Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: psychology

The problem of age

people-2563411_1920

I was sitting in the food court with my 95-year-old mother. A young oriental lady rushed up to us, on the verge of tears, and wanted to meet and hold the hand of this old lady. I was startled at first, but as the young lady talked it warmed my heart to see her love for old people. She was from Calgary, in Saskatoon for a Youth for Christ rally. She had a grandmother, but she lived far away in China. Mom was in the middle stages of dementia and didn’t fully grasp what was going on. That didn’t matter to this young lady, she just felt drawn to my elderly mother.

The Bible says: “Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head, and honour the face of the old man, and fear thy God: I am the LORD” (Leviticus 19:32); and “The hoary head is a crown of glory, if it be found in the way of righteousness” (Proverbs 16:31).

Do we North Americans have that kind of respect for elders? It’s pretty obvious that we don’t. What’s wrong with us that we don’t have that kind of feeling for old people? The reasons are many and complex and I don’t pretend that the thoughts I give here explain everything.

Something happened when one room schools were closed and children began to be segregated by age in large classrooms. As parents accepted the idea that this was good for children, our whole society began to organize itself in age specific groups.

Parents began to believe that children learned best how to behave from their peers, rather than their parents. This was not a conclusion that they came to based on evidence. It was propagated by psychologists and sociologists. If we dare to look at the evidence, indications are that this has not been a good thing, for children, for families, for society as a whole.

The next development was the creation of youth. Neither was this an accidental development, it was the result of psychologists and sociologists downplaying the experience and wisdom of parents and discouraging children from respecting those older than themselves, or from even wanting to grow up.

Mandatory retirement was meant to make room in the work force for younger people. People were encouraged to look forward to the day when they could leave behind the drudgery of work and spend their time and energy on travel and recreation. That is, pretend you are still young and try to do all the things now that you didn’t get to do when you really were young. But life can’t be fun and games all the time, and many retirees find themselves once again pigeonholed by their age. They no longer have much in common with their workplace friends, since they are now out of touch with the things they once had in common.

Finally then, we are left with the problem of what to do with old people when they no longer appear to have anything useful to contribute to society. Too often we warehouse them in seniors’ homes.

With all the good intentions in the world, I wonder if we haven’t created places that are breeding grounds for dementia. There are many causes for dementia, of course, but when we see people who remain active and alert well into old age, most often they are people who have maintained interest in other people, especially people who are not just like them. Frequent interaction with younger people and people whose trajectory in life has been different stimulates the mind and keeps it from settling into a rut.

Interaction between old people and children can be stimulating for both. And I’m not just talking about grandparents being babysitters, although most appreciate those opportunities. Elders should be encouraged to talk about their lives, the good times and the bad, to make it real to the younger generation.

Elders should have advice to give, but not in a scolding way, or in a hopelessly idealistic way. By the time we have reached the three score and ten mark we have made an awful lot of mistakes, and hopefully learned something from them. We may not want to talk about all of them. But if we can reach back in our memories and tell where we have made a bad choice and the consequences we have experienced, the lesson we try to teach will have a much greater chance of sticking in the minds of the young.

Faith based service

I got to chatting with some of the younger generation at the lunch after my cousin’s funeral on Tuesday. (In this case, younger means somewhere around 60.)

Ron is executive director of an organisation that flys volunteers into remote northern communities to conduct Vacation Bible School in the summer and to maintain contact at other times in the year. They also hold Bible Studies with the youth in these communities, sometimes go into the schools to pray with the students and teachers. The people in these communities are mostly Dene, Cree and Ojibway. The outreach is well received, the Vacation Bible Schools reach 5,000 children every summer and the communities are supportive.

Jackie (not her real name) was the executive director of a faith-based addictions rehab centre. This was largely government funded and several years ago the government decided to pull their funding. An attempt was made to raise enough money through donations to continue, but it didn’t work out.

The government said they wanted to fund evidence based programs, not ones that were faith based. I wondered about that, especially when Jackie mentioned that many of their clients were dealing with guilt issues. That would probably be the sticking point. From the psychological point of view, feelings of guilt are the problem. Counselling is geared towards helping people free themselves of such feelings.

As Christians, we acknowledge that sometimes there are guilt feelings that torment the mind but have no real basis in actual guilt. At other times, the only effective way to be set free of guilt feelings is to recognize that we really are guilty. Then it can be possible to be forgiven and to forgive others. That is the way of deliverance. Don’t expect governments to understand that. At lest not in the times in which we live.

