Toxic Loneliness and How to Break Out

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There is an interesting phenomenon in Western society; in the words of one comedian: “Everything is amazing, and nobody’s happy.”

We live in the most wealthy, technologically advanced society that has ever existed in the history of the world, and at the same time there are incredibly high rates of depression and mental illness which lead to suicide and acts of violence.

One key question many people are asking is: Why?  What is the cause of the increase in depression and mental illness in developed countries? 

The late Dutch psychiatrist J. H. van den Berg wrote and researched on the topic of psychopathology and he wrote a highly regarded book on the subject titled, A Different Existence: Principles of Phenomenological Psychopathology.

In this book, van den Berg uses a case study to analyze several common conceptions about psychiatric illness, and in the end he draws his conclusion from his research: that psychopathy is related to the experience of loneliness. Among his thesis statements, he declares:

“Loneliness is the nucleus of psychiatry.”

“If loneliness did not exist, we could reasonably assume that psychiatric illnesses would not occur either.” [105]

This is particularly interesting in light of the fact that it is generally recognized that Western society is experiencing loneliness at higher levels than ever before.

See: “A Culture of Loneliness and What to Do About It”

Our Society is Lonelier Than Ever Before

A survey taken by Harris Poll in 2016 showed that almost three-quarters (72 percent) of Americans experience loneliness.1

Our time has been called “the age of loneliness.” Although we are more connected than ever before via the internet, the internet itself is exacerbating the problem.

In January of this year, the United Kingdom appointed its first “Minister for Loneliness”, who is tasked with helping to combat what Prime Minister Theresa May called “the sad reality of modern life.”

Loneliness is Literally Killing Us

The Harvard Study of Adult Development, a 75-year study of men, concluded that loneliness is toxic. Loneliness is contagious, and the more isolated people are, the less happy they are, and brain function declines as well as physical health. 2

Medical studies have linked loneliness and social isolation to heart disease, cancer, depression, diabetes and suicide. Vivek Murthy, the former United States surgeon general, has written that loneliness and social isolation are “associated with a reduction in life span similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity.” 3

How Do We Break Out of this Toxic Cycle?

One really important factor is that we must recognize that Western society has been sold a bill of goods related to individualism and the “autonomous self”. American culture, in many ways, is permeated by a culture of fear and an obsession with privacy. We have been told since the Enlightenment that this is the ultimate path to happiness, but the above data shows just how much it has left us in tatters.

The gospel shows us another way:

For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. (2 Corinthians 5:14-15)

When a person embraces the gospel, they become part of the people of God. Sinclair Ferguson put it this way:

 “We are not saved individually and then choose to join the church as if it were some club or support group. Christ died for his people, and we are saved when by faith we become part of the people for whom Christ died.”

The Apostle Paul makes this point as well:    

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God  (Ephesians 2:19)

In other words: part of God’s work of salvation through Jesus includes saving people out of individualism, calling them into redeemed community which has a mission and a purpose bigger than any individual member. Clearly this presents a powerful antidote to the modern pathological phenomenon of loneliness and isolation. The gospel is a holistic remedy which addresses the greatest needs of the entire person: soul, mind and body. It is truly good news.

My Thoughts on the Supreme Court Ruling on Gay Marriage

I have been hesitant to write anything about the SCOTUS ruling which disallowed States to ban gay marriage, simply because I have seen how social media has been so consumed by it, and it is clearly an issue which people have made a dividing line, which greatly saddens me. My initial feeling was that it is a lose-lose to write anything on the issue for these reasons, but I keep returning to the idea that I should share some thoughts, since the purpose of this blog is to give a pastor’s voice on happenings in society.

So here are some thoughts:

I’m not surprised by the decision. It didn’t happen overnight. This is the culmination of things which have been in the works for a long time. The debate is basically between identity and practice. For some time now in our society, there has been a movement pushing to see homosexuality as an identity which a person is inherently given, and therefore not to act on it would be to betray who they fundamentally are. The Bible, on the other hand, doesn’t say that homosexuality is a person’s fundamental identity, but that it is a practice – but not who a person is. A person may have inclinations towards certain behavior, but that doesn’t mean that they must act on those inclinations at risk of betraying who they are – rather every person must choose to deny certain inclinations and act on others, and the Bible says that homosexuality is a behavior which should be denied – not an identity which defines who a person is.

