Referee

The pain of loneliness and

the excitement of adventure

face off, each convinced

of its position, mutually exclusive

of the other.

To what do I owe this honor?

A front row seat to the

fight of the century.

As blows are struck,

drops of sweat fly in my face.

Poignant reminders,

Rude, salty, definitive.

Whom do I root for?

Is that even a sensible question?

Should I hope for a draw?

I cringe with each punch;

on the edge of my seat,

stomach in knots.

I look for the referee.

I look for the time clock.

I listen for the bell.

What round is it?

Who’s calling this fight

anyway?

The room is spinning;

I can feel the pain.

I can sense the desperation of each fighter.

In a dizzying moment of clarity

I realize the referee is me.

© 1997 Steven Barto

Grove of Trees

You said that all of this was yours;

through Your spoken word, the water came;

at your request, land arose. You called up trees.

All this, where I sit and ponder,

is proof: Your words create life and wonder.

As I look about, everywhere, I see Your hand.

Man might be Your grandest work, but there’s

so much more in the seas, in the air, in the dirt.

Who am I to question whether the caterpillar

crawling on my shoe, or the mosquito,

or the cockroach, are part of your plan?

Bugs bite, I itch, and I question

the need for such bother.

My father told me all is of the food chain;

this is true of every creature, every organism.

I sit under this canopy of countless leaves

and I realize that You, God, designed this world

from the very smallest of cells

to this grove of trees.

© 2016 Steven Barto

More Posts Soon!

HELLO EVERYONE, SO SORRY for the delay in posting new articles. I hand surgery on my right hand two weeks ago. I am progressing nicely, albeit not as fast as I would’ve liked.

I have been working on Part Three of my “Church History” series, which will cover Christianity’s battles with Islam and the Crusades. Part Four will cover troubles in the church that led to the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic counter-Reformation, and the start of Christianity’s global outreach. I am also planning to continue my series on integrating psychology and Christian theology. This is a topic that is key in my continuing master’s studies and my ministry to Christians struggling with active addiction and mental illness. There are several other projects on the back burner, including “The End of Me” based on Kyle Idleman’s book of the same name.

Steven Barto

Integrating Christian Theology and Psychology: Part Three

By Steven Barto, B.S., Psy., M.T.S.

IN PART ONE OF THIS SERIES we discussed the advent of social science, whose practitioners slowly changed the face of mental health counseling. Psychiatry stood as the primary specialty for treating psychiatric conditions such as bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety. Psychiatrists typically do not engage in meaningful long-term clinical dialog. Instead, they prescribe psychotropic medications. Today, social workers, psychologists, and their ancillary workers, provide the majority of “talk therapy.” Notwithstanding the above, it was psychiatrists who were tasked with compiling data and establish a universal “code” for quantification, research, and billing purposes. Part Two showed the impact of the Enlightenment on virtually all aspects of life, characterized by skepticism toward religious dogma and other forms of traditional authority. Secularism and relativism began to creep into the discussion. Isaiah Berlin established an alternative movement in the late 1800s which he labeled Counter-Enlightenment. He attempted to challenge rationalism, universalism, and empiricism, objecting to these and other isms, saying they identify man as “mere machine” whose quest for reality is drastically limited to empirical interaction with nature.

Early practitioners thought experimental psychology was the best tool for getting at the basics of consciousness, but they believed “laboratory psychiatry” was useless for grasping the aspect of higher cognitive function. Wilhelm Wundt proposed that “sensations” (which occur when a sense organ is stimulated and impulses reach the brain) are are always accompanied by feelings. Arguably, attempting to isolate, grasp, understand, and write about “feelings” has always been a difficult task. Clinics and laboratories for the study of cognition flourished throughout Europe. Not surprisingly, psychology is a discipline rich in historical and philosophical roots. Many evangelical and fundamental pastors have disparaging thoughts regarding psychiatric and psychological treatment modalities. Although many people keep “faith” carefully segregated from the rest of their lives, I believe it is possible to establish and maintain productive links between psychology and Christian theology.

It helps to remember that “worldview” is a fundamental orientation of the heart, which is laid bare by our words and actions. Scripture notes that our heart is the central defining element of us as a person. Jesus said, “The good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure produces evil; for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45, NRSV). What we hide in our hearts, what we have sown in its soil, eventually comes to the surface. Essentially, worldview provides a home for our philosophy on life. In its simplistic definition, worldview is a particular philosophy of life or conception of the world. We all have a worldview—the window through which we view the world, framed by the assumptions and beliefs that impact what what we experience on a daily basis. Without a doubt, our worldview shapes our philosophy of life.

One of the most influential myths of the modern period has been the belief that it is impossible to locate and occupy a non-ideological vantage point, from which reality may be surveyed and interpreted. The social sciences have been among the chief and most strident claimants to such space, arguing that they offer a neutral and objective reading of reality; in which the ultimate spurious truth claims of religious groupings may be deflated and deconstructed in terms of unacknowledged, yet ultimately determinative, social factors” (2).

A Kaleidoscope of Views

Worldview brings with it many implications, which can admittedly muddy the waters regarding integration of psychology and Christian theology. When modernism failed to provide a beneficial philosophy of life in the face of war, poverty, famine, sickness, and unresolved racial tension, postmodernism attempted to replace knowledge with opinion or conviction. However, postmodernism had no advice on how to determine whether any given conviction is in some way better or more accurate than another. Again, our families, religious beliefs, academic experience, and media (especially social media) continue to influence us in ways of which we are unaware. It seems the key to unlocking our assumptions is having the humility and willingness to see them for what they are: that which we accept as true or as certain to happen, without proof. By definition, this “pursuit” of truth is a matter of epistemology (the theory of knowledge, especially how it is obtained). As we move forward in this series, we will explore how sociology, psychology, philosophy, and theology are crucial to integrating treatment modalities and Christian theology.

