The Nature of Man; The Nature of Sin

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members” (Romans 7:15, 19, 20, 22-23, RSV).

“Among these we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of body and mind, and so we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Ephesians 2:3, RSV).

By Steven Barto, B.S. Psych.

THE DOCTRINE OF SIN has become increasingly controversial in recent years. In fact, it is often stated by those of a liberal philosophy that conservative concepts and values concerning man and his sinful nature are archaic. Today’s New Atheists typically accuse Christians of being narrow-minded, backward, or elitist. How can Christianity claim unequivocally that man is (by his very nature) sinful? Or that the only means by which man can be “saved” is through faith alone in Christ Jesus alone? The above Scriptures indicate that as human beings we are prone to follow the desires and passions of our flesh and our minds.

Paul is presenting us with a description of an ongoing struggle with sin in Romans 7:14-25. He describes himself as a “prisoner” of sin, doing the evil he does not want to do, and not doing the good he does want to do. This is what is meant by being in bondage to sin. Paul sees himself as a “wretched” man crying out for deliverance. His self-portrayal in this passage demonstrates a man who is captive to sin in two aspects: in both his conscious choices and decisions, and also in his unconscious reactions to people and circumstances. It has been said that habitual sin is lodged somewhere in our unconscious responses to stimuli.

It would appear that Paul finds himself settling on options he does not want to choose, and responding habitually to situations and people in ways which he does not want to act. From a psychological perspective, these unconscious choices qualify as habitual sins. The accepted psychological definition of habit is a conditioned, automatic response to a stimulus, performed apart from conscious thought or choice. That may sound simple and innocent on the surface, but when it comes to unconscious behavior we are talking about compulsion. The average person wishing to discontinue a habit deemed to be unhealthy or, in the present application, sinful, sees a gradual or (sometimes) immediate decrease in said behavior. But what of those individuals who are not able to change their behavior? Psychiatry would have us believe there is a neurotic or psychological component to the habitual practice of that behavior.

Compulsion is a state of mind in which an individual feels an irresistible urge to perform an action. The word also connotes the action itself. In such a state, the individual feels compelled to say, think or do something they are unable to resist which, even at that very moment, appears to him or her to be harmful, absurd, pointless, or unhealthy. Of course, this is the very root of addiction. The command to perform the action comes from within and is contrary to the conscious will. We can now see the dilemma of defining the type of behavior Paul describes in Romans 7.

The conflicts underlying habitual performance of sinful acts are (according to Paul) unconscious. Such conflicts are varied and involve difficulties like fear, hostility, hatred, rejection, persistent self-doubt, despair, and self-destruction—all of which run contrary to the instinct to act in such a manner as to assure continued health, safety, and life. Of course, Paul’s argument is that once a Christian becomes aware of his or her tendency to sin (while in the flesh), the nature of sin and its concomitant consequences should provide some degree of strength or ability to decrease sinful acts in order to promote spiritual growth. He realizes that his sinful nature (that which resides in his flesh) seeks instant gratification regardless of the consequences of giving in to temptation. In other words, he does not see a “human” remedy for this problem; only a spiritual one.

“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 of myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (Romans 7:24-25, RSV).

THE NATURE OF MAN

Psychological Aspect

Most of us realize that human nature consists of a myriad of characteristics, including how we think, feel, and act. These characteristics are said to occur naturally. Perhaps one of the oldest debates in human history is whether man is basically good or essentially bad. Certainly, this speaks to our overall tendencies. Accordingly, man is both inherently good and inherently bad. We all have the capacity to love and care for others (to one degree or another) on a sliding continuum. Additionally, we have the capacity for being bad: mean-spirited, selfish, hateful, prejudice, deceptive (even murderous under the right circumstances). The extent to which we lean toward one extreme or the other is deeply rooted in a number of factors: childhood experience, personality, culture, geography, demographics, and the like.

You likely remember the tales of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Frankenstein. Each story gives us a particular viewpoint on the nature of man. Robert Louis Stevenson showcased the capacity within man to turn to the left or to the right—to do good or do evil. Dr. Jekyll was a member of the privileged class—a wealthy physician of public renown. He possessed an underlying evil nature which he could not control. When this sinister side took over, he said, “It was the curse of mankind that these incongruous personalities—the good and the bad were thus bound together—that in the agonized womb of consciousness, these polar twins should be continuously struggling.”  Mary Shelley painted a different picture. The monster Frankenstein said, “I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.”

When discussing the nature of man, we are examining whether man is a product of his environment (nature) or the result of an amalgam of his interpersonal experiences (nurture). I believe we are impacted by both. We’re speaking of “temperament,” which is a term we typically see in theories of personality development. I have found in my undergraduate studies in psychology that there are both empirical and theoretical links between childhood experience and adult personality traits. Personality seems to have an unavoidable influence on behavior. Temperament is often seen as a constitutional predisposition, observable in pre-verbal infants and animals, and tied, at least theoretically, to basic psychological processes. Personality traits are assumed to be acquired patterns of thought and behavior that might be found only in organisms with sophisticated cognitive systems.

I subscribe to Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory. He agreed with behaviorists relative to classical and operant conditioning, but added two additional criteria: (1) mediating processes occur between stimulus and response; and (2) behavior is learned from the environment through the process of observational learning vis-a-vis modeling behavior of primary caregivers and other significant individuals in our world during childhood and adolescence. I also support cognitive behavioral therapy to help clients address and defeat their “irrational” beliefs regarding the world and and their own sense of worth. This can be effective with people struggling with addiction and (what used to be labeled) neurotic views of the world. Further, it dovetails nicely with basic Christian doctrine: We must come to see ourselves not as we see ourselves, nor bound to the sum of all our past mistakes; rather, we must see ourselves as God sees us as believers—a new creation, clothed in the righteousness of Christ.

Spiritual Aspect

Scripture sees unregenerate man as enslaved to sin and possessing a corrupt nature. In this regard, man is in need of transformation through rebirth. When a person chooses to believe the Gospel, he or she identifies with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Accordingly, the old nature is crucified with Christ. Paul says of the regenerate Christian, “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day” (2 Corinthians 4:16, RSV). The “old man” or the “old nature,” as expressed by Paul, is man as he was before he was reborn and sanctified by the grace of the Spirit. Don Steward of blueletterbible.org says, “The natural man may be defined as an individual who operates entirely on human wisdom.”

Although not everyone believes in an all-powerful Creator, both atheists and theists are tasked with explaining the innately fallen nature of humans. Mankind is capable of showing kindness and love and sacrifice on one hand,  and cold, calculating selfishness, hatred, deception, and murder on the other. I don’t believe these extremes are present to the same extent in every human being. I do, however, believe there is an underlying sinful and evil nature in mankind. In other words, the potential to be both good and bad exists within us all to varying degrees. Admittedly, many people have difficulty buying into the idea that from the moment of birth we are not innocent and inclined toward goodness. Instead, we are inclined toward sin.

“Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned” (Romans 5:12, RSV).

Dr. Werner Gitt of Answers in Genesis believes it is impossible to understand human nature apart from biblical revelation. Despite my becoming a “born-again” Christian at age 13, I struggled for decades with the concept that I was less than what I have the potential to be. It’s been said to me recently that I don’t give myself enough credit for my accomplishments. Ten years ago, I would have been in complete agreement. But when I undertake an honest and thorough moral examination of myself, I see glaring character defects, repeated selfish and mean-spirited acts, forty-plus years of active addiction, numerous incidents of lying, cheating, and stealing, and the tendency to want “maximum results with minimum effort.” This is beyond laziness. It is akin to the sense of “absolute entitlement.”