The Supreme Court’s decision marks a change in the cultural climate – where now homosexuality is to be celebrated and anyone who doesn’t celebrate it will be marginalized. Whereas historically in America, for the most part churches and religious organizations have been regarded in a positive light, that is less and less the case, as they are increasingly being portrayed as “hate” groups, unless they are willing to compromise convictions held for thousands of years. This change of climate is something American Christians are not used to, although it does exist in other places in the world – namely Canada and France.

The biggest implication for churches will not be in the realm of officiating or hosting homosexual marriages. See this article for more details on that.  The biggest implication in the long term for churches will be in the area of tax exempt status. Just this past week, Time published an article in which the author stated that “Now’s the time to end tax exemptions for religious institutions”. The author references a 1983 court ruling from a case involving Bob Jones University, which stated that a school could lose tax-exempt status if its policies violated “fundamental national public policy,” and states that in light of the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage, this might now be applied to religious organizations.
That prospect seems daunting to many Christians, and I personally wouldn’t like to see that happen – but I do keep in mind that the early Christians had no money, no tax exemptions, they were considered an illegal religion for hundreds of years and were considered radical in their statement that Jesus was the only way to heaven.  And yet, the message of the Gospel changed lives and brought about love and new life, whether it was legal or illegal, preached in a tax exempt mega-church or an underground meeting.
You may not agree with the direction things are changing, but we can have confidence both historically and eschatologically of the victory of Jesus and the ultimate need of every person in the world for the Good News of the Gospel to give them new life.

What Are We Fighting For?

Recently I have been reading the biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.

I’ve been very impressed with the way that Bonhoeffer acted as a Christian during the Nazi period, in which EVERY Christian was faced with an intense ethical dilemma because of the evils acted out by the Nazi regime.

This Sunday at White Fields I taught 1 Samuel 11. In that chapter the town of Jabesh-Gilead is attacked by the Ammonites, and Saul, hearing the news, sends a message to all the men of Israel that they need to come to the defense of the people of Jabesh-Gilead, or else.
This was a time in Israel, when it would have been wrong to do nothing.

Surely, Bonhoeffer lived in such a time as well – when it would have been ethically wrong to do nothing in the face of the evils of the Nazi regime. If being a Christian is all about being conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29), and as those who are part of the body of Christ, God would have us do His work, being his mouthpiece, his hands and his feet – there are great implications, as Bonhoeffer knew better any, for us as Christians and how we act and respond in the face of evil, injustice and other things which God is opposed to.

Bonhoeffer famously said:

“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” ― Dietrich Bonhoeffer

In light of this, I can’t help but wonder what the great issues of our day, and our time and place are. What are the things that God would have us as Christians stand up for and fight against in this day?

It says there in 1 Samuel 11, that when Saul heard about how the people of Jabesh-Gilead were being mistreated, the Spirit of the Lord came upon him, and he became angry. That anger moved him to action.

I wonder what the issues are in our day that we should rightly be upset about, and that God would move us to righteous action for.

Yesterday, Eric Metaxas, the author of that biography about Bonhoeffer wrote this on Twitter:

Do you agree?  If so, what are the issues in our day that we should be pushing hard about?

To add a counterpoint, this is what Timothy Keller posted on Facebook today:

Jesus didn’t come to solve the economic, political, and social problems of the world. He came to forgive our sins. – Timothy Keller

It is true that Jesus did come to redeem the world, not by fixing the social problems of the day, or by driving out the Romans, but by dying on the cross for our sins.

What does this mean for us as Christians? Should our focus be other-worldly, i.e. saving people from this world unto the next life and the world which is to come, since this world will soon pass away — or, since eternal life starts now (John 17:3), should we be seeking to do the will of God here and now by coming against evil social structures and injustice, working to put an end to human suffering? Certainly this was a major theme of the Old Testament, but not something addressed much in the New Testament.

Are these two concepts at odds with each other, or can they be reconciled?

I don’t believe they are at odds – I think there is a healthy “both this and that” approach, but finding that balance of focus and knowing which hills God would have us fight on is something for which we must seek wisdom and guidance from God.

I’d love to hear your thoughts! Feel free to comment below.

Marijuana Legalization and Christianity

This week a Gallup poll came out which showed that for the first time, a majority of Americans favor legalizing marijuana. In fact, in the past year, the support for marijuana legalization surged from 48% to 58% of those polled. Here in Colorado, we live in a state that has had medical marijuana legal for years and which voted last November to legalize its recreational use as well. Not to mention that here in Boulder County, whether it’s legal or not, people in this area have been smoking a lot of pot for a long time and will continue to do so. A friend of mine who just moved to BoCo wrote this about how prevalent marijuana use is just in his daily commute. Just the other day I was talking to someone about Lyons High School (thinking ahead for our kids); they said it’s a good school – but that it’s known for the kids there smoking a ton of weed.

