Knowing What You Know

Knowing What You Know

Far too often the American conservative church has not been very helpful when it comes to teaching people how to be adults. Let me explain.

When you are a child you do not have an internal locus of control. Your primary caretaker, most often your mother, is God, and is in control of your entire universe. Her face reflects what it means to be human. Her touch brings safety and assurance. Eventually she brings self-assurance to you, as you begin to discern you are a separate being. That self-assurance is tenuous without three basic elements in place.

First, your parents must be able to set aside their own needs to focus on yours. Second, they must make sure you feel safe. Third, they must provide you with a sense of self-worth. These are the basic building blocks of a healthy ego. But note that the locus of control remains external. Someone else is in charge of your life.

One of the main jobs of parents is to lead their children to mature adulthood. That means teaching them to accept responsibility for their own actions. It means teaching them the necessity of honesty in interactions with themselves and others. It is helping them learn to delay gratification. And good parenting demands that we help our children differentiate from us and create their own maps with which to navigate through life.

That last job means we must help our children transfer from an external locus of control (mom and dad) to an internal locus of control (the maturing child.) It is the most frightening part of parenting, because it is a process fraught with peril. In fact it is so frightening that many parents abdicate their responsibility and encourage their children to continue with an external locus of control.

In extremely unhealthy families, this means parents who try to remain the primary figure in the lives of their children. (Think the mother in Everybody Love’s Raymond.) But far more frequently it means transferring the locus of control from one external source (mom and dad) to another external source, the tribe. Often that tribe is a religion. Sometimes it is a cult. And sometimes telling the difference is difficult.

The problem is in the transfer from one external locus of control to another. The parental job is not to replace biological parents with tribal parents. It is to replace biological parents with a fully differentiated, individuated person. It is to help the child transfer from an external locus of control to an internal locus of control.

An internal locus of control does not negate the desire for a tribe. We are a tribal species. It is baked into our DNA to want to be a part of something larger than ourselves. But when we begin to violate a healthy conscience by adherence to the strictures of an external locus of control, it is not a sign of health.

Let me use an example that is not uncommon in our current environment. Suppose you have friends or family who are gay, and in your everyday interaction it is fairly clear that these are normal humans, roughly as healthy as you. With a healthy internal locus of control, you are empowered to decide that this is a safe person.  You have within yourself the capacity to make these determinations. An internal locus of control means you have learned to trust your instincts, and your internal common sense.

If, on the other hand, you have an external locus of control that tells you homosexuality is an abomination to God, you reject your instincts and internal common sense. Even though you do not find any other reason to reject this person, you nevertheless reject them because you have given away the power to make those determinations. You have maintained an external locus of control, in this case, a religious body.

There was a time when I believed women should not preach, nor should Christians be in gay relationships. Nothing in my personal experience said these were bad things. In fact, to the contrary, I found women preached with a perspective not available to men. And I had gay friends who were extraordinary humans, far more Christ-like than I was. But my adherence to an external locus of control caused me to reject what my heart, mind and soul was telling me.

I have since realized when my understanding of Scripture causes me to reject what my heart, mind and soul are telling me, the problem is not with my heart, mind and soul. It is with my understanding of Scripture.  The problem is that I have made my heart, mind and soul subservient to my tribe.  When your tribe’s interpretation of Scripture violates your own conscience, the question you should ask yourself is why you have opted for an external locus of control.

For religious people, the answer is often that we have been taught that our bodies are evil and not to be trusted. Our sin causes us to deceive ourselves. Since we cannot trust ourselves, we must submit to an external power. Of course, this is great news for the tribe. It guarantees its ongoing existence. If the tribe can make us afraid of our own conscience and common sense, it can maintain the control necessary to remain in power.

It is interesting that when people talk about our sinful proclivities, they often quote the writings of the Apostle Paul. But when I look at the writings of Paul, particularly in his letter to the church at Rome, I find Paul more concerned about the sin that encompasses us when tribal rule takes over than the sin zipped up inside our own beings.

It seems to me that the greatest evil done in the world is done when we are confidently acting within our tribe. Only then do we throw away personal conscience and common sense. That is how we got the Holocaust, or for that matter, Charlottesville. That is what happens when one maintains an external, instead of an internal, locus of control.

