Tag Archives: Christianity

Dealing with Depression

World Mental Health Day is October 10th. Obviously this post is late for that, but is published with the intent of bringing awareness to mental health issues.

Depression is something that you really don’t fully understand unless you have been through it yourself. Even observing it in a close friend or loved one still doesn’t give you a full appreciation for the condition in my opinion. So since I have had to deal with my share of depression over the past couple of years, and since I’m starting to feel better finally, I’ve decided to share my perspective on it.

To begin I want to distinguish and define what I am referring to with the term depression. What I’m describing here is not a synonym for the sin of acedia. While both of them have many of the same physical signs: apathy, laziness, despair, dejection, sleepiness, lack of motivation and desire, etc the causes are different. Acedia is a spiritual disease which affects behavior. Essentially acedia is Hell on the installment plan; that is, a person has decided to no longer follow God [for some reason] and by doing so is gradually rejecting God and gradually progressing towards Hell. Depression, as I’m referring to it here is a physical condition which affects behavior. It refers to a chemical imbalance in the body which affects the overall life of a person.

Now don’t get me wrong here, I think there is a definite spiritual dimension to depression. There are times when I am angry at God and think He has just abandoned me and left me to an awful life. There are periods when I don’t bother doing any sort of personal spiritual devotion or practice and I feel like I am wasting my time on Sunday mornings. There has been real damage done to me spiritually while going through this, and I suspect it will take me quite a while to repair it and get things back on track.

However, I want to be sure that I distinguish between the two because I think Christians have a tendency to spiritualize everything and I want to make it clear that what I am talking about has a physical cause, not a spiritual one. I recognize that there is a spiritual dimension to it, but I am not talking about a spiritual disease. Depression as I define it is not something you can just pray your way out of or try harder and be cured from. Depression as I define it is something where you are basically helpless until you get yourself physically back to health.

Causes and Symptoms

Depression has a myriad of causes and identifying and treating the correct one can take some time. In my case it has really ended up being a hormone imbalance which has been further exacerbated over the past few years by the stress of graduate studies, not sleeping well, and not being able to get the rest I needed post-seminary. Basically it was depression caused by severe burnout. The hormone imbalance itself is quite treatable and since having resumed Clomid finally I feel much better physically (don’t get me started on how terrible my experience with the healthcare system in Sarasota was). The rest and sleeping well has been harder to come by, but since putting out the fires that suddenly popped up when I got back and actually treating my hormone issues I have finally started to sleep better and I am finally getting rest.

The main symptom I noticed during my depression was that my mental acuity was gone. Everything I did took longer and was far more difficult than normal. I could stare for 30 minutes at my computer writing a paper and not type a single thing and have no idea where the time went. My thoughts never moved from my brain to my fingers. This is a big problem when you’re doing graduate level work; you need to be at 100% mentally to do this level of work.

There were other significant symptoms as well: lack of energy, no motivation, no desire, no pleasure in previously enjoyed activities. I actually tried to avoid people as much as possible so that I wouldn’t have to talk to them and interact with them. I didn’t want to do anything because nothing was fun or enjoyable and I knew it would just be a waste of time for me.

Supporting Yourself While Depressed

Over the course of my experiences with depression I’ve discovered several things that were helpful in dealing with the symptoms. This is of course just my list based on my personal experience and not a substitute for professional medical advice. There, you have a disclaimer.

Identify the cause. I think this is the most important step because it can help understand and make sense of what is happening to you. For me I knew that I had been pushing myself way too hard and that several things did work out the way that I expected to them to. Add this all up and it is a ton of stress to deal with. I also knew that my testosterone was off because I went to a doctor and had it tested. Overall I’ve found that knowing my life was very stressful in seminary (especially the final 2-3 years) along with being able to point to a biologically identifiable marker such as imbalanced hormones really took a lot of the unknown out of it for me. As a result my depression wasn’t some mysterious thing that came out of the blue, but something with identifiable and correctable causes. I think that knowing this really brought me a lot of peace about the situation.