Frankly, I am okay with this assessment. It finally makes perfect sense to me, and, accordingly, provides the opportunity for lasting change. I’ve said many times that no “human effort” (neither mine nor the relentless intervention of others) could rescue me from active addiction. Moreover, I have come to recognize (anew) the spiritual battle we all face daily, whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Native American, or atheist. I see how I’ve been a pawn in the struggle between flesh and blood, good and evil. There are powers of darkness that want to recruit us to go to war against God and Jesus Christ; against goodness and honesty, kindness and selfless service. Paul was well-aware of this concept, and he made it an integral part of his ministry.

A Personal Example

It is with some trepidation that I confess to a particular habit I have found hard to stop. I am quite fond of sex and enjoy feeling the nearly-euphoric closeness one experiences during sexual relations. For me, there is unfortunately a dark underside to this stimulus. At some point it became a form of escape. The physical sensation of achieving orgasm served as a perfect way to mask depression, anxiety, even physical pain. In this regard, these sensations became yet another form of “self-medication.” Naturally, this is not what sex is meant for. At least not when it becomes a compulsion. Moreover, the act of masturbation became yet another addiction. In fact, I was told years ago by a psychologist who specializes in addictive behaviors that because I tended to mix masturbation with the use of addictive substances that enhance the physical sensations of sex, I needed to address both issues. He said, “If you don’t, it’s like having two broken legs but only having a doctor set one of them.”

In its excessive form, masturbation becomes a compulsive (perhaps neurotic) act. When it is found in this form, it serves the purpose of allaying anxiety or other uncomfortable emotions. The root of this (and I don’t mean to sound Freudian here) may stem from a number of causes. A neglected or rejected child, who early in childhood may have learned to resolve the fear of isolation or insecurity by indulging in earlier infantile pleasures, will resort to masturbation as a satisfactory relief or consolation. The obvious downside to the persistent habit of masturbation, especially while viewing pornographic images, tends to cause the individual to objectify or sexualize women. This flies in the face of establishing meaningful relationships with a member of the opposite sex.

I am happy to report that by seeing pornography and masturbation as yet another addiction, I have applied the same methods to this compulsive behavior that I have been able to apply to my struggle with substance abuse. I could admit here that I have only recently become drug-free after yet another relapse, but I would rather focus on the fact that I am clean and sober today. I finally grasp the paramount importance of taking it “one day at a time.”

THE NATURE OF SIN

David said, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 199:11, NIV). This is truly the only means by which we can hope to defeat habitual sin. Much like physical exercise—which strengthens our calves or our core muscles over time—the continual practice of sin will serve to strengthen our bad habits. It is true that Christians are often tempted to sin. It’s impossible to completely avoid temptation while we exist in the flesh. Sadly, many end up giving in to such enticement on a regular basis.

It is one thing to recognize our vulnerability while clothed in a fleshly body, but it is a completely different matter to give up and give in to the same sin time and time again. Although I don’t believe recurrence of habitual sin will nullify the saving grace and power of Jesus’s sacrifice, I think habitual sin tends to fill us with guilt, shame, and regret. It can cut us off from fellowship with God. Once this separation occurs, we become increasingly vulnerable to the practice of sin. Indeed, this becomes a vicious circle. Moreover, it taints our testimony, causing us to look like a testiphony

For me, I tend to fall into habitual sin when I fail to believe that holiness can result in a happier, healthier, successful life. In addition, I think the root of habitual sin is not necessarily a battle for self-control. Paul was clear about this in Romans 7. Instead, the root of habitual sin can be found in the need to “feel good.” We have a difficult time quitting a behavior for which we gain something—a sense of euphoria, peace, or happiness. In this manner, said habitual actions are a form of self-medication. Or, worse, an attempt at assuaging the pangs of guilt and the sense of failure we might be experiencing. Regarding chronic use of pornographic images, for example, those who use it to feel good are actually creating a false reality.

John said, “All wrongdoing is sin” (1 John 5:17a, RSV). But it is also more complicated than that. Although sin is simple by its nature, it can create complex illusions that are very difficult to identify and deny. Urges and motivations are quite complicated, often causing a tangled mess in our soul and spirit. In his epistle, James wrote, “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire… Then desire, when it has conceived, gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death” (1:14, RSV). James had never taken a course in psychology, but he thoroughly understood two things: what sin is in its basic form; and the concept that each of us is pulled in directions specific to our own desire. This is precisely why not everyone who drinks alcohol will become an alcoholic. It also explains why not every man or woman is enticed or drawn in by viewing pornographic images.

I believe every sin is, to a great degree, a repeat of the original sin when our first parents decided to eat the forbidden fruit to fulfill their desire to be “like God.” They were not ignorant of God’s instructions. They possessed enough information to make an informed decision to obey or disobey. In fact, God told them that eating the fruit would be wrong and that they would be far happier if they refrained from eating it (see Genesis 2:16-17). Satan misrepresented the truth and told them they would be far happier if they ate the forbidden fruit. In fact, he said to Eve, “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5, RSV). This sounded good to Eve.

We become enslaved according to what we believe. Accordingly, it becomes quite difficult to give up that which we’ve embraced as a means to escape an uncomfortable situation or alleviate a troublesome emotion. This makes habitual sin impossible to defeat through the power of self-denial. While in the grips of a habit that produces in us a great sense of relief or euphoria (consider the brain chemistry of dopamine, oxytocin, seratonin, and endorphins), we are powerless to stop the rewarding behavior. We can only defeat such a habit through the power of a greater desire. Sure, self-denial is necessary, but self-denial is only possible (especially over the long-haul) when it is fueled by desire for a greater joy than what we have decided to deny ourselves. One way to express this is the common phrase, “Change happens when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change.”

In other words, when we desire a closer relationship with the LORD more than we desire continued physical pleasure, we are better equipped to extinguish habitual sin. This is achievable only by walking in the Spirit and not according to the flesh. We must renounce the lies we have believed, repent for having persistently believed them, and begin to exercise faith in God’s promises through obedience to Him. Until we believe we will experience the abundant life Jesus talked about, we will remain in bondage to our flesh, our neurotic or irrational beliefs about how best to achieve peace, joy and happiness. We will continue applying a bandage to our wounds rather than seek to have them healed.

In Whom Are Hidden All the Treasures of Wisdom and Knowledge

“My goal is that [you] may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that [you] may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that [you] may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:2-3, NIV).

By Steven Barto, B.S. Psych.

Paul’s opening statement in Colossians is what I like to refer to as very meaty. It is rich beyond what we can comprehend, containing much promise for the Colossians. It applies to us today as much as it did to those living in Colossae. Paul wanted the Colossians to grasp what was available to them as new Christians. They were to be encouraged in heart and united in love, enjoying the full riches of complete understanding. He noted that through Jesus they had access to the mystery of God. Not that they would know the mind of God, or be like God; rather, that they would begin to comprehend all the hidden treasures of knowledge and wisdom that was revealed through Christ Jesus.

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Revealed through Him? Yes. He walked in complete harmony with the Father, determined to do the Father’s will no matter what it cost. He was the embodiment of love, yielded to the will of the Father—even unto death—and exemplified compassion for the lost and the downtrodden. If Christ were to walk the Earth in the twenty-first century, I have no doubt He would teach, admonish, heal, and serve everyone no matter their personality, sexual orientation, political affiliation, denomination, afflictions, habits, or hangups. Jesus Christ came that all might know the Father through Him. He only displayed anger and disappointment when confronting the self-righteous. The Pharisees. The Hypocrites.

