Mission & Mental Health

I recently finished reading Sebastian Junger’s book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.

It was recommended to me by someone at White Fields, who had read the book and found a surprising correlation between something I had taught at church and the main thesis of the book.

The sermon was one I had taught in our Church Matters series on the topic of “Mission.” (Audio of that message here: “So That They May Have Joy”). My text was John 17:13-19, where Jesus prays over his disciples at the end of the last supper. In that prayer, he says that he was given a mission by the father, and now – in order that his disciples might have his joy in fullness – Jesus is giving them his mission.

The point is: there is a correlation between mission and joy. Mission is a prerequisite for joy. If you want to experience joy, you need to have a mission. Without a mission, you can’t have joy.

This truth can be seen in the fact that children, when they think about what they want to be when they grow up, they think of their future vocation in terms of mission: they dream not of being office workers, they dream of being teachers, police officers, firefighters, missionaries, astronauts, doctors, veterinarians, etc. In other words: jobs full of adventure and serving other people. Why? Because they find joy in that.

And yet, our society encourages us to look out for ourselves, be practical, don’t bother trying to “save the world” – just worry about yourself. And here’s the irony of that: the more that you focus on yourself, the less significant your life is in the big picture, and the less joy you will have.

This same point is made by Sebastian Junger in Tribe. His big idea, which he backs up with evidence throughout the book, is that hardship, rather than being bad for us, is actually good for us – in fact, it’s one of the best things that can possibly happen to a person or a society.

And yet, the whole focus of our society has been to make life more and more comfortable and free of hardship; the result of which has been an incredible rise in mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and even violent crime. Times of crisis, such as terror attacks and natural disasters, indirectly have a positive affect on mental health in a society. The reason for this is that crisis causes people to band together and gives people a mission and a purpose to work towards and fight for, even sacrifice for. Without such a mission, people become unhealthy.

In other words: Junger is stating what the Bible has said for millennia: you need a mission. It’s a basic human requirement.

Here are some quotes from the book:

Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. (xvii)

According to a global survey by the World Health Organization, people in wealthy countries suffer depression at as much as 8 times the rate they do in poor countries, and people in countries with large income disparities– like the United States– run a much higher lifelong risk of developing severe mood disorders. (p. 20)

[Poorer people experience lower rates of depression.] The reason for this seems to be that poor people are forced to share their time and resources more than wealthy people are, and as a result they live in closer communities. Financial independence can lead to isolation, and isolation can put people at a greatly increased risk of depression and suicide. (p. 20 – 21)

Modern society seems to emphasize extrinsic values (money, possessions, status) over intrinsic ones (sense of purpose, competence, moral/ethical/spiritual conviction), and as a result, mental health issues rise along with growing wealth. (p. 22)

Speaking of the extremely close bonds created by hardship in danger, “We are not good to each other. Our tribalism is to an extremely narrow group of people: our children, our spouse, maybe our parents is alienating, technical, cold, and mystifying. Our fundamental desire, as human beings, is to be close to others, and our society does not allow for that.” (p. 94)

The last time United States experienced a significant period of unity was briefly after the terrorist attacks of September 11. There were no rampage shootings for the next two years. The effect was particularly pronounced in New York City, where rates of violent crime, suicide, and psychiatric disturbances dropped immediately in many countries, antisocial behavior is known to decline during wartime. New York suicide rate dropped by about 20% in the six months following the attacks, the murder rate dropped by 40%, and pharmacist saw no increase in the number of first-time patients filling prescriptions for anti-anxiety and antidepressant medication. (p. 115-116)

I agree with Junger’s thesis and much (not all) of his analysis, but – unsurprisingly – he does not give a solution. The only part of Junger’s analysis which I disagree with is that he chalks everything up to human evolution, whereas I, as a Christian, believe that the need for mission is part of God’s design in creating us. That aside, the main idea of the book is absolutely correct – and the Bible has been teaching these things for millennia, AND giving the solution!

In fact, there are so many verses in the Bible which relate to this subject, that I only have space here for a few:

But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.
But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. (1 Timothy 6:9-12)

we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)

Furthermore, in Christ, we have been given a mission – THE mission – which really matters and is worth living for and dying for and sacrificing for, and all of us are called to play a role in it – no matter what our vocation. It is the only mission which ultimately matters; it is the only mission which will ultimately save the world, and we have full confidence that it will succeed, because we’ve already been told how the story ends…

In order to have joy, you need a mission. Embrace Jesus and get engaged in his mission.

