Let’s Go to Theology Class: What is the Church?

The following is a summary of my most recent class in pursuit of my master’s in theology at Colorado Christian University.

After reading in Grudem and McGrath, and any appropriate Elwell articles, critique Grudem’s definition of the church. Here are your guiding questions: Is this definition adequate for what the church is, in its essence? If so, why? If not, what else should be written for a proper definition of the church? Is there more detail or are there some biblical images which would make for a better, more appropriate definition of the church?

Grudem’s definition: The church is the community of all true believers for all time.

By Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.

Indeed, Matthew 18:20 is a perfect starting point for examining the essence of the “church.” Many have quoted this verse throughout church history. Jesus says whenever two or more gather in His Name “[T]here am I among them.” A great secular example of this concept is stated in AA literature, indicating all that’s required to hold a “meeting” is two or more alcoholics coming together to discuss recovery. I am particularly impressed with Miroslav Volf’s statement regarding appearance of the Spirit of Christ (in an “ecclesially constitutive” way) when two or more believers gather. “Constitutive” generally indicates having the power to establish or give organized existence to something. Many theologians throughout church history have started with this concept when defining the essence of the church. Volf warned about the tendency toward individualism in Protestant ecclesiology, saying constitutive is instrumental in understanding what Matthew 18:20 truly means. Volf wrote “there is no reign of God without the church.”[1] He further claims there is no church without the reign of God. This indicates “church” is not merely an institution, location, or building.

Community of Believers Hands Raised

Grudem identifies the basic definition of church as “the community of all true  believers for all time,”[2] aligning the Old Testament and New Testament context of “church.” The Septuagint often uses the term qāhal to identify church as “congregation” or “assembly,” which can also be used to indicate a summon to assembly. Dispensational theologians hold divergent views on the relationship between Israel and the church. For example, Grudem notes that Lewis Chafer believes God has two distinct plans for His people: (i) Israel for earthly blessings, and (ii) the church for heavenly blessings. The rub here is that God does not have separate purposes for Israel (OT) and the church (NT), rather a single intent—establishment of His kingdom in which Israel and the NT church will share in all His blessings. Grudem says many NT verses describe the church as the new Israel. Stanley Hauerwas addresses the aspect of the church as a community, separate from the world. Emphasis is placed on discourse and interpretation and the sharing of the Christian message with the world. Hauerwas believes “the whole body of believers therefore cannot be limited to any one historical paradigm or contained by any one institutional form.”[3]

Ephesians tells us that Christ loves “the church” and gave Himself up for her (5:25). Obviously, Christ did not suffer and die to protect a building. Paul provides a non-dispensational definition of the “old” and “new” church in Romans 2:28-29, stating, “For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal. His praise is not from men but from God” (NRSV). God’s promises to Abraham apply to the entire church or community of believers regardless of historical period or dispensation. The only distinction is “forward looking” faith under the OT and “backward looking” faith under the NT. In support, Paul wrote, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:28-29).

The essence of church is not merely institutional or physical; it is spiritual—a continuation of God’s overall plan for salvation and adoption for those who believe in Christ Jesus. As Grudem states, “Abraham is not only to be considered the father of the Jewish people in a physical sense,” but He is also “the father of all who believe.”[4] P.L. Metzger says the church is, “The community of the Triune God, serving as the concrete manifestation of God’s eschatological kingdom in the world.”[5] It is fair to consider “church” to mean a gathering. It is chiefly the “community” of believers gathered in a pattern somewhat similar to political and other gatherings. However, this is not the only meaning of church in the Judeo-Christian religion. Jesus did not reveal a new God but a new way of worshiping the same God. For example, Paul describes the church as a whole and as each local church body. Despite dispensation, denomination, or geographic locale, wherever and however the church meets, it is the whole church. It is holy, in that it is sanctified by God, set apart for a specific purpose; however, it is never to “withdraw into a religious ghetto no longer concerned to save the world.”[6]  The church is catholic in that it is full, complete, and lacking nothing. It is apostolic relative to being entrusted with ecumenical teachings of its apostles and establishment of a global set of doctrines that are taught and handed down in a consistent manner. Metzger expresses the importance of “the whole church’s true oneness, holiness, and catholicity, not as an end in itself.”[7] It is responsible for determining proper church governance and for globally mediating the ministry of Christ.

Be Well Grounded and Rooted

Grudem delineates various metaphors for the church. It is a family—we are brothers and sisters in Christ (1 Tim. 5:1-2); it is branches on a vine—and we are grafted in (Jn. 15:5); it is the bride of Christ (Eph. 5:32); it is an olive tree (Rom. 11:17-24); it is referred to as a field of crops (1 Cor. 3:6-9); it is a new type of temple, not build from stone but comprised of believers who are living stones (1 Pet. 2:5); it is a new group of priests (1 Pet. 2:5); believers are referred to as God’s house (Heb. 3:6); it is the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-17). Christ is the head, and the community of believers is the rest of the body (Eph. 1:22-23; 4:15-16). The church is witness to the kingdom of God (Acts 8:12). Grudem notes, “The church is the custodian of the kingdom (for the church has been given the keys of the kingdom of heaven: Matt. 16:19).” In fact, John Calvin states that the church must possess the “marks,” i.e., the true and accurate Word of God and observance of the sacraments.

In conclusion, I believe the descriptions provided by Grudem are adequate for defining the essence of the church. Grudem provides well-delineated aspects of the church: form, regardless of dispensation; the nature of its ecclesiastic duties; metaphors for the various “operations” of the church; its function under the Old and New Covenants. The apostle Paul smartly explains why the entire church consists of believers under both covenants. Calvin identifies the main “marks” to be demonstrated by the church. Volf warns of the risk of “individualizing” Protestantism if the church is bifurcated in any manner. Jesus assures us that when two or more gather in His Name, He is present among them. Finally, there is no reign of God without the church, and there is no church without the reign of God. [8] The church is, in every way, a demonstration of the Godhead—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

One of my classmates raised an interesting question: Do you believe that some of our Churches have strayed waway from the message of Christ? By this I mean unifying and doing the work commanded for us to do or do you believe that Christ is the head of all churches no matter how they perform as a community?

My response:

You’ve raised an interesting question. My first reaction is simply this: I agree that many churches have strayed from the systematically assembled doctrines of Christianity. This is more a failure of human proportions, of course, that it is a chink in the armor of God’s church. When “churches” stray from doctrine and Scripture, it is the people themselves who stray, and not the Body of Christ. “Church” is the manifestation of God’s kingdom, centered in Christ. The Greek word for church does refer to “assembly,” or “sacred gathering.” Services include liturgy and ritual, grounded in sound doctrine. In its missional capacity, it celebrates and participates in sharing the salvation of Jesus Christ

Chosen Generation

The Church is a temple, a “chosen people,” a “royal priesthood,” a “holy nation.” We read in the Nicene Creed that the church is one, holy, catholic (universal), and apostolic (formed and grown according to the teachings of Christ as handed down through the apostles). Perhaps any congregation that fails on a number or, sadly maybe, all of these levels is not part of the church—the Body of Christ. P.L. Metzger said, “For preserving unity, growing in holiness, and accomplishing its mission, the church has drawn from episcopal, presbyterian, and congregational forms of government. No matter the version, most important is determining how the form of church government highlights and mediates Christ’s authority as head of the church to the entire body.”