Saint Anselm of Canterbury said, “For I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this I believe—that unless I believe, I should not understand.” It was thought that we could essentially become our own authority, knowing with absolute certainty (as God) the definition of right and wrong; in other words, the knowledge of good and evil. This is the very essence of our First Parents’ disobedience in the Garden of Eden (see Gen. 3:1-5). A hallmark of modernism is belief in the human capacity to function as an independent authority. This orientation gave rise to another aspect of modernism: the myth of progress. Man became convinced that we can know things with God-like certainty (3). The brash disobedience of Adam and Eve caused a cosmic ripple effect for all of mankind. This “fallout” has shown itself in countless vain philosophies, which prove how we all thirst for what went wrong, whose fault it is, and how to fix it.

The philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard plays an important role in our quest to establish a viable integration of psychology and Christian theology. His “existentialism” stresses meaning, accompanied by freedom of choice and the uniqueness of each individual. He likened a proper relationship with God to a love affair, saying, “It is at once painful and happy, passionate but unfulfilled, lived in time yet infinite”(Hubben, 1952, p. 24). Kierkegaard initially rejected Christianity while in college, but changed his mind some time later. However, the Christianity he accepted was well outside the walls of the institutional church. He had no patience for dogma. The ultimate state of being for Kierkegaard was arrived at when we decide to embrace God and take His existence on faith, without needing a logical, rational, or scientific explanation of why or how one makes such choice. He was a proponent of the “leap of faith” approach to religion: the moment Abraham lifted the knife to kill his son on Mount Moriah captures what he meant by religious faith. He advised reading the Bible as we would read a love letter, letting the words touch us personally and emotionally.

These excursions into philosophy are meant to help us discover the roots of psychology. Friedrich Nietzsche considered himself a psychologist. His approach was comparable to Sigmund Freud. In fact, Freudian and Nietzschian psychology shared the goal of helping their patients gain control of their powerful, irrational impulses in order to live more creative and healthy lives. Nietzsche identified urges as das es, which is Latin for the id. He often discussed repression (a later cornerstone of Freudian psychoanalysis). For Nietzsche, internalizing the external standards of others was problematic. Likely, he saw this as counter to being authentic. So-called religious “followers” in his eyes become slaves to the one they follow. I will admit that this is an acceptable tenet of Christianity (see Rom. 6:20-22), but the focus is more on “dedicated follower” than slave. Nietzsche’s remark, “God is dead,” has been misunderstood and misused for generations. Actually, he believed God was dead because “we have killed him.” By we, he meant the philosophers and scientists of his day who stubbornly held on to empiricism, giving no credence to the metaphysical or spiritual realm. This left mankind with nowhere to turn for answers to the four great questions: (1) Where did we come from? (2) What is the meaning of life? (3) What is the basis for morality (right vs. wrong), and (4) Where do we go when we die? With the so-called death of God came the death of His shadow (metaphysics) as well.

This seems to leave mankind in a cosmic tabula rasa devoid of transcendental or spiritual forces to guide us. Yet, amazingly, Nietzsche said conviction is “belief in the possession of absolute truth on any matter of knowledge” (4). But it was his opinion that rationalistic philosophy, science, and the organized church discourage us from having a deep, personal relationship with God. Logic and facts have nothing to do with such a relationship, which must be based on faith alone. In this manner, Nietzsche believed we killed God, at least philosophically. Ultimately, when we accept God on faith, God becomes (for us and our encounter with Him) a living, emotional reality in our subjective experience. Although I believe in the ontological existence of God, I believe it is critical we understand that a “speaking God” needs a “hearing church.” It is our individual faith that quickens our spirit and allows us to experience God.

The Fork in the Road

David Entwistle notes that every branch of learning provides a unique view of God’s world and allows glimpses of His mystery. For the evangelical, fundamental Christian, psychology must be infused with a theological belief about our place in God’s world. Christianity is much more than theology; it is predicated upon a personal relationship with Christ as Lord, as rabbi, as redeemer. Of course, Christianity holds very specific beliefs as to the cause of human suffering. Admittedly, this causes Christian counselors to come to the table with certain assumptions. Pastors and church elders shepherd church members toward a maturity in Christ, as they should. Elders tend the flock in such a way that believers develop from spiritual infancy to full-grown Christ-likeness. Paul wrote in his first epistle to the Corinthians, “I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh” (1 Cor. 3:2-3a, ESV). The word “milk” (Gr. gala) in the above Scripture passage means the basic, elemental teachings of Christianity first learned by new believers; the word “meat” (Gr. broma) denotes a deeper, more complete understanding and application of God’s Word.

