A Place for Authoritative Prayer

Cover for Simple Faith“In that hour he [Jesus] healed many people
of diseases and plagues and evil spirits,
and on many who were blind he bestowed sight.”
(Luke 7:21 ESV)

A Place for Authoritative Prayer

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Richard Foster (1992, 229) describes authoritative prayer with these words:

“In Authoritative Prayer we are calling forth the will of the Father upon the earth. Here we are not so much speaking to God as speaking for God. We are not asking God to do something; rather, we are using the authority of God to command something done.”

As practiced in the church today, authoritative prayer is also referred to as deliverance ministry and, more popularly, as exorcism. Foster’s term, authoritative prayer, is more descriptive of the actual practice and less likely to evoke the baggage that accompanies other terms.

A reluctance to practice authoritative prayer exists among many Christian leaders. I would like to argue here that this reluctance needs to be reassessed because the need for authoritative prayer has grown dramatically in our generation, because authoritative prayer has been unfairly stigmatized and misunderstood, and because authoritative prayer has a legitimate therapeutic place even when other forms of counseling are available.

Background

Jesus practiced authoritative prayer, as most authors recognize. E.P. Sanders (1993, 149), for example writes:

Exorcisms, which are a significant subcategory of healings, deserve fuller discussions. They were very important in Jesus’ culture and also in his own career.

Sanders then proceeds to list twelve scriptural citations where Jesus performs exorcisms[1] and also lists exorcisms performed by others in the New Testament (Sanders 1993, 15). Significantly, Jesus also commissioned the disciples to preach and cast out demons (e.g. Mark 3:14-15).

The early church took the need to cast out demons seriously because virtually all adult converts had previously worshiped pagan idols, which were believed to be demons. The church accordingly commissioned exorcists much the same as deacons and elders. The church has always recognized the need for authoritative prayer, even if some traditions have seldom openly practiced it.

Types of Healing Prayer

Interest in authoritative prayer in the modern period, outside the Pentecostal (charismatic) tradition, started with a Roman Catholic priest by the name of Francis MacNutt in the 1960s, who taught that authoritative prayer could be described as one of four types of healing needing prayer:

  1. Repentance of sin (spiritual healing).
  2. Emotional (or relational) healing.
  3. Physical healing. and
  4. Deliverance (healing from spiritual oppression) (MacNutt 2009, 130).

Distinguishing the different types of healing needs is important because many practitioners lump all healing needs into authoritative prayer and fail to distinguish spiritual oppression (common) from outright possession (rare).[2]

The Postmodern Need for Authoritative Prayer

In the modern period, the influence of rationalism in Christian thought led many to question the reliability of scriptural references to exorcism and other recorded miracles. This over-emphasis on rationalism and personal autonomy seems increasingly out of place in the postmodern period that we live in.

Limits to Autonomy

In my own hospital experience, for example, I noted that about half the patients that I visited with as a chaplain intern working in the emergency department were admitted for reasons that could be classified as preventable, problems arising out of poor lifestyle choices, and other self-destructive behavior. In visiting later with the senior surgeon, I was corrected. He reported that the actual proportion of patients so classified was closer to three-quarters. Consequently, if in the concrete reality of medicine, we are incapable of maintaining our physical health in view of rational information to inform us as to how to accomplish this objective, then how much more incapable are we of maintaining our own spiritual health?

Growth of Suicide Problem

Outside of personal observation, we know from recent reports that the United States is currently experiencing a thirty-year peak in suicides, with the largest increase among men aged 45-64 (Tavernise, 2016). I personally know of two men within that demographic who killed themselves within the past year. If people are killing themselves in record numbers, it is safe to say that spiritual oppression is part of the picture, especially when drug abuse and deviant sexual activity are not indicated, because poverty, depression, and despair do not have to lead to suicide.