Marijuana is here to stay. It’s already been legalized in this state, and will soon be regulated. Interestingly enough though, I have heard almost NOTHING from Christian leaders on this topic. I have, however, heard a lot of people talking about it – including Christians, saying things like: If marijuana becomes legal and readily available in the same way that alcohol is, then is there anything wrong with trying it out? If you can buy it in a shop and it becomes socially acceptable, then is there any reason to not occasionally indulge?

Up until now, pastors have been telling people they shouldn’t smoke pot because it’s illegal, and the Bible instructs us to honor the laws of the land we live in (Romans 13). But now – guess what: game changer! Marijuana is no longer illegal! Drinking alcohol in moderation is more or less acceptable in most Christian circles these days – so if marijuana gets put in the same legal category, then is it okay to treat it the same way?

These are real questions that people – including Christians – are considering. If Christian leaders aren’t talking about what people are actually thinking about and talking about, then we have become irrelevant and are not engaging people and bringing God’s word to bear on the time and place we live in, as we are called to do.

So, what should be the Christian response to the legalization of marijuana?

What does the Bible say?

The Bible doesn’t say anything about marijuana – just like it doesn’t say anything about tobacco or chemical weapons or genetically modified food. But there are principles the Bible lays down which apply.

The “don’t do it because it’s illegal” argument is soon to be off the table, so what should our position be towards recreational marijuana use? The Bible doesn’t say anything about marijuana in particular, but it does speak about mind-altering drugs – in Greek: farmakeia – which were used recreationally rather than medicinally.

Also, the Bible tells us not to be drunk, but to be filled with the Holy Spirit – i.e.: Don’t be under the influence of substances, but be under the influence of God’s Spirit.

The differences between marijuana and alcohol

More and more people are speaking up about how much safer marijuana is than alcohol. You never hear about people committing violent acts because they are stoned. Marijuana has also not been shown to cause long-term brain damage as alcohol has.

But the difference between marijuana and alcohol are that you can drink alcohol without getting intoxicated. It’s possible to drink wine (like Jesus did) or beer with a meal to enjoy the flavor without getting drunk. No one smokes marijuana just for the flavor – the very point of smoking it is mood alteration.

Will marijuana legalization change anything?

It’s clear by now that adults are going to smoke marijuana whether it is legal or not – which is why more and more people are saying, ‘why not tax it and regulate it then?’. It has been estimated that up to $40 million dollars in tax revenue could come in from recreational marijuana sales in Colorado, which would be earmarked for schools. Regulating marijuana, they point out, could also kill at least part of the black market for it, which inevitably leads to violent crime.

Certainly marijuana use would increase once it’s legalized – as people who were once worried about doing something illegal would no longer have to worry about that. Also, and this is a concern for me – it would make it more accessible to kids, because they would no longer need to find a dealer, they will just have to find a friend with an older brother who is willing to buy it for them – just like with alcohol and tobacco.

I smoked pot when I was a teenager, before I gave my life to the Lord when I was 16. I have family members who smoke pot regularly, and I don’t want my kids to smoke pot. I don’t want them to check out or get intoxicated to cope with life or to have fun – whether with alcohol or marijuana or any other substance.

Legislating morality and the real issue

There are plenty of things the Bible instructs us not to do that are legal in our society, such as adultery, fornication, drunkenness, sorcery, etc. Christian maturity means being able to discern and choose for yourself, from a heart-felt response to God’s grace rather than needing to have someone hold your hand and dictate to you what to do.

There are plenty of ways to harm yourself which are completely legal. You can go buy some glue and sniff it and get high – legally. There are also ways to harm yourself, however, which are illegal, such as chemical food additives, cocaine, certain medications, meth, etc. which we consider detrimental to society and harmful to people, which we have banned and we don’t give people legal avenues to indulge in.

For us as Christians, the point is clear: marijuana is intoxicating. We should not be intoxicated or controlled by substances, but by the Holy Spirit. It’s pretty cut and dry.

For society in general, it’s a question of whether or not it would be helpful or harmful to have more intoxicated people everywhere and to make a mind-altering drug more accessible to children than it already is.