That’s a strange phrase: the self-righteous. In the secular world, it means “having or characterized by a certainty, especially an unfounded one, that one is totally correct or morally superior” That is a rather convicting statement even without a spiritual component. I’ve known some self-righteous people in my life. Some who know me might think the term applies to me. I’ll admit I have a difficult time being humble, but I’ve never felt morally superior. On the contrary, I have often felt inferior, shameful, unable to be redeemed. I have often struggled with being trustworthy, honest, or transparent. The root-cause of these rather ugly traits are deep for me. It’s something I’ve worked hard to overcome. It has not been easy forgiving myself and shaking the sense of shame and guilt.

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It is not surprising that we cannot achieve “righteousness” on our own. Isaiah 64:6 says, “But we are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags; we all fade as a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away” (NKJV). Eugene Peterson translates this verse as follows: “We’re all sin-infected, sin-contaminated. Our best efforts are grease-stained rags. We dry up like autumn leaves—sin-dried, we’re blown off by the wind” (MSG). That’s quite an indictment. Who can stand before God clothed in such a manner and hope to survive His judgment? No one. We can’t save ourselves, earn God’s grace, pay the ransom for sin, or escape through our own power the punishment we justly deserve.

Today’s New Atheists want us to believe God is a heavenly despot who unjustly inflicts pain and takes away life. I’ve heard it said that there is no “free will” in Christianity. These militant atheists say that because God threatens us with hellfire and brimstone (and the gnashing of teeth) if we don’t accept the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, it’s as if God is holding a gun to our head, saying, “Believe in my Son or I will kill you.” These so-called scholars want to convince us that God kills with impunity. That He has no right to create a sentient being and then kill him for not believing in Him. My initial response is quite adamant: Yes He does. But beyond that, God never intended for mankind to suffer, or for His creation to be wrought with pestilence, disease, famine, disasters, wars, and death. Nothing is as God intended it to be.

I don’t believe God kills or hands out cancer, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, COPD, diabetes, or whatever infirmity you may list. He does not condone pedophilia, rape, murder, theft, deception, or environmental crimes. When our first parents, Adam and Eve, chose to disobey God’s one command (that’s all they had to do was not eat of the forbidden fruit), man (and thus mankind) fell from grace. Because of original sin, the Garden of Eden and access to the Tree of Life was closed off to all. Any attempt to behave or earn our way back into God’s grace (back into the Garden) is doomed to fail. Our own righteousness is like filthy rags. The righteousness of Christ, however, is white as the driven snow; as pure as the wool of a young lamb. It is sad, however, that many fail to see themselves as God sees them, including me.

IN WHOM ARE HIDDEN

According to the Dake’s Annotated Reference Bible, the phrase “in whom are hidden” in Colossians 2:3 does not necessarily mean in whom, but rather in which, referring to the mysteries of verse two. In these mysteries of the Gospel are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. In Romans 11:33-36, Paul wrote, “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? Who has ever given to God, that God should repay them? For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen” (NIV). These mysteries have been revealed by God in Christ.

Jesus knows all. He created all. He died to save all. He sustains all. When we see Him, we see the Father (John 14:9). Jesus was one with the Father and the Holy Spirit even at the moment of Creation. In fact, John wrote, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made (John 1:1-3, NIV). John said that in Christ was life, and that life was the light of all mankind (v. 4). Genesis 1:26 reads as follows: “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.'” (NKJV).

There are three possible explanations for God’s use of the plural “Us” in this instance. First, some believe God may be referring to Himself and the angels. I don’t agree with this conclusion given the rest of Scripture’s depiction of angels as representative servants or messengers of God who are not endowed with the power to create. Indeed, Lucifer’s fall from grace was a direct result of his wanting to be equal with God. Second, this could be what scholars call a plural of self-exhortation or self-encouragement, meaning God is referring only to Himself. This would also be referred to as “the royal ‘we,'” something we see used by human kings and rulers when making proclamations or decrees. I believe the third possibility is the truth: That God is speaking as a Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. According to Scripture, the Trinity was present as a whole at Creation. Genesis 1:2 describes the Spirit of God hovering over the waters, and John 1:1–3 reveals that the Word, Christ, was active in the creation of all things.

THAT WE MAY KNOW

Jesus simply knows all things. John 16:30 says, “Now we know that You know all things, and have no need for anyone to question You; by this we believe that You came from God” (NASB). The extent of Jesus’s knowledge was compelling proof of His divine origin. At the end of His time on earth Jesus pressed Peter: “The third time He said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ He said, ‘Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said, ‘Feed my sheep'” (John 21:17, NIV). Peter concluded from Jesus’s words that Jesus had knowledge of his heart. “You know all things” is a general and unqualified statement that John’s gospel presses on our minds.

The greatest thing that can be said of Jesus’s knowledge is that He knows God perfectly. We can only know God partially and imperfectly. Jesus knows Him like no one else can. He said, “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matthew 11:27, NIV). Accordingly, our knowledge of the Father depends wholly on Jesus’s gracious revelation. But our knowledge of God is derivative, partial and imperfect. First Corinthians 13:12 says, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (NIV).

Mankind has been endowed with a certain kind of awareness—one which animals were not given. We possess the capacity for reason, morality, language, personality, and purpose. We can ponder the wonder and meaning of life. Morality and spirituality are unique to man. Like God, we possess the capacity to experience and understand love, truth, and beauty. In this manner, we are God’s chosen image-bearers. So when we accept Christ, we become one with Him in death and in new life. This must occur in order for us to see that which is hidden in Christ.

The desire to know the hidden treasures of God is truly a gift. Not everyone believes in any theistic being at all. Many do believe but don’t buy into the Christian faith or believe in the divinity of Christ. For those who do believe in Jesus, it is not a matter of believing in something or someone that is known through external observance. Instead, it is a matter of finding and knowing the truth by way of deep and serious meditation. It is a matter of faith. But the reward for such faith is full revelation of the reality, nature, character, morality, and truth of God.

Matthew Henry (1997) says our soul prospers when we have clear knowledge of the truth as it is in Christ. We not only believe with the heart, we also are ready (when called) to make confession with the mouth. The truth is so huge we cannot contain it within our own spirit. Knowledge and faith make the soul rich. The more we know and understand the truth, the stronger our faith. These true statements are hidden from non-believers. This, of course, includes the atheist who is determined to shout from the mountaintops how irrational and backward is our faith in Jesus. They simply cannot see the truth for they have chosen to reject the truth ad hoc.

Naturally, we cannot be built up in Christ, nor can we grow in Him, unless we are first rooted in Him—founded upon Him. Once established in the faith, we are exhorted  to abound and improve in it, working out our salvation daily. The Greek word for full assurance in Colossians 2:2 (plêrophoria) actually means “full and accurate knowledge” or “full persuasion.” This implies not only knowledge, but an accurate understanding of that knowledge. We cannot achieve such a degree of certainty by our own mental capacity. Thankfully, that which Paul is speaking about is literally revealed in and through Jesus. Christ Himself is the mystery in Whom all the treasures of wisdom are hidden. Understanding this passage of Scripture allows us to better understand why no one can “know” God through application of empirical tests and measurements. The fullness of the knowledge of God is revealed by the Father through the Son.

