Posted by: Philip Rushton | February 18, 2014

The Story Behind Our Behavior

thepromiseI spent this rainy long weekend reading a fascinating novel by Chaim Potok titled, The Promise. Potok tells the story of a Jewish seminary student named Reuven who is caught between two extremes in his Jewish culture. On the extreme right is his fundamentalist seminary professor, Jacob Kalman, who threatens to prevent his ordination if he persists in reading books that are deemed to be too progressive. On the far left is a close family friend, Abraham Gordon, who has been excommunicated from the church for being too liberal.

Reuven is uncomfortable with both extremes. He is infuriated with Kalman’s closed mindedness and viciousness. At one point Kalman writes a mean-spirited review of Reuven’s fathers book, which eventually costs his father his job.

At the same time, Reuven is not ready to abandon his beliefs. While he appreciates the openness of his liberal friend, he cannot buy into all his conclusions. At numerous points in the story Reuven tells Gordon that he loves his questions but not his answers. Gordon’s spiritual journey has led him to abandon a belief in a personal God.

As the story unfolds, Potok gives the reader a glimpse into the personal lives of both the fundamentalist professor and the liberal friend. By doing this, the reader is able to see why these characters behave the way they do. The fundamentalist professor recently immigrated to New York City from a small Eastern European town. He is also a survivor of the concentration camps during World War Two. When Reuven begins to understand his professors context, he discovers that a lot of his anger and closed mindedness is informed by fear. At one point in the story Reuven tries to explain to his friend why he hasn’t abandoned Kalman. He says:

“Rav Kalman is an angry person. But he suffered. He lost his whole world and people who are suffering sometimes take out their suffering on others. They defend what the ones they loved died for. They become angry and ugly and they fight anything that’s a threat to them. We have to learn how to fight back without hurting them too much.”

Reuven starts to develop empathy for Kalman. He realizes that his professor is angry because all that he has known, held dear, and suffered for is being challenged. While Reuven does not endorse his behavior, he realizes that he needs to respond with empathy.

Similarly, Abraham Gordon’s progressiveness is informed by a lot of hurt that he experiences in the church. As he grows up he is never given the freedom to ask the honest questions he has. Instead he is suppressed and attacked by the church. This eventually takes a toll on him and his family. His son Micheal becomes mentally ill and has to be admitted to a psychiatric ward. As he undergoes therapy it becomes clear that he is full of rage at how his fathers battles with the church destroyed his upbringing.

Potok’s book reminds us that everyone has a story. Behind a person’s beliefs and behaviors lies a complex tapestry of experience. One of my psychology professors in college used to tell us that, “all behavior makes sense.” This does not mean that all behavior is healthy and acceptable. This perspective simply asserts that there is always a reason a person acts and thinks the way they do.

Recovering this insight is essential if we hope to work towards reconciliation in our divided culture. When we understand the story behind a person’s behavior we can approach them with more empathy and understanding. Similarly, when we understand our own story we can start to understand why we react the way we do.

A good example might be how we approach the issue of worship style. We have had plenty of “worship wars” in the church over the years. I know some people who have left churches because they started to use guitars, and I know others who have left churches because there weren’t enough guitars. On the surface, these behaviors seem a trivial and extreme. Sometimes I try and approach this subject from a purely rational perspective. For example, the idea that guitars don’t belong in church can clearly be refuted biblically by looking at how David used “stringed instruments.” There were, after all, no organs in the first century! However, this approach to the issue never proves to be very fruitful because there is something bigger going on.

Peoples frustration with guitars, or the lack thereof, is informed by their personal history. I think the reason some people resist changes to worship styles is because they are fearing the loss of something that has meant a lot to them. Music is very personal. Many of us associate profound spiritual experiences with certain styles of worship, and so it is a loaded issue. We aren’t talking about guitars, we are talking about experiencing the divine. When we understand it like that we can start to see why it means so much to people and why they react so strongly.

We could apply this insight to other issues as well. Perhaps conservatives and liberals could find more common ground if they started to understand the experiences and feelings that are informing their beliefs. Behind our conversations about the major social issues of our day lies a lot of personal fear and hurt.

As Christians we are called to the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5). The path towards reconciliation, I believe, begins by understanding the story behind a person’s belief and behavior.


  1. Thanks for the insightful article. The quote “All behavior makes sense” is something I need to remember in my interactions with people. In my life, there’s been a lot of people that either I’ve consciously or unconsciously written off as ignorant, crazy, evil, lazy, self-centered etc. Then I usually avoid them, ignore them, or look down on them, and elevate myself as better than them. I do need to strive to “begin by understanding the story behind a person’s belief and behavior.”

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