimensions can profoundly effect the others.

Those with emotional challenges like extreme depression or unmanageable anger should at least consider physical causes for their behavior (particularly neurological). Those who battle impulsivity might also consider physical sources. Adults who had been significantly deprived of certain elements of nurture during childhood often react with harmful behavior as adults.

“When one observes the rifts and scars of children whose parents took turns slapping, deriding, ignoring, bullying, or, sometimes worse, simply abandoning them; when one observes the wholesale life mismanagement of grown-ups who have lived for years in the shadow of their bereft childhood and who have attempted with one addictor after another to fill up those empty places where love should have settled, only to discover that their addictor keeps enlarging the very void it was meant to fill — when one knows people of this kind and observes their largely predictable character pathology, one hesitates to call all this chaos sin. The label sounds smug and impertinent. In such cases, we want to appeal to some broader category, perhaps the category of tragedy” (Cornelius Plantinga Jr., Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be).

‘Tragedy’, however, “implies the fall of someone who is responsible and significant. It refers to someone whose significance has been ‘compromised and crushed by a mix of forces, including personal agency, that work together for evil in a way that seems simultaneously surprising and predictable, preventable and inevitable.’ A tragic figure is, in some intricate combination, both weak and willful, both foolish and guilty.”

It is important, in most cases, to treat people as if they have a full line of moral credit; as those who can accept and pay for their debts.

“In general we ought to pay evildoers, including ourselves, the ‘intolerable compliment’ of taking them seriously as moral agents, of holding them accountable for their wrongdoing.”

“This is a mark of our respect for their dignity and weight as human beings. After all, what could be more arrogant than treating other persons as if they were no more responsible than tiny children or the mentally maimed? What could be more patronizing than the refusal to blame people for their wrongdoing and to praise them for their right doing and to ground this refusal in our assumption that these people have not caused their own acts or had a hand in forming their own character?” (Plantinga).

When helping people understand their behavior, it is useful to consider all dimensions of existence. Consideration of a person’s past, for example, might provide a better understanding of her present behavior. Such information should not be used to excuse present actions but to understand contributing factors. The only thing we can change about the past is how we allow it to affect us in the future.

“Remarkably enough, at the end of the day, it might not matter very much how we classify damaging behavior. Whether these behaviors amount to sin or symptom, the prescription for dealing with them may turn out to be just about the same. “Nobody,” for example, “is more insistent than Alcoholics Anonymous that alcoholism is a disease; nobody is more insistent than A.A. on the need for the alcoholic to take full responsibility for his disease and deal with it in brutal candor” (Plantinga).

In the spiritual dimension, since God has made provision for forgiveness of sins, it is important for us to confess our sins—to avoid excuses and accept responsibility for our behavior. Scripture says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9).

Ultimately, evil and damaging behavior traces back to what is called the fall of humanity (Genesis 3). This fall records the first act of human rebellion against God and the adverse effects it brings on all dimensions of human existence:

  1. Physiological: death, decay, sickness and suffering.
  2. Psychological: shame, guilt and fear.
  3. Sociological: blame shifting and alienation.
  4. Ecological: ground is cursed, thorns and thistles.
  5. Spiritual: hiding from God.
  6. Epistemological: distorted thinking, spiritual blindness.
  7. Criminal: murder (see: Genesis 4).

Our first need is to be forgiven by our Creator and restored to fellowship with Him (see: I Timothy 2:3-6). When this happens, it becomes the starting point for breaking cycles of destructive behavior.

Steve Cornell

One comment on “Human behavior – more complex than most realize

  1. Mimi says:

    Good stuff…

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