I have personally and professionally witnessed the devastating effects of poor theology and how that contributes to someone’s mental anguish.
Especially in my psychiatric practice, I have seen how different aspects of poor interpretations of Scripture can lead to symptoms of obsessiveness, anxiety, depression, apathy, and exasperation.
In the 1950s, a famous theory was developed that dealt with the idea of one’s “locus of control.”
From its roots in social psychology, it has also become well-known in the field of personality psychology as well. The gist of this theory is that there are two main ways that people perceive “control” in their lives. On the one hand, those with an “internal locus of control” feel they are ultimately in control of everything while those with an “external locus of control” perceive that everything they experience is a result of external factors like fate, others’ actions, or the world around them.
The problem is, is that this isn’t something that is purely “internal” or purely “external.” Studies have found that people who have a good mixture of internal and external locus of control, have a greater sense of happiness (see April, K., Dharani, B., & Peters, K. (2012). Impact of Locus of Control Expectancy on Level of Well-Being.).
This balance applies directly to our theology as well. Those who believe that God controls all things and that they do not have free will would have a high external locus of control. Those who believe that adhering to everything that the Bible says solely relies on them have a high internal locus of control.
Someone with a high internal locus of control theologically would be someone who may believe in some form of works-salvation, fearful that they may lose eternal life, or fear they may never "earn" eternal life in the first place. This performance-oriented mindset would lead to extreme anxiety, or maybe burnout and turning away from God altogether. These are those who are striving to be good enough for God, even though the Bible clearly says that no one can earn eternal life (see Ephesians 2:8-9).
However, someone with a high external locus of control thinks that the salvation of each person is up to God’s choosing; that God chooses who goes to heaven or hell. If this person believes he or she is “chosen,” or “one of the elect,” it may lead to a life of confidence, but that “confidence” will always be subjective and fleeting. Truth be told, for that person there will always be a hidden doubt that they were not “really chosen.”
Best case, this could lead to a significant amount of anxiety, but if for whatever reason they come to believe they aren’t “really chosen,” this can lead to intense depression, fear, and eventually apathy.
In either of these cases, there is no security—or assurance—of one’s eternal life. While these problems manifest from different perceptions of locus of control, they can both lead to obsessive-compulsive behavior related to one’s everlasting life, and neither are grounded in what the Bible says.
Back to the ideal balance of an internal versus an external locus of control. The Bible demonstrates that God is both completely Sovereign and in control, yet He also allows people to have free will.
Psalm 147:5 "Great is our Lord, and mighty in power; His understanding is infinite."
Psalm 90:2 "Before the mountains were brought forth, Or ever You had formed the earth and the world, Even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God."
John 1:1-3 "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made."
People also have choices. They have choices to pursue God, to follow Him, or to rebel or reject Him. In the Old Testament, Israel had the choice to follow God or idols (see Deut 30:15–19). In the New Testament, there are numerous examples where believers are encouraged to follow Jesus and not turn away from God. The entire book of 1 John is a letter written to Christians about how to maintain fellowship with God. At the very end, John wrote, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen.” If it were automatic, or if they had no choice, why would John write this to them?
The point is, that we absolutely have a choice and have free will, but as we saw in the earlier verses, God is also supremely in control. Understanding this is the healthy balance between an internal and external locus of control. We have a role to play and choices to make, but God is ultimately in control of the results.
We can rest assured that God has provided a way of eternal salvation to every human being. It just takes someone to be convinced that Jesus promises everlasting life to all who believe in Him for it. It cannot be earned, nor taken away. How much anxiety does that relieve when you have that question answered? You can know where you are going when you die!
Ephesians 2:8-9 sums it up nicely.
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.