See a doctor and a therapist. You need help to get through depression. A doctor can provide the help you need physically and prescribe the correct medication to get you feeling better. A therapist can help you work through all the emotions and feelings you are experiencing. You really need this combination of care and not just one or the other. Depression might be physical in origin, but it affects you emotionally and spiritually also, so you need to make sure you take care of yourself in all of these areas.

Eat and supplement correctly. This is something that I think might not get enough attention when it comes to treating depression. To be sure I don’t think you can cure depression with a healthy diet and supplements alone, but I do think they can be a tremendous help. You can exercise your Google muscles and find out what a healthy diet is if you don’t know, so I won’t get into that here. What I will get into here though are the supplements that I found to helpful during my bouts with depression:

  • Probiotics. I found the Garden of Life brand worked the best for me, but RenewLife worked pretty well also. I started taking them because I noticed my bowel movements were, shall we say, unpleasant and runny. I also felt like I hadn’t eaten even though I was eating regularly. I took this in the morning before breakfast and then had a Greek yogurt for lunch which had more probiotics in it. I’ve been able to drop the supplement since starting Clomid, but I still eat the Greek yogurt for lunch.
  • Creatine. This is primarily used by athletes, but I found it was helpful during depression also. One of the problems I had was feeling physically weak, and creatine basically is supposed to make you stronger (that’s the overly simplified version anyway), so I figured I would try it to see if it would work. It did. From my understanding it is actually a pretty safe supplement and can be used for several months at least. It might not work for you, but it is worth a shot I think. Since starting Clomid though I’ve been able to stop taking this as well.
  • Multivitamin, B-Complex, Fish Oil. I took all these to make sure that I was getting all the nutrients I needed and to help with stress. Nothing special about these, but make sure you are getting quality versions of them. I found Nature Made vitamins work pretty well personally.
  • Magnesium. I’ve found Magnesium to be helpful with energy. Even though I generally eat foods that have magnesium in them I found a supplement in addition to them to be helpful. There has been some speculation that there is a link between magnesium deficiency and depression, so I decided to try it and see if it would work for me. It did. I took it at lunch separate from my multi, B-complex, and fish oil supplements because calcium can apparently interfere with its absorption.

I found these supplements helped tremendously during my depression. They didn’t make me feel “normal” or anything, but they at least made me functional so that I could get out of the house and do at least a few things. It really took Clomid for me to start feeling better and closer to normal. I still take the multivitamin, b-complex, fish oil, and magnesium supplements though because I do weightlifting 4x a week find them to be beneficial while expending so much energy.

Treat yo’ self. This is last on my list, but I think it is the most important. When you are dealing with depression you need to take care of yourself first and not worry about others. So do what makes you happy. I like video games, so I played a lot of video games. Other people might like painting, or walking, or photography, or any number of other things. I found that the way to counter all the negative thoughts and feelings I was having was to have fun so I could start having happy and positive thoughts and feelings. It didn’t happen overnight, and it hasn’t eliminated all the negative thoughts, but at least now the good and pleasant thoughts are outweighing the negative thoughts.

Supporting Someone Who is Depressed

Depression is not only hard on the person experiencing it, but also on those who are close to them.  Here is one list of things to do. And here is another. Here is mine:

Recognize that they can’t just ‘get over it’ or ‘snap out of it.’ The tough-love approach will not work. Depression is not simply a mental state. It is a mental state caused by a chemical imbalance. It requires medication and professional medical care. Exercise might help a little, it did for me, but it didn’t cure my depression. There is nothing a depressed person can do about their state and trying to ‘motivate’ them out of it will only be harmful.

Recognize that what you are seeing is not who that person really is. When you are depressed you think all sorts of crazy things about all sorts of people and situations that are most likely highly inaccurate. In my experience I found that I was unable to view a situation accurately from a wholistic perspective, but instead generally misinterpreted people’s body language, words, and actions to mean that they didn’t like me. I wanted to think otherwise, but I just wasn’t capable. Little things that would ordinarily go unnoticed by me, or at least not bother me, really got under my skin and irritated me.

