The Devoutness of Islam

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theology

NO DOUBT THE ABOVE TITLE strikes you as a bit odd coming from a Christian theology blogger. Please know that I believe Islam to be a false religion; that there is only one God, in three persons, and that Jesus Christ is wholly God and wholly man. I steadfastly trust the inerrancy of the Bible. I wholeheartedly believe in the virgin birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. I strive to study and adhere to the doctrines of Christianity.* However, I am most assuredly impressed by the unfailing loyalty and discipline of Muslims to the faith—devotion to daily prayers and to memorizing the Qu’ran. There is much correlation between Islam and Old Testament Judaism relative to devout reverence. In each of these faiths ceremonial observance of laws is regarded as superior to heart-felt faith.

“I lay prostrate in a large Muslim prayer hall, broken before God. The edifice of my worldview, all I had ever known, had slowly been dismantled over the past few years. On this day, my world came crashing down. I lay in ruin, seeking Allah.” — Nabeel Qureshi

In his book Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, Nabeel Qureshi describes a regimented and consistent life of devotion in Islam, beginning each day with the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer. Daily prayer serves to acknowledge Allah each day from sunrise to sunset. Muslim worship is similar to the Jewish tradition, with a dedicated ion to following every edict and tradition.

Spirited Devotion

Muslims rise each morning to adhan, or the call to prayer, intending to arouse themselves and one another to the presence of Allah. Traditionally, every Muslim child must hear the adhan the moment they are born. Accordingly, fathers recite it softly in the ear of their newborn children. The primary purpose of attendance at mosque is for corporate (or “congregational”) prayer, called salaat. There are five obligatory prayers in Islam: fajr (sunrise), dhuhr (noon), asr (afternoon), maghrib (sunset), and isha (night). Each prayer has a specific window of time in which it must be completed. There is much dedication regarding facing Mecca, standing, bowing, genuflecting, and lying prostrate, before sitting on the heels to continue praying. Each repetition is called rakaat. Seventeen rakaat are required daily as a minimum obligation, and optional prayers can be offered as well. Prior to prayer, Muslims perform a ceremonial washing of the arms, face, and feet, called wudhu. Daily prayer is a means of cleansing the soul in the same manner wudhu cleanses the body.

Muslims are required to memorize the Qu’ran in its original Arabic language. In fact, Muslim clerics and Imams believe translations of the Qu’ran into English or other languages is not truly the Qu’ran as its meaning only holds true in the original language. Tradition teaches that every word in the Qu’ran was spoken aloud by Allah to Muhammad through the Archangel Gabriel. In fact, the word qu’ran means “recitation.” In addition, Muslims study the life of Muhammad as an exemplar. Every devout Muslim is called to venerate the Prophet, so they must learn stories about his life from books of surah and hadith and be guided accordingly.

A Corollary

Shema, the Jewish confession of faith, is comprised of three core scriptural texts (Deuteronomy 6:4–9, 11:13–21; and Numbers 15:37–41), in addition to proscribed prayers. This forms the vital part of daily worship. The word Shema refers to the first word in the passage, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord” (see Deuteronomy 6:4), and can be interpreted as “hear and do.” There is a sacred duty to learn, study, and apply the Torah to everyday life as a profession of one’s faith. Life in the Jewish holy community is understood to encompass every level of human existence. The corpus of rabbinical laws morphed from the original Ten Commandments (the Mosaic Covenant) into 613 commands or mitzvot with the intention of establishing the way to behave, or the way of walking. Halakha (Jewish law and jurisprudence) is based on the Talmud, and serves to guide not only religious practices and beliefs, but establish Jewish requirements for daily life. We see this reflected in table blessings, Kiddush (“sanctification” of the Sabbath and festivals), the erection of the booth (sukka) for Sukkoth (the Feast of Tabernacles), the seder (the festive Passover meal) with its symbols and narration of the Exodus from Egypt, and the lighting of the lamps during the eight days of Hanukkah (the Feast of Dedication).

Like Islam, Judaism puts much more credence in deeds than beliefs. Because Judaism is a set of practices as well as a religious faith, it’s called a Way of Life. MacArthur believes a major factor that contributed to widespread misunderstanding regarding the Messiah was because “…most Jews simply did not see the need for a sin-bearing savior” (1). Israel expected a conquering Messiah who would vindicate the Jewish people and finally elevate Israel to world dominance politically and militarily. Paul provides a critical piece of Israel’s rejection of Jesus as the Christ: “For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness” (Rom. 10:3). The Jews returned from captivity under Pharaoh with a new devotion to the Law. A strict stress on legal obedience (with a particular attention given to the Law’s external and ceremonial features—dietary laws, dress, ritual washings, and visible symbols of piety) resulted from this orientation. By the time Jesus arrived, sheer legalism was the dominant feature of Judaism. MacArthur believes this “…stemmed from the fact that they didn’t really feel the weight of their own guilt” (2).

Muslims believe Jesus is no more than a prophet. To call Jesus “God incarnate” would be blasphemy, and would cause anyone who made such a claim to be condemned for heresy. The Qu’ran states, “…by their blasphemy and their terrible words of slander against Mary, and their saying, It is we who killed the Christ Jesus son of Mary, the messenger of God—they killed him not, nor did they crucify him, but so it was made to appear to them” (4:157). The single most important belief in Islam is Tawhid, the oneness and unity of God. To Muslims, God is not three persons, nor did He manifest Himself in the body of a man. Muhammad is believed to be the true and final messenger of Allah. This is so critical to the faith that Muslims claim Muhammad was the last and greatest of the prophets of Allah’s revelation, sent to set the record straight regarding the corruption of God’s revelation in the Bible and the misidentification of Jesus as the God-man. Muhammad is considered the Seal of the Prophets, and the Qur’an is God’s final and absolute word.

The Cost of Clarity

Nabeel passionately pursued clarity. Who was this God we are called to worship? How can we know whether our personal belief is in line with ultimate spiritual truth? C.S. Lewis said, “The church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ” (3). If a fruitful church makes disciples (see Matt. 28:19-20), a fruitful movement makes disciple-making churches. This is precisely where the Protestant Reformation gets mixed reviews. McGrath said perhaps the proper term is Protestantisms, plural (4). Vanhoozer notes the tendency in some circles to view the Reformation as the story of a divided kingdom. I believe the essence of the Reformation is simple: man in his very nature destined to be free to worship God independent of institutional ecclesiology. Troeltsch said, “Protestantism became the religion of the search for God in one’s own feeling, experience, thought, and will” (5). He feared that a church freed from church authority would be tossed to and fro on the sea of individualism. Yet, Martin Luther gave us a Christianity devoid of works. Indeed, no unambiguous Protestant template or paradigm arose from the ashes of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses. Some biblical scholars ask whether sola scriptura can ever produce consensus? To be Protestant is to strive to be biblical.

Nabeel wanted truth, but his search slammed him up against the wall of Islamic indoctrination. Judaism likewise clings to devout adherence to codified practices as if one’s behavior could become holy enough to earn eternal salvation. Martin Luther burned with desire to wrest Christianity from the grips of the papacy, yet he risked causing a movement of radical religious individualism. Luther’s sola scriptura seemed to cause dissension and schism, borne on the wave of biblical authority apart from church authority. But I truly believe the application of sola scriptura must be rooted in consensus among the community of believers and not the rulings of a dictatorial clergy as with Roman Catholicism.

When Nabeel finally believed that Jesus is the Messiah and fell to his knees, accepting the redemptive work of the crucifixion, he did not immediately convert. He says, “I told God I know what I needed to do but I needed time to mourn.” He turned once again to the Qu’ran for personal guidance. This time he looked for comfort, realizing there is not one verse in the Qu’ran designed to comfort a hurting man. Turning to the Bible, he read, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). He continued reading through the Gospel of Matthew: “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (10:32-33). Nabeel said to God, “But if I proclaim you Father, I have to give up my family.” He then read Matthew 10:37: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” Nabeel realized he was being asked to deny not only his family, but his whole life. Then he read, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (10:38-39).

Nabeel says, “God knows the cost we must pay to truly surrender our will and our life to Him. It’s the same heavy cost the disciples faced 2000 years ago. The cost we all must be willing to pay if we’re going to follow Jesus.” As he finalized his decision to convert, Nabeel prayed, “Lord, I believe you are Jesus, and I submit to you.” He he did not truly understand the commitment he’d made until a few days later when he told his father he had become a Christian. His father began weeping uncontrollably, and said, “Nabeel, today I feel as if my backbone has been ripped out from inside me.” His mother didn’t say a word. Nabeel remarked, “It was like there had been a light in her eyes up to that moment and I just turned it off. She hasn’t been the same since.” Nabeel cried out to God, “Why didn’t you kill me? Before my parents found out I was a believer, I was saved. I would go to heaven if you killed me. I’d be happy, you’d be happy, and my parents would be happy. Everyone would be happy! Why didn’t you just kill me?” Nabeel said he heard these words: “Because this is not about you.” At that moment, Nabeel’s life and his theology were rebooted. He realized the gospel is not something you simply hear and believe. He said, “If it doesn’t change your life, it hasn’t hit you yet.”

At that moment, Nabeel realized, “This God is worth everything.”

“Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:29-30).

References

(1) John MacArthur, The Gospel According to God: Rediscovering the Most Remarkable Chapter in the Old Testament (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 47.
(2) Ibid., 48.
(3) C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1996), 171.
(4) Alister McGrath, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2007), 62-63.
(5) Ernest Troeltsch, Protestantism and Progress (New York, NY: G.P. Putnam, 1912), 98.

* The Doctrine of the Word of God; the Doctrine of God; the Doctrine of Man; The Doctrine of Christ; the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit; the Doctrine of Redemption; the Doctrine of the Church; the Doctrine of Last Things.

Released From the Law and Sin

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theology

KNOWING HOW TO READ the epistles is very important. Twenty-one of the 27 books in the New Testament fall into this category, establishing the importance of their application to Christian living. Specifically, I wish to focus on Romans. Paul noted the critical function of God’s righteousness in Romans 1:16-18. Martin Luther struggled personally with this passage while studying at a monastery. Later in life, in 1545, Luther wrote, “I had already for years read and taught the Holy Scriptures both privately and publicly. I knew most of the Scriptures by heart and, furthermore, had eaten the first fruits of knowledge of, and faith in, Christ, namely, that we are justified not by works, but by faith in Christ” (1). Initially, however, Luther struggled immensely with how Christians are to live by the righteousness of God. He knew what the prophet Isaiah wrote on the subject: “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away” (Isa. 64:6, ESV).

For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith” (Rom. 1:17).