References

Dake, J. (2008). Dake’s Annotated Reference Bible. Lawrenceville, GA: Dake Publishing, Inc.

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

 

 

 

 

 

There’s A Kind of Love

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By Steven Barto, B.S. Psych.

LOVE. IT’S MORE THAN A four-letter word. At its basic, love is a noun meaning “strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties,” such as a mother’s love for her child. Of course, it also means “attraction based on sexual desire: affection and tenderness felt by lovers.” It can mean admiration, benevolence, warm attachment, devotion, a term of endearment. However, love is not merely a noun.

Love is also an action verb. In other words, it’s not about something, it’s about doing something. Something selfless at the very least. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary indicates it is a transitive verb that means “to hold dear: cherish.” It can also implicate a lover’s passion, tenderness, amorous caress, copulation. Its etymology is from the Old English word lufu, which includes, “feeling of love; romantic sexual attraction; affection; friendliness; the love of God.” The Germanic word is from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root leubh, meaning “to care, desire, love.” It is “the love of God” I wish to talk about here.

There are seven types of love in Greek:

  • Eros—sexual or passionate love; the type most akin to our modern construct of romantic love.
  • Phileo—brotherly love; friendship; shared good will.
  • Storge—familial love; natural or instinctual affection, such as the love of a parent for his or her child.
  • Agape—a Greco-Christian term referring to “the highest form of love; charity; the unconditional love of God for man.”
  • Ludus—this form of love includes game-playing, manipulation, lying; the purveyor of ludic love has “conquests” but no commitments.
  • Pragmaalso known as “pragmatic” love, it is the most practical type; convenient love that involves “being of service” to another out a sense of duty.
  • Philautia—this type of love is within oneself; essential for any relationship because we can only love others if we truly love ourselves. One of the key lessons on a spiritual journey is learning to love unconditionally. In many ways, this type of love is a stepping stone to grasping agape love.

WHAT OF THIS THING CALLED “UNCONDITIONAL LOVE?”

I’ve heard it said that unconditional love is easy. You probably find that hard to believe. I did. There would be no boundaries to loving someone unconditionally. No matter what they’ve done or not done. One blogger posted an article titled “Unconditional Love: Is it Real or Just a Romantic Illusion?” The post analyzes relationship love. It notes that when love is unconditional nothing can tear it asunder. This is the “we are one in our new relationship” love that is ageless, timeless, and infallible. The writer states, “But here’s what you have to know: unconditional love is a romantic illusion, and one that reflects love that is immature.”

In the introduction to his book, Real Love, Greg Baer, M.D. describes his struggle with emotional problems and addiction to tranquilizers and other narcotics. One evening he took a handgun and went into the woods intending to end his life. He put the barrel against his head, ready to die. Instead, he realized something had to change. He sought treatment at a rehab, but said when he returned home clean and sober he was still at the same place that took him down the dark path of addiction: alone and empty. He was missing the profound happiness he’d been longing for his entire life. Reading Baer’s introduction, I saw myself on the pages.

Life for me has always been an emotional roller coaster. I was a little hellion who could not behave no matter what my father tried. His go-to answer seemed to be corporal punishment. This made me hate him and despise myself. I came to fear his very presence; to feel unloved and unlovable. In my heart, I wanted to please him and make him proud. But in my flesh, I wanted nothing but numbness and escape. As each year passed, I became increasingly sullen and doubted I’d ever amount to anything. Why couldn’t I stop lying, stealing, cursing, trashing my room, getting sent to the principal’s office? As my anger grew, I started hating everything and everyone. I got good at deception. After all, who wants to be in trouble all the time? This was the perfect breeding-ground for alcohol and drug abuse. Finally, I could feel euphoric, happy, invincible. I could escape.

As you can imagine, this was not a very sound solution. I ended up right back at the same place every time. Clean and sober for a short time, but lost and alone. Empty. Without friends. Estranged from my family. So I went back out there, drinking and drugging. Numbing the pain and hiding from the world. Withdrawing behind drawn curtains. I was convinced that I was one of those that Jesus couldn’t save. I drifted further from my Christian roots. My high school friends all left for college. I stayed home and hung out with the party crowd. Out until three, sleeping until noon. Just like the shampoo bottle says, “lather, rinse repeat.” I no longer believed God cared about me. It wasn’t long before I doubted the existence of God.

After four decades of active addiction and numerous relapses in my forties and fifties, I found my way back to the church. I started teaching Bible study at two local prisons and did a lot of studying and writing. You’d think my life improved, right? That I finally reached my happy ending. That there was nothing left but to love and be loved; to be clean and sober and help others find their path to sobriety. Sadly, that was not the case. Chronic and ever-increasing pain from a back injury, degenerative disc disease, severe arthritis, and fibromyalgia taunted me and drove me to opiate addiction. I knew better. I just couldn’t decide better. I was letting my physical pain dictate my behavior.

Even after returning to the church of my youth where I accepted Jesus as my savior; despite attending a Christian university and graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Psychology; regardless of years of research, writing, and blogging about addiction and spirituality, I continued to mess up and kept helping myself to narcotic painkillers of family members. Again, I was shunned. They were back to believing I will never change. I’d work my way back into their lives to only repeat my selfish and deceptive behavior.

So what is this all about?

It might sound too simple, but I’m wrestling not against flesh and blood, but against powers and principalities, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places (Ephesians 6:12). But it’s true. This is exactly what Paul means in Romans 7 when he says, “For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it” (verses 18-20, NIV). Although this is instrumental in helping me learn to crucify my flesh and walk instead in the Spirit, it does not alleviate the hurt, disappointment, and anger my family feels toward me. Their utter disgust and inability to trust me.

THE KIND OF LOVE ONLY GOD KNOWS

I recently discovered an incredible song by the Christian group For King and Country, called “God Only Knows.” Although the entire song cuts me to the core, several lines really stand out. Wide awake while the world is sound asleepin’, too afraid of what might show up while you’re dreamin’… Every day you try to pick up all the pieces, all the memories, they somehow never leave you. God only knows what you’ve been through, God only knows what they say about you… You keep a cover over every single secret, So afraid if someone saw them they would leave. God only knows where to find you, God only knows how to break through, God only knows the real you…

LOVE FROM GOD’S PERSPECTIVE

What happens when we look at love from God’s perspective?

The love of God is central to His relationship to the world. We cannot grasp His kind of love through our own intellect. Certainly, there are many paradigms, worldviews, and theological interpretations for God’s kind of love. Theologians consider divine love to be an overriding component of God’s character, if not the very essence of God. Conceptions of divine love vary widely. This is due, in part, because man has a tendency to split hairs over metaphysical matters. The result is theories and definitions which are often cemented in denominational, doctrinal, or other theological differences.

But here are some basic features of God’s love:

  • We can trust in God’s love. First Corinthians 13:4-8 provides an excellent description of God’s (agape) love. It is patient, kind, does not envy, does not boast, is not proud, does not dishonor others, is not self-seeking, is not easily angered, keeps no record of wrongs, does not delight in evil (but rejoices with the truth), always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. Clearly, there is a powerful and unrelenting component to God’s love. We see evidence of this in His covenant relationship with His people. Even in our sinfulness, He demonstrates patience, showering us with unmerited grace and mercy.
  • Our salvation is an expression of God’s love. God loves us enough to have established a plan for our redemption before the foundation of the world; before man’s first sin of disobedience. He provides access to that redemption through His Son, Jesus Christ, who died in our place (see John 3:16). God did not send Christ as a reward for those of us who can keep the Law; rather, He provided Jesus as a solution to the sin problem by making Jesus a ransom for our disobedience. Although we were bought (redeemed) with a price, redemption is much more than being set free from the wages of sin. The crucifixion of Christ restores our fallen status by making peace between us and God. It takes away our shame. It provides for our physical healing. It provides for our spiritual rebirth and restoration.
  • God’s love serves as an exemplar for us. Truly, God has restored us to Him through Jesus Christ. It is up to us to work at restoring our relationships with others. We can only do this by being rooted in God’s love—striving to understand its depth and implications. God asks us to emulate this behavior.
  • The Holy Spirit produces love in us for others. The link between Christ’s love for us and our love for each other is found through the Holy Spirit. We see Christ’s love for us to the point of obedience unto death.