And a final thought: How did Jesus design his mission to be accomplished? Through the church. That’s one of the reasons why church matters… to God, to you, and to the world.

Done with School, and a Few Other Things

I love finishing projects that I start. The only thing is, I also really like starting projects. So I sometimes find myself with several long term projects – but over the past few weeks I've been able to finish up a few of them.

For the past several months I was very busy finishing my dissertation for my theology degree. I started at this university when my first child was the same age as my current youngest child: 5 months old. Now, in completing my dissertation, I am done – at least for now… I would like to continue.

The title of my dissertation: What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? Implications of Epistemology and Culture for Christian Thinking, Practice and Mission

Another thing I've been working on for a while that I was able to complete: During the 10 years that I lived in Hungary I spent a lot of time getting different kinds and levels of residence permits and visas. By the time I left I had permanent residence and a work permit, which I gave up when I moved to the US. No big deal, because I have no plan to move back. But about 2 years ago a friend in Hungary told me that I should look into becoming a Hungarian citizen and that I might meet the requirements for citizenship. I looked into it, and I did – so, a year ago I applied for Hungarian citizenship, and I just found out 2 weeks ago I received it. Last week I traveled to Los Angeles for my naturalization ceremony at the office of the Hungarian Consulate.

Receiving my Hungarian citizenship from Kálmán László, consulate general of Hungary.

I'm not really sure how it will benefit me, but it is meaningful nonetheless. My wife and kids are Hungarian citizens, and I does encourage me to spend more time making sure the kids learn Hungarian and have that identity.

Another long term project we've been working on is getting out of the debt we incurred from the adoption we did. It's been an exercise in budgeting, downsizing and penny pinching, inspired by a Dave Ramsey class, and at the end of June we will have that project complete as well.

I've also finished a few books recently:

The men's group at our church has been going through Mere Christianity by CS Lewis, following a study guide and video series by Eric Metaxas. A lot of the videos refer to Lewis' autobiography, Surprised by Joy, so I picked it up and started reading it. In it, Lewis tells the story of how he became an atheist and then the process by which he turned from atheism to deism and finally to Christianity. “Joy”, spelled with a capital J, is the thing which all people are looking for and get glimpses of throughout their lives in various ways, but which can only be found in and through a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

Sounds interesting, right? I have to say, Surprised by Joy left me surprised with boredom. I had a really hard time getting through the book, and felt that a lot of the material was indulgent details which had nothing at all to do with the story he was telling. That part though, the story of his journey from a nominal Christian upbringing, to atheism, to deism and finally to Christianity, was truly captivating. The last chapter was particularly good. It's worth reading if you are a CS Lewis fan.

The other book I finished recently was John Steinbeck's The Winter of Our Discontent. I heard somewhere that it is good to read fiction because it fuels creativity and imagination in a way that other media does not. I read a lot of non-fiction, particularly theology books and biographies, and so I want to make sure that I read some good fiction from time to time as well and I have it in mind to read classic novels and literature.

The Winter of Our Discontent was interesting, particularly in how it dealt with moral and ethical issues, as well as issues of contentment, and pressures in society which create dissatisfaction. The novel describes how people often cross their own moral and ethical lines to get what they think they want, and when they get it, they are still discontent and often more miserable that they were before. I think it's a great commentary on society and on the fallen human condition.

Ironically, The Winter of Our Discontent and Surprised by Joy have their core theme in common. The only difference is that whereas Steinbeck didn't answer the question of what it is that human beings are ultimately looking for: the true quest beneath all our quests, Lewis did. And although Lewis' writing style is harder to read, Surprised by Joy actually answers the question posed by The Winter of Our Discontent.

 

I'm enjoying this season.

 

The Effect of Woundedness

I have been doing some premarital counseling for a young couple recently, and was feeling unsatisfied with materials I’d used in the past, so I picked up a copy of Tim and Kathy Keller’s book, The Meaning of Marriage.

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My expectations weren’t particularly high; I figured it would be similar to all the other marriage books I’ve read before, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised. In fact, although I’m not finished with it yet, I have been impressed by how much they address many of the questions which I think people today are really asking: questions like why couples shouldn’t live together before getting married, or whether the biblical command for wives to submit to their husbands isn’t outdated at best and misogynistic at worst.