Luther’s obsession with the issue of righteousness caused him much grief. Nothing mattered to him more than his faith and his obedience to God. Yet, he often felt overwhelmed by the fear of death and hell (2). He joined the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt at twenty-two years of age out of concern for his own salvation. A feeling of terror overwhelmed him during the writing of his first sermon: a sense of being unworthy of God’s love. He was convinced that he was not doing enough to be saved. I believe his concern was directly related to claims of the Roman Catholic Church that faith must be accompanied by works in order to receive salvation. Over-wrought with a sense of his own sinfulness, he supposed he was not a good monk; that his life was licentious and immoral despite his commitment to the gospel. Luther repeatedly punished his body—flagellation, enduring harsh winter conditions without a coat or shoes, denying himself of basic physical needs. He worried that his confessions would not be exhaustive enough to cover all his wrong deeds; that he would die in his sins.

As Luther prepared for a sermon on the epistle of Romans some time in 1515, he had an a-ha moment regarding Romans 1:17—the just shall live by faith. It is through the gospel that the righteousness of God is revealed, not through anything he could do to earn it. As Gonzalez notes, Luther came to understand that the “justice” or “righteousness” of the righteous is not their own, but God’s. He settled on salvation through faith alone, in Christ alone. “Justification by faith” does not mean that we must do that which God demands of us, as if it were something we have to achieve. Rather, it means that both faith and justification are the work of God, free to sinners (3). I believe Luther had to arrive at this understanding before he would be able to see the error in Catholicism relative to sacraments and works governing forgiveness and righteousness. It was shortly after coming to this conclusion that Luther prepared and posted his 95 Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.

Romans 1:17-18 contains three points: (1) revelation of God’s righteousness; (2) revelation of God’s wrath; and (3) revelation of God’s grace. Paul establishes the truth that the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel of Jesus Christ alone. God’s righteousness operates as both a moral standard and as a spiritual standard. As Jesus died on the cross, He uttered the phrase “it is finished” (see John 19:30). According to Dake, sixteen things were finished at the moment of Christ’s death: fulfillment of all Scriptures of the sufferings of Christ; the defeat of Satan; a breakdown of the wall or partition between God and man; establishing personal access to God; cancellation of the reign of death; cancellation of sin’s power; demonstration of abject obedience to the Father; the perfection of Christ; salvation from all sin; establishment of peace between God and man; penalty of death paid for all; cancellation of the “claim” of Satan over man; satisfaction of the full justice of God; bodily healing for all; establishing a way for believers to receive the full power of the Holy Spirit; blotting out or fulfillment of the Old Covenant (4). As we can see, much depends upon believers grasping the full meaning of Romans 1:17.

The Hebrew word typically translated as “righteous” or “just” is sāddîq, which originally meant “straight” or “right.” The corresponding Greek term is dikaiosynē, meaning “to do justice,” “to be just,” “to vindicate” or “justify” in the forensic sense of “declare righteous” or “treat as just.” Diehl writes, “Much of the NT is taken up with showing that Jesus of Nazareth is indeed the promised Messiah… God’s purposes of righteousness and salvation are centered in him” (5). It is in the sixteenth and seventeenth verses of Romans 1 that Paul sets forth the design of the entire epistle—a charge of sinfulness against all flesh; a single path to deliverance; and righteousness through Jesus as Messiah.

In Romans 6, Paul addresses the peculiar dilemma of habitual or deliberate sin in the life of the believer. Why does he or she still sin? Is victory possible? In the closing remarks of Romans 5, Paul notes the function of the Law (to identify our trespasses), and he remarks, “…where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (5:20-21). Clearly, we can never out-sin God’s grace. However, it is possible to taste of the freedom we have in Christ and decide to turn back to our old existence. A stubborn and callous spirit risks being unable to repent. Miller writes, “If God forgives me today I might as well do the same thing tomorrow, and have God forgive me tomorrow, and then the third day, and so on throughout my entire life. So Paul faces that question in chapter 6 with the exclamation ‘God forbid!'” (6). If our old man is crucified with Christ, then we have crucified our fleshly affections and lusts. When we accepted Christ as Savior, we chose to identify with Him in the crucifixion; our “sin body” was suddenly and abruptly terminated and made inoperative. In fact, Miller believes if we are born again and yet still practice our old habits and lusts, we “…have never died with Christ, have never made a complete surrender of self and sin to the will of God” (7).

Paul said, “We are crucified with Christ, in order that henceforth we should not do the things we have been doing, and serve the master we have been serving. Our affections and lusts are crucified.”

Paul presents the essence of carnality in Romans 7. The carnal Christian is predominantly self-centered. Moreover, carnality leads to spiritual impotency. He relates being bound to sin and flesh as long as we let the old nature persist. If we died with Christ (as in Paul’s example of a widower no longer married to his wife if she dies), then we are no longer “in relationship” with the old nature. Paul frequently uses the pronoun I in Romans 7, finally coming to the place where he is helpless: “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out” (7:15-18). This recitation describes the carnal Christian.

In verse 21, Paul says “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.” The reason for this state of helplessness is the supremacy of sin. Carnality brings us to the point where sin once again becomes our master, dictating its orders to us in the flesh. Clearly, we have no choice in the matter while we walk in the flesh. Paul essentially says, “I find that sin dwelling in me is forcing me to do these things. It is not merely weakness, nor is it because I have no will power. It is because sin has supremacy in my life and has reduced me to slavery.” Our struggle in this matter is the same as Paul’s. We delight in doing what is right (obeying the Law). We know what is right. We love studying Scripture, attending church, and enjoy the fellowship of other believers. But while carnal we find another law warring against the Law within us. There is a solution: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (7:24-25).

Faith, however, is a divine work in us. Luther said in his Commentary on Romans, “It changes us and makes us to be born anew of God; it kills the old Adam and makes altogether different men, in heart and spirit and mind… and it brings with it the Holy Ghost… faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man would stake his life on it a thousand times” (8). The believer who walks according to the “flesh,” as Luther describes it, is “…a man who lives and works, inwardly and outwardly, in the service of the flesh’s profit and of this temporal life.” In contrast, he says the man who walks in the spirit “…is the man who lives and works, inwardly and outwardly, in the service of the Spirit and the future life” (9). He writes in the general commentary, “The object of this Epistle is to destroy all wisdom and works of the flesh no matter how important these may appear in our eyes or those of others and no matter how sincere and earnest we might be in their use” (10). He concludes that we must dwell in a righteousness which in every way comes from outside of us, and is entirely foreign of us. This is the only means by which our hearts can be free and divested of our own attempts at righteousness. We can reach this level only through remaining humble, as if we are nothing of ourselves.

References

(1) Martin Luther, Weimar Edition of Martin Luther’s Works (Berlin, Germany: Phon Publishing, 2012), 183.
(2) Justo L Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. II: The Reformation to the Present Day (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2010), 22.
(3) Ibid., 25.
(4) Finis Jennings Dake, Dake’s Annotated Reference Bible (Lawrenceville, GA: Dake Publishing Co., 2008), 211-12.
(5) D.W. Diehl, “Righteousness” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 3rd ed., Daniel J. Treier and Walter A. Elwell, editors (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 755.
(6) C. Leslie Miller, Expository Studies on Romans (Cleveland, OH: Union Gospel Press, n.d.), 125.
(7) Ibid., 131.
(8) Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1954), xvii.
(9) Ibid., xviii.
(10) Ibid., 28.

Set Your Hearts

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theology

THE SPIRITUAL LIFE IS to be lived no matter the cost, as it is the means through which Christians participate in the Kingdom of God while still in the flesh. Redemption and sanctification rescued us from the bondage of sin and set us apart for divine service. Paul said, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal. 5:13-14, ESV). Jesus provided an exemplar for Christian living, telling the disciples, “But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:26-28). In fact, life is supposed to be shared. We are called to step out in faith and put others first.

The power to live a successful Christian life is found only in Christ, but it requires effort on our part. We need to stand firm against the forces that pull us back to a carnal, fleshly, worldly life. Jesus related how difficult it is to enter the Kingdom of God (Mark 10:23). It is not easy to live as Christ lived. He said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul” (Matt. 16:26). Accordingly, a spiritual life must be a disciplined life. In the eyes of the LORD, it is better to obey than to present sacrifices (see 1 Sam. 15:22). The word “obedient” comes from the Latin word audire, which means “listening.” Spiritual discipline involves a concentrated effort to firmly establish an effective boundary between spirit and life. It is only through patiently waiting on God that we are able to hear His voice and understand His will for our lives.

D.A. Carson said, “People think of themselves as ‘spiritual’ because they have certain aesthetic sensibilities, or because they feel some kind of mystical connection with nature, or because they espouse some highly privatized version of one of any number of religions” (1). Religion tends to be a word with negative connotations while spirituality has positive overtones. Typically, we wonder how much of ourselves we must give up to live a spiritual life. We ask ourselves if “being good” is an effective sign that we are living as Christ would have us live. We attend church services, participate in church groups, visit the sick, and volunteer to make burgers at the annual church picnic. Maybe we participate in neighborhood outreach efforts or support missions. Yet, we wonder how much of our natural self can remain without impacting our spiritual life. C.S. Lewis said, “Make no mistake: if you are really going to try to meet all the demands made on the natural self, it will not have enough left over to live on. The more you obey your conscience, the more your conscience will demand of you. And your natural self, which is thus being starved and hampered and worried at every turn, will get angrier and angrier” (2). The flesh battles the spirit, demanding satisfaction no matter the cost.

We come to Christ as new believers dragging our “self” with us to the cross. Lewis said, “Some of the things the ordinary self wanted to do turn out to be what we call wrong” (3). He pulled no punches regarding battling sexual impropriety. He writes, “…a cold self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute” (4). The Christian life is both hard and easy. Jesus asks us to “give all.” He says to take up our cross and follow him. Lewis said, “The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self—all your wishes and precautions—to Christ” (4). As Christians, many of us neglect the mind and heart while we’re striving for a spiritual life. This is precisely what Christ advises us not to do. The average churchgoer objects to giving all, saying not everyone is called to pastor, or teach, or lead. Lewis was known to ask Christians, “How would you feel if Jesus came to you and spoke the words, Give me your all?I have stood at that crossroad many times, wondering how much all I have to give without giving all.

The grace of God, while free, is not cheap. Consider what Jesus endured during the last twelve hours of His life on earth in order that we might be justified before the Father. Our discipleship to Jesus costs nothing less than everything. Unfortunately, you would be hard pressed to find a sermon or teaching series on discipleship in the church today. To side step discipleship is to miss out on spiritual maturity. Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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 behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt.28:18-20). Unfortunately, the Body of Christ has been drifting away from this commission. If the church fails to disciple new believers, it is impossible for them to learn how to live as Christ lived. Willard said, “Though costly, discipleship once had a very clear, straightforward meaning… there is a decision to be made: the decision to devote oneself to becoming like Christ” (5).

A Matter of the Heart

Paul writes, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col. 3:1-2). Proverbs says, “My son, be attentive to my words; incline your ear to my sayings. Let them not escape from your sight; keep them within your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Prov. 4:21,23). Not surprisingly, the best way we can defend our heart and set it on God is to guard our thoughts. Paul said, “For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (1 Cor. 10:3-5). Solomon admonished, “Above all else, guard your heart.