Paul writes, “…that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height—to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:17-19, NKJV). By accepting the full measure of God’s love, we are able to begin practicing unconditional love toward others. We will by no means measure up to this divine attribute. This “no limits” love cannot be achieved through human endeavor. We become able to love this way only through yielding to the Holy Spirit. We can only accomplish it because God first loved us. What connects us with Jesus is faith—trusting His forgiveness; banking on His promises; cherishing His fellowship; desiring to fulfill His Greatest Commandment: to  love the Lord God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind; and to love our neighbor as ourselves (see Matthew 22:36-40).

LOVE—PART OF THE FRUIT OF THE SPIRIT

Galatians 5:22-23 reminds us of what is achieved in us through the Fruit of the Spirit. Eugene Peterson translates it like this: “But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely” (MSG).

The late Billy Graham said, “This cluster of fruit should characterize the life of every Christ-born child of God. We’re to be filled with love, we’re to have joy, we’re to have peace, we’re to have patience, we’re to be gentle and kind, we’re to be filled with goodness, we’re to have faith, we’re to have meekness, and we’re to have temperance. But what do we find? In the average so-called Christian today we find the opposite.”

True love—the unconditional agape love of God—always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres (1 Corinthians 13:7). Jesus tells us in John 15:12, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” (NIV). Paul reminds us in Romans 12:9-10, “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves” (NIV). When we expect this kind of undying love from our friends or family, we set ourselves up for disappointment. Further, as in my case, we’re at risk of living in the sin of offense because we become unforgiving of their unforgiveness. Rather, we must look to God for this kind of love. A love that culminated in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Each of us, before coming to Christ, is dominated by one nature—the “old man.” We’re controlled by our ego, our self. We are selfish at best; deceitful at worst. No one likes to be wrong. That’s human nature. Repeated mistakes—especially the ones that continue to break the hearts and spirits of those we love—are the hardest for us to let go. I loath myself when I cannot seem to do that which I want to do, and keep doing that which I wish not to do. I have to remember I am in good company, as the apostle Paul wrote of this very struggle in his life. 

The moment we receive Christ as our Savior, self is put down. We identify with His death, burial, and resurrection through backward-looking faith. Accordingly, we are to crucify our flesh daily. No amount of human power can relieve us of our habits, hangups, or addictions. But when we walk in the Spirit and not in the flesh, we put Christ on the throne in our lives. We dethrone ourselves. The Spirit of God is in control. It is only through realizing this and living it every day that we can ever hope to love unconditionally.

References

Baer, G., M.D. (2003). Real Love: The Truth About Finding Unconditional Love in Fulfilling Relationships. New York, NY: Avery.

Peterson, E. (2003). The Message//Remix: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.

Skinner, K. (December 16, 2013). “Unconditional Love: Is It Real or Just a Romantic Illusion?” Retrieved from: https://www.yourtango.com/experts/kathe-skinner/unconditional-love-it-real-or-just-romantic-illusion

 

 

Why We Know New Testament Writers Told the Truth

“Why would the apostles lie? If they lied, what was their motive, what did they get out of it? What they got… was misunderstanding, rejection, persecution, torture, and martyrdom. Hardly a list of perks!” —PETER KREEFT

I came to know Christ at a critical time in my life. I was just thirteen years old, in dire straits, always at odds with my father. You could say I had a difficult time with obedience, controlling my base impulses, telling the truth, and keeping my hands off other people’s property. The more my father tried to correct and redirect me, the more I rebelled. We were a church-going family. I thought the message from the pulpit made sense. I basically fell in love with Jesus. I responded to an alter call, accepting Him as Lord and Savior. I was baptized shortly after.

Unfortunately, my walk with Jesus was rather short. My family had a falling out with the church, and I strayed. By age eighteen I was smoking weed, drinking, and committing petty crimes. Before I could grasp what was happening to me, I got caught up in some serious felonies. I served three years in a state prison, followed by seven years on state parole. I had only been out of high school a year and a half before my whole world fell apart. Even after jail time, I continued to struggle with active addiction for over forty years before renewing my relationship with Jesus Christ. It was only through the power in the Name of Jesus that I was able to turn away from that life and break the chain of active addiction.

I have  completed my undergraduate degree in psychology at Colorado Christian University. In addition to classes in my major, I also took courses on worldviews, integration of Christian theology and psychology, Christian doctrine, church history, Pauline literature, and ethics. I developed a passion for apologetics and Christian doctrine. Many of my recent blog posts have focused on this topic. Although I remain focused on  my ministry counseling teens and young adults struggling with mental illness and addiction, I will always have a particular affection for Christian apologetics.

SOME RATHER POWERFUL EVIDENCE

We have seen very powerful evidence that the documents comprising the New Testament were written by eyewitnesses and their contemporaries within 15 to 40 years of the death of Jesus. Moreover, secular documents and archaeological evidence has established that the New Testament is based on historical fact. Yet many skeptics ask how we know the authors didn’t exaggerate or embellish what they say they saw?

Lee Strobel, in his seminal book The Case For Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus, recounts his interview with Craig Blomberg, one of the country’s foremost authorities on the biographies of Jesus—which we know as the four gospels. Blomberg’s books include Jesus and the Gospels, Interpreting the Parables, and How Wide the Divide? and a commentary on the gospel of Matthew. Blomberg told Strobel that Matthew (also known as Levi, the tax collector and one of the twelve disciples) was the author of the first gospel in the New Testament; that John Mark, a companion of Peter, was the author of the gospel we call Mark; and that Luke, known as Paul’s “beloved physician,” wrote both the gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. Blomberg said there are “no known competitors for these three gospels.”

According to Papias, a Christian writer from A.D. 125, early testimony is unanimous that John the apostle—the son of Zebedee—wrote the gospel of John. Blomberg also informed Strobel that Irenaeus, writing about A.D. 180, confirmed the authorship of the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. He said Irenaeus wrote the following words,

Matthew published his own Gospel among the Hebrews in their own tongue, when Peter and Paul were preaching the Gospel in Rome and founding the church there. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, himself handed down to us in writing the substance of Peter’s preaching. Luke, the follower of Paul, set down in a book the Gospel preached by his teacher. Then John, the disciple of the Lord, who also leaned on his breast, himself produced his Gospel while he was living at Ephesus in Asia.