What does reason have to do with faith? What does the intellectual have to do with the spiritual? What does philosophy have to do with Christianity? Tertullian summed up these questions when he asked, “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?”(5). Entwhistle noted “individuals who espouse a sacred/secular split in an attempt to preserve theological supremacy actually minimize the scope of God’s sovereignty” (6). This makes perfect sense. We cannot bifurcate God from His creation, or from our everyday existence. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to encounter fundamentalist or evangelical pastors and teachers who claim that Christians must reject in total the “false doctrine” of psychology, and run from all manner of secularism in order to find health and healing in Christ. It is critical to understand the difference between “secular” life issues and secularism. As human beings, we need to avoid an “ivory tower” existence. We cannot deny non-religious, “lay,” or temporal orientations while we remain in an earthly body. Secularism is a worldview that is hostile to Christian theology. Entwhistle helps put this matter into perspective: “To think secularly is to think within a frame of reference bounded by the limits of our life on earth… to think Christianly is to accept all things with the mind as related, directly or indirectly, to man’s eternal destiny as the redeemed and chosen child of God” (7) (italics mine).

In Part Four I will show how counseling provided to Christian believers in crisis by Christian practitioners and clergy must include discipling; and inversely, Christian discipling must include counseling. Further, I will introduce the concept that extremism regarding this continuum is destructive. So-called secular combatants see religion as incompatible with mental health and intellectual discourse. Christian combatants see psychology as an enemy which is opposed by sound doctrine, and they see the use of psychotherapy (and psychotropic medication) as incompatible with, if not unnecessary for, those who live victorious Christian lives. I will provide insight on the theory of “nouthetic counseling” (Gr. noutheteo, “to admonish”), which is a form of evangelical Protestant pastoral counseling based solely upon the Bible and focused on Christ. It repudiates mainstream psychology and psychiatry as humanistic, fundamentally opposed to Christianity, and radically secular.

I will present the case of Nally vs. John MacArthur and Grace Community Church. The case presents a variety of issues concerning a lawsuit for wrongful death by the parents of a suicide victim against Grace Community Church’s pastoral counselors. On April 1, 1979, 24-year-old Kenneth Nally committed suicide by shooting himself in the head with a shotgun. His parents filed a wrongful death action against Grace Community Church of the Valley, a Protestant Christian congregation located in Sun Valley, California, and four Church pastors, MacArthur, Thomson, Cory and Rea, alleging “clergyman malpractice,” specifically negligence and outrageous conduct in failing to prevent Nally’s suicide. A member of the Church since 1974, Nally participated in pastoral counseling at GCC prior to his death. The pastors vehemently discouraged Nally from receiving psychological or psychiatric care (despite a prior attempt at taking his own life by intentional drug overdose), failing to meet a standard of care for pastors, failure to secure proper psychological counseling training, and failure to disclose Nally’s true psychiatric condition to his treating psychiatrist and his parents.

The case of Nally vs. Grace Community Church puts at our feet the issue of integrating Christian theology and psychology. Pastors at GCC told Nally that his attempted suicide by overdose was a sign that God was punishing him. MacArthur and his pastoral staff told Nally his problems were rooted in sin, and that his mental illness could be properly treated by relying solely on biblical principles. The irony is not lost on me that psychology literally means “the study of the soul.” I will present the argument that psychiatric care must never be dogmatically withheld from a church member who is contemplating, or who has attempted, suicide.

Footnotes and References

(1) James Sire, The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog, 5th ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 20.
(2) Alister E. McGrath, A Scientific Theory: Nature (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s Publishing, 2009), 17.
(3) David N. Entwistle, Integrative Approaches to Psychology and Christianity, 3rd. ed. (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books), 2015.
(4) Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human (Germany: 1878).
(5) Tertullian, The Prescription Against Heretics 7 (New York, NY: London Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1914), 45.
(6) Entwhistle, Ibid., fn3, 8.
(7) Ibid., 9.

Stigma and the Toll of Addiction

By Nora D. Volkow, M.D.
Executive Director, National Institute on Drug Addiction

Original Post April 20, 2020

Each day in 2018, an average of 185 people in the United States died from a drug overdose (1). In fact, recent declines in U.S. life expectancy are being attributed to direct and indirect effects of alcohol and drug use disorders. Expanding the number of people receiving evidence-based addiction treatment is crucial for reversing these trends. But among the many challenges in delivering appropriate care to the nearly 20 million people in the United States with substance use disorders is the chilling effect of stigma. Stigma not only impedes access to treatment and care delivery; it also contributes to the disorder on the individual level. Stigma associated with many mental health conditions is a well-recognized problem. But whereas considerable progress has been made in recent decades in reducing the stigma associated with some psychiatric disorders such as depression, such change has been much slower in relation to substance use disorders (2). One obstacle is that this stigma has causes beyond those that apply to most other conditions. People who are addicted to drugs sometimes lie or steal and can behave aggressively, especially when experiencing withdrawal or intoxication-triggered paranoia. These behaviors are transgressions of social norms that make it hard even for their loved ones to show them compassion, so it is easy to see why strangers or health care workers may be rejecting or unsympathetic.

Tacit beliefs or assumptions about personal responsibility — and the false belief that willpower should be sufficient to stop drug use — are never entirely absent from most people’s thoughts when they interact with someone with a drug problem. Health care professionals are not immune to these assumptions. Indeed, they may hold stigmatizing views of people with addictions (3) that may even lead them to withhold care. In emergency departments, for instance, health care professionals may be dismissive of someone with an alcohol or drug problem because they don’t view it as a medical condition and therefore don’t see its treatment as part of their job. People who inject drugs are sometimes denied care in emergency departments and other hospital settings because they are believed to be drug-seeking. In part, the difficulty reflects continued resistance to the idea that addiction is a disease. Drug use alters brain circuitry that is involved in self-regulation and reward processing, as well as brain circuits that process mood and stress. For a person with a serious substance use disorder, taking drugs is no longer pleasurable or volitional, for the most part, but is instead a means of diminishing excruciating distress and satisfying powerful cravings — despite often devastating consequences. Some people are more vulnerable than others to developing a substance use disorder because of a genetic predisposition, adverse social environmental exposures, traumatic life experiences, or other factors. To recover, they often need external help and support — evidence-based treatment, with medication when possible. Unfortunately, their encounters with health care providers may serve only to reinforce their disorder.