Someone once said, “Sow a thought, reap a deed. Sow a deed, reap a habit. Sow a habit, reap a character. Sow a character, reap a destiny.”

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it” (Jer. 17:9). We cannot hope to share the gospel, or to teach others about the ways of Christ, without first setting our hearts on Jesus. The kind of spiritual existence God asks of us cannot be weak, dull, rudderless, lifeless. It should cause an engagement of the heart. Paul notes, “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord” (Rom. 12:11). Fervent means “having or displaying a passionate intensity.” If we are not fervent in our spiritual life, and if our will and inclination are not strongly and consistently applied to our affairs on a daily basis, we will wither and die on the branch. Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine dresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit” (John 15:1-2). The Father does two things to ensure a maximum yield: (1) He removes unfruitful branches, and (2) He prunes the remaining branches. Unfruitful branches are gathered and burned in the fire. Fruit is an illustration for good results coming from the life of a believer.

As believers, our fruitfulness requires having our hearts engaged in Christ. Every true disciple of Christ must love the LORD above his or her father or mother, sister or brother, spouse or children; yes, even above his own life. Merely having knowledge of doctrine and theology without religious affection for God will avail us nothing but the acquisition of data. Augustine of Hippo said, “My inner self was a house divided against itself. Why does this strange phenomenon occur? The mind gives an order to the body and is at once obeyed, but when it gives an order to itself, it is resisted” (6). Ours must always be a living theology. The believer is to be considered fidelis quaerens intellectum: a believer seeking understanding. Hart said, “Theology is the attempt by faith to understand itself, its object, and its place in today’s world” (7). Theology involves far more than the mind; it is more than collecting data. Hart said, “Faith—when it is truly faith rather than a mere intellectual assent to some proposition or other—will always seek to enter into a fuller and deeper knowledge and understanding of that which matters most to it” (8).

Set your sights on His kingdom first.

Nouwen believes the spiritual life is not that which comes after or beyond our everyday existence. We must not pigeonhole spirituality. He said, “The spiritual life can only be real when it is lived in the midst of the pains and joys of the here and now” (9). Martin Luther wrote, “It is through living, indeed through dying and being damned, that one becomes a theologian, not through understanding, reading or speculation” (10). Of course, such an orientation clears the path for setting our hearts on Jesus. Vanhoozer says Christians learn doctrine in order to participate more deeply and passionately in the drama of redemption, adding, “Intellectual apprehension alone, without the appropriation of the heart and hand, leads only to hypocrisy” (11). Our spiritual life must begin with something firm to place our feet on (see Matt. 7:24-27). Without being grounded in Christ, we risk faltering at times of challenge or crisis. Moreover, we are ill-equipped for making a defense to anyone who asks us for a reason for the hope we have in the gospel.

God willingly created man and all that exists in the physical realm. Under the warmth of His creative action and care, our first parents were invited to walk in complete fellowship with God; to get to know Him and to love Him. This is worship at its most pure. But through an act of rebellion, which was fueled by a desire to know as God knows, exist as God exists, sin entered in and tore a hole in the soul. Man became broken. Kapic writes, “It would be a dangerous misunderstanding to assert that we can only worship God once we have understood all the important doctrines” (12). Further, we do not need to be like God, or be on even footing with Him, to have a relationship with Him. Despite rebellion in the past, we must mend fences with God and allow Him to fill the God-shaped hole in our soul. Growing in our knowledge of God changes our view of every aspect of our lives. Kapic said it’s not as though we lose sight of all except God; rather, we see everything in the light of God. This degree of humility and submission is required for living a truly spiritual life.

All of life’s preoccupations and “what ifs” tend to enslave us; distract us from the metaphysical and spiritual realms of life. Our minds become filled with anxious thoughts as we struggle to do it all, be it all, and plan for it all. Nouwen writes, “Much, if not most, of our suffering is connected with these preoccupations” (13). It is as though we are always preparing for “eventualities,” such as career changes, serious illness, failed economy, domestic unrest, possible family conflicts, natural disasters, and the like. Anxiety can cause us to be fearful, suspicious, greedy, angry, defeated. In this sad state, we pay more attention to our physical surroundings, our aches and pains, our daily challenges, which prevents us from feeling real inner peace and freedom—the very shalom our LORD promised. Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27). When we are in a predisposed state of “what’s next” we fail to live in the moment. It is impossible to enjoy today if we spend the day regretting our past and worrying about our future. Existence certainly features periods of transition, but it is not productive to live our lives “in the corridor” on the way to somewhere else.

First Things First

Interestingly, Jesus does not address our worry-filled way of living by saying we should cut back on engaging with life’s affairs. Nor does He say we need to take a monastic sabbatical. Early Christian fundamentalism taught “coming out from among them” and safely existing within the walls of our churches. I believe the command “be ye separate” is not suggesting off-the-grid spiritual communal living. Nor does it mean stay away from all non-believers. We simply cannot reach those we despise and run from. Rather, Jesus wants us to change our center of gravity so that we seek Him first. This requires a change in focus. As noted in Scripture, we need a change of heart. Certainly, change in activities are often necessary as we grow in spiritual maturity and reach toward the goal of emulating Christ. Simply, this is a matter of setting our hearts on His kingdom first. Nouwen believes a heart set on the Father’s kingdom is also a heart set on living the spiritual life.

To set our hearts on the kingdom therefore means to make the life of the Spirit within and among us the center of all we think, say, or do.

Consider this. Jesus led a very busy life during the three years of His ministry—teaching, preaching, healing, expounding. He was so busy He had to “steal away” for alone time. Moreover, He did not lead the life of a zealot marching toward a self-imposed goal. He was concerned with one thing: putting the Father’s will and kingdom first. Remarkably, despite being God Himself in the flesh, Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise” (John 5:19). The works Jesus did are the works the Father sent Him to do; the words Jesus spoke are the words the Father sent Him to speak. His was a ministry of obedience, sacrifice, and humble submission. Paul tells us, “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Rom.5:18-19).

Concluding Remarks

Nouwen writes, “His Kingdom first. I hope that these words have received some new meaning. They call us to follow Jesus on his obedient way, to enter with him into the community established by the demanding love of the Father, and to live all of life from there” (14). The kingdom of the Father is now; not something to be achieved at a later date. It is the place where the Holy Spirit guides us, empowers us, instructs us, equips us, and renews us as we move through this world serving Him. As I mentioned above, a spiritual life without discipline is impossible. The practice of spiritual discipline allows us to exercise “silent prayer,” where we are content to sit quietly and wait on God. It is only through listening that we develop a life of obedience. It is critical that we establish a routine of solitude every day. The amount of time we spend pursuing “spiritual fitness” is less important than having the routine. Start with 10 minutes, 20 minutes; whatever you can set aside at this point. Remember, we are pursuing “spiritual fitness” much like an athlete seeks physical fitness. Increase the duration of each prayer session. Learn to exercise “silent prayer” where you wait quietly for God to speak to you. Simplicity and regularity are the best building blocks in finding your way to the Father. Create space for God in your life.

References

(1) D.A. Carson, “Spiritual Disciplines,” Knowing and Doing (Springfield, VA: C.S. Lewis Institute, Winter 2017). URL: https://www.cslewisinstitute.org/webfm_send/6134
(2) C.S. Lewis, “Giving All to Christ,” in Devotional Classics: Selected Readings for Individuals and Groups, Richard J. Foster & James Bryan Smith, ed. (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1993), 8.
(3) Ibid., 7.
(4) C.S. Lewis, “Sexual Morality” in Mere Christianity (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1952), 95.
(5) Ibid., 9.
(6) Dallas Willard, “The Cost of Nondiscipleship,” in Devotional Classics: Selected Readings, Ibid., 15.
(7) Augustine of Hippo, “Complete Surrender,” in Devotional Classics: Selected Readings, Ibid., 55.
(8) Trevor Hart, Faith Thinking: The Dynamics of Christian Theology (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1995), 1.
(9) Hart, Ibid., 3.
(10) Henri Nouwen, The Spiritual Life: Eight Essential Titles (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2016), 7.
(11) Martin Luther, in “The Inseparability of Life and Theology, A Little Book for New Theologians: Why and How to Study Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012), 41.
(12) Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Doctrine (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005).
(13) Kelly M. Kapic, A Little Book for New Theologians, Ibid., 24.
(14) Nouwen, Ibid., 9.
(15) Ibid., 21.

What Does Spiritual Progress Look Like?

Written by Steven Barto, B.S.,Psy., M.A. Theology

Change Requires Growth

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:11-14, ESV).

NOT SURPRISINGLY GROWTH requires action. Acts 17:28 indicates we must be “in Christ” to mature as believers: “For in him we live and move and have our being” (ESV). Our growth as Christians is predicated upon knowing who we are in Christ; what His death, burial, and resurrection makes accessible to us. Having made a decision to accept Jesus as Messiah, we are to choose living in a manner that brings glory to God. No longer are we wandering the wilderness in search of meaning and purpose. We begin a new life, made possible through Jesus Christ. Fundamentally, we have been justified in the Father’s eyes. Redemption opens the door for reconciliation, restoration, and sanctification. Each of these components fall under the umbrella of “salvation.” It is here that we are able to adjust our sites and head in a completely different direction than when we were living in sin.

Holiness in the Old Testament is primarily in relation to God. “Exalt the LORD our God, and worship at his holy mountain; for the LORD our God is holy” (Psa. 99:9). Divine sacredness and holiness is God’s essential nature. He is morally perfect, and His holiness is manifest in total purity. By purposeful association, God’s people are holy; not because of any virtue they possess but simply by God’s special calling. Notwithstanding the above, there was an increasingly strong emphasis on moral holiness under the Old Covenant. A central feature of the Day of Atonement was inward cleansing (see Lev. 16:30). Of course, there is no less emphasis on God’s holiness in the New Testament. Under the New Covenant, holiness moves from an outward (or “corporate”) quality to believers made holy inwardly. As Christians, we are clothed in the righteousness of Christ, but we must strive to enter into true holiness (see Heb. 10:10). This is holiness as it pertains to transformation. Paul writes, “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1).

This is what Paul wrote about in his letter to the Romans: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith'” (Rom. 1:16-17). Our progress must begin with redemption—without which we cannot be clothed in the righteousness of Christ. Spiritual progress is intricately linked with sanctification. It is through sanctification that we become more like Christ, aligning ourselves with the will of the Father. God is able to accomplish His will in us as we mature in our Christian walk. The Hebrew word qdš and the Greek word hagias apply to any person, place, occasion, or object that has been “set apart” from common secular use to a divine purpose. Sanctification is the ongoing impact of the Holy Spirit in our lives as believers (1).