New Challenges

Outside of the medical and psychiatric fields, three factors suggest a need for authoritative prayer that could be classified as something new. First, the growth of interest in pagan religions and immigration from countries where animistic religions are commonly practiced show spiritual influences previously absent in the West. Second, the mainstreaming of alternative sexual practices and drug use (and the abuse that often goes with them) has the potential to increase the number of individuals susceptible to spiritual oppression. Third, the discrimination of secular institutions practiced against Christians reduces the number of individuals who are nominally influenced by the church and thereby able to resist other spiritual influences.

The Practice of Authoritative Prayer

A number of approaches have been taken in authoritative prayer. Here I will speak only of my personal experience in assisting a seasoned practitioner who is an ordained Presbyterian pastor in Charlotte, NC.

Setup

A typical session involves someone who has come to the pastor with a request for authoritative prayer. No attempt is made to compel anyone to participate or to accept anyone referred against their will. The session takes place in a private setting, usually a church or living room, and normally the pastor has an assistant, such as myself, who takes notes so that he can focus on the prayer.[3] Parents and other loved ones are invited to join in only if the person feels comfortable with them being there. The person receiving prayer does not need to disclose anything. After introductory conversation, the pastor starts by explaining the purposes of prayer and the scriptural authority being evoked in authoritative prayer.

Object of Prayer

The prayer itself starts with praise of God and the person being prayed over. As Christians, we believe that God is sovereign over all of creation, he is good, and he cares for us. This praise is important because God already knows what is on our minds and has promised to answer the prayers of his people. Our tiniest request from an infinite God provides more power than any spiritual being can resist. Most of the remainder of the prayer is for the benefit of the person being prayed over.

Triage

The prayer then proceeds to triage the spiritual issues that the person being prayed over may be suffering. Perhaps, the spiritual problem has been passed down through family or started with harsh words from someone important to the person. Perhaps, the person has experienced great shame or guilt due to sinful behavior, especially sexual or drug experimentation. Perhaps, the person has been overwhelmed with grief or pain. Perhaps, the person has refused to grow up in some important way or fallen in with bad company or hurt someone close to them or suffered some terrible tragedy.

Response

As this prayer unfolds, the pastor prays with eyes open to observe the person’s reaction and the reactions determine how long particular issues are addressed. This triage process is important because many of the deepest spiritual problems that we face may have been repressed over years and the person may not even be aware of their emotional impact.[4] Because the person need not disclose anything going into prayer or coming out of it, their own awareness and willingness to confess their issues is not in view.[5] As such, authoritative prayer is not a substitute for counseling. In fact, it may be a prelude to counseling because the person may realize their issues need more attention.

Concepts Supporting Authoritative Prayer

A couple of theological concepts inform this method, but are not necessarily required.

Identity in Christ

First, our souls are composed of our will, our mind, our memory, and our social environment. A modern word for soul might be our identity. The idea that our identity is socially held[6] means that when we make Christ the cornerstone of our identity, we are not easily shaken the way that we might be if some other cornerstone were chosen. Treating Christ as a secondary part of our identity does not provide nearly the stability required to resist temptation and evil. As temptation and evil become more prevalent in the postmodern period, the need for this stability is greater than ever.

Parasitic Spirits

Second, the image of an evil spirit being confronted in authoritative prayer is that of a parasite. An evil spirit is parasitic in the sense that it cannot exist independent of its host for very long, much like tick would starve in the absence of blood host. Driving it out therefore risks that the parasite will seek another local host and the prayer must account for this behavior.

Permission Denied

Third, evil spirits are driven out, not by shouting or employing incantations or any special form for prayer, but by denying that they have permission to inhabit the person being prayed over and appealing to the power and authority of God. Evil spirits act like bad lawyers arguing for their rights to oppress a person. Thus, it is important to have the person’s permission to pray because it implies that the demons do not have permission to continue their oppression.

Return to Biblical Authority

The primary reason that many people question the existence of evil spirits is that the spiritual world is itself thought not to exist, a result of an animistic tradition debunked by rational thinking. But if rational thinking is only part of our own thinking, why would it preclude the existence of a spiritual being who is divorcing itself from God? Furthermore, why, if you believe in God, would you then question the existence of other unseen spiritual beings? The Bible treats angels and demons as heralds of Christ himself (e.g. Mark 5:7). Denying their existence is tantamount to denying Christ’s divinity, because Christ treated exorcism as important in his ministry.

