Religious Systematic Desensitization

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Back in General Psych 101 you probably remember the term “Systematic Desensitization.” This is a treatment used for phobias where you take that person and slowly introduce them to their phobia first at a great distance and then closer and closer until they realize they aren’t really afraid of it anymore. You can’t just put the object of someone’s phobia in the room with them (this can range from fear of dirty things to balloons to clowns, you name it) and expect them to touch it. But you can put them in the room with it and session by session get them a little closer each time until they are able to actually touch whatever it is that they are afraid of.

How does this apply to religion? Repetition and closer proximity bring a sense of ease and a loss of fear. For many people their initial feelings toward God may be great anxiety and fear. But over time, and fortunately so, we grow closer to God and the fear is replaced with love. That is a great thing and is scriptural and healthy. 1 John 4:18 says, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect love.”

The flip side is that this can also work against us. We can become so comfortable with God that we lose all sense of fear, all sense of wonder and all sense of reverence. The result can be an empty religion that is just going through the motions rather than offering ourselves as living sacrifices because of our love for God. Another thing that can happen is a total disregard for God. We come to worship week in and week out, sing the same songs, take the Lord’s Supper, hear a sermon, pray prayers (all good things, by the way) and the extraordinary can become ritual and routine rather than heartfelt and sincere.

In Ezekiel 23:36-39 we find out that God’s people had made his temple so routine and common that they committed idolatry and even sacrificed their children as food. Surely those aren’t church going types right? Wrong. The very next verse says, “They have also done this to me: At that same time they defiled my sanctuary and desecrated my Sabbaths. 39 On the very day they sacrificed their children to their idols, they entered my sanctuary and desecrated it. That is what they did in my house.” Wow! The temple was supposed to represent the very presence of God on earth. It was holy. It was to be used for God’s purposes and they were committing atrocities in it!

How does that happen? This doesn’t happen in a day. You don’t go from respecting and loving God to committing lewd acts in his sanctuary in a day. We are lulled into it. It becomes ordinary. Worshipping God becomes common and every day rather than special, meaningful, and from the heart. Obviously we aren’t murdering people in church today but is it possible to have the same attitude of disrespecting, misusing and abusing things God intended for good and twisting them into evil things?

Do we murder people with our anger (Matthew 5:22) and then walk into church and praise God as if everything is somehow alright?

Do we commit adultery with our lust (Matthew 5:27-28) and then sing songs of praise moments later or even at the same time and expect God to be pleased?

How do we see that today and what temptations do we face that, while not as extreme in being carried out, have the same root cause as the people in Ezekiel’s day?

Maybe the solution is to regain a healthy respect for God and find the balance that is needed between unconditional, all out and extraordinary love for Him and a sense of awe and wonder that keep our experiences with God through our life and worship fresh and pure.

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