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

Unbreakable Fragility

By Tim McGee

The more I discover you,
the less I can  ignore—
or claim ignorance of what you ask.

You say to “Follow my commands”

You call me to meekness,
living in humility;
to die to myself—
so as to become holy, perfect.

You say to “Love one another”

You offer more than commands.
You lived among us,
showed us your way—
revealing to us that love is sacrifice.

You say to “Be strong and courageous”

True strength comes when I let go. 
Against the fragility of a shattered ego—
no weapon can prosper.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: The Poor in Spirit

The following is from the third discussion assignment in Christian Ethics in pursuit of my M.A. in Theological Studies. We were instructed to apply the authority of Scripture to one of the beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount.

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

I chose blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God (Matt. 5:3). I decided to expound on this beatitude because it speaks about a rather challenging yet rewarding state of mind: being satisfied with what you have. Jesus requires us to share the good things we have. “Poor in spirit” requires a humble heart. I also see an element of acceptance in this beatitude; it requires humility and seeing yourself as you are.

The Book of Matthew features excitement, expectation, exasperation, discouragement, disappointment, despair, and brokenness. Quite a range. Christ was speaking to a multitude about spiritual tenets that still apply today. Matthew Henry comments on verses one and two as follows: “None will find happiness in this world or the next, who do not seek it from Christ by the rule of his word”(1). Christ’s beatitudes represent the principal graces a Christian should possess (2).

I have chosen as my subject my former boss and owner of the motel I ran a few years ago. He focused on himself in every situation. Long-term guests who ran into a financial emergency and could not pay their weekly rent on time were typically given until noon the following day to come up with the money or I had to evict them. His usual response to their circumstances would be, “I am not a bank or a loan office,” or “This is not a social services agency.” He routinely failed to provide basic needs for the motel, especially new sheet sets and pillows. I often purchased them and submitted the receipts, hoping for reimbursement.

He was recently served with a notice stating the motel was “unfit for human habitation.” Notices were placed on the door to each room and in the front door of the motel office. Yet he ignored the ruling, did not make guests vacate their rooms, and instructed his current manager to continue renting rooms. According to a local newspaper, he has been charged with obstructing the administration of law, aiding consummation of a crime, and creating a public nuisance.

Christian ethics is about making appropriate Christ-like decisions in our everyday lives, with a full understanding of the consequences of our actions. For me, Christianity provides a comprehensive, universal system of morality. Deontology (rules and duty) was breached in the subject I have described above. My boss failed to display a good moral intent and chose to ignore the rules and regulations governing his obligations to the motel and its guests. Rather, he demonstrated egoism—his self-interest was the motivation and goal for his actions. Such a man tends to use his innate sense of right and wrong, but he does so according to his intuition, which he said comes from “over 30 years in the hospitality business.” His moral judgments, which are based on emotivism and are not grounded in statements of fact; rather, they are expressions of his own sense of morality, rooted in egoism.

Scripture sets proper parameters for ethical business conduct. We are not to oppress our neighbor or rob him (Lev. 19:13). We should not cheat anyone in business deals (Deut. 25:13-16). We are to be generous, freely helping others in need of financial assistance. We should conduct our affairs with justice (Psa. 112:5). It is my position that my boss should have provided for the needs of motel guests. Those who are poor in spirit ideally hold a lowly and humble awareness of their condition. They work at improving their situation in the spirit of humility, sharing what they have with others.

Poor of spirit resonates with me because of my dark years of egoism and addiction. Not only is “poor of spirit” predicated upon seeing yourself as you truly are at present, recovery from active addiction requires first becoming humble and painfully honest about your character defects, denial, and predicament. Our First Parents lost the ability to see themselves as “creatures,” desiring instead to become gods of their own morality and destiny. I like Ravi Zacharias’ comment that when Adam and Eve chose to disobey God and partake of the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they lost the vertical (heavenward orientation) in exchange for the horizontal. They chose to look within rather that to God.

Egoism is grounded in hubris. It is the very opposite of lowliness of spirit. Moral decisions grounded in ego tend to spawn relativism. The pluralist denies absolute truth regarding theology, ethics, and the like, stating that all beliefs are acceptable: “You do you and I’ll do me.” We hope to make commendable choices in life, but what of the emotional element of ethical decisions? Are emotions helpful in ethical choices? Or should we be cold, calculating, and rational?

Emotion versus reason is one of the oldest arguments we know. Cognitive meaning is based on true or false, whereas emotions do not lead to such valuation. Well, empirically at least. If we allow emotions to dominate our ethics, we risk moral valuation that is either caused or constituted by affect. This has been identified by some philosophers in ethics as moral or ethical judgment lacking in statement of facts. It typically involves an expression of the speaker’s personal feelings about a subject. When we go down this road in philosophy or religion, we are suggesting a worldview based on relativism.

Footnotes

(1) Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville: Thomas Henry, Inc., 1997), 864.

(2) Ibid, 864.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: What Difference Does Christianity Make in Ethics?

The following is from my Second discussion assignment in Christian Ethics in pursuit of my M.A. in Theological Studies. We were asked to determine whether a person can be moral without Christianity; and, further, what difference being a Christian has made in our personal sense of morality.

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

My initial reaction to the prompt for this week’s discussion is whether we are speaking of our own Christianity, or Christianity in general? No one can adhere to every tenet of Christianity, nor is every precept or teaching applicable to all situations. Perhaps this is one reason it can be difficult to consistently act in a Christ-like manner in every circumstance. Even though we take on the task of learning systematic theology or divinity, we unfortunately have a default setting that has as much to do with our upbringing as it does biblical principles we learn along the way.

Can a person be moral without Christianity?

The course shell for this session asks whether a person can be moral without believing in Christ. It states, “No matter how you answer that question, the most important thing for this session is to understand that Christianity does have a unique morality (albeit not unified in many cases).” The key question to keep in mind is, “‘What difference does your Christianity make on your morality?’ Think of it like lenses on a pair of eyeglasses…” This aided me in answering the initial question above, noting that (i) a person might be moral without believing in Jesus, but (ii) Christianity itself has a unique and ultimate morality of its own that we are to practice.

The concept of what is “right” is a rather convoluted matter. Douglas Groothuis says, “Even the truth itself must yield to ego,” adding, “…the concept of truth is closely aligned with the idea of God. Both stand over and above the individual and make demands on him or her” (1). I believe morality to be elusive when defined and enforced by man alone. Philosophy provides no real solution—either greatness is exalted at the expense of wretchedness, or wretchedness at the expense of greatness. We cannot understand the duties of humanity without obedience to God and the paramount virtue of humility.

