Monday, March 14, 2016

Wisdom and its Counterfeits

I’ve been thinking about Solomon a lot over the last few months. He asked God for wisdom, and God gave him not only wisdom, but prosperity and popularity. Possibly the last two were as much of a test of his character as they were a reward for his desire for God’s wisdom. At any rate, they were what took Solomon under. The book of Ecclesiastes gives us a rare glimpse into this process.

In this post, I would to explore some of this a little.

First of all, we don’t have to look at Solomon and envy his gift of wisdom. God has made us the same offer.  “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5, ESV). But he also gives us a warning along with this offer, in the next verses. “But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways” (James 1:6-8, ESV).

There is lots of evidence in the Bible that God answered Solomon’s prayer for wisdom. For instance, study Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple, in 2 Chronicles 6. However, later in his life, Solomon gave in to a series of counterfeits that led to his downfall.

As I look at individuals like Ben Carson, and churches like the Conservative Anabaptists, I see some of the same processes at work. That is the burden of my thoughts in these posts. Will we trade the true wisdom that comes from above, for the counterfeits offered by this world? The temptation is great sometimes, both for individuals and for groups.

Counterfeit 1: Knowledge

Trading wisdom for knowledge is a great temptation, especially for people with brilliant minds. Solomon definitely had a lot of knowledge. In the first chapter of Ecclesiastes he talks about the water cycle, and wind patterns. Where he got this knowledge, I’m not sure. It may have been from his own observations. But he became intrigued by knowledge. In Ecclesiastes 1:13, he said, “I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven.” If you read this entire chapter, you will see that he sought this knowledge as an antidote for the seeming meaningless that he saw in life. He felt that nature and man were caught in a mindless spiral of uselessness and vanity.

The antidote didn’t cure the poison, however. In verse 18 of the same chapter, he stated, “In much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” Seeking knowledge simply highlights the vexations of life, and Solomon soon saw right through that.

This thirst for knowledge is often evident in talented individuals. They gather books together, they learn the language and intricacies of various intellectual disciplines, and they immerse themselves in learning. But at the end of it all, they will look back at life like Solomon did and realize that knowledge doesn’t have the ability to bring satisfaction.

John Howard Yoder is an unfortunate example of someone who sought fulfillment in the study of theology and history. His immoral conduct showed clearly that his vast knowledge of history and the Bible, and thoughts about God and the Bible didn’t satisfy him. He excused his immorality as a part of his intellectual pursuits, but it seems likely that, like Solomon, he died a frustrated and unfulfilled person.

The contrary side of this can be a similar trap. In too many of the plainer groups today, ignorance is viewed as an answer to this problem. We take out children out of school after tenth grade, and get them to work learning “useful trades.” While this isn’t all wrong, the assumption too often is that “book learning” is a necessary evil but that working with our hands is somehow more “godly”.

The results of this response to the worship of knowledge has led to a dearth of people who can take the Bible and really study it and teach it. So many of the topics given by our people and the Bible studies taught by our people are simply shallow regurgitations of things that they have heard someone else say, and which they don’t really understand themselves.

Both the worship of knowledge and the worship of ignorance are definite counterfeits to the wisdom that is from above. Read 1 Corinthians 1:17 – 31 for Paul’s input into this.

Counterfeit 2: Materialism and Pleasure

In Ecclesiastes 2:1 Solomon made a momentous decision. He said to himself "Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself." He tried wine first. He also built houses and planted vineyards for himself. He made gardens and parks, and planted orchards. He set up irrigation systems to water his horticultural masterpieces.

Along with all of this, he bought slaves and herds and flocks of animals – more than any other king in Jerusalem ever had. He hoarded together silver and gold, and other treasures. He even collected singers and concubines. He concludes his list like this: “And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure…” (Ecclesiastes 2:10a, ESV)

But even though Solomon was experimenting with pleasure and materialism in his search for meaning in life, his earlier wisdom hadn’t totally left him yet (see 2:9). He stepped back from all of this and took a look at the results of his experiment. Verse 11 of this same chapter is very enlightening: “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.”

Have you ever felt that way? I have. I can remember various times that I wanted something that I really didn’t need. I struggled with it and struggled with it until finally I found a “good” reason for buying what I wanted. The joy of my new possession seldom lasted more than a day or two, and often I wished I had my money back. We do well to heed Paul’s teaching: “But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content” (1 Timothy 6:6 – 8, ESV). (Read the context as well).

I don’t think it is wrong to be frugal, and save for a rainy day. But too many Mennonite people (and other Christians) seem to have followed Solomon’s example of gathering possessions in order to find fulfillment in life. Many have even made it a pious occupation – insisting that their success is God’s blessing on them for being good Christians. Or if they don’t come out and say that, they feel that way inside.

Solomon’s example should show us the fallacy of that feeling.

Counterfeit 3: Work

Solomon seems to have been a real workaholic. But even his work drove him to despair because he realized that he was growing older and would die someday. Then what would become of the possessions and improvements that he had labored for? Why someone who hadn’t done any work for them would inherit them and use them in whatever way he wanted to. This frustrated Solomon, since he seemed sure that the next king would probably abuse this privilege. In Ecclesiastes 2:18 and 19, he makes this interesting observation: “I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity.” (ESV)

This is mine, Solomon is saying. Why should my son enjoy the benefits of what I have worked for? I want the joy myself! This seems like a selfish attitude, but in reality what bothered Solomon was the unfairness of it all. He had worked a lifetime, and now all the benefits were being snatched from him. So what fulfillment did work offer, if he couldn’t benefit from it? This seems to be the thrust of verses 20 – 22: “Sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil.”

This frustrated Solomon so much that he actually insinuated that you might as well eat, drink, and be merry with the fruit of your labor because if you don’t some else will. It would be better for you to enjoy what you have, than to leave it to someone who won’t appreciate it anyway.

This kind of philosophy is shocking to God-honoring, hard-working Mennonites. In many churches, it is a point of honor for you to take the material things you have and increase them. You might give them to the church when you die, or use them to start your children off in life – either is usually acceptable. What isn’t acceptable is if you are a parasite and can’t pay your own way in life, and need to depend on the church or the government to live.

Yet there is a sense in which Solomon is right. You will not find fulfillment in life by working, even if you are successful. He was the most successful “worker” of all time, yet in the end he reaped only vanity and frustration. If we could boil the message of Ecclesiastes down to one central complaint it would be this one, because Solomon keeps returning to it, over and over again.

“There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavy on mankind: a man to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor, so that he lacks nothing of all that he desires, yet God does not give him power to enjoy them, but a stranger enjoys them. This is vanity; it is a grievous evil” (Ecc 6:1-2, ESV).

Counterfeit 4: Popularity

The Queen of Sheba summarized the world’s opinion of Solomon in 1 Kings 10:1 – 10 and 2 Chronicles 9:1 – 9. The Bible says that “When the queen of Sheba had seen the wisdom of Solomon…, there was no more breath in her” (2 Chronicles 9:3 – 4, ESV). The entire passages that cover her visit and their context are worth reading, just to get the complete impression. It would be very interesting to read the rest of the life story of Solomon, which was apparently recorded in books written by Nathan the prophet, Ahijah the Shilonite, and Iddo the seer. However, these writings have been lost, so we can only guess at the rest of the story.

Yet Solomon summarized his own popularity by giving the account of a poor wise man who was very popular for a little bit. “There was a little city with few men in it, and a great king came against it and besieged it, building great siegeworks against it.   But there was found in it a poor, wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city. Yet no one remembered that poor man” (Ecclesiastes 9:14 – 15, ESV).

Popularity is one of the most fleeting of life’s pleasures. Jesus said, "Woe to you, when all people speak well of you” (Luke 6:26). Unfortunately, plain people have gotten used to being highly thought of in today’s world. This is on the verge of becoming a trap for them, I fear. Normally the people who flatter you the most are the first to turn against you.

Popularity becomes a great trap for us if we depend on it for our fulfillment in life. There are times in life when we need to take a stand against the crowd in order to remain faithful to God. This becomes very hard to do, if we are accustomed to being popular and have grown to enjoy it. In fact, Jesus warned his apostles, “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (Joh 15:19, ESV). Sooner or later this hatred surfaces if we are following Christ.

Popularity is perhaps the most treacherous of the counterfeits that we are looking at here. Solomon lost his popularity at the end of his life, in spite of his efforts to maintain it by marrying the daughters of the rulers of the worldly kingdoms around him. While God didn’t remove him from the throne, because of his promise to David, He took most of the kingdom from Solomon’s son, however, and Israel never regained the glory it had once possessed under Solomon.

Counterfeit 5: Knowing about God rather than knowing God

This last counterfeit is one that probably traps more “Christians” than any other. The Bible speaks of those “having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people” (2 Timothy 3:5, ESV).

Many people know about God and think that this means that they are Christians. Solomon knew what God expected and was able to give good advice. The last verses in Ecclesiastes 11, and most of Ecclesiastes 12 are good teaching for all of us. However, there is really no indication that Solomon understood that pleasing God required more than a blind obedience to God’s law, and an intellectual assent to His plan.

When Solomon was young and saw his need of God, God came to him. God blessed him and offered his lifelong friendship. But Solomon’s eyes wandered away from God and his desire for intellectual and physical fulfillment in life led him away from the spiritual fulfillment that God offered him. In essence, you can’t really have both, and Solomon lost sight of that.

What is my passion in life? I think this is an indicator of whether we are finding fulfillment in genuine wisdom from above. Is my service to God because of my duty – something I need to do to avoid hell fire? Or do I serve Him because I love him? Does His spirit bear witness with my spirit that I am His child (see Romans 8:16)?

I’m afraid that too many plain people, and others are satisfied with an intellectual knowledge of God, rather than a relationship with Him. Most of the church’s problems stem from this fact.

So, will you be satisfied with the counterfeits? Or will you seek the true wisdom which is from above? It’s the most important decision we will ever face.

“Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. (14)  But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. (15)  This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. (16)  For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. (17)  But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. (18)  And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (James 3:13-18, ESV).

Comments and discussion are welcome…

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Buzz Machine

Oscar woke up one morning to find that everybody from church that he spoke with that day acted strange around him. They threw little remarks his way that seemed aimed at “fixing” him; fixing some problem that they all knew that he had, and that they knew that he knew that he had.

Only thing is that Oscar had no idea about this thing that was supposed to be wrong with him. You know, the “need” that the buzz machine had, only last week, been cranking out info about.

Why, just last year, the buzz machine had informed all subscribers to its yellow press that Oscar was a trophy; a “real church builder,” the buzz machine had branded him last year.

Last year, after that broadcast by the buzz machine, Oscar woke up one morning to find that everybody from church acted like he was a hero; like he had just rescued the church from horrible peril. Some buzz machine subscribers called Oscar “God’s man for the occasion.”

What occasion? Oscar had no clue. But everybody he met at church in those days threw little remarks his way that seemed aimed at praising him for some heroic deed he had done. They all took for granted that Oscar knew what they meant. He didn’t. And his modesty about the praise the buzz machine subscribers’ gave him only increased their estimation of him. Oscar was “highly appreciated” in the church in those days.

But all that was last year. This year, the buzz machine knew different things about Oscar.

Buzz machines. They have them in most communities where there are large, happy tongues; small, draggy brains; and slow to no internet service.

If you are Oscar, enjoy surfing the waves of gossip that the buzz machine washes up on your beach. Beyond that, do nothing about, or to, or at, the buzz machine.

Lest you attribute credibility to something that has none, and never can.

Daniel R. Huber

Saturday, January 16, 2016

What Are You Communicating?


 How long should it take you to make three points to an audience that is more or less acquainted with your subject matter? Three minutes? Fifteen minutes? How about 45 minutes, or maybe 60 minutes?

I’m thinking of a particular talk that I listened to, once. The speaker told us that he would be giving us three basic points to think about, then dived into his subject with as much zest as a small boy eating his first chocolate bar. He gave us background and foreground, and buttressed his argument with various quotes and evidence of all sorts. After going over his time limit by about 20 minutes, he eventually sat down. The moderator, of course, lauded his efforts properly with appropriate figurative pats on the back.

I was curious, however, as to how many people actually understood what had been said, so I discreetly asked some people what the speakers three main points had been. Interestingly, half of the people I asked apparently didn’t remember a single point. The other half remembered one, but only in a general way. Incidentally, I couldn’t remember all three of them myself, since they had become so buried in the speaker’s brilliant verbosity, that they had vanished from my memory.

I am forced to conclude that the speaker’s preparation time had been mostly wasted, as had the time the audience spent listening to him.

So how do we avoid this? The following points mostly apply equally to writing and public speaking, though they may need to be applied differently. But for the sake of clarity, I will refer to speaking.

Create an Outline

 Creating an outline should be close to the beginning of your preparation. You may want to jot down a bunch of ideas first, but then sort them into a sensible sequence. Choose three or four main ideas, then use the rest of your points as sub points. If they don’t fit, drop them. Most people won’t remember more than three or four main ideas from a presentation.

Creating an outline forces you to be systematic in your presentation. It also forces you to evaluate each point to see if it even belongs in your outline.

You should consider handing out copies of your outline if it is important that people remember what you said. Not everyone takes good notes.

Be Brief…

 The oft repeated advice to public speakers is: Stand up, speak up, then shut up. In other words, avoid the bunny trails, the clich├ęs, and the unnecessary clutter – if it doesn’t further the purpose of your presentation, don’t say it. Unnecessary clutter only drowns out your message.

Going overtime is rude, counterproductive, and unnecessary. If your talk is scheduled to close down at 2:45, you will start to lose the attention of your audience at about 2:46. By 2:50 people will be squirming. By 3:00 they will need to go to the bathroom. By 3:15 they will be utterly antagonistic to anything you have said all afternoon.

One way to avoid going overtime is to schedule yourself. If you have three points to give and a half hour to give them in, each point can be ten minutes long. Jot down the approximate beginning and ending time for every point in your notes, and check your time at the end of every point. This will keep you from talking for twenty minutes on the first point and then only having five minutes available for each of your next two points. Remember to schedule time for closing remarks and your final summarization.

…and Concise

 Your choice of vocabulary counts as part of being concise. Rudolph Flesch said that you should always chose the simplest word that will say what you want to communicate. That’s a bit hard on the ego, because vocabulary is one way of proving to your crowd that you are an expert. But in reality, your purpose for being there is to communicate those three points, not to promote your ego. So either use simple words, or define your words with simple and concise words. If it takes more than a sentence or so to define a word, find a way to avoid using it, unless you know for sure that your audience will understand it.

Be Relevant

 Who are you talking to? First graders? University graduates? It will make a difference!

If your subject is assigned, hopefully it is relevant. But if you are coming up with your own subject, be sure that is of either general interest, or general use, to your audience. There is little use in speaking to an operations crowd about theoretical subjects or abstract ones, even if the subject is your pet one. If you don’t have the expertise or personal interest in subjects relevant to your audience, refuse the assignment.

Ask Questions

 Questions are a good way to get your audience thinking, or to get their attention. Just make sure that your questions relate to the subject at hand. I asked a group one time how many of them were taking my class because they had to. Every hand went up. It was a depressing start to what could have been a good time.

It is a good idea to introduce every main point with a question, if possible. The question can be rhetorical, or if the setting is informal, you can go for an actual answer from the audience. Just be sure not to lose control of your presentation, if you ask for audience input.  Questions are a great way to keep everyone with you and thinking.

Use Visual Aids

 Visual aids are one good way to gain and maintain an audience’s attention. People will remember points they both see and hear for much longer than points that they just hear. One of the simplest ways of doing this for a small crowd is to use a white board or chalk board and write down every main point as you introduce it. Leave them on the board until the end of your talk so that they have a chance to soak in.

White boards have become pretty old fashioned however, and you should become acquainted with power point presentations and their use. This allows you to use charts and diagrams, illustrations, and bullet points to get your points across. The days of ad lib presentations are pretty well over, and people expect you as a speaker to do your homework if they are to listen to you.


 Can you tell me in one sentence, or short paragraph, what are trying to tell me in your speech or essay? That is what you want me to learn, and what I should carry away from your presentation. If you can’t tell me what that is, I probably won’t figure it out either. In fact, it’s a good idea to introduce your presentation, and end it, with a brief summary of what you are saying. Give the three main points you are trying to make, at the beginning, and at the end, as well as emphasizing them during your presentation.

After all, what is the use of spending half an hour telling a group something they won’t remember?

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Unsung Heroes...

Actually there are lots of unsung heroes in the world today. But I’m thinking especially of the doctors and nurses of our medical system. I’ve just spent two weeks in the hospital, a new experience for me, and I was impressed at what I found. Decent food, caring nurses, helpful doctors – the only sour note that I can remember was a cleaner who grumped because someone had peed on the floor of the washroom.

Hmm. I wonder who would have done that?

One Night

One night stands out to me as I look back. I was in a four-man ward – actually a transition ward intended for overnight patients or patients almost well enough to go home. On this particular day, everyone moved out but me, and three new people moved in. Two had just had operations, and the third one needed help for everything. Between the three of them they kept our poor nurse hopping. One fellow roamed the floors at all hours, and even tried to help the older man out of bed to go to the washroom (he needed professional help, usually two nurses). Fortunately, the nurse came running in time to avoid a catastrophe. Another man wanted fresh socks because he soaked his feet on the wet washroom floor (the nurse said it was just water, but it was awful sticky water, I must say…). I didn’t count how many times they pushed their “nurse” button between them, but for a while she almost wore a path from the nurse’s station to our room.

Through it all our nurse remained cheerful (mostly). But I suspect she was glad when her shift was over.

Another Night

Another night stands out to me, in the same room. Two older men were moved into my room after minor operations, so that they could be evaluated overnight before they went home. They were friendly, but one became confused during the night. I don’t know how often he tried to jump ship during the night – catheter, IV, and all. But it seemed like about every time I drifted off into a deep sleep, I woke up to hear nurses running into our room, trying to avert a calamity. Finally, they packed him into a wheel chair and moved him down the hall to where they could keep their eye on him.

And One More Night

Hospitals are not noted to be places to get a good night’s sleep. Another night, I was all alone in my room and enjoying my privacy. But soon after midnight I woke with a start because someone crashed into my bed with a stretcher. What? Oh, a new roommate. Back to sleep after they got him settled in. Beep, beep. The nurse call woke me up – as did his gasping. He couldn’t breathe, and they came running. They called in a technician. Then an emergency room doctor. And the nurse kept talking, trying to keep the patient from panicking. Lots of interesting events, but not really conducive to sleeping. Finally, they hauled him back out and took him to the ICU. Blissful sleep – it felt so good, until about six o’clock when, crash, you guessed it, ANOTHER stretcher ran into my bed. The nurses on this floor were great but apparently the orderlies had all, flunked drivers ed.

It’s All About People

I could keep on telling stories, because as I look back my stay was actually fairly eventful and full of human interest. But what really impressed me, was the staff at the hospital. A nurse needs to be ready do almost anything comes their way. On the one hand, they have to be able to install catheters and IV needles. On the other, they might need to change a diaper for someone with fecal incontinence. Plus, they need to understand symptoms, and be ready for emergencies at any time.

Nurses need a lot of patience. My veins apparently vanish when I see a nurse coming in the door with the IV kit, so I really tried their patience at times. When I arrived at the hospital, I needed a blood transfusion. Badly. And the emergency room nurse could not, for the life of her, get my IV needle into a vein. I was too sick to really care, but I think she actually had sweat drops on her forehead. It took another nurse to finally get it. That wasn’t so bad; one time it took four nurses about three hours to get me hooked up.

Nurses are constantly working with people, and some of them could try the patience of a Mother Teresa. I don’t recall a nurse getting really upset with a patient during the time I was in the hospital. Probably the night nurse in the second illustration above came the closest, but she actually handled it quite well.

It also helps if nurses have a sense of psychology. I listened in on a nurse trying to settle down a man who was sure that someone had tricked him into coming to the hospital. He kept insisting on going home and the nurse kept telling him he couldn’t. He was sure that there had to be a back door he could sneak out of, if only she would tell him where it was. She kept the conversation going. Unfortunately, I didn’t hear the end of it, because I fell asleep, but I’m sure she came out on top.

I had a terrific medical team looking after me while I was in the hospital. One morning I was eating breakfast and saw a gathering outside my door. After the discussion was over, all five came in and it turned out that they were the surgical team and they were concerned about my future after I went home.

It turned out I didn’t get to go home right away. They told me almost every day for a week that I could probably go the next day, but it didn’t happen. The problem was that I had surgery one day, then landed serious blood clots in my one leg, the next. So, the specialist looking after the blood clot was playing ping pong with the surgeons. My blood clots required blood thinners to dissolve them. But when they gave me blood thinners I had internal bleeding. They had quite a time striking a balance that finally worked and I could go home.

I can’t imagine being a doctor, playing Russian roulette with people’s lives. I don’t think I’d ever sleep. But they stayed calm through it all.

Anyone in the medical field probably will become either calloused or unselfish. Mostly they seem to become unselfish, though I met one person who I think was calloused. Or pretended to be – I’m still not sure which. But I needed a filter put in my vein to stop any blood clot pieces from sneaking through to my lungs. The only problem was that the local hospital only had two doctors who could install them, and one was on vacation and the other was off for the weekend. The closest hospital that could do it was three hours away. Have you ever had a six-hour trip in an ambulance? Well, I haven’t either, because that doctor who was off for the weekend came in extra to do the procedure for me. When I thanked him for coming in, he just smiled and shrugged, remarking, “This made a lot more sense than sending you all the way to [the other hospital].”

I learned a lot of lessons during my hospital stay. I learned some things about praying (that’s another story, for another time), and I learned a lot about getting along with people by watching a group of professionals at work. I’ve heard and read a lot of horror stories by people who apparently have had bad experiences. But I can’t relate to those and I hope I never can. It seems to me that dealing with doctors and nurses is similar to dealing with most other people. If you are nice to them and appreciate what they are doing for you, they will normally return the favor.

I’m afraid I wouldn’t make a very good doctor or nurse. But I’m sure glad that there are people who do.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

A Book Sale

Today I was at the largest personal book sale I ever saw. It was an estate sale, and had a large variety of books, especially for a person collection.

There was a time that I roamed used book stores all the time and always bought books. But I found over the years that so many I never actually used that I don't buy very many any more.

I was trying to work my way into this man's mind today. He had a lot of religious books, especially study or philosophical ones. But he obviously had wide interests. He was interested in writing, because he had various books dealing with markets for writers. He had reference books - I bought a fairly new Chicago Manual of Style. He had books on Islam and Baha'i faiths. But on the other hand he also had a vast selection on anthropology and ancient history. I bought a book on the Mayan Prophecies, for instance. But he was also interested in plants and in modern history. For instance he had the official biography of Ronald Regan, which I already have, and various books by Pierre Burton, most of which I already have.

So what kind of a person are we looking at here? He could have been a minister, or priest, but he didn't have any books on counselling. I doubt he was married, because he had no books dealing with marriage or family. I think he was a man who dreamed (like I do at times) of being a writer. I think he had a lot of ideas that he would have liked to share, but it never happened. I left the place feeling sad, because I felt that had trodden on the shattered dreams of an unfulfilled person. My wife, on the other hand, thinks he was a seeker looking for spiritual fulfillment. Like Solomon, trying to find answers that were always just a step out of his reach.
Really, I think both could be right. In either case, it's a sad legacy. His house was a run down rental. Very uncomfortable. Half full of books and a few cheap possessions that no one really wanted.

He was 8 years older than I am, when he died. So I wondered a bit about what others would think of my prized possessions when I was gone? I even thought a bit about what they are - and I decided that mine were mostly books, and a couple of computers. Doesn't seem like much. And I wondered how many of the dreams that I still have left will be just that when I die. All my life I have felt that something was around the corner, but I've never found it. I suspect that this was what this man was like - somehow I could really identify with him.

Sort of depressing....

Monday, June 24, 2013

Emotional Difficulties in the Brotherhood: Part One

Christian Psychology:
Freud in Sheep’s Clothing?

Emotional difficulties in the church are nothing new. Over the years, various people in our congregations have had emotional struggles. In this series of articles we would like to examine some possible reasons for this. We will also look at some ways to help people who have such struggles as well as some ways that Satan uses such situations to make inroads amongst us.

In their desire to help the weak and hurting brothers and sisters in our circles, some have gone to “Christian psychology” for answers. In this article we want to examine some of the basic premises for this field of thought. In subsequent articles we will look at Scriptural solutions to emotional stress.

1.                  Sin and Emotional Stress

Sin and guilt are probably the most common reasons for emotional stress in the world today. Even in the church, this can be the case. “Christian psychology” appeals especially to those professing Christians suffering from emotional stress because they are living in sin. However, if emotional stress is caused by sin, all the counseling and psychology in the world will not avail. Because of this, we want to start this series with this basic question.

2.                  Christian Psychology?

I can remember clearly the days that various Mennonites began crowding into Bill Gothard’s seminars. It is true that Bill Gothard’s teaching on personal accountability and responsibility have helped some people, especially in modern home school circles, to a more responsible walk with Christ. But a few of his more radical concepts (such as generational sins) are being carried to extremes today. For instance, John Regier’s so-called Biblical Concepts in Counseling are plowing new paths amongst the same kind of people who were so excited about Gothard’s teaching.

Most dangerous of all, these influences are prying open the door to the doctrines of men like Neil Anderson. Already Anderson’s belief in demon strongholds within Christians, and in demon possessed Christians, are making inroads in the fringe areas of conservative Anabaptist groups.

These doctrines are taking the Protestant world by storm. If past history is a truthful indicator, we will soon begin to see a watered down form of these doctrines seeping into conservative groups. The purpose of this article is to warn us of the basic tenets of these teachings. However, to properly understand them we need to go back in history and look briefly at a man that most Christians would refuse to emulate.

3.                  Freud in a Nutshell

Freud was the father of modern psychoanalysis. He believed that almost all psychological problems are caused by suppressed memories of sexual abuses and desires experienced by very young children. While some modern psychologists downplay parts of his teaching, the concept that psychological difficulties are caused by suppressed memories and attitudes is still a very important part of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy.

Many of the world’s mental and emotional problems are caused by sin and guilt, as we said. However, a society dominated by humanism, agnosticism, and evolution cannot admit this basic fact. This is one reason why Freud’s ideas have become so popular with modern sinners struggling with the repercussions of their sin.

In fact if you research modern psychotherapy you discover that it is basically escapism. Do you suffer emotional problems? The psychologist will help you to bring to mind suppressed memories of incidents in your childhood that cause these. The theory is that you can then deal with the subconscious influences that are troubling you, and be freed from your guilt and phobias. The assumption behind this process is that your problems are the result of someone else’s actions. The psychologist will seldom admit that his patient might actually be responsible for his own problems.

In reality, however, it has been shown by secular researchers that “suppressed memories” can be the result of the power of suggestion and may exist only in the patient’s imagination. Probably many of these “suppressed events” never happened, even thought the patient (and his doctor) believes they did.

Interestingly, in the last several decades, we have seen the rise of “Christian psychology”, a mixture of psychological and Christian concepts which one writer has aptly nicknamed psychoheresy. Christian psychology utilizes a scenario amazingly similar to Freudian psychology, except it has a sanctified appearance. These men appeal to Christians because often they have a Biblical emphasis in other parts of their theology.

We want to evaluate the doctrinal foundation of this movement in several areas.

4.                  Generational Sins?

Exodus 34:6, 7 states, in part, “The LORD… will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.” In similar vein, Exodus 20:5 states, “I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.”

The Christian psychology movement interprets this as a “generational curse”—a blight on your family bloodline. They use the examples of similar failure on the part of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as a proof of their thesis (among other examples).

Many people look at this angle and feel that their teaching makes sense. But we should not stop there in our evaluation. In common practice this concept is used to excuse sin (and eliminate any guilt resulting from it) in the life of a “Christian”. In short, if you have a problem with your temper, it is not really sin on your part since it is a curse that follows your family bloodline, perhaps originating with your grandfather or father.

The other hallmark doctrine of “Christian psychology” is similar.

5.                  Strongholds?

In 2 Corinthians 10:4, it states, “The weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds.” One advocate of this doctrine defines a stronghold as an area where Satan has you bound. This area may be in your life because of a generational curse, or it may be an area where Satan has found a loophole in your spiritual armor and has taken control.

It is especially interesting that counselors of this persuasion use personality evaluation charts and other psychological methods to try to isolate these curses and strongholds. Using trigger points discovered in this analysis process, they start to dig for suppressed memories, desires, and attitudes that are (supposedly) at the root of your problems.

6.                  An Evaluation

What does the Bible say? Ezekiel 18:20 states, “The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.” The entire chapter is worthwhile reading, in light of this discussion. Essentially it destroys the entire doctrine of generational sins (see also Jeremiah 31:29, 30 and Deuteronomy 24:16).

As far as 2 Corinthians 10:4 goes, a close reading of the context reveals that the strong holds are probably not in the Christian’s life at all. They are Satanically inspired spiritual opposition that the Christian faces in the world and sinners around him. There is no evidence in the New Testament that Satan can control an area of a Christian’s life. The Bible teaches Christian victory (see 1 John 3:1-9). God has made provision for the Christian who slips and falls (1 John 2:1-2) and recognizes that a Christian may need to gain maturity, but that is something entirely different from living in a state of defeat or known sin.

You have probably caught the connection by now. These doctrines are a means whereby the “Christian” can escape personal accountability for his sins. His problems are not his fault. Either they are the fault of the curse he inherited from an ancestor, or they are the devil’s fault. Some counselors even suggest praying for the forgiveness of your ancestor, and provide convenient preformatted prayers with blanks for your use in doing so.

The part that should scare us the most about this process is the power of suggestion that is used upon the patient. The search for suppressed memories and desires provides a wide open door for Satan to manipulate our minds. Besides, it is not a Scriptural approach at all. In Philippians 3:13, 14 the apostle Paul stated, “Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (emphasis added).

We are accountable for the deeds we do. When we sin, we must admit our sin to God and repent. Then we can forget it and press ahead to greater victories. If we are living in spiritual defeat, we need to confess that sin to God and call on Him for strength to live in victory. Blaming our sin on our ancestors, or on Satanic control, has no Biblical precedent and is just a convenient excuse that Satan uses to keep us from seeking and finding Christian victory.

It is true that we are sometimes affected by the sins of our parents and others. A child with alcoholic parents, who cringed in terror behind the sofa while his father beat his mother, who roamed the streets alone and cold for entire nights while his parents hosted wild parties, who watched in horror while his drunken father abused a sibling, and who finally witnessed the complete breakup of his home, will have emotional repercussions. He will need help to forgive, and to rise beyond the example of his home.

Even those of us who did not grow up in such an environment are in part the product of our past. We have memories of past wrongs, events, and sins. We may have grown up in a background that influences us to make wrong choices, or which influences our attitudes and convictions. It is good for us to evaluate these things and to compensate for them from a Biblical perspective. It is possible that at times we need the help of mature brothers and sisters in the Lord to do this.

But a caring, sharing brotherhood relationship and compassionate Christian church leaders can help us get their eyes off themselves, and on Christ. This will do much more than the intellectual “counseling” of a psychologist (Christian or otherwise) who focuses on a person’s “suppressed” memories and inner self.

7.                  Demon Possessed Christians?

As I mentioned in the introduction, some teachers carry these concepts even further. The Biblical concept of demon possession shows a person rebelling against God, deciding to follow his sinful inclinations, and deciding to allow Satan to control his life. This pictures an “all or nothing scenario”. But some of these teachers are teaching that innocent children can be demon possessed, and that Christians can be filled with the Holy Spirit in most of their being, but demon possessed in one or two other areas at the same time!

This is the logical outcome of the doctrines we discussed above. Some fringe groups of conservative Anabaptists are already teaching a false doctrine of demonology almost identical to this. We dare not open the door an inch for this teaching but we will inevitably be pressured to do so.