While visiting a makeshift heroin “shooting gallery” in San Juan, Puerto Rico, I urged a man who had what appeared to be a massive abscess in his leg to go to an emergency room to get it treated. He refused to even consider it, and told me that when he had previously sought medical help, he had been so badly mistreated that he was frightened of returning. He would rather jeopardize his life or risk a leg amputation than endure being dismissed as a “drug addict.” Stigma not only impedes care delivery, it also most likely causes us to underestimate the burden of substance use disorders in the population. But stigma plays an even larger role in this crisis, one that has been less discussed: when internalized, stigma and the painful isolation it produces encourage further drug taking, directly exacerbating the disease.

Ever since the “Rat Park” experiments of the 1970s, which showed that animals housed in enriched environments with access to other rats self-administered morphine much less frequently than those housed in isolation, social isolation has been known to play a crucial role in vulnerability to and difficulty of recovering from addiction. Research on social reinforcement and its neurobiologic mechanisms has illuminated the links between stigma and drug use. For one thing, there is substantial overlap between the neurologic underpinnings of drug rewards and those of social rewards. Research by Naomi Eisenberger at UCLA has found that social pain is processed in some of the same brain areas that process physical pain and is quelled by pain relievers (4).

Strikingly, a recent article by Venniro and colleagues reported that when given a choice between self-administering a drug and interacting with another animal, methamphetamine- or heroin-dependent rats chose the social interaction. However, when they were punished for the social choice with an electric shock before the interaction, the rats reverted to choosing the drug (5). In a sense, stigmatizing treatment of people who use drugs, such as ignoring or rejecting them, may be the equivalent of an electric shock in the cycle of drug addiction: it’s a powerful social penalty that spurs further drug taking. Stigma is not the only factor impeding adequate treatment of people with substance use disorders, but if we are to achieve the public health goal of getting and retaining many more people with substance use disorders in treatment, we have to ensure that the health care system will not penalize people who are addicted to drugs for their condition. Among other steps, improving treatment will require training physicians, nurses, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and emergency department staff in providing compassionate care to patients who may display the difficult, sometimes frightening behaviors associated with drug addiction and withdrawal.

It is also necessary to promote awareness of addiction as a chronic relapsing (and treatable) brain disease. This effort should include promoting understanding of the disease’s behavioral consequences as well as of the factors that make certain people particularly vulnerable. Susceptibility to the brain changes leading to compulsive substance use is substantially modulated by genetic, developmental, psychiatric, and social factors, many of which are out of the person’s control. Given the gravity of the current overdose crisis, it is urgent that we conduct research aimed at overcoming stigma toward people with addiction. Yet even in the absence of research, common sense can guide us: respect and compassion are essential. People working in health care should be made aware that stigmatizing people who are addicted to opioids or other drugs inflicts social pain that not only impedes the practice of medicine but also further entrenches the disorder.

References

  1. Hedegaard H, Miniño AM, Warner M. Drug overdose deaths in the United States, 1999–2018: NCHS data brief no 356. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics, January 2020 (https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db356.htm. opens in new tab).
  2. Corrigan PW, Nieweglowski K. Stigma and the public health agenda for the opioid crisis in America. Int J Drug Policy 2018;59:44-49.
  3. Kennedy-Hendricks A, Busch SH, McGinty EE, et al. Primary care physicians’ perspectives on the prescription opioid epidemic. Drug Alcohol Depend 2016;165:61-70.
  4. Dewall CN, Macdonald G, Webster GD, et al. Acetaminophen reduces social pain: behavioral and neural evidence. Psychol Sci 2010;21:931-937.
  5. Venniro M, Zhang M, Caprioli D, et al. Volitional social interaction prevents drug addiction in rat models. Nat Neurosci 2018;21:1520-1529.

Having a “Grace-Receiving” Mentality

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.T.S.

THERE ARE THOUSANDS OF words and phrases we toss around during our lives. Grace is one of those words. Those who have trusted in Jesus for salvation were never meant to live defeated, despairing, boxed-in, unhappy lives; rather to live in victory through grace. In Romans 5, Paul writes of the “abundance of grace” we receive everyday, along with the gift of righteousness, which helps us to reign in life through Jesus. He says, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God (Rom. 5:1-2, ESV). God’s grace is bestowed on us without merit. Further, it sets in stone the infrastructure on which we are to live our lives. It is erroneous to imagine that this sacrament—or any other means of grace—operates automatically, as though mere reception were a guarantee (1).

A Proper State of Mind

Paul tells us to do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit (see Phil. 2:2-4). What is comparison if not the means by which we decide we are better or worse than others? Paul said, “For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: but they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise (2 Cor. 10:12). He also said, “For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness” (Rom.10:3). Comparing ourselves to others limits our potential. When we compare our performance and actions to others we allow them to set our standard of achievement. Paul reminds us that “everything is possible” for the person who believes (see Rom. 9:23). Nowhere in Scripture does it say one’s success is dictated by his or her stature in the community. Moreover, we are not to compare ourselves to ourselves, or we run the risk of stunting further growth by looking back and saying, “I’ve come a long way. I am nothing like I was before.” This is a recipe for complacency. Rather, we are to compare ourselves to Jesus Christ, aiming every day to emulate Him in all that we do. Grace should propel us to grow in holiness after the pattern of Jesus Christ.

