Thursday, December 06, 2007

Choosing Character Over Effects

Whether or not I am responsible for how my actions affect others is, for me, a big issue. I want to know whether I am to blame for how a person responds to my wrong. I'm not talking about emotionally harming others when a person has done nothing wrong, such as breaking up a relationship, but that is important to the discussion. I'm referring more precisely to whether we should consider ourselves responsible if we commit a small sin against another but that small sin has dire consequences.

Consider the following: I am trying to cut lust out of my life. I look lustfully at a woman then tell myself, "By looking at her in that way, I have turned her into an object." The act is made wrong by its outcome.

But does that mean that we are to judge our sins by the effect they have on others? For some, the temptation regarding looking at sin in their lives is to underestimate their effects. But for others, they choose to imaginatively maximize the possible effect their sin has on others, in order to punish themselves into submission.

I think doing this is rooted in narcissism. We want to believe we have profound effects on others. What we really need is neither minimizing nor maximizing but honest appraisal of what we have done. Rather than concerning ourselves with the effects of our actions, we ought to worry about our character. Does this action reflect the kind of character I want in my life? Will continuing to behave this way make me a better or worse person. This could seem more narcissistic than the last, but this is untrue. Narcissism insists on believing untruth about the self, including our effect on others. Humility knows who we are and deals with who we want to become.

So the next time you do something wrong. Don't worry so much about how it will be a bad witness to others, how catastrophic your actions were, or even how many tears you induced in other's eyes. Think about who you want to be and pursue that.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Human Nature and Sin

I'm taking a class on Christian Ethics that has introduced me to the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr. He wrote about the origin of sin in such a way that illuminates the psychological concepts inherent in our faith. One could conceptualize his theology of sin with two equations:

Freedom + Finitude = Anxiety
Anxiety + Disbelief = Fear

Freedom lies in our free will. We have the power to choose right and wrong. But we are also finite human beings. We are limited by our life experiences and by our nature. The combination of our freedom and limits creates anxiety. We become aware that we are not self-sufficient and that leads to worrying that we will not be satisfied. This is part of how God created us and, in itself, is not sin. The anxiety that Neibuhr speaks about is a precursor for sin but is also the precursor for true faith.

Our reaction to this anxiety is what is important. If we choose not to place faith in God, but to live in disbelief, then we will end up with fear. Humans deal with fear in two main ways: pride and abdication of responsibility. We will accumulate wealth and power to maintain the illusion that we are self-sufficient. This requires self-deception. We need to lie to ourselves in order to believe that we can take care of ourselves.

But there is another sinful solution to the fear we experience. We can pretend we are not responsible for our actions. We become resentful of others or we engage in sensuality. At no point do we claim agency of our actions. Instead, we blame, repress, or rebel.

Psychologically, acceptance of our reality is the solution to this problem. But that leaves us at the point where we can easily despair. Facing the reality that we cannot satisfy our selves can be scary. From this perspective we see the advantage of faith in Go
d that allows us to trust God to satisfy our spiritual needs. By consciously surrendering our freedom to God, we can accept our limitations. Instead of inspiring dread, we gain serenity from our limitations because that only increases where God will work. As Paul wrote, "To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me." (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Shame On You

Shame is a loaded concept. There seems to be more than a few different ways of conceptualizing it. But I like to define it as a response to guilt that creates some degree of self-hate. I define guilt (at least the psychological version, not the legal version) as the belief that you have done something wrong. So shame takes the belief that you have done something wrong and concludes that there is something wrong with you.

I believe that we turn to shame for a reason. Because although we feel bad for what we did, we don't want to do the work to change our actions. Therefore I look at shame as a refusal to learn from what we did and try to change our behavior. Shame works against repentance. Shame is a form of self-punishment that recapitulates the wrong we've done.

Of course we can't discard the place of Christ's death in our shame. The work on the cross means that we are no longer guilty (legally) for our sins. Of course we are still psychologically guilty. But shame returns to the legal guilt and states that we must be punished by calling ourselves names and deprecating ourselves. Shame is therefore a lack of faith in the work of Christ.

Practically shame has the consequence of focusing our efforts on the punishment, rather than a solution. By the time we are done punishing ourselves verbally for something we have done (e.g. I'm such an idiot. Why did I do that again?!?), we have lost all motivation to learn and change. Rather than using our effort to punish, we can accept God's grace then begin the process of clarifying where we went wrong. Asking ourselves questions like: What was I trying to satisfy in myself that led me to do this? What kind of thinking did I have that led me to do this? What emotions led me to do this? Such an approach can allow us to identify problems before we do something wrong.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Divorce and Counseling

Counseling married couples will often lead to talk about divorce. How ought a Christian therapist handle this? Should they refer? Should they tell the client not to get divorced? I have some thoughts on the matter but I wanted to begin with my view of marriage. In Genesis 2, the institution of marriage is introduced as a relationship that places a person in a community. The person moves from being under their parents to being married to another person. I believe that this is because marriage was designed to be a place where people have the opportunity to be understood and cared for. Marriage is designed to produce growth. I like to compare it to Jesus' teaching about the Sabbath, marriage was created for people not people for marriage.

I believe that although marriage is a covenant that we ought to be committed to, there are times when the relational difficulties between a couple are so intense and so intertwined that they are nearly impossible to change. In these situations, when carrying on in a marriage will cause more harm than a divorce will, and all options have been exhausted, a divorce is permissible. As a therapist I would see it as my responsibility to discern both the extent of interpersonal conflict and the ability of the relationship to heal after new interpersonal skills are gained. Some marriages would create greater harm if they remain together than if they divorce - sometimes we need to be honest about the likelihood of recovery and how long such recovery would take.

Divorce is a painful experience for both the couple and any children. Therefore, if a couple comes into therapy with only one intent - how to get divorced with the least amount of damage to the children - I would make it clear to the client that I would first assess their relational skills and the possibility of recovering the marriage. But if I agree with their own assessment of the state of their marriage, that divorce is the best option, then I will have no problem with counseling them in how to have a peaceable relationship through the divorce and afterwards.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Victims Can Apologize Too

Imagine you're in a situation where a good friend has gossiped about you regarding something very personal about you. They told something to others, let's imagine they told lots of people, that they promised never to tell. What would you do? Who would you talk to about this?

This is a situation where it is safe to say that you have been harmed. But is that where it ends? Usually not. If you were honest, you would probably have said that you would have told all of your close friends what that person did to you. Then you would start thinking about how much better you are than the other person. Then you might have tried telling the person you were hurt but did it in a way that did not even try to understand why they might have shared the information in the first place.

The point I'm trying to make is that we often do something wrong when we have been wronged. And we always have done something wrong when we cannot let an offense go. It scares me to go to such a distance, because I know how difficult the issue is, but we will inevitably do something wrong when we suffer something heinous as a victim, like physical or sexual abuse. That is not to say that we need to carry more shame. But we should not deny or discount our selfish reactions in any circumstance, especially when we are clearly the victim.

Especially when we are clearly the victim? That seems counter-intuitive. We think that the more we have done wrong, the more we are responsible to admit our wrong. But I have two simple reasons for saying this.

1) Admitting our wrong narrows the gap between how wrong we were and how wrong the original perpetrator was. It is more likely that the other person will not apologize if they feel that there is less distance between you and them. Again, it is a bizarre truth that the greater the sin, the harder it is to accept responsibility for it. Thus, admitting our wrong draws us closer to getting the apology we deserve because it decreases, ever so slightly, the shame of the wrong that the other person committed.

2) Admitting our wrong allows us to better handle problems in the future. We should desire to be less affected by the evil actions of others. But often our way of handling the wrong that has been done to us exacerbates the problem. Accepting that we have done something wrong means that I will be more aware the next time I am in a similar situation and will be able to control my reaction better.

A final warning. We should never approach a person with the expectation that our apology will guarantee us that they will apologize in return. In some instances people feel more free to apologize when we apologize first but that is not the rule. It would be easy to feel coerced into apologizing if someone apologizes for their smaller offense first. That is why we need to remember the second reason. We may hope that they apologize, and will likely be disappointed if they don't, but we should be careful not to take the focus off of what we can gain from apologizing.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Secret and the Desire for Omnipotence

My professor in my Christians who Counsel class laid out his theoretical framework for therapy this past week and it kind of reminded me of the popularity of "The Secret." If you're not familiar with the book and the videos, the underlying principle is that positive thoughts can influence the universe in such a way that you will be able to get what you want. The reason that you did not get the promotion you wanted was because you had conflicting and negative thoughts about it. Based upon the principle that "like attracts like," the power to have a successful and thriving life is within us.

Now I hope that I do not overplay the difficulties of this worldview to completely undermine some of the lessons that can be learned. In fact, confidence and belief in yourself can lead to better outcomes in careers, relationships, and daily life. Positive thinking allows us to pursue our dreams more fervently. The zeal we have for pursuing our dreams can and does impact the probability of achieving your dreams.