Because of the foregoing, I do not believe Jesus could be considered the “head” of any body of believers that has drastically strayed from mission, ministry, Scripture, canon, and proper church governance and operation. If it could be (or, worse, had to be) said that Jesus Christ is the head of all churches, even ones that are simply not fulfilling the Great Commission, edifying one another, following church canon that has been systematically developed throughout the history of the church from the Day of Pentecost to today, as handed down through the apostles, then no, I do not believe such a church or congregation is truly a part of the Body of Christ no matter what it says on the lighted sign in the front yard.

Footnotes

[1] Miroslav Volf, After our Likeness (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1998), x.
[2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 853.
[3] Stanley Hauerwas, “On the Church and the Story of Faith,” in The Christian Theology Reader (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2017), 436.
[4] Grudem. 861.
[5]Stanley Hauerwas, inThe Christian Theology Reader,Ibid, 436.
[6] P.L. Metzger, inThe Christian Theology Reader,Ibid, 183.
[7] John Calvin, “On the Marks of the Church,” inThe Christian Theology Reader, Ibid, 416.

References

Calvin, J., “On the Marks of the Church,” in The Christian Theology Reader, 5th ed.    (Chichester, West Sussex, UK), 2017Grudem, W., Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), 1994.

Hauerwas, S., “On the Church and the Story of Faith,” Ibid.

Metzger, P. “Church,” Ibid.

Volf, M., After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing), 1998.

NIDA 2019 Achievements

From the Blog of Dr. Nora Volkow,
Executive Director, National Institute on Drug Abuse

NIDA Banner Science of Abuse and Addiction

Original Date January 24, 2020

As NIDA sets its sights on new goals and objectives for 2020 and beyond, I like to reflect on how far we have come in our research efforts, especially as they concern the opioid crisis, one of the biggest public health issues of our era. Although deaths from synthetic opioids like fentanyl continue to rise, glimmers of hope are starting to appear. Provisional numbers show that overall overdose deaths have held steady rather than increasing since 2018, and a massive federal investment toward finding scientific solutions to the crisis promises to further turn the tide against opioid and other drug use disorders.

The biggest news of the past year is the grant awards in the Helping to End Addiction Long-termSM Initiative, or NIH HEAL InitiativeSM. In Fiscal Year 2019, 375 grants, contracts, supplements, and cooperative agreements totaling $945 million were awarded in 41 states. As part of this aggressive, trans-agency effort, NIDA is funding research on prevention and treatment of opioid use disorder, including developing new treatments and expanding access to those that already exist.

The HEALing Communities Study led by NIDA in close partnership with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration is testing the implementation of an integrated array of evidence-based practices in various healthcare, behavioral health, justice, and community settings in 67 hard-hit communities across four states. Objectives of the study include increasing the number of people with OUD receiving medications for their disorder, increasing naloxone distribution to help reverse opioid overdoses, and reducing high-risk opioid prescribing, with the goal of reducing opioid overdose deaths by 40 percent in those communities over of the next three years. Effective strategies learned from this project can then be exported to other communities.

Other HEAL projects are aimed at finding ways to address the prevention and treatment needs of the most at-risk populations. Grants to 12 institutions as part of the Justice Community Opioid Innovation Network (JCOIN) will create a network of researchers in 15 states and Puerto Rico to study ways to scale up and disseminate evidence-based interventions in a population with extremely high rates of OUD and overdoses, including evaluating the use of the different medications for OUD in jails and prisons as well as in parolees suffering from OUD. In a separate set of projects, NIDA is funding research aimed at preventing the transition from opioid use to OUD in young adults, including projects targeting rural and American/Indian communities.

NIH HEAL money has also allowed NIDA to greatly expand our Clinical Trials Network and, in partnership with other Institutes, is additionally partially supporting pilot studies in preparation for a large-scale study of brain health and development across the first decade of life. The HEALthy Brain and Child Development (hBCD) study, along with the already-underway Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development (ABCD) study (not funded through HEAL), will contribute in innumerable ways to our understanding of brain development and the many factors influencing risk and resilience for substance use during childhood and adolescence.

Science Highlights

In 2019, researchers at NIDA-funded Yale University made significant strides toward understanding biological predictors of addiction and relapse. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging and machine learning, Sarah W. Yip and colleagues found that functional connectivity among a number of brain regions predicted chances of achieving abstinence in patients receiving treatment for cocaine use disorder. Their results, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry last February, could lead to new approaches to treating cocaine addiction by intervening directly in those pathways.

Genetic approaches are also yielding important insights in this area. An analysis of genome-wide association studies (GWAS) published in Nature Genetics last January identified hundreds of gene loci associated with tobacco and alcohol use and related health conditions. Genes involved in dopaminergic, nicotinic, and glutamatergic signaling were among those identified. Another partially NIDA-supported GWAS study published in Nature Neuroscience in July identified an association between expression of the gene for the cholinergic receptor nicotinic α2 subunit with cannabis use disorder in brain tissue from a large Icelandic sample.

NIDA-supported basic science is also shedding important light on opioids and the brain’s opioid signaling systems. Research published in June in ACS Central Science provided new insights while raising new questions about the drug kratom. Its active ingredient mitragynine acts as a weak partial agonist at the mu-opioid receptor (MOR), but new findings by a team that included researchers at Columbia and Memorial Sloan-Kettering found that the drug’s analgesic properties are significantly mediated by a metabolite produced when mitragynine is consumed orally, called 7-hydroxymitragynine. In mice, at least, this compound seems to provide analgesia but with fewer respiratory-depressing and reward-associated side effects than other opioids such as morphine. These findings point toward the potential of this drug in pain research as well as the need for further research on the pharmacology of kratom’s constituents, their toxicity and potential value in the treatment of OUD.

Although the MOR system is most commonly associated with pain and pain relief, other receptors are also involved.  One important dimension of pain is the negative affect commonly associated with it, and NIDA-supported research published in Neuron in March found that the kappa-opioid signaling system, specifically in cells located in the shell of the nucleus accumbens, are involved in processing pain-associated negative affect. This discovery could perhaps provide new targets for treating the emotional distress associated with many pain-associated syndromes.

