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.