From time to time, I ask myself an uncomfortable question: Where am I different on the inside than I am on the outside? It’s a little like a colonoscopy – helpful and horribly invasive all at the same time. Go ahead, try it. Where are you different on the inside than you are on the outside? The answers that surface are pain points, and they reveal a lot about us.
The Psychology of Congruence
In 1957 psychologist Carl Rogers coined the term “congruence” to describe the state in which a person’s ideal self matches their actual experience. Rogers used a fictional mother to illustrate. I’ll call her Susan. Imagine that being a “good mom” is central to Susan’s self image. One day, her only child announces he’s leaving for college. Susan falls inexplicably ill. Why?
Telling her son to forsake his education to stay with her, to stave off her own loneliness, would contradict Susan’s self image of being a “good mom.” So she feigns illness to maintain the narrative that she’s a “good mom,” when in reality there’s a gap between her ideal self and her actual experience. Put simply, her “inside” doesn’t match her “outside.”
Outwardly, she’s loving, pitiable, and afflicted by a mysterious illness. Inwardly, she’s manipulative and deceitful, willing to jeopardize her son’s future for her own comfort. While this is an extreme example of incongruence, everyday examples abound.
Think of the PTA mom who says she’d love to host brunch for 80, while her eye twitches uncontrollably. Kids are invited, too? Even better! Or consider the disciplined executive, who drinks himself into a stupor each night. Or the affable twenty-something, who harbors debilitating mistrust of the opposite sex.
It’s like a well-designed logo – once you’re conscious of it, you notice it everywhere. In your conversations with friends, on social media, in your children. In yourself.
What the Bible Says about Congruence
Paul was no stranger to incongruence. The Jews of his day believed circumcision was the apex of holiness. In fact, they were willing to fracture the church over it. (It’s hard to imagine the church being divided over nonessential issues, here in the 21st century.)
To them, Paul writes, “A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code” (Romans 2:28-29).
Paul isn’t saying, “Don’t be circumcised.” He’s saying, “Make sure your inside matches your outside.” What good is physical circumcision if your heart is “uncircumcised”? What good is a PTA brunch for 80, if inwardly you’re cursing every toddler jumping on your couch? What good is professional success, if it costs you your sobriety? What good is popularity if childhood trauma inhibits you from ever forging a meaningful relationship? Or to borrow Jesus’s words: “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Mark 8:36).
Incongruence is spiritual blindness. Listen to the rhetorical questions Paul strings together in Romans 2:19-24:
If you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind…you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? As it is written: ‘God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.’
Blindness becomes blasphemy. The progression is startling – from fissures of incongruence to canyons of hypocrisy that dishonor God and blaspheme His name.
What’s the remedy?
Developing Personal Congruence
The first step is awareness. You can’t biopsy a mole if you don’t know it exists. So examine your heart thoroughly. Listen to honest feedback. Once you’ve identified areas of incongruence, get curious about why they exist. When did you begin telling yourself women can’t be trusted, or all men are pigs? What experience triggered your fear of intimacy? What pain is being medicated with food, sex, alcohol, or shopping? Your goal is to get to the story beneath the story.
This is where counseling is helpful. People often talk about their experiences without slowing down to feel them, which is kind of like holding a picture of a sandwich instead of an actual sandwich. I can hold a picture of a sandwich, but I won’t be able to smell, taste, or enjoy it. When we solely use our brains to look at our problems, all we’re doing is snapping pictures of them. To process and release them, we must feel everything we need to feel – we must experience the sandwich and all it evokes.
When we’ve dealt with our emotions, we can progress to the final step, which is to tell ourselves the truth. As we uncover the correlation between our stories and the resulting incongruence, the truth gains ground over each lie holding us captive. This is how to develop congruence from the inside out – by the Holy Spirit’s power and guidance, not by the “written code” (Romans 2:29).
Is perfect congruence attainable? Carl Rogers didn’t think so. Neither did the Apostle Paul. In Romans 3:10 he quotes David, who once sang, “There is none who does good, not even one” (Psalm 14:3). The goal is not perfection; it’s growth. It’s taking one simple step at a time, believing that each step leads to a Person. To greater alignment with Him. To joy, wholeness, and a more beautiful story.