One of the things which Tim Keller is really good at is something called ‘presuppositional apologetics’ – which means understanding another person’s position and point of view so well that you are able to articulate it in such a way that they themselves would say, “I couldn’t have put it better myself!” It is only when you have done that first that you can really begin to show someone the flaws in their concepts, because you have proven that you really do understand where they are coming from and why they think the way they do. That will always be much more effective than just stating your view loudly.

As I was reading this book today, I came across something which I found very insightful. Speaking about “woundedness,” which they describe as “compounded self-doubt and guilt, resentment and disillusionment” which results from hurtful experiences from past relationships – here is what they say is the effect of woundedness: Woundedness makes us self-absorbed. 

When you begin to talk to wounded people, it is not long before they begin talking about themselves. They’re so engrossed in their own pain and problems that they don’t realize what they look like to others. They are not sensitive to the needs of others. They don’t pick up on the cues of those who are hurting, or, if they do, they only do so in a self-involved way. That is, they do so with a view of helping to “rescue” them in order to feel better about themselves.

They get involved with others in an obsessive and controlling way because they are actually meeting their own needs, though they deceive themselves about this. We are always, always the last to see our self-absorption.

When you point out selfish behavior to a wounded person, he or she will say, “Well, maybe so, but you don’t understand what it is like.” The wounds justify the behavior.

– Keller, The Meaning of Marriage, pp. 60-61

I have certainly experienced this in other people, but as I read it, it made me also think of myself – because as they say: We are always the last to see our own self-absorption.

The common view in our society of how to cure this problem is by encouraging people towards self-realization: to focus on themselves, finding themselves and seek to fulfill themselves. Ironically, this encourages already self-absorbed people towards further self-absorption, and actually is counterproductive for that person in further relationships, because it encourages them to think that their feelings and desires should take preeminence in the relationship because of all that they have been through.

The biblical view on this is to realize that self-absorption is part of our fallen nature, and that it is actually in giving up our self-centeredness, embracing that Jesus died for the sins which have been committed against us and focusing our attention on honoring God and on serving others, and put those things before ourselves, that we will find the life and the happiness which will actually fulfill us – and the cure for poisonous self-absorption.

 

Reading and Writing… but Mostly Reading

 

I haven't been posting much on this blog lately, mostly because I've been doing a lot of reading. I've had plenty of thoughts and ideas though, so I'll get caught up on some of those over the coming days and weeks, but below is a list of some of the books I've read lately. Most of them are theological, some are practical and others are fiction.

Earlier this year, around late summer/early fall, I felt a strong desire to get back into reading more, and so that's what I've done. Several authors and leaders that I respect have come out recommending that pastors read more fiction in order to excite the immagination and stir up God-given emotions which find their fulfilment in the salvation which Jesus gives, e.g. redemption, love without ceasing, heroism, sacrificial love, etc. The idea being, that everything we love in stories is deeply engrained within us because the story of the Gospel is written on our hearts, therefore these truths resonate within us and move us deeply whenever we encounter them. This was one of the convictions of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien and the reasons why they wrote fiction as vehicles for communicating and celebrating the spiritual truths of the Gospel.

Here's that list:

Center Church, Timothy Keller – This is Tim Keller's treatise on pretty much everything he's ever thought about culture, the Gospel and church. I wish everyone could and would read this book. It's a bit laborious but you come away with basic instruction in many areas which are incredibly helpful in not only being a disciple of Christ but also a person who helps share the good news and make disciples. Absolutely great book.

Christ and Culture, Richard Nieburh – This is considered a classic on the subject of how Christians are to relate to culture. Rather than giving many (any?) answers to the question, in this book Nieburh helps to categorize different responses and explain the underly beliefs behind how Christians relate to culture, and showing how it has worked out throughout history. He gives 5 different approaches of Christians to culture, from rejection of culture to complete embracing of culture and the views in between. It's a very informative and helpful book; many consider it the seminal work on the subject.

Christ and Culture Revisited, D.A. Carson – As the title suggests, Carson revisits Nieburh's classic book, pointing out some areas (rightly) where Nieburh did not take as strong of a stand as he could (should) have, such as his claim that the Gnostics were simply Christians trying to embrace their culture. Carson claims that while Nieburh did good work, he should have been quicker to condemn certain approaches to culture and the Gospel which are actually heretical. There's more to this book, but unless you're really interested in the topic, I would suggest read Nieburh's book and spit out the seeds.