Learn about depression and the signs of suicide. The more you understand about depression and its effects the better the position you are in to be able to empathize with someone who is dealing with it. I was never suicidal in my depression, but I certainly understand why some do arrive at that place; you are just so absolutely miserable that you do not want to live.

Try small gestures. Depression isn’t just a lack of motivation or desire for career or life ambitions, it’s a lack of desire to do anything, including basic hygiene, cooking, cleaning, etc. A small gesture such as a meal, or cleaning their rooms, or even a haircut could go a long way and tell that person that they are still loved and not forgotten about.

Be patient. It takes time to get out of depression and it takes time to heal from the effects. I have found that even though the feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness are gone the experience and thoughts surrounding them still remain floating around in my heading just waiting to be triggered by some event and come flooding back in. So just be patient with them and let them take their time.

End the Stigma

For some reason there seems to be some sort of stigma surrounding depression and discussing it, and this needs to end. Essentially depression is due to an organ malfunction, and that organ is your brain. There is no stigma surrounding heart failure, or liver failure, or kidney failure, but for some reason when your brain is malfunctioning no one wants to talk about it or knows what to do about it. So hopefully this post will contribute in some small way to ending this stigma and educating people about depression.

When Failure Isn’t Your Fault Part 2: Why I Still Have Faith

In my previous post I related some of the feelings and frustrations related to not having achieved any version of “success” in my life. In this post I will continue that discussion into how my faith has been affected by those failures.

I think the largest and most significant emotion that I have felt during the past 2 years has been betrayal. Some of this betrayal has come from others, but their betrayal doesn’t really bother me a whole lot anymore. What bothers me a whole lot more is feeling betrayed by God. I can handle people betraying me. It doesn’t feel good, but I can handle it. But what do you do when it seems like God has betrayed you? What do you do when you believe in an all-sovereign God who loves you and wants the best for you, but in reality your life feels like nothing more than a series of crushed hopes and dreams?

I don’t believe that anything that happened to me during seminary was beyond God’s ability to prevent or redeem. From my health issues to the actions of others to whatever. All of it was within His power to prevent. And if He wasn’t willing to prevent it I believe it was within His power to redeem and use for good. Well it has been 1 year since I graduated and 2 years since everything started crashing and burning for me and I’m still waiting for this entire mess to be redeemed. I’m still waiting for the smallest semblance of “success.” Still waiting to not feel ashamed about my lack of accomplishment in my life. To not feel ashamed about being 33 (almost 34) and living with my parents. To not be in an area that feels suffocating to me and seems to hold no future (like seriously, I do not like SWFL). To not feel like I wasted 6 good years of my life and a hefty chunk of change on an endeavor that so far has turned out to be mostly a waste of both time and money.

So why go on believing? Why not just curse God and die? Well, because everything I’ve described so far are just feelings and I do not believe that feelings determine reality. Just because you feel like God has abandoned you doesn’t mean that He has. One of the more useful experiences I had in seminary was being chronically exhausted. I was able to experience just how much different reality felt when I was I exhausted compared to when I was well rested. I learned and experience just how fickle feelings are and how quickly they can change from one moment to the next.

God is not a feeling for me. God is a reality for me. Just because I feel like God has abandoned me doesn’t mean that He has. Reality is independent of our feelings. Furthermore, Jesus Himself, literally God incarnate, also felt the same way:

And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Matthew 27.46 (quoting Psalm 22.1; also cited in Mark 15.34)

For me it is a comfort to read these words. To know that Jesus felt abandoned by God, and that I as a follower of Christ feel the same way tells me that I am doing something right. It tells me that what I need to do is endure and persevere. If God can redeem someone from death then He is certainly capable of redeeming my situation also. But waiting for that redemption is hard. Very hard.

When Failure Is Not Your Fault

It seems popular these days to advise people that if they fail it is all their fault and that they need to take ownership of their failure and learn and grow from it. While I think this is certainly the case most of the time, as Captain Picard reminds us above, it is not the only scenario for failure. Sometimes we do everything correct and we still fail. Or sometimes the circumstances of our situation are such that no matter what we do we will never succeed. Perhaps we are aware of these circumstances, but perhaps we are not. It doesn’t really matter in the end because we will not be able to overcome them.