Blaise Pascal says even though it appears that the two orientations could be formed into a perfect system of morals, the two systems of thought (Stoicism and Skepticism) cannot be synthesized by selecting helpful or compatible elements from each system (2). After all, Stoicism promotes certainty and Skepticism promotes doubt. Christian ethics is rooted in revelation—a revealed morality explained in the Bible through the life of Jesus. It is founded upon biblically based norms and ideals. But no one understands, believes, or follows every precept or doctrine of Christianity.

Psychology Today promotes morality as existing in us independently of God. As is typical of a humanist publication, an article by Gad Saad, PhD, asks which God or religion one should use to guide his or her morality (3)? Not surprisingly, the subject matter of the article is homosexuality and marriage partners. It references Anglican and Lutheran denominations as condoning same-sex relationships, and Mormonism and Islam as permitting multiple wives. Of course, this in no wise suggests that “Christian” ethics condones homosexuality or polygamy. Ethics is superior to denomination. In fact, Wayne Grudem says, “The moral argument begins from man’s sense of right and wrong, and of the need for justice to be done, and argues that there must be a God who is the source of right and wrong” (4).

What difference does Christianity make on your morality?

“Morality” comes from the Latin moralis, the word used by Cicero to translate the Greek êthos. The Latin word refers more properly to the habits and customs of a people, while the Greek one is related to the idea of character. So “morality” addresses character and how we interact with each other in society. I believe Christianity provides the one true and universal system of morality. When I accepted Christ as my Lord and Savior at age 13, my rather persistent rebellious nature and questionable morals improved greatly.

When I drifted away from Christ after my father “quit” church cold turkey, I began a slow slide into a morality far worse than I had before my conversion. I began abusing drugs and alcohol, and my morality—my character—changed, matching that of a young man living on the down low, hiding his addiction and illegal behavior. No longer did I feel obliged to follow Christ or emulate Christian morals. I think we all can imagine the lifestyle of an addict as being out of sync with biblical standards. My decision to attend CCU had the welcome effect of convicting me regarding my compromised morality. I am now 3 classes from completing my M.A. in Theological Studies, and my studies have drastically improved my “morality.” In fact, I will be pursuing a Master’s in Divinity at Denver Seminary next spring. My sites are set on evangelism and apologetics, and I will seek a position as an associate or teaching pastor.


(1) Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2011), 344.

(2) Blaise Pascal, “Conversation with M. De Saci on Eptictetus and Montainge,” in Thoughts (New York: Collier, 1910), 392.

(3) Gad Saad, “Morality Exists Despite Religion” (Apr 30, 2012), Psychology Today, Accessed Oct. 17, 2020. URL https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/homo-consumericus/201204/morality-exists-despite-religion

(4) Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 143.

Broken Dreams

I wrote this poem in 2015, during one of the darkest periods of my life. Once again, I had been abusing prescription painkillers, believing that I’d never be free.

The sky opens, rain pours down.
Through streaming tears
I think I see God.
Still, I feel alone, without,
buried deep beneath the
remains of bad decisions.

I am trying, looking
for solutions. No time
for error, no room for emotion.
I grow weary,
unable to overcome
this deep, cold feeling
that I’m on my way out.

Morning comes,
surprised I’m still here.
Oh, how I want to fly; soaring
above failure; somewhere
far over the hills, away from the
stench of my broken dreams
and all this pathetic roadkill.

© 2015 Steven Barto

Let’s Go to Theology Class: The Most Important Event

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

In the opening chapter of the reading for this section, Justo L. Gonzalez (2010) makes this statement: “…from the perspective of the history of Christianity, the most important event of the nineteenth century was the founding of a truly universal church in which peoples of all races and nations had a part” (302). After completing your reading, answer the following questions:

  • Was Gonzalez correct in his identification of “the most important event?”
  • If not, what would you say was the most important event for nineteenth century Christian history?
  • If so, what would you say was the state of that “universal church” by the end of the nineteenth century?

My Opening Argument

Gonzalez describes changes in the economic power of nation-states in Europe and throughout the Western hemisphere during the second half of the eighteenth century. In addition, there were great political and social upheavals during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries “…that would have a serious impact on Christianity as a whole” (1). This period also featured tremedous geographical expansion of Christianity. I agree with Gonzalez that the most important event of the nineteenth century was the founding of a truly universal church—one available to all races and nations. His qualifying comment is  important: “On the other hand, however, it is necessary to point out that this took place within the context of colonialism and economic imperialism” (2). As colonialism, neocolonialism, and the Industrial Revolution took hold, personal and cultural diversity put doctrine and hierarchy at risk in the Christian church.

While Christianity must always involve a personal choice and commitment, simply doing missions will not assure universal adherence to accepted Christian doctrine. There are four marks of the Church, signifying it is (i) one; (ii) holy; (iii) “catholic” and (iv) apostolic. Each mark is critical for establishing and maintaining “consistent” Christianity. Without preservation of a single, holy, universal, and apostolic church, geographic expansion would surely have had a more devastating and lasting impact on the gospel than it did. As it is, there were periods of amazing proliferation of Christianity as a natural companion to colonialization, but there were also periods of painful, heretical, and villainous actions. Let’s look at the key “marks” of the church.

One means there is one body (the Christian church) with Christ as its head. Grudem says, “The church is the community of all true believers for all time” (3). Christ holds all authority over the church. Paul wrote, “[A]nd he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:22-23, NRSV). Ephesians 2:19-20 says we’re fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus being the cornerstone. In this regard, the “church” is much more than the visible local church. As the Body of Christ, it must remain one regardless of dispensation or geographic disbursal. 

Holy means the church and its believers must be “set apart” and sanctified. Moreover, the church is holy because it is Jesus Christ, who teaches holiness. Grudem says, “The purity of the church is its degree of freedom from wrong doctrine and conduct, and its degree of conformity to God’s revealed will for the church” (4). The holy church must be separate from the world, but its unity requires freedom from divisions among the community of believers (the true Christians) as well. Its “holiness” is grounded in the need for proper doctrine, conscience, and considerations. This feature also helps identify “false” churches—which by definition are not a part of the Body of Christ. It’s through caution and humility that we preserve proper doctrine.

“Catholic” means it is universal. The Greek word for “catholic” (katholikos) means “throughout the whole” or “general.” The term “catholic” first showed up during the patristic era denoting universal. For example, “Wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church (Ign. Smyrn. 8:2)” (5). Harrison says when the term began appearing in the Apostle’s Creed (and earlier in the Nicene Creed), “one holy catholic and apostolic church” expressed a sense of universality; accenting the church’s unity despite its geographic dispersion. The term “catholic” can also apply to the New Testament epistles, indicating they were intended for the entire church and not just those to whom they were addressed. This is a critical point, given the fact that the Scriptures are alive and timeless. Further, Harrison indicates that in the face of numerous heresies during the Apostolic Era, the term “catholic” was equivalent to orthodox. Of course, during the Reformation “catholic” was used to delineate between the emerging Protestant church and the Roman Catholic Church.

Apostolic means the church was founded by Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:18). Jesus then delegated that authority to the church: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (28:19-20). Apostolic propriety has established key matters such as baptism, the Eucharist, authorship of the canonical Gospels, and acceptable key doctrines. The apostles founded churches and appointed their successors. This provided the means by which emphasis was on the context of the central gospel message. The apostolic feature of the church allowed for establishing its marks, purity, power, hierarchy of governance, grace, and unity.

In conclusion, it is my opinion that missions should not take precedence over the establishment of a universal church with a uniform set of core doctrines. Failure to grant preeminence to the marks of the church and its core doctrines would cause replication that would eventually lead to false churches.

Response from Austin, a Fellow Classmate

You mentioned that you “do not believe missions should take precedence over the establishment of a universal church with a uniform set of core doctrines.” Yes, I do agree we need core beliefs, but at the same time I feel there is urgency in sharing the Gospel with the unreached and that it should not be sacrificed. I could see a combination of missions and the formation of a universal church being the most important, but it’s hard to really specify which one has a great significance on Christianity. Do you think missions, or the formation of mission societies was a significant event during the nineteenth century, even if not the most significant?

My Rebuttal

Thanks for your feedback to my initial discussion post. We are closer in agreement than it might sound. The Great Commission is critical. It applies to the entire church. We are all responsible for bringing the gospel with us wherever we go; whatever our vocation. Rather than say a “universal” church is somehow more important than missions probably fails to accurately express what I meant. These two aspects of the church are “nearly” equal in importance. I give more importance to first establishing a church that displays all the marks: one, holy, universal (“catholic”) and apostolic. A sort-of prerequisite to missions. Like taking a course on “fundamental Christian principles” first, and then moving on to an advanced course on deeper issues of doctrine. I addressed this issue to an extent in Church History I (Session 5) when answering the prompt about benefits of the Reformation versus the evangelical benefits of colonial expansion: i.e., which of these two has contributed the most to the course of Christianity?

At that time, I said the Reformation yielded more positive results than colonization (“expansion” or “globalization”). I took that position for the same reason I bring to this week’s discussion. The church is commanded to go forth into every nation, spreading the Good News—teaching and baptizing, making disciples of men for further proliferation of the gospel. Colonialism  includes explorers, travelers, merchants, and missionaries (who bring their religion with them). But “good” Evangelism (one of Christianity’s most sacred and clearly established responsibilities) must be well-grounded in an accepted and uniform set of principles. Granted, Christianity has fractured into numerous denominations, which is why I believe it is paramount that the church had to first settle on a centralized or universal set of doctrines prior to setting out to share the gospel. 

Consider the deeper intellectual revolution Gonzalez (2010, 304) speaks about. The philosophy of thinking (epistemology) was drastically impacted by the Renaissance. One side-effect of the Industrial Revolution was a focus almost exclusively on empirical evidence as the best means for gaining knowledge. Nationalism took hold and led to changes in government models and the social order. In the face of all these changes, the church remained present, cutting across “national boundaries, class distinctions, and political allegiances” (6). Gonzalez said that for the first time in history a “truly universal church had been born” (7).

Gonzalez also noted, “[F]rom the perspective of the twenty-first century it would appear that the most important event in the history of Christianity in the nineteenth and twentieth century was that [Christianity] moved beyond its traditional [geographical?] confines within Western civilization and became a truly universal faith(8) (italics mine). Given the fact that secularism, pluralism, and moral relativism was impacting philosophy and theology, Christendom fell on leaner times, thereby setting up the post-Christian society we see today. It is critical that Christianity have a uniform set of core beliefs and a sense of universality before there can be any accurate and efficacious proliferation of the message. 

The universality of the Christian church is extremely important. Arguably, this has not created “flawless” adherence to uniform doctrine throughout the world, but “universal faith” has created a solid foundation from which to preach, teach, disciple, and baptize people that holds true to the nuts-and-bolts of Jesus’ instructions to the church just prior to His ascension.

Footnotes

(1) Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. II (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 301-02.
(2) Gonzalez, 302.
(3) Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 853.
(4) Grudem, 873.
(5) E.F. Harrison, “Catholic,” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 3rd ed., edited by D.J. Treier and W.A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 163.
(6) Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. II (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 312.
(7) Gonzalez, 314.
(8) Gonzalez, 316.

The Choice to “End it All.”

Suicide Definition Graphic

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

IT WAS FOUR IN the afternoon. I was driving along the river in my home town. It was the fourth decade of my struggle with active addiction. Overwhelmed with thoughts of utter failure, rabid hypocrisy and complete hopelessness, I started ruminating about the idea of suicide. Why not? It made sense. I was in bondage to drugs and had grown tired of living a life so out of touch with my Christian upbringing. Seems I could not stop lying, cheating, stealing. Doing whatever it took to keep getting high. Duplicity was the word that most described my existence. I’d grown weary of living on the down-low. I was defeated, exhausted and tired of failing.

I turned into an area boat launch and stopped about fifty yards from the edge of the water. I closed my eyes and took my foot off the brake. I’d barely touched the accelerator when I heard an audible voice. It filled the cabin of my car: Don’t. I jammed the brake pedal to the floor and gripped the steering wheel in a panic. I must be losing my mind! There was no one else in the car. The radio was off. Yet, somehow, I heard a voice that seemed to fill the interior of my car. I could feel the voice, insistent but not loud. No sense of anger or disappointment. It was simply an audible, gentle, compassionate insistence.

Don’t end your life!

It’s been said that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Perhaps if some in-between state existed—some alternative to death—many suicidal people would take it. One question every surviving family member has asked without exception, that they ache to have answered more than any other, is simple: Why? Why did their friend, child, parent, spouse, or sibling take their own life? Even when a note is left behind, it still never makes sense. Yes, they felt enough despair to want to take their own life, but Why did they feel that way? Alex Lickerman, MD said, “People who’ve survived suicide attempts have reported wanting not so much to die as to stop living, a strange dichotomy, but a valid one nevertheless” (1).

A friend of mine took his own life in 1996. We met a few years earlier as co-workers at a Philadelphia law firm. We were both on staff as litigation  paralegals. He had recently started a new career trading stocks. Apparently, he was under investigation by the SEC for insider trading. His wife kicked him out and filed for divorce. He moved in with his parents and had become quite depressed and withdrawn. He stayed home from work on a Tuesday. After his parents left the house, he took his father’s .357 handgun and drove to his wife’s place. When she answered his knock, he shot himself on the stoop in front of her. I always knew him to be outgoing, hilarious, and always up for a good time. His death made no sense to me.

Unfortunately, suicide without warning is common. Patrick J. Skerrett quoted Dr. Michael Miller, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, in a recent article on suicide: “Many people who commit suicide do so without letting on they are thinking about it or planning it” (2). Currently, suicide is the tenth overall cause of death in the United States. In 2018 there were 48,334 suicide deaths in America. Had I not heard God’s voice that afternoon in 2018, the total would have been 48,335. There were an estimated 1.4 million suicide attempts in the U.S. in 2018. The rate of suicide is highest in middle-age white men in particular. It was the second leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 10 and 34. On average, there are 132 suicides per day. In 2018, firearms accounted for 50.57% of all suicide deaths in America (3).

America’s suicide rate has increased for 13 years in a row.—The Economist

According to the National Vital Statistics Report, suicide was the second leading cause of death for age groups 10 to 24, or 19.2% of deaths, and 25 to 44, or 10.9%. This report presents final 2017 data on leading causes of death in the United States by age, sex, race, and Hispanic origin. These data accompany the release of final national mortality statistics for 2017 (4). In 2017, the 10 leading causes of death were, in rank order: heart disease; malignant neoplasms; accidents (unintentional injuries); chronic lower respiratory diseases; cerebrovascular diseases; Alzheimer disease; diabetes mellitus; influenza and pneumonia; nephritis, nephrotic syndrome and nephrosis; and intentional self-harm (suicide).

Suicidal Ideation and Social Media

Various social media platforms offer an unprecedented volume, velocity, and variety of social data to researchers. Among these, the most consistently studied is Twitter, a microblogging platform in which participants broadcast 140-character posts directly to one another or to the Twitter community simultaneously. Twitter’s sociological and psychological relevance for researchers and treatment providers is elevated due to ease of accessibility to data, the fact that most data collection activities can be undertaken at no cost to the researcher, and the ease of data management. For example, because Twitter limits individual posts to 140 characters, the information is more easily stored and reviewed than longer Facebook posts.

Facebook Suicide Prevention webpage can be found at www.facebook.com/help/594991777257121/ [use the search term “suicide” or “suicide prevention”].

As with a variety of social media platforms, Twitter has been a boon to suicide researchers, who can observe the behavior of individuals in a non-invasive manner, collecting “live” (time-sensitive) information that might not otherwise be shared because of the stigma of mental illness and suicide. One researcher was able to analyze 125 users who publicly announced they had attempted suicide. Analysis of these individuals’ posting history revealed distinct signals in previous posts that could have been used to predict their upcoming attempts and initiate an intervention (5). This is a relatively large sample that otherwise might have been overlooked.

Strong correlations have been discovered between suicidal expressions on Twitter and state-specified age-adjusted suicide rates. It is believed that posting suicide-related content on social media specifically identifies at-risk individuals. In fact, unique posting patterns have been posthumously discovered for Twitter members who died by suicide when compared to those who died of other causes (6). Such results demonstrate the value of verbal content people post on social media sites—providing unique insight into suicidal behavior.

Twitter’s Best Practices in Dealing With Self-Harm and Suicide at https://support.twitter.com [use the search term “suicide,” “self-harm,” or “suicide prevention”].

Psychologists and sociologists have begun to analyze social media data—correlating the content of social media posts regarding the topic of suicide with eventual suicides or attempts. Analysis has proven most useful in this regard. It must be determined whether suicidal behavior can be correlated to online comments among peers beyond one degree of social separation. Also, it must be determined whether that correlation persists after excluding innocuous commentary regarding mood and attitude. In other words, if mood is held to a constant in the analysis, will the observed association in suicide-related behavior still be higher than chance? Recent research has determined that comments on social media relative to suicidal expressions can be studied and correlated  up to three degrees of separation between peers, but no further. 

N.A. Christakis and J.H. Fowler (7) noted that correlation held between suicidal remarks and suicidal actions even when accounting for the distribution of mood among participants in the social media network. They used the bootstrapping method (employing computer-intensive analysis of  variability within their data samples) to study real-time posting activity on Twitter. Their samples were comprised of two non-consecutive 28-day periods. Mechanical Turk (MTurk; Amazon, 2016) raters have compiled suicide-relatedness ratings for each of the 10,222 most common words in contemporary English for use in evaluating social media posts for occurrence of “suicidal conversation.” These words are correlated with a preexisting list of “sad” words (as they relate to the sad/happy continuum) used to infer the general mood of social media users. Collection and analysis was conducted via double-blind method for accuracy and to allow for detecting statistical variation and spurious correlation.

Some variants of “sad/happy” word expressions that may or may not be associated with suicidal ideation include “I’m so sad! I’m gonna kill myself!” “I’m the worst! LOL!” “My final day on earth…” “Just got in a fight…” “It’s a sad day.” “I love my life!” Analysis included placing “sad,” “happy,” and “suicidal” words into columns on a graph and quantifying the number of uses of such words or phrases. Also, degrees of separation (direct friend versus once, twice, thrice removed) were determined at one through six degrees: friend, friend of friend, friend of friend of friend, and so on. The Sad Column, Happy Column and statistically relevant variables were each plotted along the graph comparing “mood” and “suicide-relatedness” comments. Amazingly, this study may be the first of its kind, and involved collection and analysis of over 64 million post from over 17 million unique social media users in two nonconsecutive 28-day periods. Analysis of this real-time data helped predict (by an algorithm) the information collected, which typically has infinite possibilities of correlative meaning.

You might ask, But why is this important? What does it mean? How can it be utilized? Suppose a counselor is concerned with the suicide risk of students in a high school where a fellow student recently took her own life. To get the best data in the shortest amount of time, the counselor would do the following:

  1. Ask a teacher for a list of the decedent’s closest friends and screen them;
  2. Ask any friends on that list to name their closest friends and screen those friends;
  3. Ask any friends from the new group to name closest friend and screen them, and so on; and
  4. Once there are no more positives in a friend group, screen students at random until a positive is found and begin the procedure again until the resources run out (i.e., there are no more students in the population).

Although the above process will provide an  initial “hint” of an assortativity-informed treatment approach, additional research would be necessary before beginning any efficacious intervention. Researchers warn that no offline behavior was included in their study, and therefore was not available for comparison.

Co-occurring Issues and Suicide

Suicide is a major public health problem and a leading cause of death in the United States. Everyone who chooses to attempt suicide has an underlying reason for wanting to do so. Suicide does not discriminate—people of all genders, ages, religious faiths, and ethnic groups can be at risk. Most people at risk will not follow through. Still, assessing the risk for suicidal behavior is complicated. Researchers tell us that people who attempt suicide may do so in reaction to a particular event, thought, or emotion. These individuals make decisions differently than those who do not attempt suicide. Such factors for increased risk are depression, anxiety, personality disorders, psychosis, severe bullying, rape or trauma, and substance abuse. 

Suicidal acts may be connected to recent events or current conditions in a person’s life. Although such factors may not be the primary motivation for the suicide, they can precipitate it as underlying or co-morbid triggers. A major underlying cause of suicide has been combat stress and other related PTSD issues. People in this at-risk category do not necessarily have to experience the horrors of a war zone. Other types of immediate stress include natural disasters, terrorism at home, or catastrophic loss from such events as a structure fire or a serious motor vehicle accident.

People suffering from chronic pain, severe disability, or a major illness may attempt suicide, believing their suffering is too great or that their death is inevitable. Victims of an abusive or repressive environment from which they have little or no hope of escape sometimes commit suicide. Situations that fit this category may include torture, confinement, sexual assault, or persistent physical abuse. Also, occupational stress has been indicated in some suicides due to extreme tension, anxiety, disillusion or “burnout,” and job-related financial pressures.

Cyberbullying, Substance Use Disorder

In addition to the above precipitating factors, many suicide attempts are preceded by a severe change in mood that do not correlate to an underlying psychiatric diagnosis. Mood changes most likely to lead to suicide often include extreme sadness, unresolved anxiety, frustration, anger, or shame. Unfortunately, the number of teens and young adults who take their own lives has increased due to bullying at school or on social media sites. Nearly 1 in 5 students (21%) report being bullied during the school year, impacting over 5 million youth annually. See National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2018. 

There has been a spike in cyberbullying over the last couple of years. This is willful and repeated bullying behavior that takes place using electronic technology, including texting, comments during gaming, Internet sites, social media, emails, blogs, cell phones, and so on. Unlike traditional bullying it can happen anywhere at all hours of the day. Approximately 34% of students report experiencing cyberbullying during their lifetime. See Hinduja & Patchin, 2015. Students who experienced bullying are nearly 2 times more likely to attempt suicide. See Hinduja & Patchin, 2018.

Worldwide, more than 1 million people die by suicide every year. Self-harm deaths have been on the rise in nearly every state in America. In the U.S., suicide deaths (47,173) were almost equivalent to the number of deaths from opioid overdoses (47,600) in 2017. It is essential that suicide prevention practices be implemented and expanded wherever possible (8). Opioid Use Disorder (OUD) has a distinctly strong relationship with suicide as compared with other substance use disorders (9). Pain causes alterations in brain circuitry in the brain’s reward center (involving the ventral tegmental area, nucleus accumbens, and the amygdala), resulting in vulnerability to suicide and a higher risk of opioid addiction. This is supported by epidemiological data that have shown chronic-pain diagnoses are linked to suicide. These associations are only partially explained by co-occurring mental health conditions, which tend to further complicate morbidity.

Tolerance to THC can build quickly in cannabis users. Teens who seek help for cannabis-use problems often report withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, insomnia, appetite disturbance and depression (Budney & Hughes, 2006). These symptoms are of sufficient severity to impair everyday functioning (Allsop et al., 2012) and they are markedly attenuated by doses of an oral cannabis extract (Sativex) that contains THC (Allsop et al., 2014). Bagge and Borges (2015) conducted a case-crossover study of 363 persons who had recently attempted suicide and were treated in a trauma hospital for a suicide attempt within the previous 24 hours in Mississippi. The researchers compared rates of cannabis use in the 24-hour period leading up to the individual’s suicide (case period) to individuals who used cannabis during the same time period but did not commit suicide (control period). They found that 10.2% of those who attempted suicide had used cannabis within 24 hours of their suicide.

Cannabis was involved in an estimated 6.5% of drug-related suicide attempts, and in 46% of attempts the person had also used alcohol. In the 23% of drug-related suicide attempts with toxicology reports, 16.8% tested positive for cannabis, although this cannabis use could have occurred days or even up to one week earlier. In general, 9.5% of all toxicology reports for deaths by suicide (Borges, Bagge & Orozco, 2016) show the presence of cannabis. There is preliminary evidence of higher detection of cannabis among suicide decedents that do not involve overdose (CDC, 2006) and higher detection among male suicide decedents using non-overdose methods than among females (Darke, Duflou & Torok, 2009; Shields et al., 2006).

So Now What?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released data on the ten leading causes of death in the United States recently. Tragically, suicide—too often a consequence of untreated mental illness and substance use disorders, and as such a preventable condition—remains on that list as the 10th leading cause of death for adults and the second-leading cause of death in our youth. Suicide rates increased from 29,199 deaths in 1996 to 47,173 deaths in 2017. Click here for more information.

What are the contributing factors to a state of mind that ends in a person taking his or her life? What can be done to intervene? How can we turn the numbers around? The increased number of suicides year after year say something about the conditions under which people live and die, and about our society at large. Our teens and young adults are deciding in record numbers that killing themselves is the best solution to what is usually a temporary situation. Citizens at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale are significantly more vulnerable due to negative views about life and an increased amount of psychological and social difficulties. Many of these conditions are not diagnosed in time or go untreated. Many are turning to substance abuse to cope, which often increases the risk of self-harm behavior. This speaks to an environment that can promote depression, anxiety, and elevation in substance use disorder. Some sociologists have referred to these suicides as “deaths of despair.”

There are a number of interventions we can apply to these dire circumstances:

  • Safety Planning. Personalized safety planning has been shown to help reduce suicidal thoughts and actions. Patients work with a caregiver to develop a plan that describes ways to limit access to lethal means such as firearms, pills, or poisons. The plan lists coping strategies and people and resources that can help in a crisis.
  • Follow-up phone calls. Research has shown that when at-risk individuals receive proper screening, implementation of a Safety Plan, and a series of supportive phone  calls, their risk of suicide goes down.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can help people learn new ways of dealing with stressful experiences through training. CBT helps individuals recognize their thought pattersn and consider alternative actions when thoughts of suicide arise.
  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) has been shown to reduce suicidal behavior in adolescents. DBT has also been effective in reducing the rate of suicide in adults with Borderline Personality Disorder or related personality disorders. These mental illnesses are typically characterized by an ongoing pattern of varying moods, self-image, harmful or risky behavior, and impulsive actions. A therapist trained in DBT helps a person recognize when his or her feelings or actions are disruptive or unhealthy, and teaches the skills needed to deal better with upsetting situations.

If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide, please reach out to someone before the fog of desperation clouds your mind. If you have a friend or loved one who has expressed an intent to take their own life, do not dismiss it as a cry for attention—instead, it is a cry for help. If you are interested in becoming a volunteer or mental health professional and want to be a part of the solution for this national epidemic, please talk to a teacher, professor, mental health professional, pastor, or mentor to find out how to get started.

