Clicker Training and Formula Faith


What I have wanted to discuss is the idea of feeling abandoned by God.  I have certainly felt this way.  For many people of faith, when something goes wrong in their lives, the first response is, “Why? Why did God let this happen? Where is He now? I feel so forsaken.”  I think that’s a very natural response.  People want to know why.  Then there is the next question: “What kind of God would let something like this happen?” We move from asking to judging. That’s also a very human response.  It doesn’t help us suffer well, does it? It doesn’t empower us.  We don’t actually rise above circumstances or learn anything from these questions.  We just spin our wheels, get mired down in our pain, and stop moving forward.

What if there were a better way?

I started thinking about behaviorism while I was thinking about how people experience God and their faith.  Having grown up in a religious environment exposed to many different denominations, I’ve observed that most denominations teach essentially the same thing–be a good person by following the rules and perform good deeds.  If you do this faithfully, then your devotion to God as displayed through your faithfulness should protect you from suffering.  It’s “formula faith”.  If I do x and y with as much commitment as I can, then God has to do z.

I see this when people tithe.  I know a woman who faithfully tithes (gives 10% of her gross income).  She lost her job, but she continued to tithe even though she couldn’t pay her mortgage.  She began tithing out of her 401K.  She tithed from her children’s savings accounts.  She said in desperation to me one evening, “I don’t understand it.  I tithe, and yet God won’t provide for me.  Isn’t He supposed to do that? I have next to nothing.  My children’s bank accounts are almost empty.”  She tithed–performed x.  Wasn’t God obligated then to do His part? He had to fill in the other variable.  This is what we’re taught.  I’ve heard that message at almost every church I’ve ever attended.  What happens if you don’t tithe? Uh…no one knows.  People are too afraid not to! And there’s your clue that something is not right–the fear.

Let me talk about my dog to illustrate my point.  I had an Australian Shepherd, Rally.  Rally died from a brain tumor almost two years ago.  She was incredibly intelligent.  I could train her to do just about anything.  Before she died I was training her to play dead.  When I wanted to teach Rally a new skill, I used a clicker.  And Rally was bonded to me.  She went everywhere that I went.  Aussies are not like retrievers.  They don’t live to please.  They are working dogs.  They work for something in return.  Rally worked for food and affection from me.  People aren’t so different from Aussies.  We are smart, resourceful, willful, stubborn, and want it our own way.  So do Aussies.  We also need companionship and something to do lest we become destructive.  So do Aussies.  When it came time for training it was key that I know her disposition.  Rally may have been stubborn and willful, but she was terribly sensitive.  She would never have responded well to negative reinforcement so I could only use positive reinforcement.

What does this look like?

When you teach a dog a new skill, it’s best to let them figure it out.  When I stood in front of Rally, my hands in front of me, clicker in hand, she knew it was time to work.  As a working dog, she got excited.  She would, therefore, show me all her skills right away hoping to get a treat.  She would sit, lie down, wave her paw in the air in preparation to be shaken, bark to speak, and jump in the air because she was trained in agility, and then return to a sitting position.  Those were old skills, however, so I would tell her that I wanted something new.  When I was training her to play dead, I had to get her to lie down.  As soon as she moved to lie down, I would click the clicker and give her a treat.  It would take a few tries, but eventually she would figure out that I wanted her to lie down.  Eventually, she would turn her body to the side as if she were about to roll over.  Click-treat.  Every motion that she made that was close to rolling over was rewarded with a click-treat.  Does positive reinforcement take longer? Yes.  Why? It takes longer because the dog is making the connection for themselves.  The dog has to figure out what I want.  I’m right there in front of the dog.  I offer the reward when the dog gets it right.  I simply ignore the dog when she gives me something I don’t want.  Does it mean I’m ignoring her? No.  I am just not interested in old tricks.  I don’t want to see her shake.  I don’t want to see her sit.  I am teaching her something new so I’m focused on the new thing that I can already imagine her doing in my head.  I will only interact with her when she gives me something that moves her closer to doing what I’m looking for.  Then, she gets a click-treat.  In simple terms, this is how you train a dog with positive reinforcement.  It works beautifully particularly when the dog and the trainer have a relationship.  Rally would work very hard for me.  In fact, due to her brain tumor, I had to euthanize her.  I had been working tirelessly with her on the ‘playing dead’ trick.  She loved working with me, but she was having a hard time learning the trick.  Right before the vet called us into the room, she got up, looked at me, and performed her new trick flawlessly.  Click-treat, Rally.

So, why all this talk about behaviorism? I think it pertains to humans and God.  Is God clicker training us? No, but I do think that God views us differently than we view ourselves, and I think that because of His view of us He interacts with us differently than we might expect.  This difference is interpreted as abandonment and rejection by us when it’s actually the opposite.