It is frightening to have to trust your own soul. It means you are free, and freedom is terrifying. But here is the thing.  We are made in the image of God.  We can trust our basic construction. We all need the guidance of a tribe from time to time, but when you are constructed in God’s image, your internal locus of control, if you are willing to trust it, will reliably lead you in the direction of the truth.  The question is whether or not you will trust it.


10 thoughts on “Knowing What You Know

  1. Once I realized transgender is “real” and there are people who were one sex then became another, I was fascinated! WOW! now we (males and females) can learn so much and then we can understand and be better for it . To me this was “GOOD”…..well, seems the “tribe” had another opinion. Your post is so helpful, articulate and appreciated. In fact, you are the first transgender (male to female) that has presented the reality in a way that is so caring, informative, and giving….you have taken you gift and made the “tribe” better off…..I know it’s not easy for you…pioneers do all the hard work….I LOVE who you are and am so grateful!!

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  2. Help me understand, Paula. If the internal locus of control is God, can’t anyone simply decide what/who their God is? Does the tribe that you are a part of now speak to your interpretation of scripture? Or, is that an individual choice? What makes the locus of the new tribe that you are a part of more acceptable than the previous tribe (which I am a part of)? Aren’t there simply different interpretations of scripture? I know that you know I’m not an attacker, I’m just trying to learn.


    • Brad, these are good questions. I hope I can provide meaningful answers. There have always been two kinds of followers of God. One group is made up of those who are unquestionably obedient. They have an external locus of control. They believe and do whatever the tribe says they should do, because they do not feel empowered to question the teachings of the tribe. There are also those who are faithful questioners, working from an internal locus of control. They choose to be a part of the tribe, but they have no problem questioning the conclusions of the tribe when those conclusions do not square with their own conscience or their own understanding of Scripture. We find both groups active throughout both the Old and New Testaments. Interestingly, Jesus quoted a lot from the faithful questioners, and not so much from the unquestionably obedient. (See Derek Flood’s book, Disarming Scripture for more on this.)

      I have been working from an internal locus of control for a long time. I also chose to be a part of a particular tribe. When my conscience led me to conclusions on LGBTQ issues that differed from my tribe, I had to decide whether to remain or leave. Initially I remained, believing I could bring about change from within. Had I not transitioned, or had I been given a chance to remain within my tribe (which I was not,) I could not have remained within the tribe for long. My conscience would no longer have allowed me to remain silent on the subject. My own conscience would have caused me to change tribes. When one trusts one’s internal locus of control, the person has the strength to stand in opposition to, or leave a tribe. Their sense of approval does not come from an external source, but from an internal source.

      Let me use one more example. There was a time when the church taught that cultural accommodation of slavery was acceptable, because the Bible seemed to tolerate it. But people with an internal locus of control came to trust their intuition enough to question that. Their conscience told them that enslaving people is never acceptable. That caused them to challenge the teaching of the church on the subject until slowly, but surely, the entire Christian world changed its view on the subject, even though the Bible apparently had accommodated it. At the same time that was happening there was an entire other world of Christians who were not questioning the slavery that had been handed to them, or the white supremacy that accompanied it. They were people who had committed to an external locus of control, the church as it then existed, whether it made sense to them personally or not.

      I hope that is helpful.

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      • I am so moved after watching your video talk and reading your articles. My pastor is Bruxy Cavey and he is great, an amazing teacher. But your insights about control have deeply affected me to tears. I have always felt that God’s love was very different from what most people think, and not restricted to the confines of Scripture. Like Aslan, very good but not tame.

        Wow. Thank you for being such a blessing.

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  3. WOW! Paula! I was just watching some Ted Talks and came across yours, “I’ve lives as a man and a woman….”. I have to say, I’ve seen some marvelous TTs, but yours has been the best, by far. It was impressive because you weren’t blaming men (which seems to be the all the rage lately) and didn’t accuse, you simply showed both sides of the coin having lived both sides.
    You talked mostly about the difficulties of being a woman, but I’m wondering if there are things that were harder as a man for you? (Like having to wonder if you should pick up the check? haha)


    • Thanks for your kind words, Jill. Yeah, for me there was a lot harder about being a man, because it never felt natural. The hardest part was navigating the land mines of male work relationships. I always preferred working with women.


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