Sanctification is not mere moral transformation (we cannot “behave” ourselves toward holiness). We are set on the path of sanctification through the redemptive sacrifice of Christ. This is a sort of spiritual “athleticism,” which denotes aiming for fitness of service; i.e., being worthy of one’s call. Amazingly, sanctification sets the stage for positive consecration of our personality (2). (Personality refers to individual differences in patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving.) It is easy to confuse holiness and sanctification. However, holiness represents purity before God, as in our being clothed in the righteous of Christ. Through the atonement of Christ’s death, we are justified and set apart for service. But sanctification is much more than being made right in the eyes of the Father; it includes God being able to accomplish His will in us as we mature in Christ. What of this idea of “sinless perfection.” Paul discusses putting on the new self in the third chapter of Colossians, which is accomplished by setting our minds on things that are above and not on things of the earth (3:2). He writes, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (3:5). Instead, as God’s chosen ones, we are to put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. God does not require perfection from us, but He does expect us to strive for spiritual maturity.

A New Starting Point

Through sanctification, our character, affections, and behavior change as we put on the mind of Christ. Sanctification includes a change in our total personal ethics. Of course, this is an ongoing process. At the moment of conversion we surrender self-rule. In sanctification, we relinquish what I call the habitual, premeditated practice of sin. We are bound to fail, but we need not feel condemned. Paul addresses this issue: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 7:24-25; 8:1). The doctrine of justification by faith is an analytical explanation of God’s pardon. Justification establishes Christianity as a religion of grace and faith. It is helpful to remember that dying with Christ (redemption and justification) and living with Christ (sanctification) are both paramount to living according to the will of God.

We are to wean ourselves from worldly pleasures and pursue godliness. Paul said we must strive for spiritual perfection “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 fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Eph. 4:13-14). Although redemption is instantaneous, sanctification is an ongoing process. The more we strive to be like Christ, the easier it becomes to deny the flesh and instead walk in the Spirit. I have learned that as I mature in Christ my sins become more painful and obvious. The Holy Spirit convicts me regarding any ungodly behavior. Because sin starts as a thought, I also ask Him to help me think about what I am thinking about. (This is called metacognition in psychology.) Paul said, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:1-2).

Peter writes, “…preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1 Pet. 1:13-16). Because our mind is the battlefield on which Satan wages war, it is important to be prepared for warfare. (see The Power of Spiritual Armor.) Sanctification is the first step. Hebrews 12:14 says we must strive for holiness. White says, “This is the most common understanding of sanctification, the growth in holiness that should follow conversion” (see Eph. 1:4) (3). Paul told the Thessalonians to be sanctified wholly—keeping spirit, soul, and body sound and blameless. Everything is to be sanctified (see 1 Tim. 4:4-5). White notes that sanctification is not a mere addendum to justification and redemption. Rather, he believes our forgiveness of sins has a moral force, creating in us the will to do good. Paul distinguished his “real” or spiritual self from his fleshly self in Romans 7. Henry writes, “Compared with the holy rule of conduct in the law of God, the apostle [Paul] found himself so very far short of perfection, that he seemed to be carnal” (4).

Progress Not Perfection

Clearly, our goal as Christians is striving to live a life that is beyond reproach. Remember, this does not imply living a sinless existence, which is impossible. Instead, we are to avoid the habitual, premeditated practice of sin. Habitual sin relates to a temptation we have chosen to hang on to, ostensibly because it brings us some degree of pleasure or escape. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus taught us about brokenness, selflessness, charity, humility, peace, and righteousness (see Matt. 5). He reminds us that we are to be salt and light in the world. Jesus concluded his sermon with these words: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matt. 5:48). The beatitudes describe the Father’s attributes. Jesus instructs us to strive for a Christian life that mimics the character of God. The Amplified Bible says, “You, therefore, will be perfect [growing into spiritual maturity both in mind and character, actively integrating godly values into your daily life], as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Paul instructs us to walk in a manner worthy of the life to which we have been called, doing so with all humility, gentleness, patience, love, peace, and mercy, bearing with one another. Spiritual maturity involves putting off “the old self” and putting on the new, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (see Eph. 4). When we become Christians, we are not merely “remodeled” or added to. Instead, we are transformed. In other words, we don’t have two separate natures as Christians. We have one new nature—that of Christ our Lord. Our old self died on the cross with Christ, and through the resurrection we have become new. When the Father looks upon us, He no longer sees our multitude of sins. Instead, he sees the righteousness of Christ. Paul said, “…you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Pet. 1:23). We are to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (see Eph. 4:24).

And Now What?

How do we accomplish the daunting task of putting on the mind of Christ? We need to realize that God is not expecting us to become Christ or to live perfectly. Rather, our lifestyle should point others to Christ. We must think differently about sin, about God, and about Jesus. Our orientation should be away from worldly and sinful lusts. As believers, we should not be attracted to evils of this world. John said, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world” (1 John 2:15-16). MacArthur writes, “To say that a person can come to Christ without making a break from the world is a lie. There must be a change of lifestyle” (5). We come to Jesus through repentance, but it is sanctification that allows us to serve Him. We are to be imitators of Christ (see Eph. 5:1). Conversion includes renewal of mind and heartfelt repentance. These elements are needed if we are to do a 180 and walk away from sin. It is dependent on grace, and involves the infusion of new life. Evangelical theologians describe two sides to conversion: the divine invitation and the human response. It is the means by which we are resurrected from spiritual death. Bloesch says, “It also includes the Spirit’s continuing work in purifying us of discord and [our stubborn refusal to comply], remolding us in Christ’s image” (6).

Spiritual maturity is an expected result of conversion. In fact, conversion begins our ascent to Christian perfection. We shall not remain the same person we once were, but shall become a new creation (se 1 Cor. 5:17). Our true relationship with God is made evident in our lifestyle and conduct. This is what is meant by having a heart for God; getting God out of our heads and into our hearts. Peter tells us, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire” (1 Pet. 1:3-4). He followed up with an admonishment to “…put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Pet. 2:1-3).

Concluding Remarks

We are called upon to be mature believers in Christ. This is not possible without learning who we are in Him and walking accordingly. Redemption opens the door for reconciliation, restoration, and sanctification. Sanctification sets the stage for radical change, even to the core of our personality. We are set on the path of spiritual maturity. Although we cannot hope to be perfect while in our corruptible bodies, we are expected to strive for spiritual maturity. Jesus gives us a glimpse of the character of God in His sermon on the mount. Meekness, brokenness, humility, purity of heart, righteousness—these and other attributes are provided as a guide to becoming “perfect” as the Father is perfect. Paul instructs us to wean ourselves from worldly pleasures and pursue godliness, which is critical to our spiritual maturity. We can never become Christ, but we are called to emulate His life and ministry. This is how we become salt and light to the world. It is how we strive for spiritual maturity.

References

(1) R.E.O. White, “Sanctification,” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 3rd. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 771.
(2) Ibid.
(3) Ibid.
(4) Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1997), 1077.
(5) John MacArthur, The Truth About the Lordship of Christ (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2012), 77.
(6) D.G. Bloesch, “Conversion” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Ibid., 213.

Punishing Drug Use Heightens the Stigma of Addiction

From the Blog of Dr. Nora Volkow
Executive Director

NATIONAL INSTITUTE ON DRUG ABUSE

August 9, 2021

Our understanding of substance use disorders as chronic but treatable health conditions has come a long way since the dark days when they were thought of as character flaws — or worse. Yet our societal norms surrounding drug use and addiction continue to be informed by unfounded myths and misconceptions. Among the most harmful of these is the scientifically unfounded belief that compulsive drug-taking by individuals with addiction reflects ongoing deliberate antisocial or deviant choices. This belief contributes to the continued criminalization of drug use and addiction.

While attitudes around drug use, particularly use of substances like cannabis, have significantly changed in recent decades, the use and possession of most drugs continue to be penalized. Punitive policies around drugs mark people who use them as criminals, and so contribute to the overwhelming stigma against people contending with an often-debilitating and sometimes fatal disorder — and even against the medical treatments that can effectively address it. Stigma has major negative impacts on health and well-being, which helps explain why only 18% of people with drug use disorders receive treatment for their addiction. Stigma impedes access to care and reduces the quality of care individuals receive. People with addiction, especially those who inject drugs, are often distrusted when presenting for care in emergency departments or when visiting other providers. They are often treated in a demeaning and dehumanizing way. And physicians holding stigmatizing attitudes may not provide adequate evidence-based care for patients with addiction.

recent national survey of primary care physicians found that although most believe that opioid use disorder is a treatable medical condition, most also expressed similar stigmatizing views toward people with opioid use disorder that are held by the wider population. More stigmatizing attitudes among primary care physicians were correlated with lower use of medication in treatment of opioid use disorder and lower support for policies designed to increase access to those medications. The perception of stigma by people with substance use disorders may cause them to avoid or delay engaging with health care or to conceal their drug use when interacting with health care professionals. Even when care is confidential, residential treatment or daily visits to receive treatment, particularly in close-knit communities, can be noticed and trigger judgment. According to the National Survey of Drug Use and Health, fear of negative opinions by neighbors or people in their community is one of the reasons people who know they need treatment for a substance use disorder avoid seeking it.

Fear of possible criminal consequences for drug use can shape people’s health decision-making in many potentially deleterious ways. Substance use may be an important fact to consider in a routine medical visit, so its concealment can lead a physician to overlook major factors in a patient’s health. In some states, pregnant people with substance use disorders risk being charged with child abuse or otherwise losing their parental rights if their child shows evidence of prenatal drug exposure or is born with neonatal abstinence syndrome. Fear of such consequences of substance use may cause individuals to avoid much-needed prenatal care, treatment, and other services.

The stigma against addiction extends to those who provide care for the condition and to the medications and harm-reduction measures that are used to address it. For example, methadone and buprenorphine are highly effective at helping people recover from opioid use disorders, but lingering prejudice that conflates taking medication with the use of harmful substances is one factor that prevents people from being treated with these medications. Although treatment for addiction is becoming more integrated into medicine, it has faced major challenges on many fronts and requires overcoming health care providers’ attitudinal barriers as well as hurdles arising in part from confidentiality protection laws that may limit gathering and sharing data on patients’ use of illicit substances. When doctors don’t ask about patients’ drug use, they may miss information that is important to their care. Stigma also contributes to insurers setting restrictive limits on what they will cover for medications to treat substance use disorders.

Many people intersect with the criminal justice system as a direct or indirect result of their substance use disorders, and the experience may worsen their addiction and their physical and mental health. Although roughly half of people in prison have a substance use disorder, few receive treatment for it. People with untreated opioid use disorder are highly likely to return to drug use upon release, all too often with fatal consequences because of lost tolerance to the drug while in prison. Imprisonment itself not only increases the likelihood of dying prematurely, but also negatively impacts mental health and social adjustment via the stigma of having been incarcerated. And it has radiating effects: Incarceration of a parent increases their children’s risk of drug use, for example.