Other Developments

Translating addiction science into new treatments and treatment tools is another area where NIDA is having an impact. For example, in the past few years, NIDA has been extremely successful in winning interest for biotechnology investment in devices and other products to address the opioid crisis and addiction more generally. Historically, addiction is a market that has scared away pharmaceutical companies and investors, who viewed it as small and risky and one that would not lead to recovery of investment. However,  NIDA’s medication development program expansion along with NIDA’s Office of Translational Initiatives and Program Innovations (OTIPI) are turning this around. OTIPI, which I highlighted previously on this blog, uses a wide array of funding mechanisms to support startups in developing or adapting devices, apps, and other technologies in ways that can better deliver treatment to people with substance use disorders and related conditions.

NIDA science continues to contribute knowledge to help guide policy. One example is from our annual Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey, which in 2019 showed steep increases in the use of vaping devices both for nicotine and for marijuana among teenagers.  The survey also revealed that a large proportion of teens vaped because they liked the taste. When these vaping data (along with those of the National Youth Tobacco Survey) were released last November, it prompted the makers of the popular Juul devices to pull their mint flavored products from the shelves, and it prompted the FDA to finalize their enforcement policy on flavored vaping (e-cigarette) products.

Find Help Near You

The following can help you find substance abuse or other mental health services in your area: www.samhsa.gov/find-treatment. If you are in an emergency situation, people at this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: 1-800-273-TALK. Or click on: www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org. Also, a step by step guides on what to do to help yourself, a friend or a family member on our Treatment page.

Narcotics Anonymous National Hotline: 1(877) 276-6883.

“I’m Ready to Go.”

Lines, no, cracks
in the walls—
all of them,
and the ceiling too;
the kind that morph
while you stare,
unaware,
drifting back and forth
from what was and
what can be.

I started packing
this morning, slowly,
still rigid with fear
that it will all start
folding in on me again,
drowning my voice,
shackling me to the past
like a stake and chain
for a dog.

It’s not that I want
to stay—I don’t;
The air here smells
like sweat and sick
and just a hint of desperation;
sunlight barely pushing
itself through five years
of rain scum
on the window panes.

Now there’s a curious
metaphor for sure,
the half-decade-old
film of forgotten responsibility
and lost opportunity
weighing me down,
causing the clown of bloodshot eyes and
rotten flesh to reappear,
a thick blanket of fear
wrapping around me, squeezing,
trapping my breath.

Last month, last year,
the last thousand years,
packed full of regrets
so heavy I spent most days
in bed or in my broken recliner.
If my vision were clearer back then
maybe I could’ve
recognized where I was—
then I would’ve been
(at least a little) more
likely to head to the door,

and flinging it open,
giving the sunshine at least
half a chance of falling on
my emaciated body, warming
my bones and clearing
my brain—which is, frankly,
a prerequisite to
freedom—victory from
the bondage of
self-deprecation.

No bother, though, because
I’ve been flexing my
heart lately, strengthening
my muscle of
hope now that I’m off dope;
shocked yet relieved that
I’m done with all that and
ready for this, whatever
this is—
I’m ready to go.

©2020 Steven Barto

I’m an Overcomer

Who is it that overcomes the world but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? (1 John 5:5)

By Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.

I BELIEVE EACH OF US, regardless of our temperament, personality type, coping skills (or lack thereof), cultural background, upbringing, worldview, race, or nationality, come to a specific point in our lives when we decide everything is going to change. We’re done lying—covering up our hidden agenda, weaknesses, failures, bad habits, addictions, mistreatment of those we claim to love, or, maybe for some reading this, our criminal actions, aggression, hatred, manipulation, projecting blame, escaping consequences, and dwelling on our sin-ridden past. No one truly likes admitting complete defeat. But we cannot hold on to a false reality about who we are because of the terrible things we’ve done—we can’t say, “It is too horrible and painful to face.” This is not an option if we truly want to get unstuck.

Many of us decide on more than one occasion that this is the moment we are willing to admit every hidden crutch, falsehood, regression, fall from grace, relapse, slip, or harmful action. An addictions counselor told me years ago why we lie. It’s simple, really: To hide the truth about some feeling we’re having or something we’ve done. I faced a judge several years ago after yet another relapse that ended in criminal behavior and made the following statement: The definition of character is how we behave when we think no one is watching. I could tell by the look on the judge’s face that he was impressed. Unfortunately, I likely said this to avoid jail time and receive probation. I don’t mean this is not a truism for me, or something I don’t want to live by; it was not necessarily true when I said it in court. Not surprisingly, there was yet another relapse and a court appearance down the road.

Lately, I’ve been struggling with whether I ever meant anything I’ve said to family, my two ex-wives, friends, employers, judges, even God. How many times did I say what needed to be presented on the surface without meaning it inside my heart? Were there times when I said it and meant it at the time, only to slip months or years later? Probably, but those times were fewer than I care to admit. Of course, failing to confess this internal struggle and the masquerade I was putting on only served to put an ace wrap on my sprained soul. I continued to believe in something just because I said it out loud without looking within to see if it were true.

I just came off of a horrible weekend this Sunday. It started with extreme physical pain, which is pretty much chronic for me anymore. Severe low back pain due to a collapsed disc, bad neck pain and stiffness (same reason, unfortunately), headaches, severe arthritic pain in my right wrist and thumb, and unrelenting fibromyalgia. No, I am not looking for sympathy. Millions of Americans suffer from chronic pain every day. Nor am I trying to blame my bad choices on pain. I need to stay away from opiates, but it’s not easy. I get incredibly discouraged. My underlying mental illness (Bipolar Disorder, in remission; Depression, Anxiety) has caused added problems. This is what treatment professionals refer to as “double-trouble.” Co-occuring addiction and mental illness, coupled with chronic pain, makes it more likely I will decide to relapse and get high, especially on a narcotic painkiller.

Whenever I have a bad weekend like this one, I also tend to sink into a sad, self-pitying state of mind. If I stew in my “crap” long enough, I start yelling at God. I’ve been known to say to God, “Either cure me or kill me!” Interestingly, I don’t really want to die. I want to live. But here’s the rub: I want to live under my terms, which is happy, peppy, pain-free, a wive I am truly bonded to, plenty of friends, complete acceptance, total forgiveness, and a great job. Oh, and a car, which I have not been able to afford for over a year. I don’t want to feel stressed, unhappy, unloved, lonely, or “damaged.” I want the past to be gone from my memory. On really bad days, I want my past to completely disappear. I want social media and background checks to reveal nothing sordid from my past. I have wondered how to go about getting a new birth certificate, social security number, and a passport, and just go somewhere new and start completely over. (Thankfully, it’s been a number of years since I contemplated that nonsense!) Besides, there are no mulligans in life are there?

How Do We Overcome?