But back to my professor's theory. He believes that the primary motive for most human behavior is the desire to be self-sufficient. The problem is that humans are not self-sufficient and they cannot control the universe. Thus, our primary motive is reality denying. This is evident in how we blame ourselves for problems that were out of our control or in how we feel guilty that we cannot be in two places at once. The Secret is popular for this very reason - it allows us to believe that we have more power over the world than we actually do.

The Secret can promote pathological guilt responses. Why did my aunt die from cancer? Because I had negative thoughts about her. Why do I have diabetes? Because I don't like my body. Obviously this perspective would be devastating but it is the logical consequence of believing the principles of The Secret.

What is the alternative? As my professor often repeats: "Embrace your limits." You cannot control the universe. Sure, positive thinking can create opportunities that weren't there before. But know where your power over a situation begins and where it ends. The Serenity Prayer sums it up nicely: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Response to Christians who Counsel

Here are my personal thoughts on Chapters 1 - 3 of Christians who Counsel. Anderson's anthropology of humanity is one of the great strengths of his approach. Many who have discarded psychology, even Christian psychology, have lacked the insight into how human beings are "not good" when they are alone. We are created to become fully alive when we are in communion with others. Beginning here helps us challenge views of spirituality that claim that a relationship with God is sufficient for our growth as humans and as followers of Christ. This is where counseling can come in.

Counseling (which I will use as an equivalent term for therapy) states that all of our problems in life do not stem from spiritual issues. An example would be a young man who was physically and sexually abused as a child and who now acts out with sexual promiscuity and angry outbursts but is depressed and believes that he is worthless. A spiritual response would state that he needs to connect with God through prayer, accept his forgiveness, and be transformed by studying God's word. However, this would ignore the fact that he has not learned to have healthy relationships with other people. His sexuality is intertwined with his low view of himself and with his inability to cope with the pain in his life. And his view of himself will affect his spirituality and not just the converse.

A view of humanity that sees spirituality as being affected by social, personal, and sexual aspects will not dogmatically hold on to relationship with God as being supreme. God has created human beings to have dominion over the world and to live in loving relationships with others. While spirituality should never be downplayed, the more common approach is to overemphasize spirituality while neglecting the other realms. However, Christian therapists will sometimes overreact to this approach by neglecting the spiritual aspect of living. We do need to live in God's grace and forgiveness and in constant relation with him in all we do, think, and say. This model reminds those who counsel that spirituality IS an important part of emotional life and should not be downplayed.

As for the place of the agogic moment, where the three components, motive power, intermediary, and response, define growth while the hermeneutic moment is put on the sidelines, I have a couple problems. While I believe that it is true that creating an environment of love and parity between therapist and client is beneficial, I don't believe that it is always necessary. Those who are relatively healthy have the capacity to accept condescending advice and integrate it into their lives. Doing so is more difficult, because the person needs to remove the advice from the advisor, but it is possible. We have the capacity to grow through experiences with ourself, where we open ourselves up to the need for growth and can recognize growth promoting ways of thinking and acting, even when they come from non-equal sources. I do believe that people can change from listening to a sermon, though it is much less likely. This may be a mute point but I think it needs to be said. An agogic moment is not always required.

Finally, I think that Anderson's model lacks a theology of shame. If our starting point is creation then there must be at least some discussion of the fall. Humans now have a sense of shame in their lives, a pain that makes them feel that something has gone wrong in the world and in themselves. This pain is present in every single person but you wouldn't know it from Anderson's model. We all react not only to love that has been shown to us but also the the pain that is oppressing us. A person in pain will try to numb themselves in many ways. But they may also, after finding temporary solutions to the pain to be just that, realize that true growth will bring about healing. Pain, like love, can be a motivator for growth.

I hope these thoughts show my general satisfaction with Anderson's model and are taken as possibilities for what can be added. So far Anderson's approach as a theologian, rather than a psychologist, has been quite helpful.

Partnering for Growth

Chapter 3 of Christians who Counsel centers on the position that the possibility for growth is opened up when the client perceives that the therapist is a partner in the growth process. As Carl Rogers has often made clear, therapy involves removing the obstacles that were hindering process for growth. Thus, Anderson argues that the capacity for growth is within the person rather than from the therapist. But first of all the nature of growth is clarified as: integrative, relational, and open to change. The therapist, unlike the doctor who focuses only on the physical realm or the pastor who teaches only closeness with God, is concerned about integrating all the areas of our life. Asking questions like - how does my spiritual life affect my physical life? and vice versa - the Christian who counsels can facilitate wholeness in all realms of being. The therapist will also help the client develop relational closeness in the room and with others in order to facilitate new experiences of the self and others. The third aspect of growth is openness to change. Although openness to change is itself a consequence of growth, the role of this openness needs to be highlighted because it will, in turn, promote more growth.

But how does this growth occur? Rather than arguing that the therapist causes the client to grow in a stimulus-response manner, Anderson argues that the therapist merely creates situations for growth. Within the therapy room, two important moments are described. The first is the "hermeneutic moment," or aha! moment, where the client is able to change the way s/he looks at him/herself. The second is the "agogic moment" where the client gains a motive for change from an experience with the therapist that creates change. The agogic moment is where true growth occurs. It is a situation where the therapist places herself as equal with the client. Hermeneutic moments are often necessary, but never sufficient, to create an agogic moment.

As mentioned above, an agogic moment is created when the therapist and the client are perceived as equal human beings. This equality is the humanization of the client. The client no longer feels inferior and can have a real relational moment. To create this atmosphere, the therapist must engage the client wherever they are and enter into that experiential space. As the therapist attempts to do this, the client can see the therapist as a partner in the growth process rather than invader of the client's space.

Finally, the power of growth is that of love. As I pointed out in my look at Chapter 1, humans were created to be in relationship with one another. We are created to be set in motion towards growth by others. Anderson writes, "The power of selfhood is response power." The overwhelmingly most important aspect of therapy is to create an environment where the client feels loved and cared for. It is only in this situation that any growth can occur.

1) Growth is integrative, relational, and open to change.
2) Growth occurs in the agogic moment, where the motive to change is released.
3) The counselor is an equal partner in this growth.
4) Love is the fundamental ingredient to produce change.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Chapter 2 of Christians who Counsel by Ray Anderson discusses the human being as an integrated being that must be counseled through integrative means. Anderson states that humans are a gestalt of subsystems that include the social, personal, sexual, psychical, and spiritual. People progress through these subsystems in a developmental fashion, although not in a cut and dry stage manner. We continue to have difficulties in each subsystem throughout our lifetimes and problems in one subsystem will often create problems in other subsystems.

A second way in which we must be integrative beings is that we need to grow in relationship to God, others, and ourself. If we have problems in one realm that will create problems in the other realms. These realms are placed on equal standing, with no one relationship being more important than the others, which means that our relationship with God is not considered to the primary issue through which all other relationships are subject. Instead, relationships with others and self are considered to be so categorically different that they must not be treated as inferior in the quest for wholeness.

In order to facilitate growth towards an integrated being, therapy must utilize hermeneutics, narrative, and eschatology. Hermeneutics means the process of interpreting. Thus, counseling needs to help the client re-interpret life events so that they will have different meaning, perhaps even a spiritual significance. Next, counseling utilizes narrative by allowing the client to see his or her story as placed within the story of his community and thereby creates a value-oriented world for the client to enter. Finally, counseling must involve a look at eschatology or the end times. Having an eternal perspective can allow the client to gather a more global view of the world and their own personal and social problems.

What I enjoyed about this chapter was that it was anthropological. It began with a look into what a whole human being ought to be and therefore provided a goal for where therapy could lead. This is helpful because many theories for counseling do not have a clear vision for health and therefore can potentially remove one pathology only to have it replaced with another. But the chapter also described how wholeness could be promoted through specific growth promoting processes. I enjoyed that the hermeneutical task was more than just changing specific beliefs but was focused on changing entire worldviews. Overall, I really thought that this chapter laid a solid foundation for which therapy could be built upon.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Being Human

I will be beginning a series of blogs on the book, Christians who Counsel, by Ray Anderson. He begins chapter one discussing a theological anthropology of human relationships. In the creation account of Genesis 2, where God says that Adam is "not good" by himself, we can often be completely dismissive of the true significance of what is being said here. God admits that his presence is not sufficient for the human creature to be complete. Even after bringing the animals to Adam, God realized that Adam needed a companion that would be the female to his maleness.

This declaration that the solitary human is not good is important. From it we can correct any belief that we have that unhappiness in life is necessarily a spiritual issue, between God and the individual. Here we see that God created us to be in relationship with one another. That relationship is to be one of equality and co-laboring.