When I was training Rally, her first instinct was to show me what she already knew.  She gave me what she thought I wanted.  This is key.  This is what we do with God.  We cast God in our image, and then we give Him what we think that He would want were we Him.  So, in our making, God becomes angry, frustrated, impatient, and very judgmental.  He then requires performance from us to appease Him.  This is not the core belief system of modern Christianity, but this is what seems to be most culturally visible.  It might be dipped in something sweet and wonderful, but it’s still there:

  • You are a sinner who’s been saved.
  • God stooped down to save you.
  • If you aren’t ministering and following the Great Commission, then you don’t have faith.
  • If you aren’t at church every Sunday, then you aren’t really a Christian.
  • Giving tithes and offerings is a sign that you are a true Christian.
  • No person who has a tattoo can possibly be a Christian.
  • Gay people are going to hell.
  • You will have a terrible marriage if you have premarital sex.

This is why so many Western Christians are shocked when they suffer.  There is a tremendous lack of resiliency in the Western Church because of this formula faith.  They did their part.  They filled in the variables.  Why didn’t God do His part? They waited until they were married to have sex.  They tithe.  They volunteer.  They go to church on Sunday and fellowship with Christians on Wednesday.  In fact, they only have Christian friends.  They are not in the world at all.  They have never seen an R rated movie.  They don’t listen to secular music.  They make a point not to enjoy sex or have sexual thoughts.  They give Bibles to “heathens”.  Why did their husband get laid off? And why can’t they get pregnant?

I’m not mocking anyone here.  I’m not being sarcastic.  I grew up in this culture.  A good portion of my family is just like this.  There is tremendous sincerity and true goodness in people who live under this religious burden.  This is not what God is like.  What I’ve described here is human beings giving to God what they know like Rally showing me her tricks.  They are trying to please God with tremendous sincerity in hopes that they will be rewarded and protected from suffering and catastrophe.  Click-treat.

Guess what? There is no reward or protection from bad events for this just like there was no reward for Rally.  Why? Because what I’ve described isn’t what God is looking for.

I want you to show love, not offer sacrifices.  I want you to know me more than I want burnt offerings.  Hosea 6:6

Relationship.  I have stressed this in almost every post I’ve ever written about humans and God.  How is it that we can reduce God and ourselves to a formula? Would we do that to our children?  Would we demand good deeds, penance, and sacrifice from the people that we love the most in order that we don’t punish them cruelly? I will let Rabbi Kushner elaborate:

Man depends on God for all things; God depends on Man for one.  Without Man’s love, God does not exist as God, only as Creator, and love is the one thing that no one, not even God, can command….Acceptance of God’s will is not enough.  Love, love of life, love of the world, love of God, love in spite of everything is the only possible answer to the ancient human cry against injustice.” (The Book of Job, Harold S. Kushner)

Those times in our lives when all feels silent, when we feel alone and forsaken by God, I believe that God is present.  I believe that He is closer to us in those times than when He is coming in loud and clear.  Those are the times when we are learning something new–a new way to live, a new way to communicate, a new way  to experience God, a new way to overcome a difficult situation.  We have given all that we’ve known or thought to be expected of us.  We’ve given everything within ourselves to everyone around us, and we’ve certainly done everything possible to show God that we’re committed to our process.  This time, however, all those great things that we know are being ignored.  They don’t matter right now because God wants to do something new, and He wants to develop something better in us.  Just like I was directly in front of Rally, waiting for her to give me something else, something new, something that was just a little bit closer to what I was looking for, God is, too.  He’s right in front of us, face to face, influencing us, encouraging us to keep going.  It’s those times that matter most when it comes to endurance.  We mustn’t believe that we’ve been abandoned or forgotten.  Not at all.  God isn’t silent.  He’s just not interested, I believe, in what we already know.  He’s interested in moving us forward because He already sees us as whole, complete humans just like I could imagine Rally doing her trick perfectly, and I knew every step that she had to take to get there.  I just needed her to cooperate with me.

We aren’t so different.  Religious effort isn’t what’s desired because fear doesn’t transform anyone.  Relational intimacy, on the other hand, founded upon love has the power to bring about lasting change and a momentum that can move us from one point in life to another.  1 John 4:18 states that love and fear cannot coexist, and 1 John 4:8 states that God Himself is love, therefore, you’ll know that you’re partaking of formula faith when fear is your motivation.

I’ll let the words of Isaiah close us out:

“Forget the former things;

do not dwell on the past.

See, I am doing a new thing!

Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?

I am making a way in the wilderness

and streams in the wasteland. Isaiah 43

6 Comments on “Clicker Training and Formula Faith

  1. Have you read any of Philip Gulley’s books? If God is Love, If Grace is True and If the Church Were Christian (to name three)? You might appreciate his writing.

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