Pavlov’s dog and idol worship

What has psychology to do with the Bible?? The real question is, what light does the Bible shed on our psychology. It turns out the human condition is complex, but predictable. We know this because we live it. But its also what the Bible tells us. And these startling insights into our own humanity revealed to us in God’s word, help us to understand where our own nature trips us up – where our own natural inclinations can be recognised and smoothed out as we seek to be more Christlike.

You probably haven’t heard of Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, but you might have heard of his dog. “Pavlov’s dog” was his most famous experiment. He knew that dogs salivate at the sight of food. They did not need to learn this as it appeared to be their natural response. What he wanted to know was whether a dog could be conditioned to respond without actually seeing the food.

He ran a series of tests that associated food with sounds. Before long, the dog would salivate at the sound. Conditioned behaviour had been achieved.

You might think that we humans would be too smart for this to happen to us. No. We are not smarter than dogs. Conditioned behaviour happens to us all with whatever is repeated in our surroundings.

People who smoke often associate having a contented cigarette after a big meal. The habit is then not the smoking itself in that moment but what it represents. So after a big meal, they will reach of the cigarettes whether they want one or not.

Many of us will boil the kettle for a cup of tea in times of stress. In fact in the trenches during the first war, hot sweet tea was a therapeutic response, not because it had any medicinal properties, but because the taste was associated with rest.

But idol worship? That seems a bit extreme, doesn’t it?

Don’t be fooled. We are naturally prone to worship. We are built for it. “The people I formed for myself that they might proclaim my praise” says Isaiah in 43:21. But with the fall, what we were created for has become twisted. We want to fix our worship on something and it will land on anything – many things – without us guarding our hearts against it.

For example, we might learn to respond to stress with spending money. We might learn that as soon as work finishes, the TV gets switched on. We might learn that alcohol deadens pain. We might learn that the attentions of the opposite sex or climbing the corporate ladder or making more money is satisfying. Except the land is never satisfied with water, nor are fire or the grave (Proverbs 30:15-16). And because of our conditioned responses, the only thing that will satisfy is more of whatever our idol has become – more and more and more…..

In Daniel 3:1-12, we see conditioning in action. King Nebuchadnezzar sets up a golden idol of himself. The trigger to bow down and worship it is the sound of various instruments and all kinds of music. Now the people face death of they did not which is, of course, a compelling reason to do as your told. However, in just 12 verses, that exact same phrase is repeated (v5, v7 and v10):

As soon as you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, you must fall down and worship the image.

While the threat of death forms a foundational imperative, soon the conditioning is all that will be needed. Hear the music, bow down and worship. There’s even a rhythm to it in the text – in reading the same thing three times, by the third time, the eyes tend to skip over the words because we already know what it says. Even the reader is conditioned.

But when we see that Shadrach, Meshach and Abdenego do not bow down and worship, there’s a sharp break in the flow. It is different. It opens our eyes. It provides a break from the norm and makes us realise what a pattern we have been in.

God knows our human condition. He knows it because he created us. And we need to be aware of where our human nature has become spoiled by the Fall. Our moral compass is off-kilter. It’s looking for somewhere to land. We need to encourage it to land on God

That means we need God to be the thing we hear more than everything else in our surroundings. We need to allow ourselves to be conditioned by him and not our world. We need to allow ourselves to be the people he created us to be. He will do it but we are active participants. And he did not leave us defenceless – he gave us Jesus, the Holy Spirit communicated to us in Bible and active in our lived experience.

We will participate imperfectly. The world around us looms large and loud. But if we can see when our compass is pointing slightly off, we can bring it back. If we can develop our self-awareness to know when we are doing things that are not spiritually healthy, without even thinking about it, we can course-correct.

And most importantly, we can be the “circuit-breaker” for others. Like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. We can be the ones who remain true so that our Christian brothers and sisters have help along the way. People can see we are different. We don’t blend into the background of our culture.

We stand out, pointing the way to God.

One thought

Leave a Reply