References

Foster, Richard J. 1992. Prayer: Find the Heart’s True Home. New York: HaperOne.

Francis MacNutt. 2009. Healing (Orig Pub 1974). Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press.

Jung, C.G. 1955. Modern Man in Search of a Soul (Orig Pub 1933). New York: A Harvest Book.

Sanders, E.P. 1993. The Historical Figure of Jesus. New York: Penguin Books.

Tavernise, Sabrina. 2016. “U.S. Suicide Rate Surges to a 30-Year High” New York Times. April 22. Online: https://nyti.ms/2k9vzFZ, Accessed: 13 March 2017.

[1] Mark 1:23-8/Luke 4:31-37, Mark 1:32-34/Matt 8:16/Luke 4:41, Mark 1:19, Mark 3:11/Luke 6:18,
Mark 3:20-30/Matt 12:22-37/ Luke 11:14-23, Mark 5:1-20/Matt 8:28-34/Luke 8:26-39, Mark 7:24-30/Matt 15:21-28, Mark 9:25/Matt 17:18/Luke 9:42, Matt 4:24, Matt 9:32-34, Luke 8:2, and Luke 8:2. (Sanders 1993, 149-150).

[2] MacNutt (2009, 167) distinguishes deliverance ministry (relief from spiritual oppression) from exorcism (relief from possession).

[3] These notes are taken to allow the pastor to return to issues undercovered at the end of the session and are given to the one being prayed for at the end of the session. No record is retained by the pastor or the assistant.

[4] Jung (1955, 1, 33) saw the unconscious as playing a leading role in neuroses and viewed the unconscious secret as more harmful than one that is conscious.

[5] Jung (1955, 30-31) viewed psychoanalysis as a modern form of confession.

[6] The Alzheimer’s patient is an example of someone whose identity is only held by their loved ones and care givers. When we die, our identity will likewise be held primarily by God.

 

Also see:

Prayer for Healing, Comfort, and Deliverance

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2vfisNa

 

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The Scientific Method and Objective Truth

The scientific method is a learning method that led to many discoveries about the physical world that have defined the modern period. Discoveries in agricultural production, medicine, and manufacturing have alleviated hunger and poverty, and have extended the life expectancy of the vast majority of people since the early nineteenth century. These discoveries has so dramatically improved the lives of modern and postmodern people that claims about the method have pervaded virtually all aspects of our lives. While almost no one discounts the usefulness of the method, the spillover of rational thinking into other aspects of life helped accelerate exploration of limits to its usefulness.

In its simplest exposition, the scientific method consists of series of steps in analytical thinking:

  1. Problem definition
  2. Observation
  3. Analysis
  4. Decision

In the problem definition step, the researcher forms an hypothesis. The researcher then proceeds to collect observations about this hypothesis in the second step. In the third step, the researcher analyzes these observations in view of other discoveries. In the final step, the researcher decides whether to accept or reject the hypothesis.

The flexibility of the scientific method to be applied to many aspects of the physical world accounts for its enormous usefulness. As researchers make new discoveries, they publish their finding so that other researchers can replicate their results. Thus, over time the knowledge of the physical world grows and is decimated throughout the scientific community and applied to practical applications in agriculture, industry, and medicine.

For many years, people believed that using the scientific method did not involve philosophical prejudices, but simply revealed facts about our world. This belief, however, came increasingly under scrutiny as researchers began to apply the scientific method especially in the social sciences. Scrutiny gave way to outcry during the Second World War as people learned of German scientists performing inhuman experiments on prisoners in concentration camps, such as learning the minimum nutritional requirements to prevent starvation, cold water survival rates, and so on. It soon became more widely understood that which problems came into focus in research involved serious philosophical and theological presumptions that had previously not gotten much attention.