Our path in life can be likened to a tightrope. Consider how tightrope walkers never look back after they take their first step. Seldom do they look up or they would become concerned about how much of their walk remains, making it seem as though they have made little progress. But they do look down, watching their feet, making sure to take measured and accurate steps. Each step, at the moment it is taken, is what is present. It represents what the tightrope walker must do “at that moment.” As Christians, we are not to regret the past, nor should we worry about the future, for in doing so we squander today. Isaiah wrote, “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43:18-19). Jesus said, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62).

God’s Continuing Grace

God’s grace continues to bless us and keep us after conversion. Jesus is the true human being (wholly man and wholly God) in whom we are to be able to participate by grace. Grace propels believers to grow in holiness after the pattern of Jesus Christ. Peter tells us, “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity” (2 Pet. 3:18). Johnson believes God’s grace comes to us more like a power, bonding us to Christ so that we may live with Him in accord with our status as God’s beloved children (2). He believes prevenient grace comes to sinners before salvation to convict them of their unrighteousness, call them to repentance, and enable them to freely cooperate with God’s grace by ceasing to resist its work. Other theologians argue that God’s irresistible grace enlightens the minds of sinners, changes their hearts, and draws them to salvation. They’re being led to the living water. Although the condition of beginning the covenant of grace is by faith alone (per fidem), the condition of continuing in grace rests in obedience to God’s commands (3). James said, “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17).

It is critical for us to admit how undeserving we are of God’s grace and mercy. When faced with the consequences of bad or illegal behavior, justice is rendered when people “receive their due” according to violation of the law. In fact, justice is “what the accused deserves,” whereas mercy applies kindness and forgiveness to our lives without merit. We receive God’s grace and mercy through Christ, receiving the free and unmerited gift of His righteousness, then begins the practice of recognizing and receiving God’s ongoing grace. There is a often grave misunderstanding that Jesus had one sole mission: to suffer and die for our sins. To be the scapegoat for mankind. The crucifixion of Christ redeems us, but it also must serve to sanctify us as we step out in faith to live as Christ would have us live. Christ is all things to us. He has been made to be our wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. All glory belongs to the Lord. Our part is to receive Christ as LORD and Savior. He is grace, mercy, forgiveness, direction, righteousness, sanctification, redemption. We cannot complete ourselves any more than we can save ourselves because He is both our redemption and our sanctification. He is all and in all. There is nothing left for us to do or earn. A missionary friend of mine puts it this way: justice is getting what we have coming to us (our just punishment) and mercy is receiving what we do not deserve.

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times? Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you. He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt (Matthew 18:21-35).

In this parable we learn that God forgives on request without restitution being required. We also learn something important about unforgiveness. The man’s refusal to forward the grace he received resulted in a series of divine consequences. If we remain unforgiving of the unforgiveness of others, we turn back toward legalism. We are being as exacting and demanding as the law; like we are keeping a precise balance sheet on debts owed to us. We selfishly hold everyone to payment in full. This, of course, is an example of justice rather than grace. Unforgiveness is grounded in “debtors-mentality,” a merciless mindset that refuses to release others until they pay all that is due, rather than a “grace-receiving” mentality. When God forgives, He frees the forgiven from all obligation to repay. We have been forgiven and set free as a result of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Despite this divine explanation of God’s grace, too often we demand forgiveness from those we have wronged as if we can change their heart. Nothing could be more contradictory to the example of Jesus. God didn’t send Jesus into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through Him might be saved (John 3:17). He didn’t come to browbeat sinners, but to set the captives free. The whole of Christianity is about forgiveness, not about holding a “balance sheet” on others.

A Prime Example

A prime example of grace-receiving mentality can be found in John 4. Jesus and the disciples were headed for Galilee. Jesus decided to take a shorter route, which involved going through Samaria despite Jews and Samaritans being sworn enemies. While Jesus rested at Jacob’s well, a Samaritan woman approached to draw water from the well. Jesus asked her for a drink. She responded, “How is it that you, a Jew, asks for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (see John 4:9). Jesus said, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (John 4:10). Jesus continued: “Everyone who drinks of this [well] water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (4:13-14). The woman asked for a drink of this everlasting water. The Hebrew word hallomai (to “well up”) occurs only here in John’s gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles. The water that Jesus gives is vibrant and cleansing, and produces the abundant life Jesus was promising to the woman.

Jesus told her to go home and bring her husband, to which she announced that she had no husband. Jesus replied, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband;’ for you have had five husbands, and the [man] you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” She immediately decided this man must be a prophet. In the Greek and Roman world, for Jesus to possess such knowledge of the woman’s marital history would certify him as a miracle worker, but in the religious world of Israel it would be recognized as the distinguishing mark of a prophet. When she expressed the longing she had for the coming Messiah, Jesus said, “I who speak to you am he” (4:26). It is at this point the woman grasps the magnitude of what Jesus has said to her. It’s as if the very atmosphere changed. Nevertheless, she asked Jesus to “explain everything.” What is this living water? Who is this man, Jesus, that he dares to use the “I AM” remark? Is this man Yeshua? I have no doubt that Jesus chose to travel through Samaria because He knew of the Samaritan woman he would encounter at the well. As she sped off down the hill, spreading the good news through the streets of her village, Jesus told the disciples it was time to go forth and preach the gospel (see Luke 9:1-6).