I believe that it is better for failure to be your fault rather than to fail because success was impossible. If your failure was because of something you did or didn’t do, then that means success was likely within your control. You can analyze and reflect on your failure, correct your mistakes, and succeed (or at least improve) the next time. It might not feel good to admit that you failed, but long term it is better to have failed and learned and grown from it.

It is far worse though, I think, to fail simply because the circumstances would not allow you to succeed. To be sure you can still reflect on such failures and learn what you could have done better. But knowing that success was ultimately impossible and that there was nothing that you could do to change that is a different kind of hurt. It’s a hurt that leaves you feeling helpless and hopeless. Whatever things you might realize in hindsight that you could have done better are overshadowed by the feelings of despondency that come with realizing success was never an option.

I feel like my life has been a series of this 2nd type of failure. I feel that even though I have reflected on and learned what I could have done better or improved, that ultimately success was impossible.

Now before I go any further, allow me to explain what “success” in life is for me. At different points in my life I have had different versions of success. At one point success for me was having a family and being wealthy enough so that money wasn’t a limiting factor in pursuing opportunities. Then as time progressed I stopped caring about wealth and just wanted sufficient income to support my family. Then some more time passed and I stopped caring about having kids. Then still more time passed I stopped caring about having a wife. Now I am at the point where for me success is simply being able to support myself and move out of my parent’s house. While the devolution of my vision of success is likely significant it really doesn’t matter for the purposes of this article because at no point in my life have I achieved any of these versions. And furthermore, being able to support myself is a fundamental requirement for all these versions anyway.

So is it possible for someone to try for 15 years and not even achieve the most basic level of success of any version of success he has ever had? Oh yes. It is quite possible.

I graduated High School in 2004. I decided that I wanted to do computer network management, so I enrolled in a program for training in that. I graduated that program with an Associate’s at the end of 2007. Oh yes. Do you remember what happened in 2008? I do. I remember quite well. It was The Recession. Now Florida, where I was living at the time, was one of the hardest hit states by The Recession. In fact we were competing with California and Michigan for the highest unemployment rate. Not exactly something that you want to win. So the economy that I graduated into was one of the worst in U.S. history. And as you might expect I wasn’t able to really even get this career off the ground because there were literally no jobs around, not even in the tech industry in my area.

So with my first attempt at success having failed because of something I could do nothing about I figured I would get a Bachelor’s degree. The only job I had found was at a call center, which I hated but it was money, and since I was considering seminary and needed a Bachelor’s for that anyway I figured it was a good next move. So I enrolled in a web development program at a local University. Unfortunately that program ended up being completely worthless, but between grants and scholarships I didn’t spend any money on tuition there anyway. Not to mention that it really failed to instill any passion for web development in me because it made the practice so convoluted and unclear.

So having failed a 2nd time because of a University’s terrible curriculum I decided to make a 3rd attempt at success. After all, 3rd time’s a charm right?

No. No it isn’t.

Initially I was very excited to have been accepted to DTS. At this point I am 8 years or so out of high school and I still have yet to really start a career due to so many things going wrong. So when I got in it felt like something finally went right and I was for once excited and optimistic about the future. In hindsight though it seems I only got in so that I could fail again. Some of you are aware of the many health related issues that I dealt in seminary (if not they are documented on this site elsewhere) and how no matter what I tried or did I simply could not get things under control. Ultimately these issues cost me most, if not every, opportunity I had post-seminary.

So now I feel like I have failed a 3rd time for reasons that I ultimately had no control over.

And now I am just tired. Tired of failing for reasons I can’t control. And quite honestly I don’t feel like trying anymore. Even when I do get the motivation and the energy to start working towards “success” again it isn’t long before the ghost of past failures shows up and starts whispering to me, “this attempt will also end in failure and there is nothing you can do to change that outcome.”