THE CONSISTENCY TEST

Skeptics of the gospels like to point out that they are hopelessly contradictory with each other. They say, “Aren’t there irreconcilable discrepancies among the various gospel accounts? And if so, then how can we trust them?” Strobel said Blomberg acknowledges these inconsistencies, ranging from very minor variations in wording to the most famous apparent contradictions. He said, “My own conviction is, once you allow for the elements I’ve talked about earlier—of paraphrase, of abridgment, of explanatory additions, of selection, of omission—the gospels are extremely consistent with each other by ancient standards, which are the only standards by which it’s fair to judge them.” Interestingly, Strobel admits if the gospels mirrored each other word-for-word, it would seem to hint at collusion, which would give us pause. Blomberg agreed.

historical-jesus.jpg

It’s important to note that each Gospel writer had a particular intention and focus. They set out to accentuate a unique aspect of the ministry of Jesus. Through their individual gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—they focused on particular elements of Christ’s ministry and message that they felt illuminated their narrative. Despite their varied focus, the gospels exhibit a remarkable and important cohesiveness. They all bear witness to Jesus and his ministry, but approach the story from an individual perspective. These four viewpoints take nothing away from our understanding of Jesus. Rather, they give us a richer, deeper, clearer look into the mystery of Christ.

There were a number of languages spoken during the 1st century when Christ walked the roads of the Holy Land spreading the Good News and calling on men to follow Him. You were likely to hear Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Latin. Jesus likely spoke Aramaic, which was thought to be the primary language spoken by most Jews throughout Palestine during this era. So when we consider the fact that the gospels were written in Greek, the fact that Jesus probably spoke Aramaic becomes quite significant. Most of his words had to be translated into Greek—making every quote an interpretation. Languages don’t necessarily have equivalent words or phrases to support transliteration. Each gospel writer had to interpret Jesus’ words and sayings in order to find equivalents in an entirely different language. In other words, translation is interpretation.

This is the basis for scholarly claims that we have the authentic voice (ipsissima vox) of Jesus but not necessarily his exact words. We can trust the essential meaning of the words attributed to Jesus in the gospels even though we never know precisely how He said what He said. The writers of the four gospels, as interpreters of Christ’s message, meant that their translation—paraphrase, if you will—would focus on the theology of the Gospel. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is quoted as saying “Blessed are the poor” (Luke 6:20), but Matthew records him saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3). Now it could be Jesus said both of these things at different times, but it’s likely that Matthew felt it was extremely important to clearly communicate the spiritual significance of Jesus’ words.

RELIABILITY OF NEW TESTAMENT DOCUMENTS

It is paramount that we consider the historical reliability of the New Testament separate from its inspirational properties. Such reliability should be judged by the same criteria used to evaluate all historical documents. Because the Christian faith is intimately connected to very specific historical events, those who are determined to prove or disprove Christianity outside the realm of faith find the historical soundness of its documents is an appropriate starting point.

Stetzer (2012) writes in an article for Christianity Today titled “A Closer Look: The Historical Reliability of the New Testament,” that “…we have over 5,700 Greek manuscripts representing all, or part, of the N[ew] T[estament]. By examining these manuscripts, over 99 percent of the original text can be constructed beyond reasonable doubt.” Stetzer also remarks that the authors of the gospels and the Acts were in an excellent position to report reliable information. It is also important to note that these five books were written in the first century, within sixty or seventy years of Jesus’ death—most likely A.D. 30. The amount of time separating the historical events and the composition of the five books is very short as compared to most ancient historical and biographical accounts, where many centuries could intervene between events and the books that narrated them.

Other tests for historicity have been used to test the accuracy of the New Testament. For example, a document written as a personal letter has a high probability of reliability; it is also likely accurate if it is intended for small audiences, written in unpolished style, or contains trivia and lists of details. The absence of such features does not necessarily mean the document is unreliable; however, their presence makes the prima facie acceptance of the document stronger. Much of the New Testament, especially the apostolic letters and some of the sources behind the Gospels, is made up of personal letters originally intended for individuals and small groups. In addition, much of the New Testament is in unpolished style, containing examples of inconsequential detail in the Gospels. These considerations show when general tests for historicity are applied to the New Testament documents, they pass them quite well.

ARCHAEOLOGY AND THE NEW TESTAMENT

Strobel interviewed John McRay, author of Archaeology and the New Testament. McRay consulted on the National Geographic Network TV special Mysteries of the Bible. McRay studied at Hebrew University, Ecole Biblique et Archeologique Francaise in Jerusalem, Vanderbilt University Divinity School, and the University of Chicago. He has been a professor of New Testament archaeology  at Wheaton for more than fifteen years. McRay told Strobel, “Archaeology has made some important contributions, but it certainly can’t prove whether the New Testament is the Word of God. If we dig in Israel and find ancient sites that are consistent with where the Bible said we’d find them, that shows that it’s history and geography are accurate. However, it doesn’t confirm that what Jesus Christ said is right. Spiritual truths cannot be proved or disproved by archeological discoveries.”

It’s Strobel’s contention that if an ancient historian’s incidental details check out to be accurate time after time, this increases our confidence in other material that the historian wrote but that cannot be as readily cross-checked. Strobel asked McRay, “Does archaeology affirm or undermine the New Testament when it checks out the details in those accounts?” McRay quickly responded: “Oh, there’s no question that the credibility of the New Testament is enhanced, just as the credibility of any ancient document is enhanced when you excavate and find that the author was accurate in talking about a particular place or event.” As an example, McRay recounted his own digs in Caesarea on the coast of Israel, where he and others excavated the harbor of Herod the Great.

There is an obvious allure to archaeology. It’s a discipline I’d considered as I neared the end of high school. I can see no better useful tool for uncovering and proving aspects of ancient civilizations, their origins, and their religions. Ancient tombs, cryptic inscriptions etched in stone or scribbled onto papyrus, pieces of broken pottery, old coins—these are clues for persistent scholars and investigators. Perhaps on of the most tantalizing clues of the biblical past are the Dead Sea Scrolls. In 1947 in an obscure cave west of the Dead Sea, Bedouin shepherds discovered some scrolls carefully placed in ten tall jars. They did not know what they had come upon, but they sold the scrolls to a nearby dealer. This was the opening chapter to an astonishing archeological find; eventually some 800 different manuscripts would be found in eleven caves near the valley called Wadi Qumran. In all, some 60,000 fragments, portions, or complete scrolls of these 800 manuscripts were retrieved, covering many subjects.

Many of the documents contained biblical texts. Either fragments or complete copies were found of every book in the Old Testament except Esther. They had been placed in these caves around the middle of the first century A.D., and the amazing fact is that they had lain there undisturbed for 1900 years! But why are these Dead Sea Scrolls so important for us? The reason is that before this discovery the earliest manuscripts of biblical texts dated from the ninth century after Christ. They were copies of earlier copies which were long lost. The majority of the Dead Sea Scrolls are in Hebrew, with some fragments written in the ancient paleo-Hebrew alphabet thought to have fallen out of use in the fifth century B.C. But others are in Aramaic, the language spoken by many Jews—including, most likely, Jesus—between the sixth century B.C. and the siege of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. In addition, several texts feature translations of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, which some Jews used instead of or in addition to Hebrew at the time of the scrolls’ creation.

