What’s Your God Like?

Brad M. Griffin | Jul 29, 2011

As it turns out, when we think of God as vengeful we tend to be more honest.

This article summarizes preliminary research by University of Oregon psychologist Azim Shariff and others into the role of religion in moral behavior. According to Shariff:

[R]eligious beliefs do have an effect on moral behavior, but what matters more than whether you believe in a god is what kind of god you believe in There is a relationship: Believing in a mean god, a punishing one, does contribute to non-cheating behavior. Believing in a loving, forgiving god seems to have an opposite effect.

In other words, while folks who believe in Godwhen taken as a whole groupare no more moral in their actions than people who dont believe in God, if you split out believers by how they view God things look different. According to this split, if God is angry and vengeful, youre less likely to cheat and more likely (presumably by extension) to follow other moral codes. If God is loving and kind, the stakes of sin are lower.

Now, there are a number of theological problems with this whole thing, not the least of which is the Bibles emphasis on Gods grace and the centrality of Christs work (not our own) to put us in right relationship with God. But on the level of spiritual formation, this gets complicated.

Most of us who care about teenagers want them to make good moral decisions. We want them to honor God not just with their lips, but with their lives and everyday choices. We believe weve been created to flourish when we live within the bounds of Gods intent for our behavior. On the other hand, we dont want to present a God of wrath in order to accomplish that goal. Nor do we believe that goal is, in and of itself, the primary goal of the Christ-following life.

So many youth workers and parents alike find themselves vacillating between pushing Gods grace as the key to faith, and our good behavior as the key to living out that faith. As if the two can be separated. Clearly college students (the subjects of this study) who see God as loving are good at separating faith and behavior in their heads and with their actions. Its only those who view God less favorably who chose not to cheat.

Part of what may be at the center of this disconnect is the lack of integration between grace-filled, God-loving-us faith and everyday life. Our Sticky Faith research suggests this same disconnect is often alive and well among youth group graduates. It also suggests that how we view God is really importantand those who view God as loving, supportive, and close are much more likely to keep their faith in college than those who do not (even if they do cheat). Also in our study, students with this kind of view of God were less likely to engage in risk-behaviors related to sex and alcohol. So while we didn’t assess likelihood of cheating, these findings could suggest a different picture.

Perhaps our job is to continue to point to the Jesus who is in the middle of everyday life, who sees us in our sin and loves us, and who through the Holy Spirit stays present to us as an advocate in the midst of our moral and spiritual struggles. In fact, perhaps both groups need a whole new view of God.

What do you think?

Brad M. Griffin

Brad M. Griffin is the Senior Director of Content for the Fuller Youth Institute, where he develops research-based training for youth workers and parents. A speaker, writer, and volunteer youth pastor, Brad is the coauthor of over a dozen books, including 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager, Faith in an Anxious World, Growing Young, several Sticky Faith books, Every Parent’s Guide to Navigating Our Digital World, and Can I Ask That? Brad and his family live in Southern California, where he serves as Pastor of Youth and Family Ministries at Mountainside Communion.

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