Thanks be to God, there are still many faith-based organisations out there that are funded by donations and are doing effective work that is beyond the reach of psychology and government.

Relevant to what?

Relevant to what?

Everybody talking about the decline of Christianity in the Western world says that it is because the faith preached over the pulpit is no longer relevant to our society.  What they cannot agree on is in what way it is no longer relevant.

For over a century now, many churches have struggled to become more relevant by espousing the social gospel, incorporating psychological insights, adopting a contemporary style of music, applying marketing techniques to evangelism,  becoming more seeker friendly and so on.  You name it; someone has tried it.  And people keep dropping out of the churches.

The social gospel is godless socialism wearing the clothes and using the language of Christianity.  Psychology says our problems are found in the subconscious, not the heart.  All the new styles and techniques miss the mark by thinking the old-fashioned gospel is, well, too old-fashioned for a modern society.

The problem is that churches are trying to make the gospel relevant to the zeitgeist, rather than to the real needs of mankind.  What they are doing is exactly what the Apostle Paul tells us not to do in Romans 10:2: “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”  “This world” translates the Greek word “aion,” which does not refer to the physical world or the things of the world.  It rather refers to the way of thinking of the time in which we live.  In French it is translated by words meaning “this present age.”  Nowadays a better word would be zeitgeist, meaning the pattern of thought or feeling characteristic of a period of time.

Can we see the problem here?  In trying to be relevant to the zeitgeist the churches have been trying to conform themselves to a moving target.  The defining characteristic of the zeitgeist is that it is ever changing.  That which seemed totally modern and “with it” twenty-five years ago is passé today.  All attempts to be relevant by conforming to the zeitgeist are doomed to failure.

The Word of God needs no adaptation to make it relevant to our needs.  However, we may need to learn how to apply it in ways that people of today will understand.  If our mind set and our methods are still geared to the1950’s we need not expect a lot of success in 2013.  In fact, the use of pat answers and Christian clichés is always apt to arouse resistance to the message.

We do not need a new translation of the Bible.  The constant churning out of new translations creates the impression that the old is not reliable.  This comes across as another attempt to conform to the zeitgeist.  Let us make ourselves thoroughly familiar with the Bible we use and put it into practice.  Let us show the world by our lives that we find the teachings of the Bible to be totally relevant to our own innermost needs.  Then we will be more convincing when we tell them that the gospel is relevant to them, too.

Is anybody listening?

Christians who suffer from depression or other emotional or mental distress often face disapproval if they try to find help in psychologists and pills.  It is true that there are dangers with both.  What kind of help are we offering them?

“Why do Christians shoot their wounded?” was the title of a book published some years ago.  The question is entirely valid.  Why do Christians in a fragile emotional or mental state find it so difficult to talk openly with fellow believers of their struggles?  Isn’t it largely because we are apt to make them feel worse?

I believe there is a time and place for professional help and pills.  They can help someone through a crisis.  But many mood-enhancing pills carry warnings that suicidal thoughts may be a side effect.  Some people find that these drugs make them feel worse.

These people need someone to listen to them.  That is probably the biggest benefit from psychological counsellors.  If you pay them, they will listen.  Why can’t we learn to listen to people with emotional struggles?  We may not be able to identify with their struggles, but would it really hurt to listen?

Our listening should not be passive, neither should it be judgmental.  We will make things worse if we tell people to just snap out of it and stop always looking on the dark side of things.  If they could just snap out of it, they would.  We need to remind them of God’s love and our love.

If sin is somehow involved, it needs to be faced and repented of.  But if we begin with the conviction that every emotional or mental disorder has a spiritual root, we will be miserably useless counsellors.

Years ago an older man began attending the congregation where we were members.  He had spent time in a mental hospital and had been given electro-shock therapy.  He was searching for peace, but in a horribly muddled way.  His strong point was that when he was in a struggle, he had to talk about it.  I was one of the brethren he called.  Sometimes we wondered if his mind was damaged too much to ever find his way through, but after several years and many struggles he found the peace for which he had been searching most of his life.  He had a peaceful and calm trust in God.  He was baptized and we enjoyed his fellowship for a few months and then the Lord took him home shortly before his seventieth birthday.

His son also got converted and was baptized, but in one crucial way his nature was the opposite of his father’s — when something went wrong in his life he would disappear.  He could not face the brethren and admit he had slipped.  One day I happened to meet a man who had known the family years earlier.  He said this son had always wanted to be strong, he exercised, rode a bike and lifted weights to increase his strength.  A light went on for me, he was trying hard to be a strong Christian, too.  He has hit some serious lows in life by always trying to be strong.  Things are going better today.