It seems obvious that the “Christian psychology” movement is one of Satan’s methods of entrenching his control over modern Christianity. If we allow the errors associated with this movement to seep into our churches, they will be our downfall.

8.                  More To Come…

Christian psychology obviously appeals to those who want an excuse to continue in sin, or to blame others for their sin. There is, however, another important side to this whole story, which we want to consider, beginning next month.

Emotional Difficulties in the Brotherhood: Part Four

God's Answer to Emotional Difficulties

This is the closing article in a series of four articles on this subject. This article will make more sense to you if you have read the first three in the series.

The Bible Says…

The Bible has some clear instructions for those who are helping others. Paul closed 1 Thessalonians with the words, “Now we exhort you, brethren, warn them that are unruly, comfort the feebleminded, support the weak, be patient toward all men” (1 Thessalonians 5:14). He told the Galatians, “Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). If we want to help those with emotional difficulties amongst us, we need to be ready to sacrifice self and do what these verses say.

The popular approach today is to consider all emotional sufferers to be mere victims of circumstances. Certainly this is sometimes true. Other times they have made mistakes that have triggered the problem. And sometimes it was triggered by a spiritual struggle against conviction. The Bible does call for a different approach, depending on the situation. “And of some have compassion, making a difference: And others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire; hating even the garment spotted by the flesh” (Jude 22, 23). We must always seek the wisdom of God in facing such situations. But in any case, our help must be motivated by love for the individual. Otherwise our efforts will fail.

In most cases, the solutions for the church’s problems are found within the brotherhood. If love and care prevails in the leaders and membership, struggling members will find the help they need.

Things to Look Out For

We need to be sure that we are not creating emotional traps within our congregations. If congregational life is the peaceful brotherhood experience it should be, we will not have as many emotional needs amongst us. Or they will be easier to deal with when they do arise. Church problems often cause emotional difficulties. If we can learn to tolerate unimportant differences in detail, and deal judiciously but kindly with issues that do need to be looked after, we will make life easier for all our members.

God designed the congregation to benefit and strengthen His children. It is true that we need to keep the church pure, and not allow it to become the habitation of devils or an influence for wrong. Yet it is also true that the needs of God’s children are of equal importance, or greater, than any organization or system we may produce. The Pharisees made that mistake with the Sabbath day. We need to be careful that we do not emulate them. If we get this turned around the wrong way, we should not be surprised to face a wave of emotional difficulties in church life.

A Christian husband should be the first to note that his wife is losing ground, especially if she has had prior struggles with emotional difficulties. He should take immediate steps to try to alleviate the stress. He can give help with the children and household chores. Perhaps he can arrange for a visit away from home. Maybe he can hire a girl to help with the work. But most of all he needs to be understanding and not apply pressure on his wife that she cannot handle.

Similarly, a wife needs to be sure that she does not add pressure to her husband’s load. Often emotional difficulties in men are triggered by financial difficulties and nagging wives. Put the two together and you have the potential for a serious problem. A wife should never dangle financial difficulties in front of her husband’s nose because he is probably already struggling with inferiority. Instead she can quietly encourage him, and do her part by living frugally, and helping him to bear up under the load. The assurance of his wife’s love can go a long way to help a husband stay on top. (Wives in such a situation should also read 1 Corinthians 7:3-5.)

Most emotional sufferers feel caught in a trap. They are in a tunnel with no light at the end. They are in a corridor that ends in a solid brick wall. They are in a box with the lid nailed on. Their despair comes just as much from the fact that there seems to be no answer for their problem as it does from the problem itself. The problem itself can be almost anything: a problem child in the home; a sense of inferiority and failure in the husband, wife, father, or mother role; financial failure; undeserved criticism from a spouse, parent, or brother; or simply overwork or lack of sleep. Often the sufferer could cope with the problem, if he or she could see a solution for it. It is the sense of being trapped that triggers the breakdown. The solution to the breakdown needs to deal with the trapped feeling as well as with the problem.

Most congregations have some members who seem to be on the bottom of the social pile (or who feel they are, for some reason). Too often these members get brushed aside. But where true brotherhood prevails, the needs of all the members will be met. Every family in the congregation should have caring friends. Every family should be invited out for meals periodically. Every family should feel needed. All of these brotherhood principles will help us to overcome emotional struggles amongst us.

If we don’t love the brother and sister that lives amongst us, how can we claim to love God, whom we have never seen (1 John 4:20)?

Standing By…

The husband, wife, or parents of an emotional victim can be under a very heavy load. They probably need your love and prayers as much as the sufferer himself. Sometimes well meaning people add to this load by giving ill-considered advice and criticism. Normally the best thing we can do for such people is to show that we love them and are praying for them. If they ask us for advice, we should be careful how we give it, and assure them of our support even if they do not take it. Give such a person a chance to share his frustrations, or he may well be the next person down.

Sometimes, in their concern for their child or spouse, parents or a spouse will take a course that we feel was ill-advised, or even harmful. However, we need to remember that they took this course with the best of intentions. It is not fair to be critical in such situations. They tried the best they knew and should receive credit for that attempt. Never, never, tell such persons, I told you so.

A Word to Counselors

The Bible has many promises for the distressed Christian. However, the emotional sufferer is often not capable of finding these or understanding them. If the mentor is able to pray with him and point out such promises, he may find some comfort.