NATIONAL SUICIDE PREVENTION HOTLINE
1(800) 273-8255

Footnotes

(1) Alex Lickerman, M.D. (April 29, 2010). “The Six Reasons People Attempt Suicide.” Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/happiness-in-world/201004/the-six-reasons-people-attempt-suicide

(2) Patrick J. Skerrett (Sept. 24, 2012). “Suicide Often Not Preceded by Warnings.” Harvard Health Publishing.

(3) “Suicide Statistics.” American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. https://afsp.org/about-suicide/suicide-statistics/

(4) Melonie Heron, Ph.D., (June 24, 2018). “Deaths: Leading Causes for 2017.” National Vital Statistics Reports, Vol. 68, No. 6. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr68/nvsr68_06-508.pdf

(5) Wood, A., Shiffman, J., Leary, R., and Coppersmith, G. (2016). “Language Signals Preceding Suicide Attempts.” CHI 2016 Computing and Mental Health, San Jose, CA.

(6) Bryan, C.J., Butner, J.E., Sinclair, S., et al. (2018). “Predictors of  Emerging Suicide Death Among Military Personnel on Social Media Networks.” Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 48, 413-430. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/sltb.12370

(7) Christakis, N.A., and Fowler, J.H. (2013). “Social Contagion Theory: Examining Dynamic Social Networks and Human Behavior.” Statistics in Medicine, 32, 556-577. http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/sim.5408

(8) https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcjq.2019.10.001

(9) Bohnert KM, Ilgen MA, Louzon S, McCarthy JF, Katz IR. Substance use disorders and the risk of suicide mortality among men and women in the U.S. Veterans Health Administration. Addiction 2017; 112:11931201.

 

 

The Prodigal Son (God’s Reckless Love)

“And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet… for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to make merry” (Luke 15:21-22, 24, NRSV).

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

IT’S NO SECRET THAT there are many ways to read, study, and interpret literature. Such investigation and analysis is called exegesis. It involves the careful historical, literary, and theological analysis of a text. Some call this “scholarly reading,” which I’ve learned to apply to my graduate studies in theology. Exegesis is described as reading in a way that ascertains the crux of a text; a type of “close reading,” deliberate, word-by-word and phrase-by-phrase, considering all the parts for a better understand of the text or verse as a whole.

There are three major approaches to exegesis: (1) the synchronic approach (meaning “within time” or “same time”), which can be considered a narrative-critical, social-scientific, or socio-rhetorical analysis; (3) the diachronic approach (meaning “across time,” focusing on origin and development and the “long view,” which is essentially an historical-critical analysis; and (3) the existential approach (something to be “engaged with,” looking at the reality beyond the text, “spiritual” truth beyond the “literal” truth). I will be using the existential method to analyze the story of the prodigal son. Please note this does not imply any connection to the philosophy of existentialism associated with Jean-Paul Sartre and Soren Kierkegaard. Rather, existential exegesis is theological and transformative; it is done in the context of a specific religious tradition or theological purpose.

The parable of the prodigal son is one of the most well-known stories of Jesus. Although many pastors, teachers, and biblical scholars refer to it as the story of the prodigal son, the word prodigal does not appear in the Bible. The son is best characterized as lost, emphasizing that all sinners are lost or alienated from God. To characterize him as “prodigal” casts too much emphasis on wayward lifestyle. If we limit our analysis of the prodigal son to his wanton worldly behavior, we will miss the point of the story. It is in fact more akin to the tale of the lost sheep. This story is meant to demonstrate that we  do not have to stay in our hopeless state. Moreover, it is an example of Scripture imitating life, in that it shows us what repentance means: turning away from sin and back toward the Father; doing a 180 as they call it.

Eugene Peterson puts the story of the prodigal son under the heading The Story of the Lost Son in his translation The Message. This parable shows the nature of repentance, and, more importantly, the joy and the willingness of God to welcome and restore all who return to Him. It shows us the riches of the gospel and its efficacy to overcome any form of sin. Matthew Henry draws a unique parallel between our heavenly Father and the prodigal’s earthy father. He says, “It is bad, and the beginning of worse, when men look upon God’s gifts as debts due to them” (1). Scripture tells us to not seek the wealth of this world. Jesus said, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt. 6:19-21).

Matthew Henry draws a parallel between the prodigal son and our First Parents. Their foolish ambition to be independent from the Father is at the bottom of every sinner persisting in sin and autonomy. The First Sin relates to man’s departure from God, toward a willful reliance on his own thoughts and valuations rather than ascribing to God’s. We see from the prodigal son that his desire to be free from his father led to a vile, hedonistic, slavish state of being. When we walk in the flesh (fulfilling its every desire) we become the devil’s servant. Walking according to fleshly desires and instincts invariably leads to a state of constant discontent. This is what it means to be a lost sheep, wandering the face of the earth in search of constant gratification, separated from God.

Exegetical Analysis

The parable of the prodigal son reveals two distinct issues: one literary, the other theological. From a literary perspective, the story revolves around two brothers: one younger, the other older. This does not indicate two separate stories, but two parts that compliment one another. Because of this focus on two brothers, it is helpful to analyze this parable from both an existential and historical/sociopolitical perspective. Historically, the “share of the estate” that the younger son would receive on the death of his father would be one-third. Culture during those times dictated that the older son would receive two-thirds, often referred to as a “double portion,” and the second son would receive the remaining one-third (see Deut. 21:17). When the property “was divided” in the story of the prodigal son, the older son was made aware of his share of the father’s assets prior to his father’s death. This was unusual in the prevailing society.

From a sociopolitical perspective, when the prodigal son asked for his portion of the inheritance, it’s as if he wished his father dead! New Testament scholar Kenneth Bailey (2), who spent over 15 years in the Middle East, asked a number of people there what it meant for a son to request his inheritance while the father was still alive and well. The answer was always the same: the son wanted his father dead. In that culture, a father was expected to have complete control over his property during his lifetime, so the request of the prodigal son was quite offensive. The father’s willingness to comply with his son’s request was generous beyond all expectations. In addition, the older son in such cases was typically expected to step in and help the father save face with anyone attacking his estate. This does not happen in the parable of the prodigal son; neither son lived up to what was expected.

The wasting of all the son had while “in a foreign land” is culturally understood as acting against the family, whose inheritance can be traced back to the promises of God to Abraham. The famine made employment and food quite hard to get. The “distant country” was likely outside strictly Jewish territory. It is no coincidence that the son also ended up with the demeaning job of feeding pigs—these are unclean animals for the Jews. He had fallen so low that “no one gave him anything,” which indicates a state of complete destitution and neglect.