Research has consistently shown that when people interact with members of a stigmatized group and hear their stories directly it has a powerful de-stigmatizing effect more than simply educating the public about the science underlying a condition. But while a growing number of people in recovery are speaking openly about their past use and their current struggles to keep sober, people who use drugs actively — either because of an untreated addiction or during a period of relapse or even simply as a matter of personal choice outside the context of a use disorder — are not free to do so without fear of legal consequences. The silence of people living with active drug use disorders due to the stigma associated with their condition means the wider public has no opportunity to hear from them and no opportunity to revise their prejudices, such as the belief that addiction is a moral failing or a form of deviance.

An effective public health response to substance use and substance use disorders must consider the policy landscape of criminalizing substance use, which constitutes a major socially sanctioned form of stigma. In addition to research already underway on stigma and stigma reduction at the National Institutes of Health, research on the positive and possible negative outcomes associated with alternative policy models that move to prioritize treatment over punishment are also urgently needed, as such models could remove a major linchpin of the stigma around drug use and addiction and improve the health of millions of Americans.

Nora D. Volkow is a psychiatrist, scientist, and director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which is part of the National Institutes of Health.

The Gluttony of Our Appetites: Part Two

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theology

WHEN IT COMES TO appetites, we must be able to choose. To allow our appetites to choose for us is the hallmark of obsession and addiction. Mastery over our appetites is not out of reach, but it often feels that way while in the grips of an active addiction or compulsion. Christians who struggle with addiction are caught in a tug-of-war between the pleasures and comforts of the flesh and the desire of the spirit to find peace, meaning, temperance, and freedom. The results of walking according to the flesh are self-evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these (see Gal. 5:19-21). It is possible to desire the fruit of the Spirit over the lusts of the flesh, yet remain unable to change your focus from flesh to spirit.

One reason the trap of active addiction is so difficult to escape is we have allowed our appetites to become idols to us. We have served them rather than God. Our need for instant gratification outweighs the harms our addictions cause our bodies. We compound the situation by making excuses for our bad behavior. It’s not our fault, we cry. We do everything in our power to avoid taking any personal responsibility, blaming anyone we can. We live our lives based on rationalization. There is a line in the movie The Big Chill that I’ve always loved. One of the friends says, “Oh, that’s nothing but a rationalization!” The character played by Jeff Goldblum says, “Don’t knock rationalizations. They’re better than sex.” When someone takes issue with this statement, Goldblum adds, “Oh yeah, try going a week without one.” Blaming others doesn’t absolve us from responsibilities, and neither does making excuses.

My struggle was the same as Paul describes in Romans 7. I did not want to keep doing what I was doing. Moreover, I could not seem to do the good I wanted to do. Paul admitted his struggle. I, on the other hand, could not. I remained convinced that my excuses were good enough to make my choices okay. You’d use drugs too if you had my childhood. Parrot writes, “We shop, we drink, we eat; we do anything and everything to distract ourselves from the pain of feeling alone” (1). It took me a great deal of time and effort to finally see the invisible strings tied to my feelings, playing me like a marionette. Any present-day situation that reminded me of something from my past triggered an overwhelming emotion that had more to do with then than now. I read a statement in a book on Buddhism some time ago that still rings true for me today: If you do not deal with the emotional baggage of your past, your present behaviors are not so much undertaken by you as they are driven by the past.

We blame the person who sold us the drugs, the pharmaceutical companies who made the drugs, the bartender who continued to serve us when we were obviously drunk. We blame our parents. Certainly, no other relationship shapes who we are more than our family. Most of what we think, feel, say, and do is in response to the home we grew up in. On the conscious level, we either buy into or reject the lessons learned from family. We absorb ways of thinking, feeling, and being. Either way, we cannot escape its influence. But, as Parrot puts it, “You can’t afford to be like a rider on a runaway horse. Even if you feel out of control, you have everything you need to take the reins and determine your own destiny. You’re not helpless. And you are not simply a product of the way you were raised. From here on out, the kind of person you’ll be is a matter of perseverance, not parenting” (2) [italics added]. In other words, no matter what kind of family background you had, chronic resentment and blame will only further entrench the negative qualities you’d like to escape. Don’t be caught up in the blame game.

When Satan reminds you of your past, just remind him of his future.

It is crucial that we forgive those whom we believe have caused us harm. We must forgive as the LORD has forgiven us (see Col. 3:13). If we have any hope of being forgiven by those we’ve harmed by our bad behavior, we must learn to forgive others. We have to put our pride aside and face the pain of how our choices, behaviors, and word have negatively impacted the lives of those around us. Arterburn writes, “If you hope to make peace with your appetites, you must realize that you are responsible for yourself, your choices, the consequences of those choices, and seeking the help necessary to change” (3). There is no one else we should blame for the problems we face today. Regardless of our background, childhood experiences, or current situation, as adults we are responsible for ourselves and how we choose to live. Moreover, there is no one else who can make these changes for us. Any change that you hope to make must be made by you and accomplished through the power of the Holy Spirit.

As Christians, we tend to forget we have access to the power of the Holy Spirit living within us. It is God’s Spirit that fuels regeneration, and it is God’s Spirit that provides for our sanctification. Jesus told the disciples, “These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:25-26). When we accept Christ as our LORD and Savior, we are sealed by the Holy Spirit. Unfortunately, we forget what this means for our lives. Paul writes, “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory” (Eph. 1:13-14). Through the presence of the Holy Spirit, we receive wisdom, power, encouragement, and strength as we battle the enemy. The fruit of this presence in our lives includes love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law (see Gal. 5:22-23). Having been crucified with Christ, we are no longer under the authority of sin or Satan (Gal. 5:24; 1 John 2:14; James 4:7).

Our appetites will naturally grow out of control when we focus on ourselves and our wants. We become obsessed with our own needs and desires; self-indulgent and self-centered; intent on pleasing ourselves instead of God or others. Developing a sense of purpose is a critical first step; it involves asking what we can do for the greater good of society. Contributing to society in a positive manner takes our focus off of self. Twelve-step programs call this “getting out of your own head.” Discovering our purpose in life helps improve our self-esteem and find true meaning for our existence. Mark Twain said, “The two most important days in your life are the day you were born and the day you find out why.” Consider the four great questions man asks himself: Where did I come from? Why am I here? What is the basis for good and evil? Where am I going when I die.

When we are growing spiritually, the fruit of the Spirit becomes very appealing to us. We come to understand that only this fruit will truly satisfy our appetites. When we are filled with the Holy Spirit, we have less desire to be filled with the lusts of the flesh. This is why Paul writes, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13).

Amazingly, the same temptations we face were presented by Satan to Jesus in the wilderness: the appetite for food (Matt. 4:2-30); the appetite for status and prestige (4:5-6); the appetite for power and control (4:8-9). We have three choices available to us as we take on the temptation of our out-of-control appetites. First, we can respond by giving in to the flesh. Second, we can use rationalization or intellectualizing to excuse our fleshly responses. Third, we can respond with the wisdom and power we have through the Holy Spirit. Remarkably, God is not telling us to eliminate all desire. Rather, we are told “…delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psa. 37:4).

References

(1) Les and Leslie Parrot, Real Relationships: From Bad to Better and Good to Great (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 21.
(2) Parrot, Ibid., 57.
(3) Stephen Arterburn, Feeding Your Appetites: Take Control of What’s Controlling You (Nashville, TN: Integrity Publishers, 2004), 49.

The Gluttony of Our Appetites Part One: Origin

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theology

ALCOHOL. POWER. MONEY. FOOD. SEX. All of these are capable normal appetites which can morph into full-blown addictions. From a personal perspective, my desires were out of hand, and were causing ruin in my life. As hard as I struggled, getting my problem appetites under control had proved out of the question. Desire had literally taken over my body. Depression and anxiety grew to be increasingly debilitating. Euphoria was unreachable, so I began to find my “warm and fuzzy” through booze, opiates, cannabis, and cocaine. I was chasing a “feel good” release through chemicals, yet the chase proved to be extremely unfulfilling. Appetites once held in healthy balance were now compulsions. I was living in Hotel California—I could check out any time I’d want, but I could never leave. My original God-given appetites were now painful addictions.

Although the apostle Paul was likely not an “addict,” he said, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Rom. 7:15, ESV). He added, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (7:19). This passage became my mantra; unfortunately, it also became a huge loophole. I would often say to myself, “How can I expect to win out over my ruined appetites if Paul couldn’t?” Paul, an apostle, a converted Jew, who received direct discipling from Jesus Christ (see Gal. 1:11-24) was unable to control his appetite for sin; or so I thought. And voila, instant loophole! (See my blog article “Do You Look for Loopholes as a Christian?”).

Gluttony is “habitual greed or excess in eating or consuming.” From the Latin, gula, “to gulp down or swallow,” gluttony is over-indulgence. In this instance, greed involves an intense or selfish desire for something, especially wealth, power, or food. The most common type of gluttony, uncontrolled eating, leads to obesity and a litany of related health risks. Because gluttony is closely related to drunkenness, drug abuse, greed for money, or a desire for excessive power, it is considered a sin in Christian theology. Gluttony involves living for self, putting all others second. It can be said that gluttony shows contempt for society and for one’s own body. Paul said, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” ( 1 Cor. 6:19-20, ESV).

Unfortunately, gluttony seems to be a bad habit Christians like to ignore. Some teachings say the word “gluttony” cannot be found in Scripture. Yet, we read “…and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard'” (Deut. 21:20). John states in his first epistle, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world” (1 John 2:15-16) [italics added]. Paul said in Philippians, “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things” (Phil 3:19) [italics added]. Proverbs 28:7 says a glutton “shames his father.” Paul writes, “One [of them], a prophet of their own, said, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons'” (Tit. 1:12) [italics added]. Ben Giselbach of PlainSimpleFaith.com writes, “…’gluttony’ does not appear in any of the Bible’s big this-will-keep-you-out-of-heaven lists… New Testament writers are particularly nonchalant about one’s diet and portion control. Food neither commends nor condemns us before God” (1).

It is likely Giselbach is referring to the “legalistic” approach of dietary matters, indicating New Covenant Christians are not bound by dietary laws. However, gluttony, as addressed by Scripture, is not a dietary concern; rather, it is an orientation of the heart toward an excess appetite for the desires of the flesh (1 John 2:16). Let us examine Paul’s language in Romans 7 and see how it relates to a lack of control over one’s sin nature. He first establishes a truth for all believers: “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin” (7:14). This is the springboard for Paul’s rant: “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me… For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me” (7:15-17, 19-20).

The following is from Peterson’s translation The Message:

I can anticipate the response that is coming: ‘I know that all God’s commands are spiritual, but I’m not. Isn’t this your experience?’ Yes. I’m full of myself—after all, I’ve spent a long time in sin’s prison. What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise… I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time. It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge (2).

