Beliefs, Emotions, and Behavior – How Change Occurs

What best helps people change? Do we start with beliefs, emotions, or behavior? Do we emphasize one of the three or do we address them all? What do the professionals recommend? And what does God say?

People learning to counsel and comfort others are concerned that they “do it right.” They ask a lot of questions about where to focus and what to do. Where do I start? What should I emphasize? What helps? What triggers change? They try to figure out if they should address the seeker’s beliefs or empathize with their emotions or focus on their behavior. Let’s explore these questions.

What about Beliefs?
Some counselors, whether lay or professional, explore our beliefs; they focus on what goes on in our minds. Adherents of this view say that if we change our beliefs, our emotions and behavior will follow suit. They’re on the right track – what we believe profoundly impacts both our emotions and our activity. Eve is a prime example. She believed God was holding out on her, felt deprived, and then ate the forbidden fruit. Her beliefs directed her emotions and her behavior (albeit in a disastrous direction).

Notice that I pointed your attention to “beliefs,” not to “thoughts.” The two words differ in intensity. While we can focus on a particular thought so frequently that we start believing it’s true, thoughts typically are more casual and fleeting. They tend to have less power. But beliefs? Beliefs are consistent strongly-held convictions that profoundly shape the way we live. Personal change results from such deeply held beliefs, not from casual thoughts.

Clearly what we think is important. But it’s what we believe that gets us off our duffs and willing to step out. I can think about whether I have something worthwhile to say, but I won’t have the courage to say it publicly until I actually believe my message has value. It’s not just me. Had Eve believed that God would never hold out on her, she would not have taken that first bite of fruit.

What about Emotions?
Other counselors focus on emotions. They correctly point out the impact of emotions on both our beliefs and our behavior. We know this territory: if we’re angry at someone we’re apt to believe that they’re angry at us and behave accordingly; an anxious child easily categorizes a visitor to their home as a threat and runs to their room. It works positively too: love does cover a multitude of sins. Emotions clearly influence both our perceptions of reality and our choices about how to respond.

The danger here, of course, is that emotions (like behavior or beliefs) may or may not reflect reality. Emotions let us know that we’re reacting to something, but they don’t tell us whether we’re reacting to something real or something illusory. An athlete’s confidence in his worth to the team may be accurate or way off base. Eve again provides an example: her feeling of deprivation intensified her belief that God wasn’t coming through for her.

What about Behavior?
Still others focus on behavior. Most religious groups, the average boss, and virtually all of the military services stress that we must do what is necessary whether or not we feel like it. They have a point. Just doing something may indeed change how we feel: exercise can ease our depression; when we accomplish something we once feared we do feel a surge of pleasure. (I wonder if Eve felt that heady pleasure when she handed Adam the fruit.)

Both theorists and therapists have explored the power of behavioral change. One approach, DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy), proposes that changes in our behavior will produce changes in our emotions. I’m sure you’ve noticed how your own behavior affects your feelings: you lie and feel guilty; you tell the truth and calm down. Another approach, Activity Theory, proposes that changes in our behavior will produce changes in our thinking. We’ve all experienced this: when we do a job well we generally think ourselves more capable.

Those who focus on behavior are often inclined to distrust feelings. They need to take care. While feelings may not reflect reality, neither may behavior.

A Broader Focus
Instead of trying to choose between beliefs, emotions, and behavior, I suggest a broader focus – include all three. That’s what the Bible does. Timothy refers to those who believe and know the truth (1 Timothy 4:3). Moses includes both emotions and behaviors when he instructs us to fear and love the Lord as well as to walk in His ways and serve Him (Deuteronomy 10:12). Jesus tells a rich man to take an action (go and sell all he had). Why? Because that behavior would make him aware of his heart (Mark 10:17-23).

Choosing a single focus (and excluding the others) doesn’t reflect the Bible’s approach. That’s clear. But we still have to talk about something. Is there a good place to start?

Where Do We Start?
That depends. We won’t know if we’ve made a helpful choice until we try something out and watch carefully to see if it clicks. We can start with the other person’s beliefs or their emotions or their behavior – it doesn’t matter, because each will unveil the other two. Why is that so? Because all three reveal the person’s inner focus.

The relationship between belief, emotions, and behavior isn’t rigid, but fluid and interactive. The three are intertwined. Each element not only unveils the others but also influences the others. Think of a dance troupe – the timing of each dancer’s movement synchronizes with the moves of the other dancers. Think of a family – a change in any one member impacts the rest.

There is no universal “best place to start,” no programmed sequence to follow. It depends on what the person offers us. It also depends on how they respond to our input. Instead of trying to master “the correct sequence,” we need to pay attention to the other person and watch the flow of our interaction. Do we start with beliefs, emotions, or behavior? The Spirit will direct our path. There is no “best place to start.”

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not de-emphasizing the importance of beliefs – that would be contradicting scripture. I just don’t want you to think that you must start with beliefs. For some people, beliefs will not give you access to their heart. For them, another door may provide a better entrance. Fine. Go through the door that more easily opens. Stop trying to kick down doors the person has nailed shut. And if you can’t find an open door, search for an available window.

How Do We Proceed?
Just as there is no best place to start, there is no “best sequence to follow.” Again, as with our start, we proceed with a fluid approach that discerns repetitive patterns and notices themes only hinted at by what we see at first glance.