Now I don’t think that my situation is typical, but I think it does happen. And maybe someone reading this is in a similar situation and needs to know that sometimes failure isn’t your fault. Sometimes the circumstances of your situation are such that you were never going to succeed no matter what you did. Unfortunately though I have no advice or “solution” for when you when run out of motivation and just want to give up. All I can say is that I am right there with you. But if you figure something out, please let me know.

Questions Do Not Indicate Doubt

PC: Joel Overbeck | Unsplash

The story of Lisa (and Michael) Gungor recently came to my attention (I’ve been kind of busy the past 6 years or so with seminary). There’s a lot that I suppose could be commented on regarding her story, but there was one aspect in particular that stood out to me: the shutting down of her questions: 

 
“We went to this very wild, charismatic church, and the church was exciting and the way of Jesus was revolutionary to me. And I had little questions, but you weren’t really allowed to ask them.”

Here’s the deal: questions don’t indicate doubt, they indicate curiosity and engagement. Questions, assuming they’re honest, come about as a result of being engaged in thinking about something. If you are teaching a topic and someone asks a question regarding it it means that they are engaged and care about what you are saying! It means that they have been following and processing what you are saying and are trying to understand it better. Perhaps something is completely new to them. Perhaps it conflicts (or seems to conflict) with what they already know. Perhaps they find the topic interesting or intriguing and want to know more about it. So for a child, who is growing up in church, to be asking questions about the faith is a good thing and something that should be welcomed!

Unfortunately though that’s not what happened in Lisa’s case. Questions were apparently viewed as doubt and doubt “was the opposition of faith.” The problem with this logic is, as I’ve tried to show above, that questions do not indicate doubt, but engagement and curiosity! When you are apathetic and not engaged by a topic is when you fail to be curious about it and do not ask questions regarding it. Questions are good, and should be asked. 

The results of their curiosity being shutdown were not good. The questions didn’t go away. They kept gnawing away at both of them until they found answers to them. That is after all the only way to get rid of a question: answer it.

I don’t know what their exact questions were since they don’t mention them specifically in the article. However, the “problem” of evil seems to have been one of them given the mentioning of their experience from their visit at Auschwitz and Lisa’s problem with reading the Old Testament. This is a very good question! In fact, this question is only a “problem” within the Judaeo-Christian worldview. After all, if God is good and created everything, then why does evil exist? Why the horrors of Auschwitz? Why modern day genocides? Why senseless murders? 

These are not new questions. Christianity has been around for 2,000 years and so have these questions. The ultimate answer (because there is quite a bit to discuss regarding this issue) to the “problem” of evil is that God allows it and uses it to accomplish His purposes, one of which is to bring glory to Himself. Yes, I am quite sure that God could have accomplished His purposes and glorified Himself through some other means, but He didn’t and in the end we have to discuss what God actually did, not what He might have done or could have done.

Issues with the Old Testament are also not new. In fact they are so old that the New Testament even deals with some of them! Specifically, that Christians are not under the Mosaic Law because through their union with Christ they died to the Law because Christ did what the Law could not: free us from sin! (see Romans 6). In Galatians 3 also Paul argues that people have always been justified by faith, not by doing the Law. He goes on to say that the Law was just a tutor whose purpose was to lead us to Christ, but now that Christ has come there is no longer any need for a tutor.

Obviously there is much more that can (and should) be discussed regarding these two questions. My point here is simply to show that questions are not evidence of doubt or a lack of faith. Questions are evidence of curiosity. They are evidence that someone is thinking about the faith and wanting to learn more about it, or reconcile things that don’t make sense. Honest questions should be engaged with honesty and compassion. The goal of engaging these questions is not to win an argument or convince someone of our view of things, but to win the person. To communicate to them that we understand where the question is coming from and why it is an issue for them. To communicate to them that we love them and are concerned about them. They could be motivated by genuine curiosity, or they could be motivated by pain, but we will never know until we engage them.

But whatever you do, don’t shut questions down or consider them to be a lack of faith. Especially if they’re coming from children. The questions aren’t going to go away. The person asking them will eventually answer them, and part of that answer will be: “God doesn’t love me.” And nothing could be further from the truth. 

The City of the Soul

PC: Aniket Deole | Unsplash

I think we are all afraid of God. Whether we are the most devout Christian on the planet, or the most hardened atheist, I think we are all afraid God. The difference I think is in to what extent we have gone to insulate ourselves from our fear.

Some of us have built massive sprawling metropolises in our souls to deafen them to the voice of God. We have used concrete and steel to construct buildings and skyscrapers in order to feel safe and secure in our pleasures, whatever they may be. Whether it’s in fine food. Or sex. Or athletic ability. Or professional accomplishments. Or money. Whatever they are we don’t want to hear the conclusion of The Preacher:

I did not restrain myself from getting whatever I wanted;
I did not deny myself anything that would bring me pleasure.
So all my accomplishments gave me joy;
this was my reward for all my effort.
Yet when I reflected on everything I had accomplished
and on all the effort that I had expended to accomplish it,
I concluded: “All these achievements and possessions are ultimately profitless—
like chasing the wind!
There is nothing gained from them on earth.”

Ecclesiastes 2.10-11 (NET)

The roads in our cities are paved. The reasoning, we tell ourselves, is so that we don’t have to walk in dust and get dirty. The real reason though is that we don’t want to be reminded that we came from dust and will one day return to it. We don’t want to be reminded of our death. Our death that comes about because we rebelled against God:

But to Adam he said,
“Because you obeyed your wife
and ate from the tree about which I commanded you,
‘You must not eat from it,’
cursed is the ground thanks to you;
in painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
but you will eat the grain of the field.
By the sweat of your brow you will eat food
until you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust, and to dust you will return.”

Genesis 3.17-19 (NET)

Finally, we artificially light up the darkness of our souls with false hopes. Political parties. Technology. Economics. Sciences. Philosophies. Whatever we think will set the world right we put our hope in and light up our souls with. However by doing so we blind ourselves to Jesus, the true light:

The true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was created by him, but the world did not recognize him. He came to what was his own, but his own people did not receive him. But to all who have received him—those who believe in his name—he has given the right to become God’s children —children not born by human parents or by human desire or a husband’s decision, but by God.

John 1.9-13 (NET)

And so we insulate ourselves, whether consciously or not, from the voice of God. We don’t hear or see what He is telling us. We don’t see the stars at night. We don’t see the animals during the day. We don’t see the crops we get our food from. We’ve closed ourselves off from any and all reminders that we made neither ourselves nor the world we’re living in. We don’t hear what creation is telling us:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the sky displays his handiwork.
Day after day it speaks out;
night after night it reveals his greatness.
There is no actual speech or word,
nor is its voice literally heard.
Yet its voice echoes throughout the earth;
its words carry to the distant horizon.

Ps. 19.1-4 (NET)

I don’t like cities. I don’t like what happens to my soul when I don’t hear the voice of God because other concerns are crowding it out. For all the loneliness and isolation that may come from being in the desert it is a far more profitable place spiritually. In the desert there is no concrete or steel or artificial light to distract you from the voice of God. And I think this is why we don’t like being in spiritual deserts: because when we are in such a place we cannot get away from God even though we want to.

Give me the desert over the city.

 

Forgotten Elements in American Christianity: Ecclesiastes

American Christianity is unbalanced, I believe. This is not a uniquely American problem though; no culture will ever have a perfectly balanced expression of Christianity. Cultures have a certain set of values and those values inevitably help shape their expression of Christianity, for good and bad.

In America we tend to value practicality. We focus on making things productive and efficient. We focus on things that get results; that help us accomplish our goals. We are a goal-oriented society. This naturally leads to an emphasis on work, which is good because God created us to work:

The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. — Genesis 2.15

God expects us to work:

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. — Exodus 20:8–10a

The Apostle Paul also expects us to work:

For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. — 2 Thessalonians 3:10–12

We also tend to value idealism. We’re eternal optimists. We’re always envisioning and imagining a better life, a better country, a better world. We differ quite vastly over what that ideal world looks like, but we are always imagining it. When we combine this with our emphasis on work it naturally leads to the conclusion that we can make our ideal world a reality. And this also is not a bad thing. The single mother, for example, who wants to get out of her minimum wage job and earn more money so she can work less and spend more time with her children should try to make that ideal a reality; it’s a good thing.

What isn’t good is when a healthy dose of the futility of life is not injected into the marriage of these two values. I think this injection is missing in American Christianity and I think it is missing because we have neglected the perspective of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes. I suspect if I surveyed 100 American Christians and asked them what their favorite book of the Bible is that Ecclesiastes would have less than 5 votes, in fact it might not get any. It is a sad thing to think about, and I think also indicative of why American Christianity is the way it is.

It requires us to think and reflect on some of the cold hard truths about life, and we don’t like to do this. It isn’t productive. It doesn’t produce results. It doesn’t help us reach our goals. So why bother with it? Not only this, but it also undermines our idealism with fatalism. Consider the following:

I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind. — Ecclesiastes 1.14

Why would we want to acknowledge this? If this is true we reason, then why bother doing anything? Why bother standing up for the rights of the unborn? Why bother trying to eliminate racism? If it’s all useless then why bother? And so our thoughts stop there and we move on to the nice friendly passages that make us feel warm and fuzzy inside.

However once we come to grips with the perspective of the Preacher we can conclude along with him:

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. — Ecclesiastes 12.13-14

When we recognize that all our striving after the actualization of our ideals is useless and in the end doesn’t matter it frees us from carrying that unnecessary burden and allows us to focus on what does matter: keeping the commandments of God. We recognize that God will judge each of us individually. Were we covetous and never content with what we had? Were we adulterous and consistently involved in sexual promiscuity? Did we spread false lies about others for our own advantage? Did we love something more than God? How well we loved God and loved others is what we will be judged on.

The reason why I write this is because I have noticed a tendency over the past couple of years within the church to think that we need to solve the social injustices in our country and world. I think this is dangerous because it is placing an unnecessary burden on the church and I think it will eventually be too much for us to carry and will crush us. We are not called to solve all the problems and injustices of the world. We are called to be salt and light. Living testimonies of the love of God to all humanity. If we first look at the state of our own soul and work to purify and cleanse it, then the societal change we want to see will naturally flow from it. It does not work the other way around. This is what Christ taught us:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. — Matthew 23.25-28

 

 

 

Personality and Discipleship

A perennial struggle in Christianity is the struggle between preserving the old and adapting to the new. On the one hand we have a faith that we must preserve and hand on to future generations, but on the other new discoveries and advances are constantly being made, especially in the areas of science and technology. How much of the old do we change or reformulate in light of the new?

One of the fields that has been part of this debate is psychology. While there is a lot in this field that has been rejected by Christians [and rightfully so], not everything has. One area that seems to have gained at least some acceptance is personality theory, and more specifically the MBTI.

Essentially the MBTI builds on some of Carl Jung’s work to arrive at 16 different types of human cognition [thinking patterns]. It is important to note that these are indeed just different types and that one is not inherently better than the others; each type has its own gifts and blind spots. It is a good description of what we see in reality and in our everyday interactions with others since it is quite obvious that not everyone thinks the same or cares about the same things. Its widespread acceptance then is not surprising.

Where I think the MBTI can make the best impact is as a supplement to discipleship. Note the emphasis on supplement. Whatever your cognitive wiring happens to be it isn’t going to change when you become a Christian, but your heart will. An example of this is the Apostle Paul. Prior to his conversion we read of someone with a zealous personality:

“But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.”  — Acts 8.3

“But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” — Acts 9.1-2

After his conversion Paul didn’t lose his zeal as he went on several missionary journeys establishing and strengthening the churches [mostly Gentile] throughout the Roman Empire. He was beaten numerous times, imprisoned, and eventually executed for his work in spreading the Gospel. God didn’t change his wiring, He changed his heart.

When we become Christians, whenever that might be, our cognitive wiring does not change, our hearts do. Like Paul’s our hearts change from being hostile towards God to loving Him; we desire to serve Him rather than persecute Him. If someone was an artist before their conversion, they will still be an artist afterwards; their personality won’t change. What will change is their heart, a change that will likely be reflected in their art.