I cannot share accurately enough how convicted I felt as I typed the above quote, realizing my tendency in the past to look for excuses for my behavior rather than changing it. Some biblical scholars believe Paul is speaking about the sin dilemma in man rather than a personal struggle within himself. However, studies during my master’s in theology and collateral readings have convinced me otherwise. Paul, as depicted in the motion picture Paul, Apostle of Christ, directed by Andrew Hyatt, became very humble following his conversion to Christianity. He counted his rabbinical education as nothing; rather, he wanted now to know nothing but Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). His ministry to the non-Jews of the world was critical, and his lessons on God’s grace in face of our sometimes deliberate sinful rebellion (clearly presented in Romans 7) was necessary for his ministry to the Gentiles.

After becoming a Christian, Paul was painfully reminded often of his past persecution of Christians, even having some of them executed. Now, he was a member of the Body of Christ, and an heir to the promise God made to Abraham. Paul taught often on the true purpose of Mosaic Law and subsequent rabbinical laws—to reveal the sinful nature of man and his inability to obey God under his own power. Although the Law was good and holy (Rom. 7:12), it did not provide salvation for the nation of Israel. Paul wrote, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:20-24). Paul’s central argument in his letter to the Romans is the eternal plan of God for the salvation of sinners.

What purpose, then, is the Law? The extent of sin would never be fully known apart from the Law. We would not know sin except through the Law (see Rom. 7:7).

We read in the Recovery Devotional Bible, “[It is a myth that] Christians have victory over sin, [making sin] a problem only for those with weak faith. All Christians struggle with sin… we see believers throughout the Bible struggling with sin. We find special comfort that the apostle Paul described his struggle as a war (Rom. 7:23) [italics added] and agonized over it” (3). Paul was not, however, avoiding responsibility. He was not saying, “Hey, I didn’t do it—sin did.” Paul realized we only find freedom from our sinful nature when we accept the fact that we will never be completely free. The urge to sin will live in our flesh until we come into the fullness of our redemption and receive a new glorified body. These urges are sometimes stronger, sometimes weaker. As a minister of the New Covenant, Paul never once indicates that his status as a Pharisee among Pharisees provided any assurance of his salvation or his standing before the Father.

The Choice Factor

Choice is an interesting word. It implies free will. Augustine of Hippo rightly believed evil cannot exist within God, nor be created by God; rather, it is a by-product of man’s ability to choose his behavior. Augustine maintained that it is vital for us to have free will because we cannot live well without it. Admittedly, no greater question has been raised (both for and against the existence of God) than the freedom to do evil. Why would God permit evil to exist? According to Augustine, human nature was originally created blameless and without any fault [Latin, vitium]. As a result of sin, everyone born of Adam “requires a physician, because [he] is not healthy.” Augustine clearly states that the weakness which darkens and disables the good things did not come from the blameless maker but from original sin, which was committed by free will. He said, “For this reason, our guilty nature is liable to a just penalty” (4).

According to Gonzalez, Augustine concluded that evil, though real, was not a thing, but rather an orientation away from that which is good and toward that which is not good. This seems to help Augustine understand that God did not create evil. He believed only that which man decides of his own will (rather than that which is dictated by circumstances or directed by a separate entity) is properly called “free.” It is the will that is created by God, not evilness itself. This is no mere matter of semantics. Free will allows man to make his own decisions. As Gonzalez notes, “The origin of evil, then, is to be found in the bad decisions made by both human and angelic wills—those of the demons, who are fallen angels” (5). Augustine’s position is akin to theological determinism, but not in the manner we might expect. He argued that man prefers the joy of “doing good.” Origen of Alexandria thought that affirmation of free will distinguishes Christianity from deterministic accounts of the human condition and constitutes the basis for man’s moral responsibility. Suffering comes from human choice, not from a cosmic clash between good and evil. In this manner, free will is a rational capacity to choose between what is good and what is not good. Admittedly, freedom is likely an attribute of the agent rather than of the will itself.

Regarding our God-given appetites, the danger is not in seeking to fulfill them; it is when we choose to fulfill them with something that does not belong there. Attempting to fill one thing with something that does not fit causes our appetites to begin the cycle of becoming unhealthy or dangerous. To satisfy an appetite completely, we need to choose the actual thing that is being desired. A great example is the choice to view pornographic images for satisfaction of one’s sexual urges outside of an established reciprocal relationship with someone. Pornography provides an inroad for something utterly destructive. Under control, appetites help us to exist; an out-of-control appetite destroys everything in its path like a runaway brush fire. Consequently, there is a battle between flesh and spirit; man and God; self and others. The flesh wants to feel good no matter the cost. Frankly, we want pleasure and we want it now.

Our enjoyment of food, music, sex, drugs, alcohol, affection, all stimulate a common pathway in the brain that leads directly to our “pleasure center.” This reward center, physically located in the lateral hypothalamus, causes us to feel pleasure when stimulated. This is a good thing; life without pleasure or reward would be rather daunting. Yet, when pleasure becomes the thing we are searching for, we soon find ourselves crying, more, more, more! We learn that there is never enough to satisfy. Sin is the result of an appetite going astray and being filled by something other than what God intended it to be filled with. There is a hint of idolatry in this concept. For me, poor choice was rooted in self-indulgence and obsession with self-entitlement. I indulged in pleasure to avoid pain. I was concerned only with reducing my physical, emotional, or psychic pain, and did not care about the consequences of my choices. Self-indulgence is the excessive satisfaction of our sensual appetites and desires for the specific purpose of pleasing the self.

In the second of this two-part lesson we will examine change: how it begins; how to take responsibility; how to stop blaming everyone else. Change cannot happen until we stop making excuses. We need to stop believing our own lies! We will look at “purpose” over mere “existence,” which will aid in our developing and nurturing healthy relationships. We will learn how to cultivate “divine” desires, let go of guilt, and live a surrendered life. It is through this surrendered life that we become the arms and hands and legs and eyes and ears and mouth of Jesus. We yield our will in service to our neighbors. It is not possible to be like Christ while maintaining an I am first position. God is the key to any success we may have in learning to control our appetites. Jesus Christ must be the force behind all we do; the one directing and controlling where we are headed; the foundation upon which we build our life.

References

(1) Ben Giselbach, “The Evil of Gluttony, and Why You Might Not be Guilty of It,” PlainSimpleTruth.com (July 13,2015). URL: https://plainsimplefaith.com/gluttony/
(2) Eugene Peterson, The Message//Remix: The Bible in Contemporary Language (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress: 2006), 1653.
(3) Recovery Devotional Bible: NIV Edition, Verne Becker, general editor (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1973, 1978, 1984), 1241.
(4) Augustine of Hippo, “On Fallen Human Nature,” in The Christian Theology Reader (Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Wiley Blackwell, 2017), 349.
(5) Justo L.Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. I: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (New York, NY: Harper One, 2010, 247.

A Most Vexing Problem

Written by Steven Barto, B.S., Psy., M.A. Theology

FOR THE FOURTH TIME this newscast I grabbed for the remote and muted yet another 90-second commercial touting the glorious new activity of gambling online. Sexy young voluptuous blondes and brunettes with plunging necklines smile seductively and splay decks of cards, gesturing. These TV ads bear the names of so-called “trustworthy” gambling institutions, and promise a risk-free day of odds-laying up to $500, failing to remind that the house always wins in the end or such games of chance would shrivel up and blow away. One TV spot says “…now you can have the name of MGM Grand Casino in your pocket.” Never has a more ironic statement been made!

Steve Rose, PhD, a certified gambling counselor and problem-gambling prevention specialist, writes, “Since the pandemic began, there has been an explosion of online gambling.” With experts warning of this ticking time bomb, responsible gambling safeguards are sparse. Admittedly, online gambling is not new. However, the pandemic accelerated demand, leading to higher rates of riskier gambling. According to a report published by the Responsible Gambling Council (RGC) of Canada, one out of three online gamblers admit to being influenced by pandemic lockdowns (1).

Due to ease of access, online platforms make it easier to use gambling as a way to cope with underlying issues such as anxiety and depression. In fact, the RGC survey found that anxiety and depression are major factors contributing to high-risk gambling. Individuals with severe depression are almost five times more likely to engage in high-risk gambling. Typical depression symptoms such as low mood, apathy, and social isolation are a barrier to people traveling to live venues to gamble. With online gambling, anxious and depressed people can engage in round-the-clock gambling while distracting themselves from their circumstances from the ease of their living room.

A Prolific Online Presence

I did an Internet search with the words the perils of impulsive online gambling. The site listed at the top of my search results was an AD, which said Pennsylvania Online Casino – Real Cash Payouts in 24 Hours! The second result listed said Best Online Casinos in PA 2021 – Get $1,500 Welcome Bonus! Internet gambling is reeling in college students and young children along with adults. The COVID-19 crisis, and the confinement and other restrictions associated with it, represent a unique situation that carries financial consequences for the population. People worrying about the future, possibly spending more time than usual online, are at risk for falling hard for distraction or “easy solutions” to their woes.

Sports gambling in particular has soared during the pandemic and continues to climb. CBS News reports that gamblers placed $4.3 billion in bets on Super Bowl LV, marking “the largest single-event legal handle in American sports betting history.” In sports betting, a “handle” refers to the total amount of money wagered by bettors. About 7.6 million people placed bets on the game through platforms like FanDuel and DraftKings, marking a 63% increase from bets place on the 2020 Super Bowl. Additionally, more than 47 million Americans placed bets on March Madness games (2). Casey Clark, a senior vice president at the gaming association, said “You weren’t going to in-person sporting events and you weren’t going to brick-and-mortar sportsbooks [where gamblers can wager on various competitions].” He said more than 100 million people live in a state where gambling is now legal. Not long ago, that was only in Nevada (3).

Salerno and Pallanti write, “The COVID-19 pandemic has exerted a dramatic impact on everyday life globally. In this context, it has been reported that the lockdown and social distancing may have exerted an impact even on gambling behavior, not only by increasing gambling behavior in those affected by this disorder but even contributing to the occurrence of new cases” (4). According to their peer-reviewed paper, studies performed in different countries around the world have reported psychological and mental health problems due to the changes caused by the pandemic, including stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms. Moreover, the lockdown and social distancing exerted an impact on gambling behavior, not only by increasing gambling incidents in those affected, but even contributing to the occurrence of new cases of problematic gambling.

Hodgins and Stevens write, “…the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on gambling and problematic gambling are diverse – possibly causing a reduction in current or future problems in some, but also promoting increased problematic gambling in others” (5). The study says, “At the same time that land-based gambling accessibility decreased during the pandemic, online gambling sites continued to operate. Some media reports indicated that online gambling business flourished during this time, and that the pandemic served to promote this increasingly popular gambling format” (6). Online gambling sites typically include the full range of types of gambling, including lottery ticket sales, casino table games such a roulette, blackjack and craps, slot machines, online poker and sports betting.