From a theological perspective, it is important to note there were 100 sheep (15:4), 10 coins (15:8), and 2 sons. One is lost from each number. The sheep and coin were sought after diligently until they were recovered. However, the lost son was not sought after. He was personally responsible for his coming back home. His rebellion was deliberate and “of the heart,” meaning only a change of heart would suffice for his restoration. This is extremely important from a theological perspective. It is one thing to “know” in your head what is right and what is wrong, but it is a different matter to make a heart-felt decision to change one’s behavior, one’s path—to “do a 180” as I said earlier. This was quite true regarding my wandering in the wilderness for decades in active addiction, making choices that belied morality. I never considered this crucial element in the prodigal son’s restoration before now.

The lost son’s behavior is deemed “riotous living” (15:13). The Greek word is asotos, which translates “living ruinously.” It is properly interpreted as meaning “unsavedness” or, by implication, profligacy, suggesting excess or riot. It is from the root asôtia, referring to being “not savable; incorrigible, dissolute, beyond hope.” It also implies debauchery or drunkenness (see Eph. 5:18). Of course, theologically speaking, the lost son “came to himself” (Luke 15:17). His condition brought him to his senses and he realized how his riotous life would end. Further, he considered his current predicament as being worse than his father’s hired servants, who had bread enough to spare (15:17). He decided he would return to his father’s house and ask his forgiveness.

The prodigal son showed true repentance—confession of sin, genuine sorrow, and humility. The Greek word for repentance in this verse is metanoeo, meaning “to change one’s mind for the better” (see Luke 13:3). This is more than forsaking sin; it involves a complete change in one’s attitude and orientation toward all sinful behavior. In fact, it is this degree of repentance God expects from us as a condition for receiving His forgiveness and grace. The prodigal son demonstrated complete humility. He said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son” (15:21). 

The motivation for the son’s return was hunger, but theologically it was to his “father” that he wanted to return; not to the dinner table. The words “against heaven” (15:21) can mean “to heaven,” indicating he believed his sins were so many as to reach the Heavenly Father—perhaps he believed his sins were ultimately against God. The Jews were aware of Yahweh’s “fatherly” love. Psalm 103:13 says, “As a father pities his children, so the LORD pities those who fear him.” The son knew he had no right to return “as a son.” He imagined saying to his father, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants” (15:19). In other words, he planned to earn his room and board when he returned home.

The Lost Has Been Found!

“When he was still a long way off, his father saw him. His heart pounding, he ran out, embraced him, and kissed him. The son started his speech: ‘Father, I have sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son ever again.’ But the father wasn’t listening. He was calling to the servants, ‘Quick. Bring a clean set of clothes and dress him. Put the family ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Then get a grain-fed heifer and roast it. We’re going to feast! We’re going to have a wonderful time! My son is here—given up for dead and now alive! Given up for lost and now found! And they began to have a wonderful time” (15:20-24, MSG).

What does this parable tell us? We’ve looked at several specific words and phrases (lexical items), such as “loose living” (15:13), “came to himself” (15:17), and repentance (15:21; 13:3). Looking at these words and phrases as they appear in utterances, verses, stanzas, and the text as a whole, we see the “completeness” of this story. This great parable speaks of true repentance and the complete joy a father has for a penitent son. Jesus addressed the “murmurings” of the Pharisees early in the story, saying “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing” (15:4-5). He then drove the point home: “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (15:7).

The details in this story are vivid and moving. Further, they accurately reflect actual customs and legal procedures of the relevant time period. The older son is much like the Pharisees. He could not comprehend the meaning of true forgiveness. In fact, the viewpoints of the two sons are diametrically opposed. The lost son rises and returns; the older son turns and walks away from his father in disgust, falling in moral stature. The central figure, the father, remains constant in his unconditional love for both sons regardless of their behavior or their attitude. Jesus identifies himself with God in his loving attitude toward the lost. He represents God’s perspective during his entire ministry on earth. This parable is one of the greatest examples of God’s willingness to forgive and to accept the return of every lost son or daughter. 

Concluding Remarks

Who are you in this parable? Are you the lost son, a Pharisee, a servant? Are you the older son who was bitter and jealous over the father’s forgiveness and blessing of the younger son who repented and returned home? Are you able to rejoice when a lost sheep is found, or are you taken captive by a righteous indignation, saying, “Why do you lavish him so? He disrespected and disowned you! I’ve been here all along. Where is my adoration?”

Family dynamics is rather fascinating. Even in the family of an addict or alcoholic we can see various roles played out: the Scapegoat (the one blamed for every wrong and ill within the family, sometimes the addict); the Punisher (often a sibling who has “always been there” for the family, and who doles out “consequences” on the addict or protects the family from the addict); the Enabler (usually a member who covers for the addict, trying to smooth things over or restore peace and order in the family, giving him or her enough rope to maybe change one day); the Hero (usually a Type-A personality who is hard-working, overachieving, a perfectionist, who is trying to create a degree of normalcy in the family); the Masot (often the funny, outgoing, class clown of the family always trying to quell the stress of the situation by supplying humor); and the Lost Child (often the middle or youngest child, shy, withdrawn, usually hates confrontation, and has difficulty with establishing outside relationships).

The parable of the prodigal son provides a wealth of theological meaning and puts an historical and sociopolitical spin on the nature of family dynamics during the era when this story was told. It can serve as an in-depth analysis of dysfunctional families today, showing us how easily we can resent the success of others; acceptance of a rebellious, riotous son or daughter who is welcomed back into the fold; righteous indignation by others in the family when a wayward son or daughter returns. It is not easy to forgive others who have harmed us or our loved ones. Thankfully, the parable of the prodigal son can serve to broaden our horizons regarding true repentance, unconditional love, and forgiveness. This is, after all, the point of the gospel itself.

Footnotes

(1) Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1997), 962.
(2) Jirair Tashjian, “Inheritance Practices in the First Century,” The Voice, Christian Resource Institute (2018). URL: http://www.crivoice.org/inheritance.html

Romans 8:28

“We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28, NRSV).

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy.

WE CANNOT UNDERTAKE ANALYSIS of a Scripture passage without saying something about exegesis.  This process amounts to careful historical, literary, and theological analysis of a text. Exegesis has been called by some as scholarly reading, which means reading in a way that determines the essence of the text through the most complete, systematic notation possible, examining the phenomena of the text and grappling with the reasons that speak for or against a specific understanding of it. Another appropriate description of exegesis is “close reading,” a term borrowed from literature. Close reading means the deliberate, word-by-word or phrase-by-phrase consideration of all parts of a text in order to understand it as a whole.

I find several biblical commentaries to be helpful in unpacking the exegetical meaning of Scripture. In particular, I speak highly of Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, edited by Tremper  Longman and David E. Garland,  and Zondervan Bible Commentary, edited by F.F. Bruce. I also frequently use The New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV), and The Interlinear NIV Parallel New Testament in Greek and English, translated by Alfred Marshall. I often refer to the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, edited by Daniel J. Treier and Walter Elwell. Reference texts like these can be quite useful when examining a passage of Scripture.