How to Get It

God’s grace is seen throughout all of creation; in our daily living as well as our salvation. Some believe grace and mercy are synonymous. However, grace is defined as unmerited divine favor or assistance given to us for regeneration or sanctification. Mercy is compassion or forbearance shown, especially to an offender or to one subject to the power of another; leniency or compassionate treatment. It is through grace that God presented His Son Jesus for sacrifice; there is literally nothing we could ever do to earn God’s grace, or to obey the letter of the Law, in order to be saved from eternal damnation. Martin Luther struggled with this concept, becoming increasingly anxious over how he could be clothed in righteousness. Luther initially failed to grasp the meaning behind Romans 1:17: “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith'” (ESV). This conflict drove Luther to extremes, such as self-flagellation, remaining outdoors in the winter without a coat or shoes, solitary meditation for days, asking incessantly for God’s forgiveness. He feared he would die in his sleep without having confessed everything. His understanding regarding God’s grace had roots in Roman Catholic teaching: man is justified by God’s grace plus some merit of our own. This, of course, is against Christian doctrine.

Grudem writes, “Justification comes to us entirely by God’s grace, not on account of any merit in ourselves” (4). God’s grace forms believers into the image of Christ in anticipation of their eternal life as God’s beloved children (see Rom. 8:29-30). Because we cannot hope to earn sanctification by obedience to the Law (i.e., through our works), it was necessary for God to provide a means by which we can be redeemed from our sin. God established a covenant with man, setting only one condition: faith alone (sola fide) in Christ alone (sola Christus). God’s grace means His goodness toward those who deserve only punishment. God’s mercy means His goodness toward those who are in misery or distress; God’s patience is manifest in His willingness to withhold punishment toward those who have sinned (5). Because of God’s grace, mercy, and patience cannot be earned, it is reasonable that we provide our bodies (as a living sacrifice), living a life of worship and faith. Regardless of our circumstances, we can have a quiet heart, but this requires total confidence in God. Luther wrote, “Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man would stake his life on it a thousand times” (6).

Specific to Luther’s trouble with righteousness, he said Romans 1:16 presents the gospel as a power which saves all who believe it. Luther came to believe that Romans 1:17 speaks of God’s righteousness. When we accept Christ as our Lord and Savior, we are clothed in righteousness. When the Father looks upon us, He sees the righteousness of Christ. He separates us from our sins as far as the east is from the west. Luther said, “The righteousness of God is the cause of our salvation… it is called the righteousness of God in contradistinction to man’s righteousness which comes from works” (7). The phrase “from faith to faith” is meant to establish that the righteousness of God comes through, but without ignoring the “works” of our faith as an outward sign to others that we have become a new creation. It is the adage, “We are not saved by good works; we are saved unto good works.” Luther added, “The words ‘from faith to faith’ therefore signify that the believer grows in faith more and more, so that he who is justified becomes more and more righteous” (8). Augustine defined from faith to faith as, “From the faith of those who confess it with the mouth to the faith of those who actually obey it” (9).

In order to receive God’s grace we need first to admit that there is nothing in us that can merit it. We need to honestly admit, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out” (Romans 7:18). Jesus didn’t come to justify the godly, but the ungodly. When the Pharisees confronted Jesus about eating with sinners, Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). Unfortunately, many Christians forget the importance of God’s grace in their daily walk. The heart of this deception is the belief that after being redeemed by the sole merit of Christ’s finished work, we must then sanctify ourselves. Though seemingly responsible, this denies the grace of Christ. Not only was our redemption purchased by Christ, but also our sanctification. When God places us in Christ, He makes Christ to be all things to us.

According to Peter, grace and peace are multiplied in us through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord, and that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness to the end that we may become partakers of the divine nature (see 2 Peter 1:2-3). Peter went on to exhort us to add to our faith moral excellence and to moral excellence, knowledge, and to knowledge self-control, and to self-control, perseverance, and to perseverance, godliness, and to godliness, brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness, love. Many of these things are listed in Galatians 5 as fruits of the Spirit. Paul was who he was by the grace of God. He labored abundantly, but not by his own might or capabilities. He said, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Cor. 15:10). This is what is meant by having a “grace-receiving” mentality.

References

(1) K.L. Johnson, “Means of Grace” in the Evangelical Dictionary, 3rd. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: 2017), 358.
(2) K.L. Johnson, Ibid., 358.
(3) Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: 1994), 519.
(4) Ibid., 729.
(5) Ibid., 200.
(6) Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1954), xvii.
(7) Ibid., 40-41.

My Prayer About Selfishness

Father God,

When I come before You,
I dutifully pay lip service
to how awesome You are,

but I must admit that
what I am really interested in is me.
I acknowledge Your sovereignty because
I want “things” from You—lots of things.
I want You to bless me—
to make my life easier and, most of all,
to rubber stamp my will as Your own.

Many of my prayers focus on
what You can do for me, not
how I can know You better.
This is my truth
and I need to be aware of it.
I wish I were a better,
more selfless person.
I wish I had more character than I do.
Admitting the truth embarrasses me,
but You know my heart.
Help me become who
You need me to be.
Continue making changes in me,
never to be the same.

I want to seek You for who You are
rather than for what You can do for me.
Give me a heart that yearns for
knowledge and wisdom instead. Teach me
to look beyond my limited world.
Develop in me a heart of compassion.

Without you, I see my selfishness,
ever before me, never receding;
but I am a new creature

inside and out. You are
changing me, helping me to
become a better version of myself;
a child worthy of Your name.
Let this be what motivates me and
defines me.