For twenty years now my wife has had almost daily phone conversations with a lady in another province.  This lady had a miserable childhood and seemed very paranoid when we first got to know her.  I will give my wife a lot of credit for the fact that this lady is doing much better today.  My wife has not agreed with the psychotic suspicions of this lady, but has been sympathetic and supportive and has repeatedly pointed out to her that God is more powerful than all the forces of darkness.

We need to let people know that it is OK to be weak.  The Lord told the apostle Paul “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

We are not being an enabler of another person’s unbalanced state of mind when we listen in sympathy.  Their suspicions, fears, and bizarre dreams seem like reality to them.  By listening with love and patience, not giving a lot of critical advice but rather offering them truths from God’s Word, we can help them discern between their troubled feelings and reality.

Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations (Romans 14:1).

We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves (Romans 15:1).

Beware of Greeks bearing gifts

Among the gifts bestowed upon us by the ancient Greeks there are many that are without a doubt of priceless value, such as democracy.  But there are others that were better left outside the gates, as the Trojan horse should have been.

Astrology is one.  Yet the belief persists among many today that the sign of the zodiac under which we were born determines our personality and the course and outcome of our lives.

The second is the pseudo-science of the four temperaments, based on the idea that our moods, emotions and behaviours are caused by body fluids, or “humours”: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm.  As expounded by its modern adherents, the theory seems to explain a lot about our behaviour.  The problem is that it explains too much: we analyse our friends and put them into the proper pigeon-holes and interpret everything they say and do by the label on the pigeon-hole.

Psychology is the third.  “Psyche” is the Greek word for soul.  Psychology is the attempt to intellectually understand the workings of the soul and to bring healing to the troubled soul by therapeutic means.

The fourth and last is predestination.  The belief that some cosmic force has predetermined the entire course of our life before we were born goes back as least as far as Zeno and Plato.

Do you see the common thread in all of this?  The Greeks are trying to tell us “It’s not your fault!”  You are not to blame for any of the things that have gone wrong in your life, it was all caused by the stars, the humours in your body, or some other cosmic force.

But if nothing is our fault, there is nothing we can ever do to make things different.  We can’t repent of being born under the wrong star, or having the wrong temperament.  But we can repent of making wrong choices and doing bad things.  That is what the Bible tells us to do.  Beware of Greeks bearing gifts that would lead us away from this truth.

Imaginary Sympathy

Around 50 years ago The Readers’ Digest carried an article suggesting that the  word “sympathy” had become so degraded in common usage as to make the word unacceptable to many people.  As I recall, the writer felt that “sympathy” had taken on too much of a connotation of superiority towards the person one felt sympathy for, and thus it was high time to find a replacement.  And of course the writer had just the ideal word in mind.  The word he suggested was “empathy,” a word that up to then had mostly been used by psychologists.
While I might agree that many people use “sympathy” in an improper way, I am not at all convinced that the suggested replacement is an improvement.  I think it is rather a step backward, at least for Christians, to replace “sympathy” with “empathy.”
Let me explain.  I believe that words have consequences, even if we don’t fully understand the etymology and meaning of the words we use.  The more that we use a word, even if most of us don’t fully understand it, the more we are in danger of being led, individually and collectively, towards embracing the concept embedded in that word.
Sympathy, compassion and empathy are all formed from the Latin word pathos, which means feeling.  The following definitions come from the Gage Canadian Dictionary:
Sympathy (syn– together + pathos feeling) 1. a sharing of another’s sorrow or trouble; a sharing, or ability to share.  2. an agreement in feeling; the condition or fact of having the same feeling; 3. an affinity between certain things, whereby they are similarly or correspondingly affected by the same influence.
Compassion (com– with + pathos) feeling for another’s sorrow or hardship that leads one to help the sufferer; sympathy; pity.
Empathy (en– in + pathos) Psychology. the quality or process of entering fully, through imagination, into another’s feelings or motives, into the meaning of a work of art, etc.
Note that while the first two words describe a condition of the heart, the last one is merely a state of mind.  Sympathy, at its root, describes a heart that is tender and responsive, and will instinctively “rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.”
Could it be that the hearts of many people have become shrivelled and hardened to the point that Psychology now offers the alternative of imagining that which they can no longer feel?  Or is Psychology actually the culprit here, leading us to analyse and intellectualize rather than to feel?
Let’s put it another way: sympathy and compassion describe real feelings having very real value.  Empathy is just a cheap man-made imitation.

%d bloggers like this: