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What is situationism?

situationism, situationist

Situationism is a theory used in psychology that assumes that a person’s behavior is dictated largely by his situation rather than by his personal attributes. For a situationist, external factors, rather than internal motivations, define behavior. For example, a situationist would say that a violent criminal’s environment is chiefly to blame; if the criminal had been raised on a farm in Nebraska instead of the inner city, he would not have had a tendency to commit crimes.

Situationism has been tempered by other theories like interactionism, which favor both internal and external factors as contributing to the behavioral outcome of a person. If, for instance, a man grows up on a farm in Nebraska, it does not mean that he has no criminal impulses, only that he may never have reason or motivation to explore those impulses to the degree he would have living in the inner city. Conversely, a man living in rural Mongolia may have an amazing talent for theoretical physics, but, because of his geographical location, he may never be exposed to the subject.

Situationism is a weak theory logically, as it downplays the role of human volition. In real life, there are many examples of people who did not allow their situations to dictate their behavior. An individual may be immersed in negativity yet still make positive choices. And vice versa. While it is obvious that our circumstances do help shape us, we always have a choice in how we respond. If situationism were valid, then Ben Carson would never have been a neurosurgeon, and Judas Iscariot would never have betrayed the Lord Jesus.

Similarly, situationism is incompatible with biblical truth. The Bible teaches that we have choices to make. Job is a good example. The Bible describes Job as “blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil” (Job 1:1). Then Satan came before God and accused Job of shallowness: “Does Job fear God for nothing? . . . Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face” (Job 1:9–11). In attributing Job’s good behavior to the circumstances that surrounded him, Satan was espousing situationism. But, even after God took away all that Job had, “Job did not sin in what he said” (Job 2:10). Satan the situationist was proved wrong by Job’s choice.

We know that God is omniscient and omnipotent (1 John 3:20; Psalm 139:4; Matthew 10:29–30; Job 42:2) and that He is present in the life of each person He created (1 Timothy 2:4). We must then assume that He allows all the situations that we find ourselves in. In fact, God uses situations to help mold us: “The testing of your faith produces perseverance” (James 1:3; see also 1 Peter 1:7). But God’s providence in prompting our spiritual growth is a far cry from situationism with its fatalistic approach.

Every person’s situation contains both the tragedy of living in a fallen world and the grace of God as He offers forgiveness and an eternal home in heaven (John 3:16–19). No person’s situation, external or internal, is too much for God to overcome. He sees our situation and gives us hope for the future: “Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh” (Luke 6:21). First Peter 4:19 is the reverse of situationism: “Those who suffer according to God’s will should . . . continue to do good.” In His mercy, God makes the believer “alive together with Christ” so that He can show him “the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6–7).

There is no situation in the world, however terrible, that will last forever. Those who trust Christ have the assurance of a home with God. That place is beyond the reach of human tragedy, and it is eternal (Revelation 22:1–5).

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What is situationism? What is a situationist?
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This page last updated: January 4, 2022