I finally watched the Christian film Overcomer. I don’t think I’ve cried as much during any movie I’ve watched. I have a number of favorite faith-based movies, including the God’s Not Dead trilogy, Breakthrough, Courageous, Fireproof, 90 Minutes in Heaven, War Room, and The Passion of the Christ. Each of these movies have meant a great deal to me. I usually end up watching a film just at the right moment in my life, and invariably take something away I can use. I always end up feeling guilty for how I’ve been living my life. I feel “damaged,” or “less than.” Not until Overcomer did a film hit on this very nerve and set in motion a complete acceptance of who I was, how I unfortunately behave at times, and who I am in God’s eyes. In a nutshell, this movie told my story, only with different names and circumstances.

Several characters in the film were struggling to varying depths with their walk with God and their individual commitment. When a blind man in a hospital bed asked the main character visiting patients, “Who are you John?” John answered, “I’m a basketball coach.” The bedridden patient asked who John would be if his basketball team was taken from him. He said he was a history teacher, a sort-of cross-country coach (you have to see the movie to get that reference), a husband, etc. The man then asked John, “No, John, I mean who are you? Who would you be if all that was stripped away?” John said, “Well, I am a Christian.” This intrigued the man in the bed. He said, “If you’re a Christian, John, why was that the last thing you listed?” He told John, “You are whoever you put at the top of your list.” John asked if the man was saying John was a bad Christian. Of course, that was for John to answer for himself. Thankfully, he was able to address the question and began to put God first.

No one likes to hear this, but we simply cannot “overcome” under our own power. Most people take offense at this. I did! But no matter what we’re doing and not doing according to our Christian walk, we’re not able to handle everything that comes along. We cannot overcome our sin nature. Addicts and alcoholics cannot stop using on their own. Sexual predators often re-offend years later. Christian men and women have fallen into the sinful practice of watching pornography. Jimmy Swaggart got caught having sex with prostitutes. Many people, including Christians, gossip incessantly. Many judge others. For me, this was a way to take the focus off my glaring defects of character and my habitual sin. It is simply not possible to stop sinning just because we believe in “a god,” or the God of Abraham and Isaac, or Jesus Christ . We can become “saved” and see Christ as our Messiah, but fail to make Him LORD of our lives. We can go to church every week yet continue sinning. This is what the Bible considers “practicing” sin. The initial step to overcoming is to honestly and willingly admitting to Christ that we are broken. If we don’t, there is virtually no chance of defeating the bondage over us. How can we ask for help if we cannot admit there is something broken and in need of fixing?

The Battle Begins in Our Mind

Paul wrote, “We are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37, NRSV). The Greek word commonly translated “overcome” in Scripture carries no surprising meaning. It simply means “to win a victory,” or “to stand victorious over an enemy.” To overcome in the biblical sense means to live in the victory that Jesus Christ purchased for us through His atoning death. It means victory over our old nature and winning under our new nature. We cannot make the mistake that “salvation” means “overcoming.” It does not. Salvation does involve being set free, but salvation is the vehicle for our deliverance; the means through which we can become victorious; the power needed to defeat the enemy. The word most frequently used for “salvation” in the New Testament is Greek, sôtêria, meaning “deliverance.”

Overcoming, by definition, involves warfare. The battlefield for this warfare is, as Joyce Meyer notes, our mind. In her seminal book Battlefield of the Mind, Meyer explains the importance of thought. She writes, “The mind is the leader or forerunner of all actions. Romans 8:5 makes it clear: For those who are according to the flesh and are controlled by its unholy desires set their minds on and pursue those things which gratify the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit and are controlled by the desires of the Spirit set their minds on and seek those things which gratify the Holy Spirit.”[1] 

Our actions are a direct result of our thoughts. How important is this tenet? Consider the following axiom:

Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.

Paul smartly describes this battle we face: “For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). Satan begins each attack by bombarding our minds with a twisted false reality—nagging thoughts, suspicions, doubts, fears, and character assassination. This attack starts as a trickle. Satan knows us better than we’d like, and he knows where the chinks are in our armor. As this attack enters into overdrive, the devil causes “strongholds.” Second Corinthians 10:3-5 says, “For though we live in the world we are not carrying on a worldly war, for the weapons of our warfare are not worldly but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.”

Matthew Henry writes, “The work of the ministry is a spiritual warfare with spiritual enemies, and for spiritual purposes. Outward force is not the method of the gospel, but strong persuasions, by the power of truth and the meekness of wisdom.”[2] Some may argue that this passage specifically refers to the mission of effectively spreading the gospel. Consider, however, that as believers our theology must be a living one. Martin Luther said, “It is through living, indeed through dying and being damned, that one becomes a theologian, not through understanding, reading, or speculation.” Believers learn doctrine in order to participate more deeply, passionately, and truthfully in the drama of redemption. Intellectual apprehension of the gospel alone, without the appropriation of heart and hand—what we believe in our heart and what we do as a result of that belief—leads only to hypocrisy. This is what is meant by needing to get God out of our heads and into our hearts. Otherwise, our theological studies amount to nothing more than accumulation of “data.”

Truly, our theology must quicken the conscience and soften the heart, or it will surely harden them as we learn only a fraction of the truth or, worse, learn what we need in order to find loopholes and manipulate the gospel. (Read my post Do You Look for Loopholes as a Christian?) In subtle ways, we begin to confuse ourselves with God. We think our words, our understanding, our convictions, our conclusions, perfectly reflect the Word of God. This can eventually lead to a trip down the rabbit hole of self-will run riot. If we are compromising our Christian walk, and dare take a close, honest inventory, we just might see signs of a corrupted theology, marked with fits of anger, prideful debate, jealousy, division, and strife. Our witness becomes far less than what it must be in order for us to display Jesus. This is bad for us, for those we confuse or push away, and bad for Jesus. It develops subtly into hypocrisy. Genuine theology, inversely, contains marks of grace, humility, truth, gentleness, unity, peace, patience, and love (see Gal. 5:22-26). This comes only from putting Christ before us. Humility does not mean thinking less of ourselves, rather thinking of ourselves less often.

No matter the depth and quality of our walk with Christ, we have moments where we fall short. One minute we’re walking in the Spirit, basking in joy and peace, and the next we’re ambushed by some inner thought, a difficult situation, or the hurtful remarks of someone in our lives. Paul clearly expressed this critical difficulty. He said, “For we do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Why, we felt that we had received the sentence of death; but that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead; he delivered us from so deadly a peril, and he will deliver us; on him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again” (2 Cor. 1:8-10).

It is very important to catch these moments of negative ruminations as quickly as possible. If we fail at this, we miss the opportunity to recognize what should only be a fleeting thought, not the establishing of a stronghold. I learned a term in my undergraduate course in psychology that I try to use regularly. It is called metacognition: thinking about what we’re thinking about! Because the prime battlefield is in our mind, this concept dovetails with being vigilant. First Peter 5:8 says, “Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour.” We are waged in a war with our enemy, Satan, who is a liar and the father of them. He works subtly at first, then ramps up his attack. If we fail to “kick him out of our mind,” he will establish powerful strongholds. He is in no hurry. He’ll hang around, chipping away bit by bit, until he has convinced us of our “hopeless” situation. Worse, he may eventually get us to doubt our salvation.