Certain things must be included: we must address behavior, we must be present with emotions, and we must identify beliefs. But not necessarily in that order. Explore. Notice. Expose. But do it fluidly. You may have heard that timeworn analogy about trains: Beliefs are like the engine; put the engine on the right track and your emotions and behavior will follow. I dislike that analogy, partly because it sounds so mechanistic and impersonal and partly because it’s misleading.

While beliefs do set the course for emotions and behavior, there’s more to the picture. Sometimes behavior moves into the foreground and shapes beliefs and emotions. Sometimes emotions move to the front and shape behavior and beliefs. That “engine” may still look like an engine, but it doesn’t always appear in the same position. Sometimes it moves from the front to the middle. Sometimes it moves to the end. We’re dealing with a dance, not a parade.

I’m not saying that what we believe isn’t crucial – it is. If we address only emotions and behavior and fail to bring beliefs to the light, we’re going to get nowhere. We must identify beliefs; we just mustn’t always put them on center-stage.

And, while we must include beliefs, emotions, behavior, we can’t stop there. Our help is incomplete until we teach people two essential skills: how to evaluate and where to focus. Let me explain.

Essential Skill #1: Learning to Evaluate Change
Remember my earlier warning that beliefs, emotions, and behavior, may not reflect reality. All three are crucial, but none of them are dependable. We each can talk ourselves into believing just about anything if we tell it to ourselves enough times. Habitual dubious behavior eventually does start to justify itself. And just because we feel something doesn’t make it true. It’s quite possible to help a person explore their beliefs, recognize their feelings, and identify their behavior, and still have left them out of touch with reality. Until they learn how to evaluate their beliefs, emotions, and behavior they will make random, and very possibly, useless changes.

Change (in and of itself) has no value. Why? Because it is quite possible to change for the worse. Our error might be obvious, or it might be more subtle – some good-looking changes only mask a bad-intentioned heart. Change per se doesn’t promise an escape from misery. Only good change, deep godly change, provides a cure. All other change simply puts bandages on gangrene.

How do we identify good change? That’s where the skill of evaluation comes in. A person must evaluate whether their beliefs, emotions, and behavior match the reality that God has made. Confusion won’t ease until our beliefs agree with what God believes. Despair won’t yield until our emotions match God’s heart. Damaging consequences won’t go away until our behavior meshes with His intent. We have the privilege of teaching people to make these evaluations. They must learn to ask themselves questions: Is this belief what God believes? Is this feeling how God reacts? Is this choice what God would do? They need to know if they’re making good changes.

Good changes reflect reality. We need reality. Said another way, we need truth. So did Pilate. Rather than asking Jesus What is truth?, Pilate should have asked Jesus how he could get in contact with truth. Actually, Pilate should have known that truth was standing right in front of him. We each have the same opportunity – truth is standing right in front of us all. Truth is Jesus. Good change moves us to become like Him.

But a quick glance at Jesus is not enough. We need to look at Him intently and consistently until He changes our hearts.

Essential Skill #2: Learning Where to Focus
John tells us (1 John 3:2) that when we see Jesus we will be like Him, because we will see Him as He really is. I used to think we had to wait until heaven before could see Jesus, but I was wrong. We do get to see Him in the here and now – more dimly than when we meet face-to-face, but still plainly enough to get to know Him well.

But how do we see Him now? We no longer have the chance to stand next to Him and check out the length of His beard. But don’t despair. God has left us with something we can see: the Bible. Its words reveal Jesus (John 5:39). As we contemplate its words, Jesus comes into focus. We learn about His beliefs, emotions, and behavior. We see His heart. As it turns out, we actually can see Jesus now, perhaps not entirely clearly, but clearly enough. Clearly enough to participate in the changes that will make us like Him.

Focus on Jesus is our part of becoming like Him. As we contemplate Him, He will shine a light on everything else. The truth about our character and the reality of how we live will become startlingly clear. We need this clarity. But our gaze, however intense, will do nothing for us unless the Lord in His mercy opens our eyes, softens our hearts, and puts in us a yearning to surrender to Him. Transformation turns out to be a collaborative process. We focus … and God changes us. We draw near to gaze at Him … and He moves truth from our heads into our hearts.

Look one last time at Eve’s scenario. Her belief that God was holding out on her didn’t come out of nowhere. Her belief arose from her focus on the forbidden. Had she focused on God and His very present gifts, she would have felt no need to disobey. The same is true for each of us. Teach those you counsel to focus on Jesus. That’s the point of your spending time with them.

A Final Question
Earlier I asked, “Where do we start?” Now we come to another question, “When are we finished?” We aren’t finished until we’ve helped the other person enter into the lifelong process of evaluation and contemplation. They must know how to evaluate the accuracy of their beliefs, emotions, and behavior, and they must know how to fix their gaze on Jesus.

That’s when we’re finished. But God is not finished. As people gaze at Jesus, the Spirit will woo them to surrender their beliefs, emotions, and behavior to the will of God. He’ll tell them what is true. He’ll open their eyes to Jesus. He’ll lead them to pray: Lord have mercy on me. Teach me to trust you and open wide to your presence. Move me to surrender to your will. Make me like Jesus.

Sometimes we have the privilege of seeing their surrender. Sometimes we get to watch the transformation as they become more and more like Jesus. At those times – such privileged times – we get to share in the joy.

Beliefs, Emotions, and Behavior – How Change Occurs
© Lynne Fox, 2013

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