Personally I find that this theological truth relieves me from thinking that my spiritual growth only comes from private prayer and meditation and that social relations fell into a different category. On the contrary, it is clearly evident that God created us to be in relationship with both God and other humans. Jesus taught that the two greatest commandments are to obey God and love your neighbor. Neither can be separated from the other.

Anderson's conclusion is that there are three parts of being human that support one another. They are relating to yourself, relating to others, and relating to God. Relating to yourself properly means that you see yourself as God's creation and thus see value and purpose in your life and beauty in your life. Relating to others means that you have relationships that create meaning for your life and that allow for mutual help in times of need. Finally, relating to God means placing yourself in humble obedience to God's will and living in his grace.

This theological anthropology reminds us that we were created for real relationships and so true "spirituality" means that we are living with others in a vulnerable and open position. For therapists, it is the reminder that we can bring the kingdom of God simply by having fellowship with those who are in isolation, whether physically or emotionally. We can help people who have tried to live a full life in 2, 1, or even none of the three relational areas and bring them to wholeness in God's image for them.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Transforming Initiatives

I've been taking a class in Christian Ethics over the summer that has really been opening me up to the Biblical view of how we should live out our Christian lives. My professor, Dr. Glen Stassen has suggested that the Sermon on the Mount ought to be the central focus of Christian ethics. Here Jesus talks about the Old Testament law and expands on each law. For example:
"You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' 22But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca,' is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell.

23"Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift." (Matthew 5:21-23)

But while we often think that Jesus is merely raising the bar for us to make holiness a more difficult standard to obtain, we forget that, if that is what he is doing, he would simply be creating a more rigid legalism. But in fact that is not what Jesus does. Jesus does not say, "Do not get angry with your brother." It is not a command. But Jesus does command that, if our brother has something against us then we ought to go be reconciled. Jesus does not offer us legalism; he offers a solution.

Think that this is only the pattern here? Jesus does the same for nearly all of the other teachings. Jesus speaks in hyberbole regarding to lust saying, "If your eye causes you to sin, cut it out" (v. 29). Again, Jesus is providing a solution: lust leads to adultery so get yourself away from the situation that causes you to lust.

The real point is that Jesus offers us solutions, or as my professor calls them: transforming initiatives. These are ways to get ourselves out of the cycle of sin that we find ourselves within. It offers much more than a higher standard. It offers us a way to find freedom from sin. That, not legalism, is Jesus' way.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Waking Moments

I think one of my most creative times is when I've woken up from sleep but haven't gotten out of bed. It seems that my mind has fewer restrictions and tends to free associate better. Perhaps it's the lying down that does it (which might explain Freud's technique).

The reason I'm writing this is because I have come up with several great ideas for blogs in the last few days when I have rising from my slumber and each time I've lost the idea over the course of the day. I hope that this serves as a reminder that my mind is a delicate instrument and sometimes I need to help it out with a few Post-It notes.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Climbing Mountains

Last Sunday I hiked Mount Whitney. This 22 mile hike to the highest point in the lower 48 states was a grueling, intense accomplishment. But I had the advantage that I knew what to expect and I knew when it would be over. But sometimes life brings us mountains that remain in front of us for months and even years. Those types of mountains are the ones that truly test our perseverance and character.

I would like to think that climbing Mount Whitney proves that I am a tenacious and persevering man. But the truth is that my character is tested more often in the day to day. Just today I sat idly by while letting my dad and brother work on the sink, knowing that I had been asked a week ago to fix a broken faucet. And yesterday I spent about 4 or 5 hours on the Internet looking at clips from a TV show.

These seemingly small character flaws are my real mountains. I have long disliked my own tendencies to be lazy and unhelpful but progress in these areas has been slow. Times of growth have been thwarted by backsliding to old habits. The humbling truth is that I have not given myself completely to change in these areas. My true character has been revealed. But I like to think that, even if I have idled for awhile or even retreated, that I can head back up the mountain and make another attempt to change.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Psychiatrists Don't Tend to be Religious

Psychiatry was found to be the least religious type of physician, according to a study published by Live Science. Why do religious people stray from religion? Perhaps it is because the history of psychoanalysis. But I think that this is just another reminder that psychology needs the input of Christianity to be more relevant to the general population.

Saturday, August 25, 2007


If you hang around Christians long enough, you will eventually hear about demons and evil spirits. Many Christians believe in spiritual warfare - that there are demons trying to lead us astray from God and angels who are fighting on our side. But in psychology you don't hear much about that. How can many people perceive demonic activity while psychology makes no mention of it?

I believe that sometimes people can call the same thing different names. This happens when people have different experiences, different languages, and different worldviews. So Christians often say that they are tempted by the devil while psychologists might say that we are tempted because people enjoy breaking the rules. The devil is external, the delight in breaking rules is internal.

But sometimes I wonder if we are not describing the same thing. How does a demon tempt us except through making our neurons fire in a certain pattern in our brain? Otherwise we would not even be thinking tempting thoughts. We now know that our experiences of the world occur through our body, so any demonic work would need to impose on our body to change our experiences. Hence why I think we may be calling the same phenomenon by different names.

A further similarity arises in how we effectively combat such problems. Those who believe in spiritual warfare pray to God for help in the midst of the challenge. Those who believe that it is only psychological learn to change their thinking patterns. In both, the solution is to focus on doing something (praying or thinking about something else) instead of focusing on the temptation.

I believe that we need to find solutions that allow us to stay in the presence of God. But for those who believe that demons are an artifact of ancient superstitions, therapists can help them find relief in other ways. Christian therapists ought to integrate faith into their counseling regardless of whether their clients believe in demons or maladaptive thoughts or anything else. Therapists can use the client's framework to help the client change because they are just using different words for the same experiences.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Back From Vacation

I am back from my time in Oregon and San Francisco. It was a fun vacation, filled with star-gazing, swimming, hiking, time with family, and seeing the sites.

Monday, August 06, 2007

On Vacation

For the next ten days I will be on vacation in Oregon and San Francisco. I'm looking forward to time with family and time to relax. You may have noticed that my rate of posting has slowed and I'm hoping that I will soon become refilled with the passion to write more consistently again. Adios!

Friday, August 03, 2007

The Porn Myth

I wanted to share a link to an article I just read on pornography by Naomi Wolf. She argues that pornography has made our culture less truly sexual. By exposing men and women to further extremes of beauty and "eroticism," pornography has only made men less connected to women and women less happy with their bodies. Not only are men objectifying women more, but the higher standards are causing men to check out from reality more. Check it out, it's a good read.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Trends in Brain Imaging

Brain imaging, such as fMRI, is becoming increasingly more popular. In fact, that brain you see on the right is my brain. I participated in a study at CalTech on pain and mental associations. Sure they shocked my foot while showing pictures to me (seriously!), but I got some money and - based on the lack of a silicone chip - a little more certainty that I am not a cybernetic robot.

But what does all this mental imaging mean for the future? An article reports that when making ethical decisions people use parts of their brains where old memories are stored. Thus those ethics training seminars aren't going to be very effective because are ethical decisions are based on what we learned as kids.

But we're still on the cusp of what neuroimaging can find. And that means we're going to get better at reading people based on how their brains work. Can we predict who will be the best psychologist based on the layout of their brain? Can we pinpoint child molesters, violent offenders, and antisocials based on their brain scans? What would that mean for believing in free will? And what about when we find out things about ourselves that we don't like? What will all that do to our society?

I'm not pessimistic about the future. But I do think it is important to pose questions before we have any of the answers. I hope that we figure out how to use this information for good.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Perfectionism and the Spiritual Disciplines

I was recently wondering whether I should cut down on the amount of TV that I watch. Over the summer months I often will become engrossed with television and spend countless hours channel surfing. Sometimes I can become so entranced that I feel almost like I cannot stop watching. So I started considering whether I should just quit watching television altogether. When I mentioned this to a mentor, he quickly started trying to investigate my motives. He suspected that perfectionism was the root cause of my desire to quit.

I can't blame him for his conclusion. When probing for the reasons behind why I want to stop completely, all I could muster up were appeals to what is "normal" and feeling like I had to stop. Many of the motivations behind wanting to stop were a grand delusion that once I stopped watching TV, that I would soon morph into a perfect Christian. I would be caring, compassionate, and interested in the lives of others. And I would like myself.

That final bit is what leads me to think he was right, in part. When I think about it, the fact that I do not like myself now says much about how I will feel about myself if I actually change my behavior. It seems pretty likely that I won't really like myself entirely if I did stop watching TV. I cannot accept where I am today, even though I have tried really hard to get where I am. So maybe my insecurity is deeper than a remote control.

One thing I need to understand is that no matter how disciplined I am, if I cannot accept imperfection, I won't be happy. The spiritual disciplines can soothe my insecurities for a little while, but unless I hare real soul change then my life will not be any more satisfying - nor more loving. So I must pray for God to turn me into a person who accepts his grace and lets that gift, rather than my own perfectionism, drive my obedience to his will.

Friday, July 13, 2007


Have you ever wondered why we have a layer of being that is below everything that seems to completely liberate us when we find it. Or maybe wonder at why we don't operate at that level more? I'm talking about that way of relating that makes us feel completely content. You feel after you've had a long heart-to-heart or when you've shared a secret that has been pressing down on you and been received with grace.

I think it is one of the mysteries of life why we were created with the need for authenticity. That seems to be what is behind our enjoyment of such times. We thrill at having authentic relationships.

I think the joy we feel at such moments reveals a lot about the way we ought to live our lives. The scariest moments of life are when we reveal something sacred about ourselves to someone else. But, when handled right, those are the most blessed moments as well. I can't resist putting it in spiritual terms because there seems to be nothing mundane about such moments of meeting.

I wish I could live my life with more authenticity. When I was in therapy, I found it difficult to open up and reveal what was at my core. I deeply longed to be called out, to be invited into authentic relationship. But such times and such relationships are scarce. Although I find that I can be sustained by these moments for a long time, I still long for such times to come with more regularity. I want to pour out my heart to someone without holding anything back.

I wish that I could learn to live with less fear of authenticity. I wish I had the capacity to live authentically at every moment. I feel that this kind of relationship is the one that God craves. I believe that God desires it more than anything else. Because out of such authenticity does true connection come. And in that connection there seems to be a power that grows us in love. If only we could find that power more often as we go about our lives.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


Saturday was supposed to be the luckiest day of the millennium. It was 7/7/07. But why do people believe in luck? If the world has an order then being lucky would only mean that the outcome turned out against the odds. But people seem to believe that they are going to experience some great event - that luck is coming their way.

I think that the belief in luck is simply part of our inherent desire for hope. When we hope that luck will go our way, we are awakening a desire in us for something to look forward to. When people hope they will be lucky, they are looking forward. But when they realize that it hasn't gone their way, they blame their misfortunes on being unlucky.

If luck is based on hope, then believing in luck makes sense. We are hardwired to be hopeful. Of course depression can disrupt that hardwiring. But I think it says something about what people are craving when they believe in luck. They want something to hope for.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Relational Evil

In my young adult class at church, we've been trying to figure out what constitutes evil. In a world where absolute morality has lost its appeal, we need to envision culturally relevant and intellectually sophisticated arguments for the reality of evil. Rather than seeing evil as trespassing an archaic rule, it seems that we need to gain an understanding of evil that respects those rules while finding a deeper and truer principle. So we've developed this definition of evil:
Evil is a system that breaks relational ties with God, with others, with myself, and with nature.

Thus, evil is anything that destroys a relationship. Now we are by no means the ones that came up with such a definition. But I hope that I can help popularize such a view as I believe that it encompasses all evil in the world. Not only does it condemn those actions that are obviously evil, such as murder, theft, and idolatry, but it also helps us see actions such as insensitivity to others as being evil as well.

Now I'm aware that the acceptance of this definition hinges on the ability of individuals to recognize that connectedness is a good thing. And there are plenty of people who wish to be islands to themselves. But I believe that at some level all people recognize that they need to be harmony with the universe.

Such a definition is tricky. Because it means that we are labeling as evil acts that were not done with malicious intentions. But I believe that as we become more spiritually aware, we will see that we have sinned against all creation by our self-centeredness and greed. What are your thoughts?

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Drugs and Spirituality

Many Christians believe that taking prescription drugs for mental illness is tantamount to a lack of faith. I believe the reason is that people wrongly believe that their spiritual nature is greater than their physical nature. Although this problem occasionally becomes evident when people refuse medical treatment in order to be healed of general medical conditions, this way of thinking is more rampant in regards to mental illness.

I'm taking a Psychopharmacology course and my professor, Dr. Archibald Hart, suggests that the reason for this belief is that people lack a comprehensive theology of creation. That is to say, people don't know how God works in creation. Specifically, people remain ignorant as to the physicality of our minds. God created us with miraculously complex brains that can sometimes go awry, just like other body parts. If we come to grips with this truth, we will find that drugs are merely a way to restore our body to it's "natural" condition.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Sex and the Human Spirit

I read an interesting article in Relevant Magazine on chastity. Unfortunately I could not find the article online so I am reflecting on it by memory.

The author pointed out that there is a difference between abstinence and chastity. Abstinence is merely not doing it while chastity is something much more. Being chaste means valuing purity as a way of life. I liked this important differentiation because it highlights that sexual purity is more than merely a lack of behaviors. I'd posit that the reason that abstinence pledges tend not to be very effective is that they do not acknowledge the values and thoughts that lead to a chaste lifestyle.

The second point that I appreciated hearing anew was that sexual intimacy without emotional attachment is unhealthy. While most people in our culture tend to think that guilt over sexual acting out is a symptom of an unhealthy approach to sexuality, the author argued that the opposite was actually true. Those who can detach themselves from their sexual experiences are often quite emotionally unhealthy.

On this second point I'd like to add a few of my own thoughts. I have come to appreciate more and more the unified nature of our selves. We cannot detach our bodies from our emotions. As such, the belief that we can share ourselves in a physically intimate way without emotional intimacy is ungrounded.

In addition, I believe that the large majority of human sexuality is actually not caused by "sexual" arousal. I have noticed in myself the drive for sexuality is increased when I feel disconnected and lonely. And I also notice that there are numerous links between sexuality and fear and anger and selfishness. I think healthy sexuality will come when we recognize that our cravings are not for human flesh but for spirit and relationship.

Care to disagree? Please share your thoughts.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

What Makes a Church Healthy?

One area where I dabble in is the assessment of churches. I am contracted labor for a small business that does consulting for churches to help them improve. We have some ways of assessing what defines a healthy, growing church but I want to take a second look here.

Now I've grown up in a fairly large church. So I'm biased towards a more institutionalized church where there is little contact with pastors. But most churches have less than 500 members and the pastor(s) have the opportunity to really connect with their congregation.

1) New ideas are welcome and managed well. I believe a healthy church will open itself up to the input of the congregation. Now, this can be dangerous because it can distance members if their ideas aren't taken up. But it also creates a sense of identity and ownership so that people can get excited about their own church.

2) The church has events and activities that the whole church can get excited about. Whether it is a church-wide picnic or a missions fundraising project, the church needs to create a sense of unity and reliance on one another.

3) A feeling of being at home. This is rather elusive but I think there are some defining characteristics. The first is that people talk to one another. The second is that the church building feels welcoming and does not provoke anxiety (i.e. poor parking, etc). The third is that people take personal interest in maintaining the property. Finally, there is a routine that can be counted upon.

4) Music is enjoyable. I can't tell you how important this seems to be to a lot of church members. This is a difficult task to accomplish as the older folks tend to enjoy the hymns while the younger crowd likes more modern music. But either by having numerous services with different types of music or by blending the two types together, music needs to be of high enough quality to draw people in.

These are by no means exhaustive. In fact, they are just some that I thought were important to me. But I think it is important to consider what qualities are important for churches to provide a safe place to grow closer to God.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007


As a neo-evangelical that has emerged out of fundamentalism, I have come to see that certain views that I once thought were inescapably Christian are actually the result of reactionary trends in populist views that have emerged neither from Scripture nor church tradition, but rather from a desire to concretize the abstract and dynamic nature of faith. First let me unpack that a little bit with some definitions. By neo-evangelical, I mean that I see myself as holding to the core elements of Christian faith, including but not limited to the belief in the deity of Christ, the virgin birth, salvation through faith and not works, and the induction into a community of believers referred to as the church. By fundamentalist I mean those individuals who have ascribed to an approach towards faith that is dogmatic and uninformed, choosing to retreat to individualistic and propositional belief statements rather than engage in the changing contexts of their cultural surroundings.

Like I said in the opening statement, I came out of a fundamentalist background. Although I do not see my church nor my parents as fundamentalist, I had such a fear of uncertainty that I embraced a worldview that saw the Bible as inerrant, evolution as false, liberals as evil, and my own mind as the best manager of truth. I had been discouraged from incorporating scientific findings into my worldview because they were in contrast with Biblical witness, and therefore wrong.

Fundamentalism represents the most widespread religious understanding among Christians. There is no one criterion for fundamentalism but in general it is the placing of faith and science in conflict against one another. Now, while I cannot explore the fallacies of fundamentalism, Biblically and logically, in this blog for lack of time and expertise, I do want to begin a discussion on what the repercussions are. Because I think a fundamentalist mindset can lead to a number of unhealthy approaches to living.

The first is that science is only to be trusted if it agrees with preconceived notions of Christianity. Despite the clear evidence that these notions have been wrong in the past (e.g. Galileo), people continue to trust their gut instinct (sometimes coined as the Holy Spirit) to determine what is true or not. Such an approach is grounded in pride and results in the person becoming unwilling to take on the perspectives of others. This devotion to one's own belief above love of neighbor causes rifts in relationships with others.

The second is that the Bible is looked at as a source of truth statements. While in reality the Bible is written primarily as a narrative of the story of the people of God, fundamentalists see the Bible as being an instruction book for living. While the Bible does inform us as to how we ought to live, this is done through stories of people struggling and failing and invites us to enter that story.

The third is believing in the dualism of mind (or spirit or soul) and body. Believing that people have a soul is common. And while I don't discourage people to hold such beliefs, I do discourage holding to the complete worldview that such beliefs encourage. Such a worldview would discount the impact of mental illness, including imbalances in neurochemicals, because the mind or soul is the ultimate cause of all action. In other words, mental illness would be seen as a weak soul or lack of faith. Rather than fully considering our embodied nature, which limits our free will, dualists pretend that all lifestyles and ways of thinking can be transcended by the soul through the Holy Spirit.

While there is much more to say I will stop there. I hope that Christians recognize fundamentalism for what it is - an unbiblical approach to truth and faith - and begin to incorporate true faith, which has room for doubting and uncertainty.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Not Disciplined for Spiritual Disciplines?

One person in ten reads the Bible daily. Of course, there are plenty of people who aren't interested in doing so. But there are still others who wish they would read the Bible daily, kind of like hoping they could stick to their diet. Most people suggest that it is a lack of time that gets in their way. But could this really be the case for Americans, who have the time to watch a 2 hour finale of American Idol? I would say not. I think there are psychological obstacles to reading the Bible.

1. Many think the Bible is too long, the language is too difficult, and that it would take a great deal of time to actually read it. But, while the Bible is undoubtedly thick, that is because it actually is comprised of 66 books, all of which are manageable to read in a month. I also recommend that if you find reading the Bible to be difficult, find a different translation. The NIV is written at a 7th grade reading level, and is one of the most popular translations available, but an even better selection for those who have difficulty reading the dense language is the New Living Translation (NLT). Finally, just remember that you don't have to read a whole book in one sitting. Reading one chapter in a sitting can be easily accomplished in ten minutes and makes a good habit just before bed.

2. Although I discounted it earlier, finding time to read the Bible is often a real obstacle. People can sometimes genuinely want to read their Bible but they only remember at times when they are too busy to read. When time is available, people usually just go into passive mode and never even think about reading their Bible. One good way is to read the Bible when waking up or going to sleep. While this is a habit that may take awhile to catch on, these are times where the mind can become prepared for the day ahead or settled down from the day that has passed. Keeping the Bible on the bedstand can be a good reminder.

3. Failure can stop a person in their tracks. Some people try reading their Bible regularly. Then they miss a day or two and suddenly they find it impossible to start again. I think there are two things that you can tell yourself when this happens. First, "This is a new habit so of course I'm not going to do it perfectly. I'm human and I forget sometimes." This reminds you that you are in the midst of a process in which there is a lot of grace. Second, "I want this because it will remind me of ... (God's love for me, how I need to live, or whatever motivates you)." This second one reminds you that you are trying to read out of desire rather than obligation. This is more effective than saying, "I should read my Bible" because that means you are being forced from a power outside yourself rather than making the decision for yourself.

4. Many people, although they wouldn't admit it, feel like the Bible makes them feel guilty. People don't want to be reminded of religious beliefs that contradict their lifestyle. This is a tricky one. In fact, I think this is the most important obstacle to overcome. I noted above that we should remind ourselves why we want to read our Bible and that it should our personal desire. If we are motivated by guilt, then reading the Bible will only last for so long. Instead, we need to be dissatisfied by our life enough to see reading the Bible as a means for change. If we have that mindset then we look at reading the Bible as something that is a positive step for ourselves and thus experience no guilt in it. We may have sins pointed out as we read, but even then we do not wallow in our guilt but rather, by looking at the benefits of a Christian life, find renewed purpose to change.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Empowered or Powerless?

You probably would never read my blog and think I'm a feminist. But I do find feminist thought to be enlightening and helpful. Feminist theory seeks to understand how contextual factors shape our experiences. Issues of power and disenfranchisement play into how we view the world and ourselves. But I read an article recently (Gammell & Stoppard, 1999) that helped me be more critical of some of the underlying principles of feminism. The study looked at how women can feel disempowered when they are prescribed drugs for mental illness, such as depression. The authors worked from a standpoint grounded in feminist theory. The authors correctly identified that some of the participants felt like they had little or no control over their mental illness. Yet I disagreed with how they made the argument that feeling like one does not have control over situations is necessarily a bad thing.

Rather than seeing depression as something which they have power over, women (and the same is probably true for men as well) can feel like they have no control over their depression. Being informed that your mood problems arise out of an imbalance in brain chemicals can lead to such a conclusion. If someone sees this as another indicator that they cannot change anything, this is psychologically harmful. But isn't it possible that disempowerment can actually be a feeling of powerlessness. The difference between disempowerment and powerlessness, in my mind, is that powerlessness is a much more neutral term that describes the state rather than the emotions. While I think that people ought to feel like they have control over their life, it is nevertheless important to properly assess the reality of our powerlessness in certain situations. I therefore do not think that powerlessness is inherently bad.

The truth is that there are many issues in life that are beyond our control. That includes mental illness. Realizing one's powerlessness does not mean that a person should feel like less of a person. Instead, as my pastor puts it, we can try to be "life size" - neither bigger nor smaller than we really are. The article continued to label the feeling that one cannot control one's mental health as disempowerment - a term with clearly negative connotations - when I feel that powerless is a better way to describe it. I also thought that powerlessness better described the way the participants saw their situations. Sometimes we have to face up with the fact that we have limits.

Friday, May 25, 2007

How We Talk

Last year I wrote a post entitled The Language of Healing where I argued that the language of psychology is inferior to the language of the Bible. I had been thinking about language recently and I re-read it for this post, as it had completely fallen from my mind. There I argued that words such as addiction, resistant, and pathology were psychological words that are inferior to the Bible's perspective. I want to soften my perspective some here but also add to it some new insights.

I think that language shapes the way we see the world. Naming things allows us to have power over them. Could I understand forgiveness if I was never taught the words and the stories of forgiveness? I doubt not well. In fact, part of my education involves gaining a new vocabulary that allows me to think more sophisticatedly about humanity.

In the last post, a commenter mentioned how the word "powerless" had been found to be ineffective in capturing the experiences of the people he had worked with in a 12 step group. The vocabulary of the steps was difficult to comprehend because they saw that they could have power. In such times we learn to hold our words loosely. Although we know that learning these new words can reshape our thinking, we also try to find words that are liberating and lead us to who we want to be.

Reflecting back on that blog, I still see that words and phrases like hard-hearted, slave to sin, dying to one's self, and sin can be words that bring freedom or oppression. For some people these words cannot be received because they carry the weight of shame that has been stirred up by some in the church. In that case, that person needs to find the words that will bring them what they are looking for: "liberation," "relief," "healthy living," "satisfaction," "freedom from sin," or "salvation." They can even choose the words to describe what they seek, often what lies behind the words is not so different.

But one thing we should not do is search for words on our own. Often this leads us straight to talking about our life in either too condemning or too accepting terms. It is wrong to do either. The better way is to enter into a community who is journeying towards what you value and is speaking a language that you can understand, if only in part at first. Learning to speak the truth in love and being spoken to in love.

But the best way is to be multilingual. We need to develop multiple "languages" that help us think critically about our lives from each perspective. For me this means studying theology alongside psychology - along with the Christianeze that is sometimes bad-mouthed beyond its due. You probably already speak some languages in part - from your family, your culture, the media, and a number of other sources. Develop the languages of the people you admire.

Remember that Christ introduced a new language to speak of God. He spoke of the Kingdom of God. He spoke about light and darkness, the truth, and God's forgiveness. Jesus was the word.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Addiction Tightrope

For Christians who believe in moral culpability, the concept of addiction is a sticky one. Very few deny that addictions can occur for various controlling substances and most do not deny behavioral addictions, such as gambling and sex addiction. The question remains: where is our free will? Most people believe that people with addictions have some free will and ability to choose. However, the experience of many of those who cannot overcome addiction is that they do not. Who is right?

I probably stand on the side that sympathizes more with those who are addicted. I believe that they have very little resources to be able to stop their behavior. In fact, I think that, on their own, they have almost no control over their addiction. The problem is that most addicts and most critics of addicts think in terms of controlling their addictive behavior. This is not helpful. This only leads to more frustration and hopelessness.

Addicts typically do not have power over their addiction. But they do have control in other areas of their lives, which can have power over their addiction. The whole premise of the 12 step program is that God can do for you what you could not do for yourself. While I cannot resolve whether or not addicts have control over their addictive behavior, I do not need to. Those who have become addicted to substances or behaviors can always find their "higher power" in order to be free. Why debate whether or not we can have control over our actions? With God's help, problems can be resolved.

We are all slaves to sin. We ought to learn these same lessons for ourselves.

As a final note, most people have tried to cry out to God for help. God does not desire momentary wishes for freedom; God wills that we give our lives over to him completely. In that lifestyle of surrender, there is freedom from addiction and slavery.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Homosexuality and Therapy

I have a set of beliefs about whether or not a homosexual lifestyle is sinful. Is it right for me to share that with my clients? Is it right for me to implicitly make them question the moral nature of their behavior, suggesting that it is inappropriate? Is it right for me to help them simply to behave however they want but free from guilt? I don't think any of these are correct. The following thoughts may not be helpful for those who do not think of homosexuality as sin, but for those who do, I hope it allows you to see how therapy can help a client without confronting them.

What is the role of a therapist? To alleviate mental illness. What is the role of a Christian therapist? To alleviate mental illness within the light of the presence of God. A therapist would simply want to help the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender client transition into their new lifestyle in a manner that decreases their mental illness. A Christian therapist differs in two main ways. The first is by allowing the moral language of the client to unfold. The client may have ambivalent feelings towards their own behavior and these should not be stripped of their moral content. The second is by creating a longing for God. Regardless of the faith of the client, simply helping the client accept that the world is unjust can lead to enhanced spirituality. By keeping the moral language of the client and by fostering a spiritual longing, the therapist is actually helping the client learn a way of critical thinking and relating that allows them to continue to pursue God while still alleviating their mental illness.

Why shouldn't therapists confront "sinful behavior"? To some degree, the therapist's viewpoints will certainly escape at some point. However, direct confrontation can actually harm the work of therapy and can cause the client to retreat. By fostering the moral language and desire for spirituality in the client, the therapist may actually allow the client to become a more faithful follower of God than by directly challenging them. The client has almost certainly already heard that homosexuality is a sin, the therapist who reminds them disempowers clients from making their own decisions.

Therapists must also remain humble. I've heard the arguments that suggest that homosexuality is not a sin, teleologically and Scripturally, and they have some weight to them. I should not be so prideful to claim the truth without question. Finally, love towards our clients should underlie everything we do. Within our cultural context, many people with alternative sexual orientations are not willing to accept that their behavior is sinful. By remembering that God's kindness, not his condemnation, leads to repentance, we can show grace to all people.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Moral Development

I had a conversation with my faculty adviser today and he was bouncing some ideas off me about issues he had been thinking about. One thing he brought up was regarding the story in Joshua about how the Israelites were told to kill all inhabitants: men, women, and children. His argument was that God was doing this to develop Israel's moral character. How you might ask? Well, most nations would take the women and children as slaves. Therefore, war became a financial enterprise. Naturally, you might respond: isn't taking slaves better than killing off an entire people? But his argument was that this actually was a progression forward in their moral development because it allowed them to see war in light of their role as the people of God rather than in terms of financial gain. It allowed Israel to turn away from the common practices of the surrounding nations to invade other lands to turn people into commodities. This was actually a building block towards a more peaceful nation.

My reflection on this is that our moral development does not always follow logical paths. Instead of becoming more moral through church attendance, we seem to gain our desire for perfection from becoming aware of our faults. God might let us become cynical about the church in order to plant a seed inside of us to want to change the church. The truth is that God's morality does not always fit with what our culture thinks is right. It doesn't even fit with what Christian culture thinks is right all the time. But God works within all of us to develop us to what we can handle.

Friday, May 04, 2007

The Support of God

I noted in a previous post that the idea that Christians benefit from believing that God supports them has often gone unmentioned. Most people choose to point to the social support available for religious people as the explanation for how they benefit in various ways, such as health, parental ability, etc. But the experience of being supported by God should not be neglected. Yes, the church is often the hand of God in difficult circumstances. But praying to God is a source of comfort and assurance for many.

God is, of course, more than just an experience. But the experience of God's presence can be powerful in helping people see through crisis and see purpose. While I often try to reason my way through difficult situations, by trying to figure out what is the best way to handle a problem, when I pray I experience clarity and discernment that surpasses my reasoning in the moment. I believe God grants insight and direction for those who seek him out. To neglect that ministry in our lives would be tantamount to saying God is unnecessary for religion.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The God Who Feels

Those of us who belong to the Christian faith believe in a God who feels. God has revealed his redemption through sorrow and pain. He has delivered us into a life that was meant to be filled with joy. We worship a God who weeps when confronted with death, becomes furious when confronted with injustice, and sweats drops of blood out of fear of upcoming agony.

Our God is not dispassionate. He is full of life and all the various emotions that go along with living.

For humans that have been created in God's image and who are instructed to be like Jesus, God's incarnated son, the lesson is clear. We are to live out our lives in the midst of a wide sea of emotions. Amongst our feelings of anger, fear, joy, sadness, and even sexuality, let us find the life God has set before us to live.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Great Website on Faith and Psychology

In case you haven't clicked the link here on my blog, if you are interested in psychology and Christianity then you really should check out There are resources for people suffering from mental illness, as well as clergy and those in the helping profession. Also, check out Rob Waller's blog here - he is a psychiatrist who has regularly posted comments on my blog.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Parental Religiousity is Good for the Kids

I just read a study on the positive effect of parent religiosity on children's social skills, self-control, and approaches to learning. To some who think that religion breeds intolerance, such studies may prove to be enlightening of the beneficial aspects of religious involvement. Here's some interesting quotes from the article:

"Kids with religious parents are better behaved and adjusted than other children."

"The kids whose parents regularly attended religious services... were rated by both parents and teachers as having better self-control, social skills and approaches to learning than kids with non-religious parents."

"Bartkowski thinks religion can be good for kids for three reasons. First, religious networks provide social support to parents, he said, and this can improve their parenting skills."

"Secondly, the types of values and norms that circulate in religious congregations tend to be self-sacrificing and pro-family."

"Finally, religious organizations imbue parenting with sacred meaning and significance, he said."

The study noted that secular interventions designed to accomplish the same goals were not as effective and the study did not have an answer as to why this might be.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Living in an Emotional World

It is easy to forget that we live in a world infused with emotion. But in grad school it can become more visible, as students are stretched beyond their prior capacities in a setting that has a variety of stressful experiences. In fact, burnout is expected among long-term graduate students; there is little way around it. And while I am studying psychology, I can still be oblivious to the emotions of my fellow classmates, as well as my own occasionally, and that just seems to highlight why this issue is so important.

Emotions are unavoidable. We are feeling creatures. And we are affected by these feelings and emotions in how we behave and think. Burnout can make us grumpy and resentful. Depression can make us lethargic, unmotivated, and sullen. Sometimes we can only perceive our emotions from how we are acting. Such interpretations are unnatural and typically occur at the rational level. But noticing our emotions, based on how we are behaving, can be useful in making changes. And imagining the emotion in another person can allow us to have greater empathy for them. We live in an emotional world. Best get used to it!

Intellectual Surrender

When two intelligent, faithful people hold two opposite positions, what are we to make of it? Do we consider that one is right and one is wrong? Do we think that both may be right? or both wrong? How does it shape the way we see our own opinions?

Sometimes I have to forcefully bend my mind to recognize the point of view of other people. I actually have to remind myself, "This is an intelligent person who knows a lot about what they are talking about." So I can empathize with anyone who has difficulty in seeing a problem from another person's view. Whether it be spouses, siblings, friends, or neighbors, we all find ourselves making different conclusions about the world around us.

When faced with the possibility of being wrong we can become defensive and angry. But this shuts out new knowledge to correct us. I think we need to learn the practice of intellectual surrender. We just need to admit that the other person could be right. That is sometimes all it takes to see we are in the wrong. But at the very least, that humility puts us in the position to be understanding and care for the other person's feelings.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Christians and The Image Problem

Christianity has an image problem. In America, Christians are seen as homophobic, closed-minded, superstitious individuals who are concerned only with getting their way. Abroad the problem is more that Christianity is associated with America, which means Christians are seen as materialistic, immoral, and narcissistic war-mongers. In a religion that desires to be recognized by our love (John 13:35) this seems like a problem.

Does this problem need to be reconciled? Shouldn't we just be faithful to what our religion is concerned about and pursue it regardless of what others think? Not exactly. The problem is that Christians have long pitted themselves against the values of non-Christians. But we need to recognize that Christians are not the only ones concerned with doing good. While we should not abandon our faith to be accepted by others, I think we should be retooling to address the issues that Christians and the world converge on. These issues include solving global poverty, becoming more eco-friendly, and finding a way to create a more peaceful society.