It has been said that it would be foolish to hold on to the illusion that the gospels are merely fictional stories like the legends of Hercules and Asclepius. The theologies in the New Testament are grounded on interpretation of real historical events, especially the crucifixion of Jesus, as a particular time and place. Beyond the manuscript evidence, archaeological evidence helps to authenticate the gospel narratives. Frankly, if the New Testament gospels were nothing more than fictions and fables about a man who never lived, one must wonder how it is they possess so much verisimilitude and why they talk so much about people we know lived and about so many things we know happened. After all, the gospels say Jesus was condemned to the cross by a Roman governor named Pontius Pilate. Not only is this man mentioned by historical sources outside the New Testament but there is an inscribed stone on which his name appears. Indeed, it appears archaeologists have found the name of Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest who condemned Jesus, inscribed on a bone box. It seems these people were real.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Both Christian and secular scholars from a large cross section of theological schools have concluded that the evidence uncovered over the centuries provides an adequate basis to affirm with confidence that Jesus truly existed. It seems every single author who mentions Jesus—pagans, Christians, or Jewish—was fully convinced that He at least lived. Even the enemies of the Jesus movement thought so; among their many slurs against the religion, His non-existence is never one of them… Jesus certainly existed. And most historical scholars (Christian or not) find the attempt to explain away all apparent references to Jesus in Roman writings, much less New Testament espistles, to be an unconvincing tour de force that lapses into special pleading.

From the historical evidence, we can reject the critics charge that the gospels are mere legends about the life of Jesus Christ. There is an abundance of internal and external evidence that support an early date of the gospel writings. There are numerous archaeological and historical records corroborating the events of Jesus’ life. Finally, the manuscript evidence assures us that we have a copy accurate to the originals. Having established the historical and archaeological soundness of the gospels, we are now free to examine the theology of the Gospel.

Mental Illness and the Christian

Most of us know someone who is in counseling, on medication, or who has even taken or attempted to take his or her own life as a result of mental illness. Among the many topics high on the list that trouble Christians today, mental health would most likely be at or near the top. Ed Stetzer wrote an article for Psychology Today (2018) in which he asks, “Why is it uniquely challenging for us to address issues often associated with mental illness?” girl gazing at sunset

It seems whenever the topic of mental illness or suicide comes up at church or among our Christian friends, we automatically wonder, Why? Aren’t we saved from these types of issues? Aren’t we healed and set free? Yet this is a conversation the church truly needs to have. Thankfully, my church does not shy away from topics like mental illness and addiction. Admittedly, suicide and addiction may be two of the most complex and demanding topics of all. Joyce Meyer and Max Lucado have written several good books on the issue of mental health. Meyer (1995) began with her seminal Battlefield of the Mind. Lucado (2017) recently published Anxious for Nothing.

Meyer notes that daily emotional ups and downs are one of the major struggles we have in life. Instead of riding the emotional roller coaster, it should be our goal to become stable, solid, steadfast, and determined. If we let our emotions rule over us, we’ll never be the person we were meant to be. Of course, we can never be completely free of our emotions, but we must learn to manage and control them rather than let them control us. Let’s be honest: Life is no fun when we’re ruled by our emotions.

It’s important to realize that emotions lie to us. They paint an inaccurate picture, typically convincing us that all is lost based on one bad day. Without any effort on our part, our brain takes in and evaluates information throughout the day. Our emotions are regulated automatically in the limbic system. The center of emotional processing and mediation of resulting behavior—defensive versus aggressive—is the amygdala. The limbic system is also responsible for memory. The amygdala has been the focus of study for decades. It’s been stated that emotional memory (how we respond to pleasant, unpleasant, fearful, and painful situations) occurs long before we develop language skills. I believe the formative years of 0 to 5 are critical relative to formation of our personality and to how we handle situations in the future that remind us of painful experiences from our past. This is, perhaps, the very basis for emotional baggage.

Anxious for Nothing

Lucado (2017) describes anxiety in a manner worth repeating here:

“It’s a low-grade fear. An edginess, a dread. A cold wind that won’t stop howling. It’s not so much a storm as the certainty that one is coming. Always… coming. Sunny days are just an interlude. You can’t relax. Can’t let your guard down. All peace is temporary, short-term. It’s not the sight of a grizzly but the suspicion of one or two or ten. Behind every tree. Beyond every turn. Inevitable. It’s just a matter of time until the grizzly leaps out of the shadows, bares its fangs, and gobbles you up, along with your family, your friends, your bank account, your pets, and your country.”

Lucado calls anxiety “a meteor shower of what-ifs.”

The word anxious defines itself. It comes from the Latin words angere (to choke) and anxius (worried, distressed). The earliest sense of anxious is from the 17th century, meaning “troubled” or “worried.” Lucado notes that fear screams, Get out! Anxiety ponders, What if? Fear results in the response of fight or flight, as it should. Fear is the pulse that pounds in your ears when you’re being followed by a hooded figure late at night just after you withdraw $300 from the ATM. Anxiety, on the other hand, creates a general sense of doom and gloom that you can’t quite figure out. Anxiety robs us of our sense of safety and security. It steals our energy. Our well-being.

Meyer (1995) says anxiety and worry are both attacks on the mind intended to distract us from serving the Lord. These are primary tools used by Satan to press our faith down so deep that it cannot rise to the occasion and aid us in our times of trouble. She says worry is definitely an attack from the devil upon the mind. She adds, “It is absolutely impossible to worry and live in peace at the same time.” She believes some people have such a problem with worry that they might be addicted to it. I’ve heard it said that a person will continue doing something as long as they get some type of benefit from it. So what might a person get from worrying?

To determine if you’re addicted to worrying, take the following quiz:

  • Do I worry about many things every day?
  • Is it difficult to stop watching anxiety-provoking news on TV or the Internet, though I try?
  • Do I experience separation anxiety when I can’t access my smartphone or computer?
  • Do I make problems larger, not smaller?
  • Do I worry about things that no one around me worries about?
  • When one anxiety is solved, do I immediately focus on another?

If you answered “yes” to all six questions, worry plays a very large, addictive role in your life. Four to five “yes” answers indicate a large role. Two to three “yes” answers indicate a moderate role. One “yes” indicates a low level. Zero “yes” answers suggest that you’re more warrior than worrier!

Meyer believes life is intended to be of such high quality that we enjoy it immensely. I’m not implying that bad things never happen to good people; that’s a topic for another day. Jesus was clear, however, in John 10:10 when he says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (NIV). Eugene Peterson calls it “…more and better life than they ever dreamed of” (MSG). Worry is one of the many ways Satan steals the good life. Paul echoed this sentiment in Phillipians 4:6: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (NIV).

God Heals

We can love God with our whole heart, follow His commands, even put Him first, yet still be struggling with anxiety or depression. We can find ourselves face-to-face with the grim reaper, a gun or a bottle of pills in hand, no longer wanting to be alive. Wondering, How did I get here? For me, it started with marijuana and beer. Once addiction took hold, I lost sight of God, His love and grace, and all hope. My uncle, in recovery now for decades, told me several times, “You’ve lost all hope. You can’t even see the horizon anymore.”

Theologians and philosophers call man a tripartite being. That is, we’re made up of a body, soul, and spirit. It’s in our spirit that we find meaning and purpose in life. It’s in our soul—that is, in our mind—that we suffer mental illness. Anxiety and depression begin there, but spread throughout the body and quickly affect the spirit. In fact, mental illness causes us to doubt God’s grace and healing power. It cuts us off from the sunlight of the Spirit. This is critical because it’s through the Spirit that we learn discernment and intuition. It is through the Spirit that we’re able to love one another. There’s an interchange involved: our spiritual health impacts our mental and physical health, and our mental and physical health impacts our spiritual health.

We are impacted—either good or bad—by how we handle the stress that life brings. If chronic stress is left unchecked, over a period of time it will take a toll. A strong faith can help us cope with the stress that we experience and enable the impact of that stress to be less significant. Without a strong personal faith, we’re left to our own devices. Often we attempt to cope with stress through addiction, sexual promiscuity, shopping, gambling, and other methods of escape. Such behavior can further exacerbate the effect of stress on our physical health. A strong personal faith can be a resource that helps manage stress before it manages us.