Our “defense,” similar to football, soccer, or basketball, must be to see the “ball coming,” then reach out and swat it done before it lands in our mind. We cannot let the devil score. The Bible provides many weapons for our defense. Most importantly is hiding the Word of God in our hearts so that we might not sin. This is not memorizing Scriptures for the sake of “knowing them.” That is not a proper strategy for defense. It refers to knowing in our hearts what the Bible says about who we are in Christ, and what Jesus accomplished on the cross. The very next defense is to properly “suit up.” We need to put on the whole armor of God (see Ephesians 6:11-18). Many believers have heard this verse a thousand times. Few know what the “entire” armor entails. Worse, many Christians think we put it on to do battle—during each skirmish with Satan—then take it off. Funny how the imagination works; we consider “armor” to be heavy or restricting, so we take it off. We must “wear” this armor during our time in this world.

Praise and prayer are also effective for battle. Praise defeats Satan fairly quickly, and it tends to brighten our outlook and mood. Whenever we choose praise, which helps create in us a sense of gratitude no matter the situation, it’s as though we took off dirty, scratched, dark glasses and put on a clear pair. Prayer, of course, is the primary means of talking to God. We need to acknowledge our predicament (vigilance) and ask God to grant us courage, discernment, and wisdom. Further, if we practice continuous and diligent prayer, we spend time daily in the Father’s presence building a relationship; we find ourselves thanking Jesus for the horrific death he experienced as our proxy, and we start regularly tapping into the power in the Name of Jesus.

Let me close with this key Scripture from the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it (1 Cor. 10:13).

I believe this is a critical topic worthy of consideration. I therefore encourage feedback from my blog readers in order to dialog on overcoming troubles and temptations in the Christian faith.  Please leave a comment or question in the box below. Thanks for reading. God bless.

Footnotes

[1] Henry, M., Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1997), p. 1129.

[2] Meyer, J., Battlefield of the Mind: Winning the Battle in Your Mind (Fenton, MO: Time Warner, 1995), p. 11.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: “Be Perfect as Your Heavenly Father is Perfect.”

The following is a summary of my most recent class in pursuit of my master’s in theology at Colorado Christian University.

Calling upon your reading (particularly Grudem and Elwell) and utilizing good exegetical practice, provide your interpretation of Matthew 5:48. Here are your guiding questions: How do you understand “being perfect” in terms of the Christian life? How does sanctification contribute to perfection, per your understanding of both ideas?

By Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.

The meaning of “be perfect” is a critical concept for the Christian church, causing many believers to stumble, worried they will never be perfect to any degree, let alone as the Father is perfect. Wayne Grudem identifies the “perfection” of God as one of His communicable attributes. He writes, “Some passages say that God is “perfect” or “complete.”[1] Jesus explicitly tells us we must be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect (Matt. 5:48). Grudem explains that we imitate God’s blessedness when we find delight and happiness in all that is pleasing to God—indeed, when we seek to show His blessedness, love, and grace.

The Greek word for “perfect” (teleios) is like the Hebrew word tāmîm—the latter of which refers to “soundness” regarding sacrificial animals or uprightness and a thorough commitment to the LORD. The Greek word can be interpreted as “mature” or “full-grown.” Paul puts it this way: “Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; be babes in evil, but in thinking be mature” (NRSV). He relates the same concept in Ephesians 4:13, wherein he states, “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.” Paul uses the Greek word teleios in each instance cited above.

Nowhere in Scripture are we told to be “perfect” for the sake of perfection itself. Some variations on the term include “blameless,” but I think this is a matter of proper orientation of the heart regarding being like Christ. The writer of Hebrews said the believers should have been teaching and discipling others, yet many were still in need of someone to teach them the first principles—they were still on “milk” when they should have been digesting the “meat” of the gospel. Further, milk is for children, whereas meat is for adults (see Hebrews 5:12-14). Jesus was speaking to a crowd of believers and His disciples in Matthew 5. He spoke of the importance of meekness, peacemaking, mercy, being humble (poor in spirit), self-denying. Part of His sermon included a rundown of the Law, indicating He had not come to abolish it but to fulfill it. He also addressed the importance of forgiveness. Further to the topic at hand, Jesus was saying the Law is not about strict adherence (letter-only); rather, it is about working toward fulfilling the law of love, which is an internal orientation. The perfection He spoke of was about growing in grace to the point where love was the prevailing drive of one’s behavior.

The very example of the Father’s love is shown in Matthew 5:45: “[S]o that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”  God is no respecter of persons. The LORD wanted His disciples to understand that they (indeed, all of us) are to show this “perfect” love the Father shows all of creation. We can only accomplish this by becoming “holy and mature” sons of the Father—sharers of His Spirit and partakers in His impartial and perfect love for all. This is the key to learning how we can love even those who persecute us.

Matthew Henry says, “It is the duty of Christians to desire, and aim at, and press towards perfection in grace and holiness.”[2] We can only hope to achieve this degree of “perfection” by studying the heart (the character) of our Heavenly Father and the teachings of Jesus Christ. Jesus came to perform the will of the Father. To interpret Matthew 5:48 as a literal yardstick of perfection is to miss the message of the Sermon on the Mount. Peter clearly explains this: “[B]ut as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1 Pet. 1:15-16). When we accept Jesus Christ as our LORD and Savior, we start down the path of salvation that includes election, redemption, and sanctification. Of course, sanctification involves growing in likeness to Christ. We have been justified, which is essentially a legal standing before the Father.

It is through our cooperation that we grow more like our LORD each day. This is sanctification, which is specific to our internal condition. As we grow (from milk to meat), we walk more consistently as Christ walked. We develop the spiritual “muscles” we need to resist temptation on a consistent basis (we stop “practicing” sin); we experience an “enlargement” of our hearts, allowing more room for empathy, love, compassion. We begin to show others the character of the Father and the unconditional love of the Son. This is something we will not be “perfect” at while still bound to our earthly bodies. Through sanctification, we tend to increase our ability to be perfect in Christ as we seek to follow His example with each passing day.

I received a strong response from one classmate who did not agree with my concept of what “perfection” means in Matthew 5:48, or throughout Scripture for that matter.

He wrote the following: 

In response to your statement that “nowhere in Scripture are we told to be ‘perfect’ (Steven Barto 2020), I disagree. My disagreement is based on the fact that we are clearly exhorted to perfection in Matthew (5:48) in every version of the Bible that is accepted by Colorado Christian University for use in our courses. For example, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (ESV). “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (NIV). “Therefore, you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (NASB). “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (NRSV). “But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect” (NLT). Thus, the fact that we have been told to be ‘perfect’ in Scripture could not be clearer. I do, however, sincerely appreciate the roundabout way you circumnavigated such an absolute statement when having relatively discussed the likeness of a Greek and Hebrew term referring to ‘soundness’ wherefore the perfecting maturation process results in measuring up to the fullness of Christ (Barto 2020) among other interesting yet avoidant equivocations.

Because I do not want to accidentally appear to be cutting down anything you have said, which I believe are all worthy of undivided consideration, I must return to the original point concerning the command ‘to be perfect’ regardless of how it is sliced. It is what it is whether we like it or not. Although we can strive to be perfect in everything we do, at least whatever perfection there might be rests in the effort and thought that ultimately seems to count. For example, certain individuals may expect us to wrap Christmas presents perfectly but no matter how hard some of us might try, there are obvious flaws for which we will pay dearly. Now, I am not suggesting that we all go to hell for having missed the mark, but only an unreasonable person would fail to appreciate our best effort to have wrapped a present, perfectly.

I responded with the following commentary:

Please be assured I did not mean the command to be perfect is not in the Bible. That would be a ludicrous claim to say the least. I may have used an ambiguous statement. I meant the Bible does not instruct us to actually be perfect in the same way Christ or the Father are perfect. I am still anchoring my opinion on the Greek or Hebrew word. How can we ignore original meaning? Context? Historical ramifications in the church at the time the phrase (indeed, the word “perfect”) was used? Exegesis demands a careful historical, literary, and theological analysis of a text (or a specific word or phrase). This is the proper means by which we can ascertain the sense of the text, grappling with the reasons for or against understanding it. Of course, exegetes must learn to love asking questions, so ours is actually a positive discourse on the matter of perfection.

Hopefully, exegesis leads to understanding the world of or within the word or text and the world behind the same. Some exegetes try to understand the world in front of the text: the world or concept the text “creates.” That sounds a bit like a slippery slope to me. Of course, I don’t merely want to understand the historical or literary meaning, but I want to engage it spiritually and experientially. The understanding of these critical words, phrases, or texts often have a deep impact on our lives as Christians. I agree, by the way, that allegorical reading of a portion of Scripture can yield meanings that are at times labled “spiritual or figurative” rather than literal. This, too, can be tricky. We don’t want to limit our study to our own (individual) interpretation. This is quite possibly the root-cause of “relativism.” This is precisely why systematic theological study among the community of believers is critical to maintaining consistent, solid doctrine. Accordingly, I truly enjoy these types of discussions.

I must conclude with a word about “translations.” We are at a distinct disadvantage in that there are at least 50 versions of the Holy Bible, and over 150,000 variations in manuscripts. I wholly support the canon of 66 books. I do, however, believe some versions are based on “fewer” and less accurate original manuscripts. For example, The King James Version is considered unacceptable for exegetical study, as is the Living Bible, the New Living Translation, and the Authorized Version. These versions worked with fewer (and less reliable) biblical manuscripts. Many older (and better) manuscripts have been discovered post-1611. Some of the best versions for exegetical study include the New Revised Standard Version, New International Version, and the New American Standard Bible. As you know, CCU approves the NRSV and NIV. Translations like The Message are not good for exegetical study as these are personal conceptual paraphrases of Scripture. I use The Message for devotional reading only. I have a copy of the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV) and the New Interpreter’s Study Bible, which are considered to be “excellent” for in-depth exegetical work.

I completely agree with your analogy regarding a perfectly wrapped Christmas gift. Indeed, I think this is what I have been trying to express: That we must strive to do everything perfect—as perfectly as we can—because our Father who is in heaven is perfect. Also, it is only through the key steps of salvation (election, regeneration, and conversion) that we are able to at least begin our march toward perfection. Paul said we won’t get it perfect. Frankly, “perfection” for the sake of perfection itself is not required, and thankfully so. That would truly reduce obtaining salvation to performing “perfectly good works.” Christ came to fulfill the Law, not abolish it. He told us how to approach the great command from God, which is two-tiered. We are to love the Lord God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind; and, we are to love our neighbor as ourselves.

I think we are probably on the same page on this issue. My concern over how the church today understands and (more importantly) experiences the concept of “perfection” is critical to holding on to believers (especially our youth as they enter the world of secular academia with all the competing ideas of “absolute truth,” “morality,” and relativism); further, it is crucial for how we interact with the fallen world who sees themselves as “okay” and not “perfect,” and who think Christians are locked in an ancient world of pleasing “some invisible god” in the heavens. I also think part of my approach to this idea of perfection is rooted in social upbringing, mental illness (now in remission), loss of friends to suicide who just couldn’t “get it perfect,” and the pressures I put on myself in recovery to get it right the first time and never, ever mess up again. That was not my recovery experience. It took decades.

***

I believe this is a critical topic worthy of consideration. I therefore encourage feedback from my blog readers in order to dialog on “perfection” in the Christian faith.  Please leave a comment or question in the box below. Thanks for reading. God bless.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 218.

[2] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1997), 866.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: Personhood of the Holy Spirit

The following is a summary of my most recent class in pursuit of my master’s in theology at Colorado Christian University.

Grounding your articulation on Grudem’s multiple chapters on the Holy Spirit, but adding scriptural support, as well as information from other sources (e.g., McGrath, Elwell), make a strong case for the personhood of God the Holy Spirit. By “personhood,” it is meant defining the Spirit as more than just a force, ghost, cloud, or some other type of substance; define Him as a person.

By Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.

As Grudem demonstrates by the three assigned chapters, there is much to consider relative to the personhood and the functions of the Holy Spirit. Further, Grudem does a fine job of revealing the many areas where denominations and believers tend to disagree. This is especially true regarding cessation of prophesy and other charismatic gifts or “signs.” I have become friends with an online lay minister from New Jersey who holds firm to the cessation school of thought. This came up during a recent conversation with him regarding speaking in tongues. What a great springboard for exploring the personhood of the Holy Spirit.

Grudem explicitly states, “The work of the Holy Spirit is to manifest the active presence of God in the world, and especially in the church.” [1] Turning to the doctrine of God in three persons (Father, Son, Holy Spirit), we understand that each is fully God and that there is only one God. Grudem refers to the Godhead as “an indication of the plurality of persons in God himself.” [2] Scripture provides numerous examples of God as three persons in one. John says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (John 1:1). The Spirit of God was present at the time of Creation (Gen. 1:1). The Father and the Son are God, as the Holy Spirit is also God. No one is subordinate to the other, nor did one come “out of” the other.