One particularly important presupposition in the modern period and in the scientific method had to do with the nature of truth. Arising out of the Christian worldview came the assumption that one objective truth exists which, if we take the time to research, we can discover. This assumption is reasonable in the physical sciences; it is less tenable in the realm of social science, where cultural assumptions often dictate how particular activities are judged. For example, we can all agree on the weight of a particular bucket of sand, but we may not agree on whether to eat pork or whether it is acceptable to charge interest on a loan.

The existence of objective truth may sound like a trivial issue, but it becomes important in determining the status of professionals, such as scientists, doctors, lawyer, economists, and even pastors. If one objective truth exists, then it makes sense to consult the professional responsible for that subject matter. If truth is socially defined as is often argued in the postmodern period, then it is less clear which professional is most appropriate or whether a professional is even needed. In the church, for example, who is most suitable to preach and teach the Bible in which translation and with how much training? The answer to these questions are hotly debated within the church, in part, because we have come to doubt the nature and importance of objective truth.

Why do we care?

In the postmodern world that we live in, rational learning and decision making is still important, but the cynicism surrounding rationality is everywhere to be seen and it affects our attitude about anyone in authority. Prior to the modern period, authority stemmed primarily from wealth and political power in secular society and the church’s authority stemmed from reverence for God. In the modern period in America, authority still stemmed from wealth and political power, but this authority was increasingly tempered by the knowledge-based power of professionals and respect for God waned as rational thinking led many to question God’s existence. In the postmodern period, respect for both God and professionals has waned leading to the rise of authority based primarily on wealth and political power. In effect, if objective truth and God do not exist in people’s minds, then my truth and my group’s truth take center stage.

A second important result of this lack of belief in objective truth is that it undermines, not only professionals, but also respect for democratic and judicial process. On a theoretical level, if objective truth exists, then through debate and argumentation we come closer to understanding this truth, which is embodied in both our democratic and legal systems. If no objective truth is believed to exist, then debate and argumentation are simply a power play that does not enhance the credibility of the decision reached.

Therefore, the losing parties in debate or legal process have no inherent reason to accept the outcome of the process. This is why we observe so many sore losers on the evening news today that previously did not seem even to exist in popular culture. The postmodern rhetoric about the lack of debate in the modern period attributing the peace to an overwhelming majority of Americans being simply white is a half-truth, not the whole truth. Everyone believed in the American system, even when not everyone benefited equally. This why people still prefer to jump over the fence to come to America from other places. One seldom hears of people escaping to join most other, non-western destinations—it is not entirely about the differences in wealth.

While the modern period is clearly over, the challenges and risks that we face remain poorly understood without understanding the role played by the scientific method and objective truth in the world that we continue to live in.

 

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Analysis versus Synthesis

It is common for people to say that they plan to analyze an issue, but what do they really mean? Suppose your professor asks you to analyze an author’s point of view and review his book. Typically, an analysis involves breaking a big idea into the smaller ideas that together compose the big idea.

For example, a book about the history of the United States might be composed of sections describing the period before colonization, the period of colonization, the revolutionary war period, the presidency of George Washington, and so on. The analysis focuses on American history, but the details break that history up into manageable time periods and special events. In fact, one might say that American history is a synthesis of these smaller units that help to explain what it means to be a country called the United States.

Notice that a synthesis is used to compose an aggregation of these parts while an analysis takes the whole and breaks it up into the parts. It is fair, for example, to describe the Bible as a synthesis of the historical revelation of God to humankind. The best minds of the church undertook this synthesis historically and continue even now to affirm the special character of the books chosen. This is why the Apostle Paul could write to Timothy:

“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3:16-17 ESV).

Another example of synthesis in our faith walk arises when we employ an ACTS prayer. The first part (A) of the prayer is adoration (or praise). We adore God for his mercy, compassion, patience, love, and truthfulness (Exod 34:6), attributes rare in the world, but which characterize God. Having praised God, in the second part (C) we confess that we are sinful and cannot enter God’s presence, except for the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. Confession marks us as believers in Christ—an insight gained from analysis of the three verses in Romans 10:8-10.[1] Having praised God and confessed our sins, we then move into the third part (T) where we thank God for the many blessings of this life. Then, in the final part (S), we supplicate—an old-fashioned word for ask—God for his help in our lives. In effect, our synthesis in an ACTS prayer is a short statement of our personal theology.