One thing that an emotional sufferer wants above all else is understanding. Point out to him that Jesus understands, and read Hebrews 4:15. Also point out that Jesus desires to give him rest, and read Matthew 11:28.

Don’t pressure someone, if what you are saying doesn’t seem to sink in. Be gentle and try again another time. But your goal should be eventually to help the sufferer to find rest and understanding in Christ. In the meantime, be sure he can find it in you.

Should We Take Medication?

In the past, taking medication for emotional problems has been unpopular in some church circles. This is sometimes tied to the idea that all emotional needs are merely spiritual problems in sheep’s clothing.

It is true that some people go running for pills at every little problem, and that these pills can become a serious crutch. In fact, an improper use of pills can even cause emotional problems. It is good for close family members to be acquainted with the possible side effects of the medication that is used. The patient themselves may not be able to handle that information due to the nature of their problem.

I also agree that it is ideal to help a person through his valley without drugs, or by the help of nutritional-type therapy, if possible. But I also know of some good solid Christians who will probably be on medication for the rest of their lives. There is no stigma in taking medication for emotional needs. People have stopped taking pills because they sensed this kind of feeling amongst others, and have suffered serious consequences. (To be fair, we should add that others have stopped and found that they did as well or better without the medication.) There is a proper time for family members to discuss medication needs with a doctor. Perhaps a change would be helpful. But be very cautious about making changes on your own, since you could easily do more damage than good.

Various breakthroughs in this area of medicine and nutrition have been made in the last decades. Sometimes temporary medication can give a needed boost. In such a case, medication can help to bring healing to the point that the issues which caused the problem can be addressed.

What About Professional Help?

If you feel that you need professional help, start with your family doctor. An in-depth physical checkup may reveal physical reasons for the problems. For instance, low blood sugar conditions such as hypoglycemia are notorious for disrupting people’s emotional conditions. In sisters, hormone imbalances can work havoc at certain times of life. Even your eating, sleeping, and exercise  habits can come into focus. Some common sense adjustments in these areas can sometimes work wonders. If not, your family doctor can often give you good advice for seeking further help.

The question of going to professional counselors or specialists may be more controversial than the question of medication. Generally each case needs to be evaluated on its own merits, but there are times that it seems necessary to go for professional help. If you can find a trained practitioner who has sympathy for Christian values, you  may receive some genuine help.

Evaluate the practitioner carefully, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. In general a psychiatrist is to be preferred over a psychologist, since a psychiatrist is trained to work with the physical mechanisms that affect the mind. The psychologist will generally zero in on pseudo-spiritual reasons for the problems, though in actual practice the boundaries between the two fields are probably getting rather blurred.

Note that we should always avoid specialists who treat their patients from the Freudian school of thought, no matter what title they give to themselves. Do not, under any circumstances, allow your spouse or child to undergo psychological counseling or therapy. Psychotherapy is based on a philosophy that is opposed to Biblical concepts of dealing with sin and guilt. It operates under the assumption that the patient is suffering from suppressed guilt or suppressed memories and deals with it helping the patient to blame others for his difficulties—certainly not a Scriptural approach. This perspective can do much spiritual damage to an emotional sufferer, since such practitioners often try to pin a patient’s problems on the high standard of Christian victory that we believe to be necessary. (See also the first article in this series.)

Here again, if you have a family doctor who understands your convictions, he or she will be able to give you some good guidance. If the problem is emotional in nature, sympathetic counsel from a spiritual advisor may be all the sufferer needs. If it is a deeper mental disorder, you should consider professional help as soon as possible. In many cases this is not necessary, however, and you should work with both your ministry and your doctor if you are considering such a step.

An Ounce of Prevention

Some feel that emotional problems show a lack of trust in God. On occasion this may be true, and it is always proper to encourage people to trust in God. However, it  does NOT work to go to a person in the valley and tell him to snap out of it and trust in God. Instead, we should be helping our entire congregation to understand God’s character. God does love us. He does care for us. We can lean on Him in times of trial and stress. He does have answers and He does not despise us for our weakness.

Along with this, we need to teach and practice brotherhood in our congregations. Every brother and sister should feel needed and appreciated. Every brother and sister should sense that they are part of a caring brotherhood relationship.

All of these things can be a comfort to the person in distress if they have been taught to him before he lands in the valley.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Hopefully by applying some of the ideas in this series, along with common sense, Biblical principles and, where necessary, medical assistance, the suffering one can find relief and begin to rebuild his life. But that is not the end.

First of all, just because a person has a good week, don’t consider him healed. Inevitably there will be some reverses. But gradually the time between relapses should lengthen, and the relapses should become shorter and less severe. It is nothing new for this process to take several years.

The mentors should expect to be available for quite a while, but should start helping the recovering brother or sister to make sound choices in life style and spirituality that will help to keep the problem from recurring (note that physical fitness can be an important factor in emotional health). It is good to gradually wean the recovered brother or sister from being overly dependant on the mentors, as time goes on. It is ideal for him or her to gradually replace this relationship with a close relationship with Christ and the congregation in general. Probably there will always be a close friendship with the mentors, but we should discourage a permanent spiritual dependency.

But none of this will take place over night.

In Conclusion…

Emotional needs will inevitably surface amongst us. How we deal with these needs tells us a lot about the depth of brotherhood that exists amongst us. God has given us the poor and the needy to test our spiritual commitment and love. When one member of the congregation hurts, all other members should hurt with him. Something is seriously wrong when a congregation responds to a hurting brother or sister by casting stones.