Grudem notes that the Holy Spirit is essentially the primary manifestation of the Trinity under the New Covenant. It’s worth mentioning that much of the work of the Holy Spirit is akin to the earthly ministry of Christ, and of the various offices within the church under the OT and the NT. The Holy Spirit is unique in that He gives power to the church, but He also ministers to the body through discernment, interpretation, imparting of wisdom, conviction, direction, and unification—calling the church together for fellowship. However, it is perhaps because of these “leadings” that many see the Holy Spirit as a force or enigma. Looking closely, we see several indicators of His personhood. He has the characteristics of a person; He acts like a person; He is treated as a person throughout church history; and, He is the third person of the Godhead. A mere “spirit” does not have a personality, yet we clearly see the Holy Spirit does possess a personality.

Regarding the Holy Spirit as a person, we can confidently trust the accuracy of Scripture. Paul said the Holy Spirit has the capacity to think (1 Cor. 2:10). Romans 8:11 identifies the Holy Spirit as “He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead.” According to the transliteration of this verse, the word “he” is expounded upon as meaning “the Spirit of the one having raised from the dead Christ Jesus.” [3] G.A. Cole notes that the personhood of the Holy Spirit is grounded in canonical Scriptures and expounded upon in early creeds. He admits that words can be tricky. For example, the Hebrew word rûah can be translated as “spirit” or “Spirit.” However, Cole says the ancient Hebrew language did not use capital letters as we’re used to seeing in English. [4]

In Psalm 51, David utilizes self-examination regarding the depths of his guilt, and discusses inward renewal in verses 10 through 13. This is arguably not referring to “self” renewal. In verse 10, he says, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” (NRSV). Kidner indicates the words heart and spirit refer to the impact of the “springs of life” (Pro. 4:23). [5] David is referring to his own spirit being renewed by the Spirit of God. Importantly, Romans 8:26-27 says the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness; because we often do not know how to pray (or what to pray for), the Holy Spirit prays for us. As Cole notes, only individuals can pray—disembodied enigmas cannot. Isaiah said it is possible to grieve the Holy Spirit (Isa. 63:10). The Spirit of God spoke to the disciples at various times (Acts 8:29; 11:12; 13:2). The Holy Spirit feels love (Rom. 15:3) and can impart grace (Heb. 10:29). Peter noted in Acts 5:3 that Ananias lied to the Holy Spirit. You cannot lie to a disembodied enigma, but you can lie to a person. Stephen accused the Sanhedrin of disobeying the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51)—impersonal entities cannot issue commands.

First Corinthians 12:1-11 tells us that spiritual gifts are endowed by the Holy Spirit, and that He acts in accordance with His will (12:11). He is the searcher of men’s hearts and minds; He is the power behind creation and regeneration. His works indicate possessing intelligence, will, knowledge, self-determination, and the general aspects of personhood. Amazingly, Paul said the Holy Spirit searches all things, even the mind of God (1 Cor. 2:10). This certainly points to the quality of omniscience. Athanasius of Alexandria speaks quite succinctly that one cannot separate the Son from the Father, or the Spirit from either the Son or the Father. [6] Further, he suggests that if two persons of the Godhead are persons, then the Holy Spirit cannot be a non-person. This would be completely alien and incompatible to the rest of the Godhead. Athanasius adds, “That which is from God could not be from something that does not exist.” [7]

I also think the idea that the Holy Spirit is a person aids in addressing the arguments of cessation theorists who believe spiritual gifts, the offices of prophet and apostle, and miracles (especially, but not limited to, healing, resurrection of the dead, and manipulation of the empirical world to further the will of God) are no longer in operation. Given the doctrinal position that God works through the Holy Spirit, it is not theologically or logically possible for the Holy Spirit to cease operating in the world and in the community of believers. Given that He is an equal part of the Godhead with the Father and the Son, who are eternal and cannot change, then neither can the Holy Spirit change. On a very simple but profound tenet, if the Father and the Son are persons, than so too must the Holy Spirit be a person. Accordingly, I strongly believe in the personhood of the Holy Spirit.

***

I want to start encouraging more feedback so we can open a dialog. Presently, in order to leave a comment you need to scroll back to the header and click on LEAVE A COMMENT, but I’m in the process of figuring out how to move the COMMENT bar to the end of each post. Thanks for reading. God bless.


[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 634.

[2] Grudem, 227.

[3] Alfred Marshall, The Interlinear NIV Parallel New Testament in Greek and English (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 626.

[4] G.A. Cole, “Holy Spirit,” contained in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 3rd ed (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 395.

[5] Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72: Kidner Classical Commentaries (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 210.

[6] Athanasius of Alexandria, “On The Holy Spirit and the Trinity,” contained in The Christian Theology Reader, 5th ed., edited by Alister E. McGrath (Chichester, West Essex: Wiley Blackwell, 2017), 166.

[7] 166.

Mental Health and Addiction

The first section of this post is taken from the blog of Sophia Majlessi,
National Council for Behavioral Health
Released January 8, 2020

Voters More Likely to Support a Candidate Who Promises to Address Mental Health and Addiction, According to New Polling from the National Council for Behavioral Health Released Ahead of December 16 New Hampshire 2020 Presidential Candidate Forum

WASHINGTON, D.C. (December 11, 2019)—New polling released today by the National Council for Behavioral Health shows strong bipartisan agreement among registered voters in New Hampshire that the federal government is not doing enough to address mental health (84% of Democrats and 72% of Republicans) and addiction (77% of Democrats and 53% of Republicans) in America. The National Council released the new polling in advance of the Unite for Mental Health: New Hampshire Town Hall, a public forum for 2020 presidential candidates to discuss mental health and addiction policies. The National Council for Behavioral Health, Mental Health for US and the NH Community Behavioral Health Association will host Unite for Mental Health: New Hampshire Town Hall on December 16 at the Dana Center at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H.

“The message is clear: candidates who want to win New Hampshire need to tell voters they have a plan to address the mental health and addiction crisis, one of the most important health issues facing the nation,” said Chuck Ingoglia, president and CEO of the National Council for Behavioral Health. “The Unite for Mental Health: New Hampshire Town Hall will provide an important opportunity for presidential candidates to engage with New Hampshire families, mental health professionals and local policymakers to discuss the issues and share solutions voters—and the nationare eager to support.”

This statewide poll comes on the heels of new national data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirming that suicide is the second leading cause of death among teenagers in the U.S. The suicide rate among people ages 10 to 24 years old climbed 56% from 2007 to 2017, according to the CDC report. These findings, compared with high rates of death nationwide from drug overdose, are leading to calls for the 2020 presidential candidates to engage communities across the country in order to better meet the needs of millions of Americans.