Exposition

Paul introduces yet another benefit of life in the Spirit. He writes, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28, NRSV). Some of the ancient authorities read, God makes all things work together for good, or in all things God works for good. Matthew Henry writes, “That is good for the saints which does their souls good. Every providence tends to the spiritual good of those that love God” (1). Henry believes this passage means God uses all circumstances to aid in breaking us off from sin, bringing us nearer to Him, weaning us from the world. He adds, “When the saints act out of character, corrections will be employed to bring them back again” (2). Romans 8:28 brings comfort, direction, and hope to Christians every day. 

This verse contains a promise for believers. Paul is telling us that those of us who love God and are doing our best to obey his commands will come out on top even when bad or wicking things touch our lives. God will always use whatever happens to His chosen to ultimately bring about good. There is obviously nothing good about cancer, sex trafficking, addiction, or death. Such evils exist in the world, and will remain so until Jesus returns to conquer Satan and restore creation to its intended purpose. Romans 8:28 serves to remind us that although sin and Satan are powerful forces on earth , God is more powerful. He is able to redeem and restore any situation, and He will continue to do so until Christ returns in all His glory.

It is not likely Paul literally meant “all things.” This would be rather general, including any and all situations anywhere and everywhere on earth no matter who is involved or affected. He is instead referring specifically to those things that are generally considered adverse and are turned around and used for good; i.e., for accomplishing God’s will for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. This fits nicely with Romans 5:3-5: “More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.” Indeed, no matter what we face God is there, working all things out in such a manner that it will ultimately bring about His will for us.

Certainly, we don’t like to fall victim to adverse circumstances. We want God to rescue us from bad situations. Why should a pastor and his family die in a head-on car crash with a drunk driver? Why did Nabeel Qureshi, after converting from Islam to Christianity and joining Ravi Zacharias in a global effort of evangelism and apologetics, die of stomach cancer? Why are churches wiped off the face of the earth by tornadoes? Perhaps the answer is hidden in a remark a Christian said to me nearly two years ago when I was still struggling in active addiction and facing some serious challenges. He said, “God wants you to know that everything you’ve gone through from the time of your birth to this moment right now was ordained by Him to help make you into the man He needs you to be in order to fulfill His purpose.” Whoa! That’s pretty heavy.

Romans 8:29 says, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren.” This is a companion verse to the promise in verse 28. God allows everything into our lives for one of two purposes—either to bring us into a relationship with Himself or, if we already know Him, to make us more like Jesus Christ.

Some biblical scholars consider Romans 8:28-29 the “the golden chain of salvation.” It is important to read Romans 8 to the end. Paul says, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” God did not spare His only Son; rather, He sent Christ to be a propitiation for our sins. Jesus paid the wages of sin and destroyed Satan’s authority over the believer. Paul said, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies; who is to condemn? Is it Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us?” This verse can be interpreted as saying, Shall Christ who has died so that we might live thereafter condemn us? Or, by inference, does Jesus bring about calamity in our lives? Does He put a snare before us that prevents our circumstances from turning out for good in the end? No! Instead, Jesus is constantly interceding on our behalf before the Father (8:34).

The Hidden Will of God

The hidden will of God (His decretive will) includes all He has ordained through every event in history, including the thoughts and hidden intentions of every person. It is critical to realize that, although God works out everything according to the counsel of His sovereign will (see Eph. 1:11), not everything God ordains in His hidden will is pleasing to Him. God’s decretive will is defined as the sovereign, efficacious will by which He brings to pass whatever He pleases by His divine decree. God’s decretive will can have no other effect or consequence than what He commands. He did not request the light to shine in the universe. Neither did He coax, cajole, or woo it into existence. It was a matter of His absolute authority and power through decree. No creature, including man, enjoys this power of will.

As finite beings, we cannot know  or comprehend the hidden will of God. We can only look back in history and know only part of what God’s hidden will was for any particular situation. God’s decretive will always come to pass. Whatever happens has been ordained by God to bring about His sovereign will. As Christians, we are not permitted to know (nor should we seek to know) the hidden will of God. Instead, we must live by what has been revealed in Scripture, trusting that regardless of the circumstances God will bring about good. Rather than causing anxiety about what will happen, we need to take comfort in Paul’s words. Because Christ intercedes on our behalf in every instance, we can enjoy true shalom. God protects us from annihilation no matter what happens in our daily lives (Phil. 4:6-8).

Believers can also rest in the knowledge that God is and will always be as He has revealed Himself in His Word. He is unchanging (Heb. 13:5-6). Christ alone is sufficient for meeting our every need (Phil. 4:13). He is our Rock of Refuge (Psa. 18:2); our very present helper in time of need (Psa. 46:1). God’s hidden will is never meant to be punitive; rather, it testifies to His infinite goodness, mercy, and grace. We can rest in the knowledge that God’s communicable attributes—wisdom, goodness, love, mercy, holiness, righteousness, and justice—are at the root of His will for us and his love for all mankind. God always exercises His power according to His wisdom and knowledge. He sees all time at the same time, allowing Him to know what happened, what is happening now, and what will happen in the future all at once! His wisdom and knowledge are inseparable from His goodness, love, and mercy. He is good toward all He has made. His attributes are identical with His essence.

Martin Luther expounded upon Romans 8:28 in his Commentary on Romans. He wrote, “We must not be surprised that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us, since He works together with God’s saints in all they do… He works together with us all things” (3). Luther remarked that God makes all things work for good even though they are evil (in themselves, e.g., sickness, persecution, etc.). There is an underlying suggestion in this Scripture passage that such predestination for good does not apply to those who walk in the wisdom of the flesh and are not called according to the purpose of God. Luther notes that Paul’s use of purpose in Romans 8 means God’s predestination, or His free election, to use whatever happens to further His will.

Regarding Predestination in Romans 8:29

It is critical that we understand the scope of predestination as it is used in this passage. There is much debate between the early Reformers as to whether God chooses to save “only a certain person or persons,” thereby condemning all others to damnation. I believe God preordained the redemptive plan, not who will live and who will die. In any event, “predestination” in Romans 8:29 has a broader scope than identifying those who will receive salvation. The backdrop is “adoption.” It refers to our sharing in the suffering of Christ, and our ongoing sanctification. As we shared in His suffering and death, so also shall we share in His resurrection and new life. As children of the Father, and brothers and sisters of the Son, we enjoy the benefit of God’s will working through whatever circumstance we might face.

Accordingly, Paul assures us that we are more than conquerors through Christ who strengthens us. Therefore, neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (8:38-39). God works everything God for good for those who love him, and who are called according to his purpose. Praise God!

(1) Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nahsville: Thomas Nelson, 1997), 1080.

(2) Henry, 1080.

(3) Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans, J. Theodore Mueller, editor (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1954).