© 2021 Steven Barto

Can I Be Real?

Can I be real
just for a moment?
(If I linger I might
start hating myself
all over again.)
I stand before you,
a boyfriend, but
not a partner,
appealing to
your kinder side.

You reach for me,
seemingly annoyed
but not meaning
to endanger
our entanglement.
We wallow in
our emotions—
they seem to form
who we are when
together.

We don’t know how to
be apart. From
the start
there was nothing
other than us;
no such thing as apart.
(Your mother
said you were
addicted to me.)

I try to stand
proud
when you approach,
but I feel “less than”
next to
you.
No alpha male, I
shrink in your
presence, crushed by
a superiority
you cannot not help but
ooze.
Booze is my
liquid courage.


I write, but I cannot
(even with all my might)
measure up to the
abilities of others.
I could never
be the writer
you are. I’m unable
to see what you
see.
I can’t push my
feelings up from
deep within my gut,
down my arm,
into my hands
and fingers,
onto the page.


I am not capable of
translation like you are.
I know the language,
and can grunt a
word or two, but I
fail to
get the words out
at the same intensity
I feel them
inside.

Tragic in a way.
It’s as if the one thing
I do best,
to feel,
is not enough.
Maybe writing
is just not
for me.
No one wants to
read about worms
eating at my heart,
feeding on my
desire
for life or about
gnats buzz
in my head,
distracting me from
my deeper thoughts.

So, no, I
won’t write.
I’ll let storytelling and
prose and poetry and
activities of expression
such as these to
you,
the real writer.

© 2017, 2021 Steven Barto

History of the Church: Part Two

By Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.T.S.

I was excited for my undergraduate class History of Christianity, and my two graduate-level courses: Church History I and II. These studies provided a working knowledge of ecclesiology, including church organization and governance, doctrine, “marks” of the church (“one,” “holy,” “catholic,” and “apostolic”), heresies, worship, teaching, sacraments, and mission. Apologetics emerged as a powerful tool for “defending” Christianity. Many changes, edicts, and accusations impacted the church in the centuries to come, such as Gnosticism, numerous “Just Wars,” the Crusades, Donatism, syncretism, apostasy, and the mighty Roman Empire. As persecution rose, Christians began renouncing their faith. Many Christian leaders were tortured and murdered under the Roman Empire, including Stephen, James, Peter, Paul, Polycarp, and others.

In Part One of this series we learned that early Christians did not consider themselves followers of a new religion. Jewish leaders regarded Christianity a heretical sect within Judaism. The sentiment was simple: One must avoid Christians at all cost. If that does not work, then move ahead with harassment, persecution, torture, and murder. We looked at Constantine’s dubious conversion, and we learned about the four solas: sola Christus (Christ alone), sola fide (faith alone), sola gratia (grace alone), and sola Scriptura (Scripture alone). The first part of this lesson touched on Christianity’s early troubles with Islam. Each of these factors began to detraction from the story of redemption. Accordingly, the church needed to “defend” itself against rumors and lofty criticism. Justin Martyr set out to provide clarification, remarking, “We do not seek to flatter you… but request that you judge on the basis of a proper and thorough investigation” (1).

Part Two

There seems to be a natural inclination to monasticism in the early church. It was hoped that monasteries would provide a quiet and secluded space for prayer, devotion, worship, exegetical studies, and a modified approach to interacting with culture. A secluded life would provide safe haven from heresies and distractions which had become prevalent. The “narrow gate” Jesus spoke of had become quite wide. Ministry had become for some a pursuit of privilege and position, without caring too much about learning the deeper meaning. Bishops competed for prestigious posts; the rich and powerful began to dominate and impact the church. Gonzalez writes, “When the church joins the powers of the world, when luxury and ostentation take hold of Christian alters, when the whole of society is intent on turning the narrow path into a wide avenue, how is one to resist the enormous temptations of the times”(2)? Origen, following the Platonic ideal of leading a wise existence, chose to live at a bare-bones subsistence and extreme asceticism.

Monasteries Galore

Christian monasticism began in AD 318. Several years later, Marcarius, a Coptic Christian, monk, and hermit in Egypt, retired to the desert of Scete, where for 60 years he lived as a hermit among the scattered settlements of other solitaries. As of 345, eight monasteries had been founded. Stoic doctrine held that passions are the great enemy of true wisdom: traditions such as sacred virgins, celibate priests, eunuchs, and others whose lifestyle set them apart for service to God. There was an incidental belief that sexual activity was somehow evil or improper for those devoted to holiness. The Council of Nicea, however, rejected castration as part of service to the church. Gonzalez notes that monasticism was not the invention of one person, but rather “a mass exodus, a contagion, which seems to have suddenly affected thousands of people” (3). Paul writes in Galatians, “For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ… nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia; and again I returned to Damascus… Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas, and remained with him fifteen days” (Gal. 1:11-12, 17-18, NRSV).

A growing number of people were withdrawing to the desert desiring to learn from an experienced teacher. One of the earliest monasteries opened in Mosul, Iraq in 340. The first French monastery was founded in 360. Jerome started a monastery in Bethlehem in 386. Solitary monasticism gave way to a communal setting. They still referred to themselves as “monks” (solitary), but by this they meant living in solitude from the world but not living completely alone. This cenobitic lifestyle cropped up throughout many regions as a reaction to the pressures of daily living. Monks were required to obey their superiors, which necessitated a hierarchical order that was clearly delineated. Those in top positions were called abbots. Augustine of Hippo partly owed his conversion to reading Athanasius’s Life of Saint Anthony, and lived as a monk until he was called to assume a more active role in the church. Monasticism featured the common thread of Christian living: personal poverty and sharing of goods with the community. A monastic feudal system spread across Europe beginning in 1039. Knights Templar (warrior monks) were founded in AD 1118. Ultimately, the “Black Death” bubonic plague pandemic broke out across Afro-Eurasia in AD 1346, causing a drastic decline in monasticism.