“Mental health and addiction continuously poll as key issues for many Americans, yet our leaders rarely prioritize prevention, treatment, and recovery strategies,” said former U.S. Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, founder of The Kennedy Forum and Mental Health for US co-chair. “This new polling data from New Hampshire is the catalyst we need for change. The Mental Health for US coalition is proud to stand with the National Council and the NH Community Behavioral Health Association as we call on policymakers and candidates to walk the walk for the those with mental health and addiction challenges.” “The results of this poll are compelling. The need to invest in caring for those with mental illness is clear, and the voters want to see candidates for public office at all levels address these important issues,” said Roland Lamy, executive director of the NH Community Behavioral Health Association.

Results from the full survey have a margin of error of +/-6%. Click here for full polling results.

My Thoughts

The struggle to break free from active addiction is among the hardest undertakings a person can face in his or her lifetime. Putting the drug down is more difficult depending on the substance, amount used, and duration of use. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association, has sequestered substance abuse under the new heading Substance Use Disorder (SUD). The substance-related disorders encompass 10 separate classes of drugs: alcohol; caffeine; cannabis; hallucinogens; inhalants; cocaine (powder or rock); opioids; sedatives and hypnotics; stimulants (amphetamine-type, cocaine, and other stimulants; tobacco; and other (or unknown) substances. It is important to note that all drugs (when taken in excess) have a common direct activation of the brain reward system, typically leading to dependency and addiction.

Mental health issues can become a complicating factor; this is often referred to as dual-diagnosis, or, in the vernacular, “double-trouble.” Moreover, individuals with poor self-control may be particularly vulnerable to substance abuse. Accordingly, the roots of substance abuse for some individuals can be seen in behaviors long before the onset of actual substance use itself. It is also important to note that substance-related disorders are divided into two groups: substance use disorders and substance-induced disorders. These secondary issues can include intoxication, withdrawal, psychotic disorders, bipolar and related disorders, depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive and related disorders, sleep disorders, sexual dysfunctions, delirium, and neurocognitive disorders.

Features of substance use disorders include a rather important element: change in brain circuits that may persist beyond detoxification, particularly in individuals with severe disorders. The behavioral results of such changes may manifest in repeated relapses and intense craving for the individual’s favorite drug. This craving is often set in motion through a mere drug-related stimuli, which is referred to in the addictions field as a trigger. Typically, the longer an addict remains clean the easier it is to recognize and defeat such cravings. A craving is likely rooted in classical conditioning, and is associated with activation of specific reward structures in the brain. These structures are rather individualized; not every addict is triggered by the same thought or stimulus. Instead, triggers are established by what the individual is agitated or distressed by, and inversely related to the ability to properly handle such stimuli.

Not surprisingly, treating co-occurring substance abuse and mental illness calls for simultaneously addressing two critical and sometimes confounding problems. In fact, double-trouble can often complicate differential diagnosis—the comparison of symptoms from multiple likely mental or physical conditions. From a personal perspective, it was quite difficult for me to clearly determine what was “wrong” with me. Severe anxiety, constant ruminations, insomia, and underlying depression crippled me for decades. In addition, I felt powerless and helpless, unable to relax or sleep. This is likely what initially led to my substance abuse. I started drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana the summer following my high school graduation. My use was extensive from the beginning, but I was able to calm down, stop my thoughts from racing, and finally get some sleep. Unfortunately, I was not “sleeping” as much as I was passing out. It did not take long for my substance use to become excessive, leading to a decades-long season of poor choices and serious consequences.

Reasons for drug and alcohol abuse by individuals with mental illness varies by individual. Substance abuse could be primary or secondary to psychiatric issues, or may even in some cases be independent of mental illness. The association between mental disorders and substance abuse is complex. The relationship of substance abuse to onset, course, and severity of mental issues, and problems in the evaluation of dual-diagnosis patients, is often complex. Adding to this difficulty is the likelihood that the individual often engages in self-medication to alleviate troublesome symptoms for which they have no explanation. This psychodynamic perspective must also include neurochemical considerations. Affective disorders (those impacting mood, often including depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder) are particularly difficult to manage. I found welcome relief through drug and alcohol us—albeit only temporarily.

Unfortunately, chronic substance abuse can also lead to the development of organic conditions, such as psychosis, mania, and mental confusion. Other disorders can include chronic apathy and dysphoria, and personality disorders such as Antisocial Personality Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder. Again, there is often confusion regarding co-morbity. For example, addicts quite frequently use, abuse, manipulate, and disrespect friends, family, and other acquaintances in order to get what they need, whether it be money, shelter, or (at times) the drug itself. These traits are also typical of several key personality disorders.

As these traits become routine, the addict often slides down the slippery slope to criminal behavior—theft, embezzlement, forgery, kiting checks, burglary, armed robbery. A serious, unfortunate end-result for the dually-diagnosed addict can lead to suicide. I have personally considered taking my own life on many occasions during active addiction. I would become remorseful for the way I treated family and friends. The disconnect between my Christian worldview and my behavior haunted me. It seemed suicide was the only option. As my uncle once told me, I was unable to see the horizon. Truly, I have not faced a more difficult situation in my life than suffering from mental illness while in active addiction.

In my review of the diagnostic criteria for Borderline Personality Disorder, I determined I’ve displayed eight of the nine criteria for making such a diagnosis. I’ve demonstrated a pervasive pattern of instability in my interpersonal relationships, self-image, affect (mood swings), impulsivity (sexual behavior, drug and alcohol abuse, risk-taking, excessive impulse spending, reckless driving), recurring thoughts of suicide, chronic feelings of emptiness, and recurrent anger. Thankfully, I have seen a vast improvement in the lion’s share of these symptoms. However, I still deal with poor self-image at times, tend to “sanitize” the truth, occasionally manipulate others, and remain rather impulsive in areas such as impulsive spending.

Given the pervasive nature of dual-diagnosis, it is critical to identify when you are suffering from mental or emotional symptoms, and more importantly to recognize if you are using or abusing drugs or alcohol to dampen or defeat uncomfortable thoughts or feelings. Depression, anxiety, and insomnia tend to “respond” initially to substance use. However, the need for one’s drug of choice to “treat” these types of symptoms increases as use leads to abuse; abuse leads to tolerance; and tolerance leads to dependency. Consequently, self-medication of emotional or psychiatric difficulties by consuming drugs or alcohol is doomed to fail—often with quite devastating results. If you, or someone you know, is caught in the vicious cycle of addiction (with or without a co- occurring mental condition), it is vitally important to seek professional intervention.

It is impossible to “go it alone” and achieve anything like helpful results. In fact, it is likely your situation will deteriorate. I was told years ago by an addictions counselor that because I had an underlying mental illness, treating my addiction without addressing my psychiatric problem is like having two broken legs but only putting a cast on one of them.

If you or someone you know is struggling with substance use disorder and want more information or help quitting, please contact your local AA or NA chapter, or click here to visit the National Institute on Drug Abuse official website. You can also scroll back to the top of this post and click on the COMMENT bar to open an dialog with me. I will be glad to speak with you any time.

References

American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing), 2013.