Like a Drug

Gambling, a leisure pursuit for most individuals, has the potential to cause harm to the gambler, their family and the community (7, 8). It is considered to be a potentially addictive behavior, which for some individuals can lead to gambling disorder (GD). GD is found in the DSM-5 under Unspecified Other (or Unknown) Substance-Related Disorder. This category applies to presentations in which symptoms characteristic of an other (or unknown) substance-related disorder cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning predominate, but do not meet the full criteria for, any specific substance-related disorder or any of the disorders in the substance-related disorders diagnostic class (9). It is critical to note that, according to clinical studies, gambling addiction activates the same brain pathways as drug and alcohol cravings. Online gambling is considered to be a particularly problematic gambling format given the relative lack of constraints on how and when it can be accessed, its solitary nature, and the wide variety of types of gambling available.

David Zendle says a variety of practices have recently emerged which relate to both video games and gambling. He writes, “These range from opening loot boxes, to e-sports betting, real-money video gaming, token wagering, and social casino spending” (10). A blurring of the lines has occurred between video games and gambling activities. The most widely-discussed example of this convergence are loot boxes: Items in video games that may be bought for real-world money, but which contain randomized contents. In other words, your expenditure may lead to a “goose egg,” but the risk becomes tantalizing. Loot boxes share several formal features with gambling, and there has been widespread interest in the idea that engaging with loot boxes may lead to problem gambling. The more frequently gamers use loot boxes, the more severe their gambling problems tend to be (11). Certainly, you can see how this phenomenon places chronic gamers (especially younger players) at great risk for developing a gambling addiction.

Gamblers Anonymous (GA) was founded in 1957. It is an international fellowship of people who have a compulsive gambling problem whose approach is based upon the 12-step method of recovery from addiction initially established by Alcoholics Anonymous. Related programs include Narcotics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, and Over-eaters Anonymous. GA believes gambling disorder involves repeated problematic gambling behavior that causes significant problems or distress. It is also called gambling addiction or compulsive gambling. Though Gamblers Anonymous is not associated with any religious group or political affiliation, some people find the 12-step principle of surrendering your problems to a higher power to have distinctly religious overtones. However, Gamblers Anonymous is welcoming of people of all ages, religions, and racial backgrounds—you just need to want to end your gambling addiction.

Gamblers Anonymous is a community of people who want the same goal: freedom from gambling addiction. Many Gamblers Anonymous members may also be struggling with other mental health or behavioral addictions. As a group, Gamblers Anonymous members share their wisdom, experiences, ideas for maintaining recovery, and healthy habits so that others may benefit. Members offer each other support, understanding, compassion, and solace when times are tough. Often, Gamblers Anonymous members will serve as sponsors to newer members who need more intensive support or a person to call when urges hit.

Are You Addicted to Gambling?

According to the DSM-5, persistent and recurrent problematic gambling behavior leading to clinically significant impairment or distress is indicated by the individual exhibiting four (or more) of the following in a 12-month period (12):

  1. Needs to gamble with increasing amounts of money in order to achieve the desired excitement.
  2. Is restless or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop gambling.
  3. Has made repeated unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back, or stop gambling.
  4. Is often preoccupied with gambling (e.g., having persistent thoughts of reliving past gambling experiences, handicapping or planning the next venture, thinking of ways to get money with which to gamble).
  5. Often gambles when feeling distressed (e.g., helpless, guilty, anxious, depressed).
  6. After losing money gambling, often returns another day to get even (“chasing” one’s losses).
  7. Lies to conceal the extent of involvement with gambling.
  8. Has jeopardized or lost a significant relationship, job, or educational or career opportunity because of gambling.
  9. Relies on others to provide money to relieve desperate financial situations caused by gambling

Concluding Remarks

Television advertisements for gambling sites is a huge issue with me. I am sensitive to addiction issues because of my 40-year-plus struggles with alcohol and drug addiction. Looking over the nine criteria listed above for gambling addiction, I can honestly say I exhibited much of the same obsessive behaviors as they pertained to drinking and getting high. Addiction messes with the brain chemistry of the addict by taking hostage the chemicals associated with pleasure. The “computer chips” of the brain are neurons: billions of cells that are organized into circuits and networks. Each neuron acts as a switch controlling the flow of information. If a neuron receives enough signals from other neurons that it is connected to, it fires, sending its own signal on to other neurons in the circuit. To send a message, a neuron releases a neurotransmitter into the gap (or synapse) between it and the next cell. The neurotransmitter crosses the synapse and attaches to receptors on the receiving neuron, like a key into a lock. This causes changes in the receiving cell. Other molecules called transporters recycle neurotransmitters (that is, bring them back into the neuron that released them), thereby limiting or shutting off the signal between neurons.

Drugs interfere with the way neurons send, receive, and process signals via neurotransmitters. Some drugs, such as marijuana, opioid pain medications, and heroin, can activate neurons because their chemical structure mimics that of natural neurotransmitters in the body. These chemicals are dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins (abbreviated DOSE). Because heroin and other substances are extremely potent compared to these naturally-occurring brain chemicals, the brain is incapable of producing them at a level that can reproduce the intensity, leading the addict to develop a craving for his or her drug of choice.

Gambling addiction works by hijacking the brain’s neurochemicals and learned behaviors that activate the brain’s reward center. Remarkably, gambling behavior in such individuals has the same capacity to stimulate the brain as does dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins. In addition, the gambling addict feels rewarded by the intermittent thrill of winning. When the need to win outweighs the risk of losing, the gambling addict begins to exhibit many of the criteria noted in the DSM-5 listed above. At this point, gambling is no longer a form of entertainment. Gambling, as with drug or alcohol addiction, becomes both the problem and the solution. In other words, the addict is now locked into a pattern of behavior where he or she continuously expects to replicate the early “high” of gambling or abusing addictive substances. The brain is hijacked by the randomness of reward.

Addiction can rewire the chemical circuitry of the brain to the point that it seems impossible to quit the addictive behavior. Even though gambling does not involve ingesting chemical substances, it produces the same response as any drug. Gambling addiction is not about money or greed. As the harms outweigh the entertainment value, the gambler looses control and becomes fixated on winning back losses. Because compulsive gambling is a progressive illness, the will to gamble becomes irresistible. Adolescents and teens are at risk for developing a gambling addiction at a time when social and emotional growth is most vulnerable to change. Adolescence is characterized by increased risk-taking, novelty seeking, and locomotor activity, all of which suggest a heightened appetitive drive.

Although teens can gamble casually, the pressure to “fit it” or establish “street cred,” and times of stress or depression, can trigger overwhelming urges to gamble. Widespread neurobiological changes such as shifts in brain matter composition can complicate addiction in teens. Finally, adolescents appear especially sensitive to rewarding cues, as evidenced by exaggerated neural responses when exposed to dopamine. During adolescence, brain cells continue to bloom, with notable changes in the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in decision making and cognitive control, as well as other higher cognitive functions. Accordingly, I believe additional study is indicated regarding teen risk for developing a gambling addiction.

Help is Available Right Now!
National Problem Gambling Helpline

1 (800) 522-4700
SAMSHA National Helpline
1 (800) 662-HELP

References

(1) “The Emerging Impact of Covid-19 on Gambling in Ontario,” Centre for the Advancement of Best Practices, Responsible Gambling Council (July 2020). URL: https://www.responsiblegambling.org/wp-content/uploads/RGC-COVID-and-Online-Gambling-Report_Jul.AP_-1.pdf
(2) Kristopher Brooks, “Sports Gambling Has Soared During the Pandemic and Continues to Climb,” (March 29, 2021). URL: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/sports-gambling-betting-draft-kings-fanduel-american-gaming-association/
(3) Ibid.
(4) Luana Salerno and Steffano Pallanti, “COVID-19 Related Distress in Gambling Disorder,” (Feb. 25, 2021), Frontiers in Psychiatry. URL: https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2021.620661
(5) David C. Hodgins and Rhys M.G. Stevens, “The Impact of COVID-19 on Gambling and Gambling Disorder: Emerging Data,” (April 19, 2021). URL: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8183251/
(6) Ibid.
(7) “Spain orders ‘social shield’ to fast track gambling advertising window,” SBC News (2020). ULR: https://sbcnews.co.uk/europe/2020/04/01/spain-orders-social-shield-to-fast-track-gambling-advertising-window/
(8) “Coronavirus: Gambling firms urged to impose betting cap of 50 pound a day,” The Guardian (2020. URL: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2020/mar/22/coronavirus-gambling-firms-urged-to-impose-betting-cap-of-50-a-day
(9) American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed. (DSM-5) (Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association, 2013), 585.
(10) David Zendle, “Beyond Loot Boxes: A Variety of Gambling-like Practices in Video Games are Linked to Both Problem Gambling and Disordered Gaming,” PeerJ (July 14, 2020). URL: https://peerj.com/articles/9466/
(11) In Addictive Behaviors, Vol. 96 (Sept. 2019), 26-34. URL: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.addbeh.2019.04.009
(12) American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed. (DSM-5), Ibid., 585.

Dave and the Girl

I remember several horrific incidents occurring during my teens. There was the murder trial that seemed to bring the ills of deep, dark Appalachia to our little town. Three young men, “men” being a misnomer, bludgeoned a 17-year old girl to death for no clear or acceptable reason, leaving her along the railroad tracks. As surprising as the murder had been, I was astonished when one of our town’s star athletes raped a girl later that summer and went about town as if he’d done nothing wrong.

The following poem is from a number of years ago, and resulted from a writing prompt in a poetry exercise. At the time, I had been outraged by the seemingly routine incidents of date rape across the college campuses of America. The following is a fictional incident.

Dave and I caught her.
We were out of breath
from chasing her down the
shore of the lake.
Dave pinned her
up against a tree and
wouldn’t let her go
no matter what I said.

Sun would be up soon.
I kept hoping old man Snyder
would come out
and start down the lake
to cast for his lunch.

Dave was pulling up
the front of her dress
to the point where
he shouldn’t. I

wretched just as he
reached inside her skirt.

I could not stop shaking.
This is just not right!
Just not right!

Right before Dave put his
hands where they

don’t belong
I struck him hard in the
back of his head with a rock.

Dave fell flat on his back
at the feet of the girl,
eyes staring up, not moving.

The girl was grinning,
almost sickly glad
what I’d done.

She kicked Dave in the side
and spit in his face, then
squeezed my hand and
whispered thank you
and ran along the edge
of the lake,
disappearing in the
morning fog.

©2017 Steven Barto

History of the Church Part Four: Dissension and the Protestant Reformation

Written by Steven Barto, B.S., Psy., M.A. Theology

religious dissension : discord, strife, conflict, contention, variance; a state or condition marked by a lack of agreement or harmony; implies essential lack of harmony producing quarreling and antagonism.