Muhammad and Islam

One of the great challenges to Christianity was Islam, a monotheistic religion founded by Muhammad. Muhammad was born in Mecca, Arabia, in AD 570. Prior to becoming the prophet of Allah, he served as a business manager for Lady Khadija, the daughter of Khuwaylid ibn Asad (a leader of the Quraysh tribe in Mecca) and a successful businesswoman in her own right. She became Muhammad’s first wife and the earliest follower of Islam. Muhammad is said to have received revelations from the angel Gabriel on Mount Hira from AD 609 to 632, which became the basis for the Qur’an. The word “Qur’an” comes from the arabic qaraa, which means “to read.” According to Islamic doctrine, Muhammad was called by Allah to preach and confirm the monotheistic teachings of Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and other prophets.

Prior to the advent of Islam, Muslims practiced a form of paganism called Jahiliyya. It taught that Allah was the creator god and the supreme god of pre-Islamic Arabs. Intermediaries were set below Allah, such as his daughters Allat, Al-Uzza, and Manat, who would intercede on behalf of their worshipers. Over time, more Gods were added, ultimately representing most of the gods of other tribes in Arabia. Muhammad is never portrayed as indulging in this religion; he preached against polytheism in all forms. He claimed to be the “last prophet” of God whose mission was to correct the heresy that Jesus Christ was the Messiah, the Son of God. There has never been a period since the beginning of Islam that was characterized by large-scale peaceful existence between Muslims and non-Muslims. There was no time when mainstream and dominant Islamic authorities taught the equality of non-Muslims. There has always been, with virtually no interruption, jihad against infidels. Muslims conquered Jerusalem in AD 636. Alexandria, Egypt and Spain were next to fall. Persecution of Christians began in 717 under Caliph Umar II.

Many of the newer Christian churches were destroyed. In AD 850 Caliph Mutawakkil forced Christians to wear yellow patches (a sad and accurate foreshadowing of Jews forced to wear arm bands of the Star of David by the Nazis). When Vladimir of Kiev adopted Christianity in AD 988, this halted the advance of Islam in Eastern Europe. Thankfully, Charles Martel had been able to defeat the Muslim invasion of France in 732 at the Battle of Tours. Trouble with Islam continued, however. In 1009 Caliph Hakim destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and Seljuk Turks drove Christian priests out of Jerusalem in 1091. In 1291 the fall of Acre ended Christian power in the Holy Land.

Timeline of Temple in Jerusalem

Nehemiah told Artaxerxes he was sad, saying “Why should not my face be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ sepulchres, lies waste, and its gates have been destroyed by fire” (Neh. 2:3).

David conquered Jerusalem from the Jebusites in 1010 BC and established the capital of his kingdom there. Solomon, David’s son, expanded the city northward to include what came to be known as the Temple Mount, where he built the First Temple in 960 BC. In 721, Jerusalem expanded into the Western Hill as refugees sought protection from the conquering Assyrians. Sennacherib, king of Assyria, lay siege to Jerusalem in 701 BC. Babylonian forces destroyed Jerusalem and demolish the first temple in 586. Persian leader Cyrus the Great conquered the Babylonian Empire (including Jerusalem) in 539 BC. He allowed Jews in Babylonian exile to return to the city in 516. The second temple was rebuilt during this period. Artaxerxes allowed Nehemiah to begin rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. Judea and Jerusalem were conquered by Alexander the Great in 332 BC. King Herod restructured the temple in 37 BC, adding retaining walls. Jerusalem fell to the Roman Empire in AD 70 and the second temple was destroyed. Jerusalem was rebuilt in AD 135 as a Roman city, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built.

In Part Three we will examine the rumblings that began in the Christian church regarding its need for a profound reformation. The decline and corruption of the papacy was well known. Popes began amassing property and wealth, and intended to rival the Roman Empire. The papacy was moved by the the glories of the Renaissance, neglecting the gospel message. Reformers issued anathemas and decrees against absenteeism, pluralism, and simony (the practice of buying and selling ecclesiastical positions). Gonzalez wrote, “…even the many priests and monastics who wished to be faithful to their calling found this to be exceedingly difficult. How could one practice asceticism and contemplation in a monastery that had become a house of leisure and a meeting place for fashionable soireées” (4). We will find that Martin Luther was not the only Christian driven to a great reformation.

References

(1) Justin Martyr, in Justo L. Gonzalez’s The Story of Christianity, Vol. I: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2010), 59.
(2) Gonzalez, Ibid., 157.
(3) Ibid., 161.
(4) Justo L. Gonzalez, The Early Church , Vol. 2, The Reformation to the Present Day (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2010), 8.

On Becoming Wise

There is what I know―
the scope of things
in my head.
There is what I have
yet to know.
Ultimately, though,
There is what I don’t
know that
I don’t know―
the unasked and
the unanswered.

Judgment is
born from experience―
the benefit
of becoming wise and
sophisticated; schooled
and familiar with
what is true and
what is lore.
It is on this
that I can base
the soundness
of an action or decision.

©2021 Steven Barto