When Christians focus on issues like homosexual marriage, they distance themselves from non-Christians and appear unloving (even if the pursuit is done with honest heart). And I think it matters how we are seen by others. I think Christians ought to find points of unity where we can live in harmony with others of different beliefs from ourselves.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Important Qualities of a Modern Day American Christian

My pastor challenged me to think of 10 qualities that are important to develop in present day Christians. The list below is not systematic nor is it comprehensive. The qualities are numbered but keep in mind that they are not being ranked in order of importance.

1) Global awareness - appreciation of global problems
2) Prayerfulness - relationship with God that infuses all of life
3) Community mindedness - both valuing and building community
4) Integrity - ethical behavior in work, school, and personal relationships
5) Compassion for others - willingness to learn how to help others
6) Self-awareness - understanding thought patterns and behavioral habits
7) Peacefulness - desire for peace with others, both politically and interpersonally
8) Service - Working to help the church by serving others, both inside and outside the church
9) Sense of Christian Identity - becoming comfortable with the positives and negatives of being a Christian and knowing how to represent Christ well, in both words and action
10) Discipline - ability to practice spiritual disciplines, both individually and within a community

Saturday, April 07, 2007

With What Authority?

Sometimes we can enter into a situation and think that we ought to have a hand in it, only to find out that there is nothing we can do. Take driving for example, you may have a dangerous driver swerving through traffic behind you and think - why should I get out of this guy's way? He may end up tailgating until there's enough space for him to sneak past you. In a way, this is you trying to teach the other guy a lesson. Or perhaps you go for the tactless move and just flip him the bird. Basically you believe that you have the authority to dictate how he should drive.

I was listening to a John Eldridge book on cd called the Power of Prayer. One of the topics he points out is that we cannot demand God to act in areas where we don't have authority. I see this as informing all of our relations - do we have the authority to try to change something? Maybe it's driving, maybe it's with another person's clothes or behavior, maybe it's the weather.

Adam and Eve were granted authority over all creation. But after eating the forbidden fruit, they lost full authority and had to settle for partial authority. We have authority over certain areas: ourselves, our family, our car, our house, our safety, etc. These are things that we are connected to us or belong to us, perhaps only temporarily. But most of the world is not under our authority. Still with me? Authority is the right to control something or someone in some form - direct or indirect - and that right is bestowed sparingly.

In reality we experience this all the time. We try to convince, persuade, manipulate, teach, or guide, in other words control, someone else but they do not obey us because we lack any real connection with them. Even in close relationships, like marriage, we are still only entitled a small amount of authority over our spouse and this becomes evident as they continue to disappoint one another. On the flip side, we realize that we can only do what we want to an extent; we are bound to honor the needs of those around us.

The reason I like thinking in terms of authority is because when I question what right I have to being in authority over another person, I realize I have very little. With the bad driver that I mentioned in the beginning, I have no authority to tell them how to drive, the police do, but I do have authority over my own life. So by thinking in terms of authority I do what I have a right to - I get out of their way as soon as possible. If I would insist on pretending to have authority over the other driver, they would certainly not be happy with me and I would not be exercising wise care over my safety.

Unfortunately I think I embarked on a bigger topic than I can write in a single blog. But what I want you to consider is that we have much smaller spheres on influence, or authority, than we think (the exception is public figures who often do not live up to their authority and instead follow their own passions and desires). I also want you to consider what authority people have over you. One thing that Jesus has called us to is to be servants to others. That means putting ourselves under the authority of others. Ask yourself, how can I submit to the will and desires of others, without yielding my own authority, so as to better serve others?

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Being Culturally Different

I sometimes forget that I'm white. I don't think about being white when I go to the grocery store. I don't think about it when I'm in class. But not too long ago I was in the library and I suddenly realized that every person in that particular part of the library was Asian. I instantly felt out of place. I actually asked myself whether I had intruded into a study session which I was not invited to. Gradually I came to my senses and realized that it was just a coincidence. But it made me more aware of what it can feel like to be ethnically different.

Some people, like me, need reminders of what it feels like to be different. But, if you are a minority, you probably get more than enough of that experience already. My mind had automatically jumped to the conclusion that there was a conspiracy of some sort happening in the library where one people group would congregate in a particular location. I think cultural issues took on a personal feeling after that experience. I can now use that experience as a landmark for understanding how people sometimes, although it may be "paranoid" and "irrational," assume that there is prejudice against them - that they are unwanted strangers.

I hope I learn to use that experience to guide the way I treat others. Reminding myself of what my mind can assume is a good place to start in learning to accept another person's insecurities. While I hope that I go beyond mere welcoming, I hope that I can remember just how lonely it can be to think that I'm an extra piece to an already finished puzzle.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Christian vs. Christ Follower

Thought I'd post this for anyone who hasn't seen it. Although I like the lesson that we don't necessarily have to show off our Christianity to others, I sometimes wonder if cynicism is the right approach to make a point. It makes it seem that if something appears funny to the culture then it is wrong. Though I sometimes resort to cynicism too, I prefer to find common ground with other Christians (or Christ-followers) and proceed with love. Although it may not be as funny, I believe that it is the best way to build unity within the body of believers.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Christian Ethics in Research

I've been working on my master's research project over the last few months and have, at times, lost sight of the bigger picture. But one thing I hope is that my Christian faith will be apparent by the quality of research I do, both scientifically and ethically. You see, as a Christian, I believe that I am not only called to follow ethical rules (like respecting confidentiality, not fudging my results, etc.) but also that I should work as if working for the Lord (Col. 3:23). For research that means researching topics that are beneficial to practitioners and researchers, having sound methodology, and doing a proper literature review. Thankfully I'm being supervised in such a way that these should not be an issue.

As my research develops, I will certainly update you on my progress. Thankfully I'm working on a topic that I am excited about. Perhaps this post can be a reminder to you to consider how you can better honor God in your work. From tent-makers to cupbearers, the Bible is full of hard working individuals whose work habits flow from their relationship with God. Hopefully, more Christians might find joy in doing the work that is before them.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Reconciling Individual Differences

One difficulty in working as a therapist - well it's a difficulty in being a person, too - is that you have to learn to see things from a perspective that you aren't really used to. I was reminded of that in my diversity lecture this morning. I am well aware that I can be a bit pig-headed at times. I'm ruthless about being on time to things and expect the same of others. I expect others to listen to what I have to say but don't extend the same courtesy.

The trouble is that I can become so stuck in my way of thinking that I can miss the perspectives of others. I think there are two parts to it. The first part is that I like to be right because it validates my judgment and makes me feel safe. The second part is that I like to be admired for being right. The problem is that I can sometimes only acquire that respect by proving that the other person is wrong. And I pursue these ends despite all evidence to the contrary. This is simply self-centeredness.

I believe that loving others requires us to humbly put down our entitlement to be correct. We must begin listening and learning from others. I try to remind myself every day to surrender my right to be right. Are there any areas in your life where you struggle with seeing things from another's point of view? What is keeping you from listening?

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Men Versus Women

In my neuropsychology class that I recently finished, we learned about sex differences in cognitive functioning. The book published the results of a number of studies done on different areas of cognitive and motor abilities. So the question you've been dying to know - who is more gifted, men or women? - has finally been answered. See the results below:

Men scored points (do better) in: target throwing and catching, mental rotation, spatial navigation, geographical knowledge, and mathematical reasoning.

Women scored points in: fine motor skills, spatial memory, computation, sensitivity to sensory stimuli, perceptual speed, sensitivity to facial and body expression, visual recognition memory, fluency, and verbal memory.

Men: 5 Women: 9

Of course the scoreboard is in jest. But it illustrates three key points.

1. We put values on skills. Most people would argue with the results, saying that certain skills are more important than others. But this way of thinking has historically led to men being considered better than women. What if we learned to value skills other than strength and mathematical ability as important? What if we learned to value diversity?

2. We love to be associated with the "better group." This has more to do with your reaction to the findings than the findings itself. I'm betting that you did not passively interpret the results. If you are a man, I can hardly imagine that you did not question at least some of the findings. If you are a woman, I'm sure you feel at least slightly empowered by the findings.

3. Men aren't necessarily smarter than women. In the past, women were thought to be incapable of handling complex thought because they were too fragile. While women have gained headway in working professions, proving this to be far from true, there still remains some stereotypes that they are not as smart as men. However, research seems to indicate otherwise.

As a final warning, there is more variability within than between the sexes so don't take it as gospel that one sex will always be better than the other sex at that skill. The reality is far from that. In fact, I don't even know exactly how much better each sex is than the other for the skills. My point was really to provoke thought, not to show who is better.

See Kolb and Whishaw (2003). Fundamentals of Human Neuropsychology.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Moral Appeals

In my last post, the issue came up about where we can look to find our moral values. I am reminded that as a Christian I have inherited a moral tradition from a number of arenas: the church I grew up in, my family, the Bible, plus a number of others. Each of these, and the following, have a number of difficulties around them, as will become apparent below:

Should we base our morals on what promotes a functioning society? Something could be wrong depending on whether or not it allows society to function well. Works well in explaining why we shouldn't steal but not for issues like exploitation of the poor. This might be considered the utilitarian viewpoint. The problem is that this ignores the individual in favor of the group and ignores the possibility of God and an ultimate morality.