THE CHURCH NEEDED DRASTIC reformation even before Martin Luther came on the scene. However, before Luther could hope to affect reformation in the church, he had to resolve his personal struggle with an overpowering sense of sinfulness. Although he lived a holy life of obedience, he feared being perpetually tainted by unconfessed sin. As Gonzalez wrote, “The very sacrament of penance, which was supposed to bring relief to his sense of sinfulness, actually exacerbated it, leaving him in a state of despair” (1). I believe Luther had to resolve his consternation over Romans 1:17 and come to understand the righteousness of God before he could be properly oriented toward reformation of the church. Following the example of great monastic leaders, Luther frequently punished his body and denied himself even the simplest of comforts in hopes of earning his salvation. Having an a-ha moment, he came to understand it is by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone, that we become clothed in righteousness (Gen. 15:6; John 3:18; Rom. 3:22). I can understand Luther’s fearful notion that his confession was somehow incomplete or inadequate.

Luther wrote in the preface to his Commentary on Romans, “God judges according to what is at the bottom of the heart, and for this reason, His law makes its demand on the inmost heart and cannot be satisfied with works” (2). He added, “Grace means properly God’s favor, or the good-will God bears us, by which He is disposed to give us Christ” (3). Luther once wrote that many have taken the Christian faith to be a simple and easy matter and have even numbered it among the virtues. This is because they have not really experienced it, nor have they tested the great strength of faith. We see faint rumblings of Luther’s objection to papal indulgences and penance in the following sentence: “If [the servant of Christ] fails in faith, he will prove himself a tyrant who terrifies the people by his authority and takes delight in being a bully” (4). Regarding Romans 1:17, Luther wrote, “God’s righteousness is that by which we become worthy of His great salvation, or through which we are (accounted) righteous before Him… the righteousness of God is the cause of our salvation” (5).

It Begins

Luther initially studied law but decided to pursue a theology degree at the University of Erfurt in 1505. He becoming a monk after the Order of Saint Augustine and was ordained in 1507. Luther began a teaching career at the University of Wittenberg. His professors at the University emphasized free will over reason in arriving at theological truth, placing greater emphasis on free will in initiating salvation. We can see how this school of thought contributed to Luther’s struggle with how to best obtain salvation and righteousness. He began his first series of lectures as a young professor in 1513. He understood how a sinner could be received by a holy God when he grasped the implication of Romans 1:17.

The Reformation dramatically began on October 31, 1517 when Luther published his 95 Theses. When Luther burst on the scene, he was a rather obscure professor at the University of Wittenberg of mixed reputation. Some described him as “the ogre who destroyed the unity of the church, the wild boar that trampled the Lord’s vineyard, a renegade monk” (6). Others considered him a great hero who, through his protestations, took on a corrupt and apostate church and restored preaching of the pure gospel. Much is owed to Luther, who challenged the practice of selling papal indulgences to church members for absolution of their sins and entry into heaven. Although this was the impetus for Luther’s protest, he ultimately questioned the overall authority of the Catholic Church.

The following is Luther’s opening statement to the 95 Theses:

“Out of love for the truth and from desire to elucidate it, the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology, and ordinary lecturer therein at Wittenberg, intends to defend the following statements and to dispute on them in that place…[H]e asks that those who cannot be present and dispute with him orally shall do so in their absence by letter. In the in name of our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen” (7).

Luther’s The Bondage of the Will provides information concerning the age-old debate over free will. Luther believed original sin precludes a true sense of free will, but this writer believes Luther’s argument is a theological one as opposed to a question of yes or no, left or right, up or down, given the circumstance. He said, “Paul, writing to the Romans, enters upon his argument for the grace of God against ‘free-will’ as follows: ‘The wrath of God’ (he says) ‘is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold down the truth in unrighteousness'” (Rom. 1:18) (8). Specific to Luther’s struggle with understanding the righteousness of God, it would appear he applied a degree of German mysticism, which is rooted in Dionysian spirituality. Although Luther was at times pessimistic of humanity and had a sense of “…an infinite abyss between God and man,” he understood the remedy to be acceptance of God’s imputed righteousness which comes from an inward discovery (9). Heinze indicates Luther’s cohorts likely progressed from an Augustinian view of justification as a process that requires the sinner’s cooperation, to the belief that it was “…a forensic act in which Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the sinner” (10).

Gonzalez notes a mounting storm against Luther. John Eck and Luther met in a debate. It was during this event that Luther dared to declare “…a Christian with the support of Scripture has more authority than all popes and councils against that support” (11). The church responded to Luther’s attacks in January 1521 with the papal bull Exsurge Domine, calling for his excommunication. The church demanded that all books and papers written by Luther be burned. Luther was given sixty days to submit to Roman authority. Some of Luther’s supporters chose to burn the books of Luther’s critics. Luther set fire to the bull. He refused to recant at the Diet of Worms in 1521, stating much of what he had written was basic Christian doctrine. Despite his fervent opposition to Catholic doctrine, Luther never intended to establish a new church. He merely wanted to reform the existing church, bringing it into conformity with Pauline doctrine (12). In 1522, Luther released the following statement: “Let us abolish all party names and call ourselves Christians, after him whose teaching we hold… together with the universal church, the one universal teaching of Christ, who is our only master” (13). Luther died at Eisleben (Saxsony), Germany, on February 18, 1546.

Relevance Today

The year 2017 marked the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Many believers, and even some notable scholars and church leaders, question whether the Reformation is still relevant. Moreover, the Reformation still matters today because the gospel alone is still the only hope for sinners. Justification is not an “ongoing process” tied to faithful participation in sacraments or any other “work” undertaken by believers. Justification is by grace alone (Sola gratia) through faith alone (Sola fide) in Christ alone (Sola Christus). Any teaching to the contrary is anathema to the biblical gospel itself. Lastly, the reformation is still vital today because the church is still in need of reformation.

Our only authority is the Scripture (Sola scriptura), not an earthly church, office, or papacy. Western culture has become increasingly post-Christian, with evangelism and Christian charity losing their dominant influence. To lose sight of the primacy of core Christian fundamentals is tantamount to foregoing the Great Commission and Peter’s apologetics mandate (see 1 Pet. 3:15). Science, scientism, secularism, and moral relativism have collectively conspired to quash any public expression of religious faith. This is a private matter, they say. Roman Catholicism remains the most visible Christian church worldwide. The papacy has drifted far from core Christian doctrine regarding grace, salvation, forgiveness, and other critical matters. Additionally, many who object to “organized religion” cite the Roman Catholic Church (Vatican) for its unprecedented accumulation of wealth and power. According to Zadock Thomas, the Vatican Bank has assets worth approximately $33 billion (14).

Eberhardt (1933-2019) was a former Roman Catholic seminarian who came to know Christ as his Savior and founded Gospel Outreach International to Roman Catholics. Eberhardt’s statement regarding how Catholics perceive salvation in the Protestant Church speaks volumes: “I used to think because the Protestants have no ordained priesthood, the Protestants have no means of distributing the grace of the Sacraments, which are necessary for salvation” (15). Les Lofquist asks us to consider whether the Reformation is all but over (16). He noted similarities between his Protestant beliefs and those of his Catholic friends, such as both faiths promoting the need for grace. However, he believes we must be clear that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. His Catholic friends insist salvation must involve the Church in some way.

The current Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “It is in the Church that ‘the fullness of the means of salvation’ has been deposited” (17). Sacraments implicated in Catholic salvation are Baptism, Penance and Reconciliation, Eucharist, and Confirmation. The Sacraments (seven in total) “contain” God’s grace only when administered by a priest in the Roman Catholic Church. Catechism teaches that these Sacraments are not merely symbolic, but they are the actual channels of grace—the “instrumental cause of God’s grace” (18). Any systematic teaching of the above doctrine falls outside the scope of biblical principles and puts the salvation of countless people at risk.

Concluding Remarks

Scripture teaches a different doctrine regarding salvation. Faith equals justification plus works (the believer must exercise faith, which results in justification, leading to good works), not justification through works. The believer is saved by grace alone in Christ alone received by faith alone (John 3:16,36; John 5:24; Acts 16:31; Rom. 10:9-10); the believer must not trust his or her own good works for salvation (Eph. 2:8-9; Titus 3:3-4; Rom. 3:20-22,28; Rom. 4:5); genuine salvation leads to good works (Rom. 6:1-2; James 2:24); the believer can be assured of salvation (John 10:27-29; 1 John 5:13). Despite having occurred over five hundred years ago, elements of the Reformation continue to impact Christianity in the twenty-first century. Ideally, Martin Luther’s reforms should have eliminated precepts that were contrary to doctrine established and promulgated by the Apostolic Fathers of Christianity. Unfortunately, many of these troublesome practices continue today, most importantly the erroneous teaching by the Roman Catholic Church regarding the nature and mechanism of salvation.

Christian apologist Thaddeus Williams, PhD (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam; Theology Professor, Biola University; Philosophy Professor, Trinity Law School) believes the Reformation reminds us, “We have a big God and salvation is found in Him alone. We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone” (19). Williams suggests a “Re-Reformation,” indicating the church in the twenty-first century needs to recapture a sense of the grandeur and the greatness of God. The world needs to learn of the biblical view of His glory; of His desire that people come to believe on His Son, Jesus Christ, for salvation.

It is difficult enough for many new believers to grasp the tenet of salvation through unmerited grace. Luther struggled for some time with Romans 1:17. It is unlikely Luther would have been capable of taking on the whole of Roman Catholicism had he not first come to understand the doctrine of justification through faith in the gift of grace and redemption. If the church were to drop this issue now, it would drastically increase the likelihood that many in these latter days will fall to false teachings or, worse, turn from God completely and forego establishing a “vertical” (heavenward) view between man and heaven.

References
(1) Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. II (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2010), 3.
(2) Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1954), xiii.
(3) Ibid., xvi.
(4) Ibid., 30.
(5) Ibid., 40-41.
(6) Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. II: The Reformation to the Present Day (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2010), 19.
(7) Luther, The 95 Theses. URL:
https://www.luther.de/en/95thesen.html
(8) Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will (Old Tappan: Fleming H. Revelle Co., 1957), 273.
(9) Urban T. Holmes, A History of Christian Spirituality (New York, NY: Seabury Press, 1981), 125.
(10) R.W. Heinze, “Martin Luther,” in the Dictionary of Evangelical Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 510.
(11) Gonzalez, Ibid., 32.
(12) Heinze, Ibid., 510.
(13) Ibid., 510-11.
(14) Zadock Thomas, “Ten Richest Churches in the World and Their Net Worth 2021,” Eafeed. URL:
https://eafeed.com/richest-churches-in-the-world-net-worth-2020-2021/
(15) Frank Eberhardt, “We Believe the Same Way, Right?” Voice, Vol. 96, No. 5, Sept./Oct. 2017, 11.
(16) Les Lofquist, “Why the Reformation?” Voice, Vol. 96, No. 5, Sept./Oct. 2017, 7.
(17)
Catechism of the Catholic Church (Vatican City, Rome: Urbi et Orbi Communications, 1994), Paragraph 824.
(18) Ibid., paragraph 1084.
(19) Thaddeus Williams, “Is the Reformation Still Relevant Today?” The BLB Blog (Oct. 28, 2014). URL:
https://blogs.blueletterbible.org/blb/2014/10/28/is-the-reformation-still-relevant-today/