Egri Csillagok, Gárdonyi Géza – A classic Hungarian work of historical fiction which has as its setting the siege of the city of Eger by the Turkish army in the 15th century. Eger is the town my family lived in in Hungary, before moving to Colorado, so this book has long been on my list of things to read.

Ministering to Problem People in Your Church: What to do with Well-Intentioned Dragons, Marshall Shelly – An easy read, mostly of stories shared by pastors and help for understanding and ministering well to people who can be problematic in church, whether intentionally or not.

Tertullian, First Theologian of the West, Eric Osborn – I felt that Eric Osborn went out of his way to dispell any negative criticism of Tertullian. Perhaps that approach is justified, but I'm not sure it is in every case.

1984, George Orwell – I'd been meaning to read this for a while. It wasn't as good as I'd hoped, but I'm glad I can check it off the list. The thing about the TVs that watch you and you can only turn them down, but never off, was pretty interesting. I felt that the love story, although not totally unnecessary to the story, was given too much attention.

Issues in Missiology, Dwight Pentecost – A great overview of the theology of missions and the issues related to sharing a timeless message in changing and varied cultural settings. Definitely a good read for anyone interested in sharing the Gospel cross-culturally, both here and abroad, as many of us live in areas where other cultures are present and represented.

That's it for now. I've still got a stack of books on my desk waiting to be read…

Next up: The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I'd love to hear your thoughts about what you've been reading, or if you've read any of these books. Leave me a comment below.

 

The Most Misused Verses in the Bible

A few weeks ago I saw a promotion on Twitter, offering this book for free on Kindle. I assumed it would be somewhat cliché and predictable, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised!

The book is thoughtful and gives context to many verses which are frequently quoted out of context, and then explains how they are usually misapplied and gives their proper application.

If you’re looking for something to read, I recommend it.

Christianity suffers from too many trite clichés and platitudes; too many scriptures are stripped of their original meanings and used to say things they were never meant to say.

Here are a few quotes from the chapter on Matthew 7:1 – “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.”

When we take a closer look at the context of Matthew 7 and the teachings of the rest of Scripture, it is clear that this verse cannot be used to substantiate unrestrained moral freedom, autonomy, and independence. This was not Jesus’ intent. He was not advocating a hands-off approach to moral accountability, refusing to allow anyone to make moral judgments in any sense. Quite the opposite, Jesus was explicitly rebuking the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, who were quick to see the sins of others but were blind and unwilling to hold themselves accountable to the same standard they were imposing on everyone else.

No one will reach perfection in this life, but together we are to wage war against and forsake the sin that results from living in our fallen flesh. We are to “take off the old life,” so to speak, and “put on the new,” growing in holiness out of reverence for God. But the reality is we can’t accomplish this without the help of the indwelling Holy Spirit and the mutual encouragement and accountability of our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. We can’t do this alone; we need each other! This then, is why the apostles called us to help one another in our struggle with sin. For example, James says: My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins. (5: 19– 20 NIV 1984) Paul said something similar in the book of Galatians: Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (6: 1– 2 NIV 1984) Notice that both James and Paul assume two things. First, there will be times when fellow believers will wander off the straight and narrow path. Second, they assume that other Christians, out of love, will seek to come alongside that brother or sister in an effort to bring him or her back from the error of their ways and save them from the destructive power of sin (see Jesus’ method for doing this in Matthew 18: 15– 17). Since we have been commissioned to proclaim a message of repentance and faith to those outside the church who need to hear the good news, certainly we need to proclaim the same message of repentance and faith to those inside the church.

Therefore, Jesus does not forbid all moral judgment or accountability. Rather, he forbids harsh, prideful, and hypocritical judgment that condemns others outright without first evaluating one’s own spiritual condition and commitment to forsake sin. It is my contention that the popular misuse of “do not judge” reveals just how far the discipline of sound biblical study has slipped in recent years. More than that, it sheds light on the state of our culture, a culture that seeks to avoid accountability and responsibility for personal actions. This current trend and mentality runs counter to the teachings of Scripture. For the collective teaching of the Bible insists that those who are created in the image of God are morally responsible to God and to one another. So to use “do not judge” as a means of dismissing oneself from moral responsibility would be to interpret it in a way that pits it against the rest of Scripture.

Bargerhuff, Eric J. (2012-05-01). The Most Misused Verses in the Bible,Surprising Ways God’s Word Is Misunderstood (pp. 25-30). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

This book is worth the price. Check it out.