What about on personal experience? Many are influenced to believe homosexuality is immoral because they have known (personally or through the media) homosexuals who were promiscuous and perhaps a little bizarre. Then there are people who have known homosexuals who were nice people and they are more likely to believe that homosexuality is not immoral. If experience is our guide then we claim that our life determines what is universally right or wrong and that is narcissistic in its own right. However, given that we cannot escape it, it can be useful in shaping our beliefs if we put experience in its proper place.

Genetics? As I said in my last post, we can't argue morals based on our design. Just because we have some sort of biological inclination towards some behavior doesn't make it right.

General opinion? I think that's where most people appeal for their morals. Didn't racism become wrong for most of the US only when it became unpopular? The problem is that morality is therefore completely relative.

Divine revelation? Some have argued that the Holy Spirit has made it clear to them that homosexuality is not a sin and others are saying the converse. Well when you have opposite sides claiming the Holy Spirit is on their side, you begin to wonder if the Holy Spirit is even involved at all in their conclusions.

The Bible? Besides the fact that most people don't see it as a moral authority, there is also the problem that there are Christians who believe that the Bible does not say that homosexuality (in terms of two consenting adults) is wrong. While I think that the Bible is the best place to look for authority, since it is the Word of God, the interpretation of it goes through fallible human minds.

In the end, we find ourselves in the precarious position of having to argue for morality with the full knowledge that we don't have a firm grasp on what truth really is. Unlike the anonymous commenter on the last post, I believe we need to look at more than just what the Bible says. We need to look at how the church has traditionally interpreted the Bible, we need to look to reason, we need to our own experiences and then we can humbly realize that we do not know without doubt what is right and wrong.

While that is an uncomfortable position, we must realize that our highest calling is not to protect a moral system but is, in Jesus' own words, to "love one another." In this light we see that we ought to act based on our best judgments as to what the Bible says is truth but keep our interpretations humble. Loving others means doing what we think is best for them, and while we can sometimes argue that our moral tradition would be best for them, we need to love them as servants not as ones who are in a position to command them how to live.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Is Homosexuality Genetic? A Theological Response

I just read an article on MSN about Southern Baptist Seminary president, Rev. Albert Mohler, Jr., who wrote an article on how homosexuality is likely to have a genetic basis and then raises the question of whether or not it would be right, if it were possible, to treat the babies with hormones to change their sexual orientation back to heterosexual. A provocative thought, to say the least. He's managed to anger both conservative Christians, who think homosexuality is a choice, AND gay rights, by suggesting a "treatment." I didn't read what Mohler actually wrote but it seemed like he merely wanted to dialog about it. I would like to address why I think a genetic cause for homosexuality does not mean that homosexuality is moral.

Do I believe homosexuality has a genetic component? Yes. Current research strongly supports this position. (Actually, research supports the finding that homosexuality has a biological basis - more likely to be associated with hormones than genes... but that can get confusing to the average layperson) Does that make homosexual behavior moral? No.

If morality is simply dictated by our biological makeup, then we have surrendered any belief in personal agency. It is each person's responsibility to do the most with their life that they can. Alcoholism is perhaps the simplest example, if there is a gene for alcoholism does that make it okay to be an alcoholic? Of course not. If there was a gene for pedophilia, would we excuse it? Absolutely not.

Now I would hate to insult homosexuals by equating them with pedophiles so let me make it clear that that is not my goal. I simply want to illustrate that genes = moral is a fallacy. It is unfortunate that both gay rights advocates and conservative Christians have fallen for this simplistic thinking. So how do we judge if homosexuality is immoral or not? If we cannot appeal to the "natural order" (whatever that is) then to what or to whom do we appeal? I cannot answer that question [for those who do not follow Christ (added 3/16)], all I can do is show you that we cannot appeal to science. Science is not ultimate truth.

Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment...

Monday, March 12, 2007

Changing From Information to Transformation

I was looking at a site on Christianity and Mental Health called Mind and Soul and came across an article on the need for churches to change their approach on how they teach their congregation. The situation that is described is one that I have certainly felt - being told what's wrong with you but not how to fix it. The truth is that even if I do learn something new, if I don't apply it then I will forget it.

I think one sentence sums it all up well, "Most people don't need information, they need techniques to help them change and a supporting culture in which to do (so)." I think that is what many of us long for. The opportunity to grow in a supportive and instructive environment.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Is My Education Making Me a Better Person?

If you count Kindergarten, I have been in school for 20 years. And since I still have four years ahead of me until I get my doctorate, I guess you can say that I'm a believer in education. But while I believe all this education will open up career options for me, I still have to question whether or not I am becoming a better person out of all this time in school. I regularly visit a blog by a psychologist who is a professor at Biblical Seminary and he wrote a personal apology for a statement he made in a class. One sentence captures the message well, "Seminary education can be rather dangerous."

As a student of both psychology and theology I can relate. I can often feel the pull towards smugness and pride whenever I get into a conversation on either topic and perhaps I should apologize to those who I have vainly given my opinion to as fact (and sometimes rather insensitively). Education can make you feel empowered and that can indeed be dangerous. I think it's good to be critical - to know your weaknesses - and that is no less true for ventures where you are pouring your time and money into. I must critically ask myself if my education is making me a better person.

I've noticed, paradoxically, that learning makes me both more open-minded and closed-minded. At times writing position papers, learning theory, or criticizing theology can make me choose sides and suddenly my views are the "right" views. But there are also times when I, as a result of my psychological training, can see that where a person is coming from is more important than what they are saying. I can see their side because I can sense their passion, pain, or fear about an issue. It can often depend on my mood whether or not I am close-minded with others and perhaps the work ahead of me is to better control my mood.

Beyond that, I believe that the trials of being evaluated and stretched have forced me to develop a better work ethic. While in college I could skate along with a mediocre work ethic, I find myself needing (and occasionally desiring) to work hard and become the best psychologist I can be. I also have learned how to balance my life with school, work, social events, and time to relax. And of course everything I learn about people in my classes I can apply to myself.

So, indeed I would say: yes, my education is making me a better person. But I know that it doesn't always do so. In the past two years I have managed to stave off burnout and hopelessness (for the most part). Perhaps that is because in those dark times where I feel so stressed out, I usually take a minute and see how this is all shaping me to become the person I want to be. If I did not have those times of renewal, and the people who encourage me on, I could easily become bitter and my education would be my downfall. Although I wish at times I could be in a steady 40 hour week and making money, I am thankful for the opportunity that has been set before me. God has brought me this far, he will lead me on.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Prescription Privileges for Psychologists

In the last month, a bill has been introduced to the California state assembly regarding prescription privileges for psychologists. Similar bills have already passed in New Mexico and Louisiana. Now, in case you didn't know, psychiatrists are medical doctors and have the ability to prescribe medications while psychologists do not. However, this bill would change that by allowing psychologists to gain prescription privileges (RxP) by undergoing a two-year post-doctoral education that involves both didactic instruction and practicum. The American Psychological Association is lobbying for this bill to pass under the auspices that psychologists can help meet the needs of underserved populations, particularly in rural areas. However, it seems that the true purpose is to gain a clear distinction for psychologists from other mental health workers - in other words RxP is for economic purposes. The bill is opposed by psychiatrists and some other members of the medical field.

I want to bring up a few key issues why I think it is a bad idea for California to allow psychologists to gain RxP.

1. There is little evidence to show that psychologists can provide quality medical care. 50% of all mental illnesses are associated with an underlying general medical condition. Psychologists may not be able to understand all of the nuances of these conditions to treat properly. The real problem is we do not know if psychologists will provide quality care, we should wait to see how it goes in New Mexico and Louisiana.
2. The reasons for pursuing RxP, particularly meeting the needs for clients in rural areas, may be a fallacy because it seems that most psychologists who pursue the further education will want to work in urban and suburban areas.
3. The training program may be too short to properly train. The APA is lobbying for a training plan but the plan is much different from the one that the Department of Defense used to train psychologists to prescribe. Again, it's a question of knowing whether or not it will work.
4. The occupation of the psychologist will work best if there is unity within the members. RxP will cause a disunity as psychologists choose to either pursue RxP or get left behind. As a field, psychologists need to stick together.

In the end I recognize that there are problems with the system we currently have. There are not enough psychiatrists and most prescribing is done by general practitioners who have little training in psychopharmacology (i.e. meds for mental health issues). This is a problem. But I don't think RxP is the solution at this time. Psychologists already have the ability to gain RxP through gaining an advanced nursing degree, which takes about three years, so proposing a separate avenue is premature at this point in time.