Discipleship essentially continues the heart change that happened at conversion. The regular spiritual disciplines of prayer, Scripture study, meditation, fasting, etc are of far more value in this process than the MBTI, and also offer better opportunities for growth. If you are in a discipleship or mentoring relationship with someone the main focus of your discussions should be on spiritual matters and spiritual growth, not personality theory. Living the Christian life and following Christ, learning to deny yourself, putting to death your own selfish ambitions, and being submissive to where the Spirit is leading you and the work He is doing in you will result in far more growth than anything any psychologist will ever come up with, including the MBTI.

However, I think the MBTI can be a useful supplement to this process by providing a framework that shows us that not everybody processes information the same, nor do they need to, nor should they. It can help show us how to craft a discipleship process that helps a person become the best version of who God made them to be, rather than who the pastor, mentor, or whoever thinks they should be. Or as a resource I recently saw put it: we can become like Jesus while being ourselves.

It can also help us avoid some of the conflicts and miscommunication that can arise in such relationships as a result of our different wiring.

There’s always a little truth in sarcasm…

I’ll use myself as an example. My MBTI type is INTP. A basic description of this style of thinking is that it is a never ending quest for truth, subjective truth in this case. In the end it doesn’t matter what the experts say, or what social convention or niceties dictate, if something is true it is true and it should be accepted. There is really no emotional attachment to any particular idea or theory and everything is subject to modification or rejection as new information becomes available; there are no sacred cows. As such there is a certain type of inherent rebellion with us. We generally do not readily “drink the kool-aid” we are served by society or a particular organization; we will not defend something [at least not readily or easily] that we believe is wrong just because we have a societal obligation to, or because a superior tells us to. We’re not trying to be rebellious on principle or cause disruption; we are not anarchists. We are just loyal to the truth and believe everyone else should be as well. At best we are something similar to Albert Einstein, whose ideas helped move physics forward. At worst we are along the lines of Sheldon Cooper, who is not open to modifying his ideas in light of new information, is constantly defending himself and his ideas, and does not realize the impact and effect that he has on others.

So if you are discipling me recognizing that this is my thought process would be a great supplement to our relationship. It isn’t going to change what we talk about, but it will change your understanding of my actions and responses. So for instance, if you happen to be a firm believer in eternal security and one week I say something that attacks that doctrine, knowing that what I am actually after is the truth concerning the question: “Can a Christian lose their salvation?” and not attacking eternal security, will [hopefully] keep you from condemning me. It can help you realize that my priority is on truth and it matters to me that I am able to be loyal to this, whatever it might happen to be. It would be better in this case to point me in the direction of resources that discuss this issue without misrepresenting the views of either side so that I can weigh the best arguments from each side and come to an answer on this question. The truth is after all what I care about. And for all you know I just may end up supporting eternal security, though perhaps not on the same basis you do.

It can also help you realize what my blind spot is, so that you can improve me in this area. For me my biggest blind spot is that I don’t realize the impact that my words and ideas have on others. Let’s stick with the eternal security example. You might say to me regarding this issue: “You know, there are a lot of people who come from a background which created in them a lot of doubt concerning their salvation; they never knew for sure if they were saved or not. So for them the doctrine of eternal security is a great comfort because it assuaged their doubts. Repudiating this doctrine would likely have a negative effect on such people and bring back all their old doubts.” It won’t have any effect on my answer to the question, but it will help me realize that if I do find the doctrine of eternal security false I will need to plan for and expect this reaction. I basically need help packaging the truth in a way that others can accept it, especially those who are going to react negatively to it.

With this strategy I get to use the natural gifts and abilities God gave me, and the Church gets to benefit from these gifts and abilities; I become a better version of who God made me to be. But if you try to force me to be something I’m not the only thing you’re really going to succeed in is driving me away from the Church.

God made us all different, and I think the MBTI can help us recognize those differences and craft better discipleship and mentoring strategies in light of them. I think failing to recognize these differences will only impoverish the Church and deprive her of the necessary gifts that everyone brings.