Matthew 9:35 says, “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness” (NIV) (Italics added). Jesus had compassion and healed those besieged by mental illness, many of whom had been despised, rejected, persecuted, and feared by their community. Interestingly, the history of psychiatric treatment has its roots in the Christian church. The Quakers in Philadelphia opened the first inpatient psychiatric facility in 1752. John Wesley and the founders of The United Methodist Church practiced a faith grounded in the redemptive ministry of Jesus Christ, with a focus on healing the whole person: physical, spiritual, emotional and mental. 

All aspects of health—physical, mental, and spiritual—were of equal concern to Jesus whose healing touch reached out to mend broken bodies, minds, and spirits. His intention was to restore well-being and renew communion with God and neighbor. Interventions are needed to heal mental illness. If you or someone you know or love are struggling with mental illness, especially as a believer, do not hesitate to pray with them and to suggest meeting with a minister. Also, there are many faith-based counseling services available today. It is God’s intention that you are fully restored. Christ is the Great Physician. Jesus came that we might have life, and that we might have it abundantly. That includes being of sound mind, free of anxiety and depression.

For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind. (2 Timothy 1:7)

References

Lucado, M. (2017). Anxious for Nothing. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishing.

Meyer, J. (1995). Battlefield of the Mind: Winning the Battle in Your Mind. New York, NY: Time Warner Books.

Justification versus Sanctification

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Justification and sanctification are not the same thing. The basic dictionary definition of justification is “the action of showing something to be right or reasonable.” The theological definition is “the action of declaring or making righteous in the sight of God.” Sanctification is an ongoing process. It comes from the Greek word hagiazo, which means to be separate or set apart. As we’ll see later, sanctification is not the same as salvation. We’ll also see that justification is a transaction and sanctification is a transformation.

Justification is a Transaction

In Christian doctrine, justification is God’s act of removing the guilt and penalty of sin, and imputing His righteousness through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Romans 3:22-24 says, “This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (NIV).

Eugene Peterson provides the following translation of Romans 3:21-24: “But in our time something new has been added. What Moses and the prophets witnessed to all those years has happened. The God-setting-things-right that we read about has become Jesus-setting-things-right for us. And not only for us, but for everyone who believes in him. For there is no difference between us and them in this. Since we’ve compiled this long and sorry record as sinners (both us and them) and proved that we are utterly incapable of living the glorious lives God wills for us, God did it for us. Out of sheer generosity he put us in right standing with himself. A pure gift. He got us out of the mess we’re in and restored us to where he always wanted us to be. And he did it by means of Jesus Christ” (MSG) [Emphasis added].

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We are justified, declared righteous, at the moment of our salvation. Justification does not make us righteous, but rather pronounces us righteous. Our righteousness comes from placing our faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ. His sacrifice covers our sin, allowing God to see us as perfect and unblemished. Certainly, it should be obvious that this is something we simply cannot accomplish on our own. Martin Luther, in his Commentary on Romans, says, “St. Augustine writes in the ninth chapter of his book Concerning the Spirit and the Letter: ‘He does not speak of the righteousness of God, by which God is righteous, but of that with which He clothes a person when He justifies the ungodly.’ Again in the eleventh chapter he comments: ‘But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested; that is, God imparts it to the believer by the Spirit of grace without the work of the Law, or without the help of the Law. Through the Law God opens man’s eyes so that he sees his helplessness and by faith takes refuge to His mercy and so is healed.'”

Reach For God

Romans 5:18-19 sums up this concept quite nicely. “Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the one man the many were made righteous” (NIV). It is because of justification that the peace of God can rule in our lives. It is because of justification that believers can have full assurance of their salvation. It is the fact of justification that enables God to begin the process of sanctification—the process by which God makes us in reality what we already are positionally. “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:1-2, NIV).

Sanctification is a Transformation

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The very moment we are saved in Christ we are also immediately sanctified and begin the process of being conformed to the image of Christ. As God’s children, we are set apart from that moment to carry out His divine purposes. Hebrews 10:14 says, “For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (NIV). Peterson’s translation says, “It was a perfect sacrifice by a perfect person to perfect some very imperfect people. By that single offering, he did everything that needed to be done for everyone who takes part in the purifying process” (MSG).

Sanctification is different than salvation. It is important to differentiate between the two concepts. Jesus gave his life on the cross as a sacrifice for our sins. His blood washes away our sins and frees us from eternal suffering and damnation. Believers are save because of what Christ has already done. We can do absolutely nothing to earn salvation. Sanctification occurs as a result of salvation. But sanctification does not stop there. Instead, it is a progressive process that continues in a believer’s life. This is because even as Christians we still have the capacity to sin. We find ourselves in a spiritual battle the moment we confess Christ as Messiah and decide to follow Him. Paul describes this inner battle in Galatians 5:17: “For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not [able] to do whatever you want” (NIV).

Paul notes in Romans 15:16 that through the grace of God he became a minister of the Gospel to the Gentiles so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. Paul’s ministry was not merely to win converts to Christ; he intended to see people become sanctified. He says, “I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done…” (v. 18). Obedience leads to sanctification. Romans 6:17 says, “But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.” (NIV).

Sanctification is the Key to Spiritual Growth

Sanctification is both a matter of position and progression. Indeed, we’re told to work toward perfection—that is, maturity in Christ. We’re to move from milk to solid food. We are sanctified because Jesus Christ has saved us and yet sanctification continues to work within to transform us into the likeness of Christ. Sanctification is the responsibility of every believer in Christ. When we choose to pursue sanctification in our life, positive growth occurs. It is important to remember this is a process, and cannot be rushed. Like a newborn baby that gradually matures unto adulthood, so is the work of sanctification in the life of a new Christian. The work of sanctification will ultimately be completed in every believer’s life when Christ returns.

Paul writes, “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Thessalonians 5:23)

 

The Encounter in the Desert

He stood, sweating, gazing over the vastness
of what looked like nothingness; hot, glaring,
monochromatic landscape, broken only by an
occasional dune. His eyes batted against the
stinging bits of sand encircling his head as He
tried to catch His breath. He was, after all, Jesus
in a mortal body.

He was hungry. He had not eaten for the past
forty days. He caught sight of an approaching
figure surrounded by piercing light. The desert
floor began to vibrate. The figure was enormous
in size, and seemed to exude tremendous power.

As if reading His mind, the figure said, “Tell
these stones to become bread.” In response,
Jesus took a confident breath and said, “It is written:
‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every
word that comes from the mouth of God.'”
Although Jesus stood his ground, the figure reached
toward Him and whisked Him away.

Now, Jesus and the figure were at the Holy City,
standing on a steeple. The figure said, “If you
are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is
written, ‘He will command his angels concerning
you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that
you will not strike your foot against a stone.'”

Jesus answered, “It is also written: ‘Do not put
the Lord your God to the test.'” The figure was
persistent in his provocation, reaching toward Jesus
again, spiriting Him away to a very high mountain,
where he showed Him all the kingdoms of the world
in all their splendor and beauty and majesty.

“All this I will give you,” said the figure,
“If you will bow down and worship me.”
“Away from me,” Jesus said, “For it is written:
‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only.'”
Jesus could not be tempted or drawn away,
nor did He lose His faith in God, as a result
of his encounter with the devil in the desert.

©2016 Steven Barto