It is helpful to distinguish analysis from synthesis because both are useful, but in different ways, in organizing and presenting our thoughts clearly. For example, a sermon is typically a synthesis composed by the pastor, for example, while the listener is engaged in more of an analysis of what is being said. If the pastor rambles a few observations about a particular passage of scripture without preparation,[2] then the congregation may find the observations interesting but not be able to draw any serious conclusions, even if they take notes. By contrast, the same observations preceded by an introduction with a statement of premise, separated by restatement of premise, and followed by a conclusion repeating the premise may be understood by everyone in the room.[3]

David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons recently underscored the importance of clarity in church preaching and teaching. They write:

“Many Christians worry about secularism taking over, but secularism shouldn’t be our greatest concern. In other words, secularism’s advance is downstream from anemic Bible engagement and thin theological thinking.” (Kinnaman and Lyons 2016, 227).

Because of the Internet, original documents from the time of the Bible and the early church have never been more widely available and the number of competent researchers and pastors has likewise never been greater. So why are so many Christians having trouble applying their faith in everyday situations? Part of the answer is that we need to take ourselves more seriously as researchers and pastors, and communicate our faith clearly.

References

Kinnaman, David and Gabe Lyons. 2016. Good Faith: Being a Christian When Society Thinks You’re Irrelevant and Extreme. Grand Rapids: BakerBooks.

Robinson, Haddon W. 2001. Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

Sedniew, Andreii. 2013. Magic of Impromptu Speaking: Create a Speech that Will Be Remembered for Years in Under 30 Seconds. Santa Clara: Andreii Sedniev.

[1] “But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” (Rom 10:8-10 ESV)

[2] In an impromptu speech, you talk about one idea for a couple minutes, transition to a second idea, then transition to a series of other ideas. Transitions are hugely important to bringing your audience along with you. One way to transition is a synthesis (this idea is a part of a larger class of ideas, as in cups to dishes) or an analysis (this idea can be broken into subclasses of ideas, as in cups to tea cups), which Sedniev calls linguistic pyramids. Another way to transition is to use associations, as in a table and a donkey are similar in that they both have four legs (Sedniev 2013, 32-35).

[3] This is a brief overview of “big idea” preaching as articulated by Haddon Robinson (2001, 33-46).

 

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Rational Learning

“Behold, I have set before you an open door,
which no one is able to shut. I know that you
have but little power, and yet you have kept
my word and have not denied my name.”
(Rev 3:8 ESV)

Earlier in my preface, I argued that the act of knowing brings us closer to a holy God because holy means both sacred and set apart. Rational thinking sets us apart from the object of our reflection just like God was set apart from his creation, not part of it. Yet, knowledge is also at the heart of sin, as we learn in Genesis 3 when Satan tempts Eve. Scripture praises knowledge when its object is God, but cautions us when it leads to pride.[1] So we should take the attitude of the Apostle Paul vigorously defending the faith and pointing people to God (2 Cor 10:5-6).

So what is rational thinking?

The word, rational, implies that a conclusion comports with reason or logic. Rational thinking is thinking logically while thinking has to do with the work of the mind. Using logic and experience to judge rightly. In this context, rational thinking starts with making reasonable comparisons and associations.

Rational thinking benefits directly from logic, such as mathematics and mathematical relationships. We might argue, for example, that 1+1 = 2 which simply states that adding one to one makes two. Alternatively, we might argue that 1+1+1 > 2 which says that one plus one plus one is greater than two. Simple comparisons, like these two equations, make rational thinking extremely powerful in ordering our thinking and quickly admit substantial complexity.

Rational learning, which is based on comparisons, differs from behavioral learning because we need to stand back from simple responses to stimuli. For example, suppose I am a high school student trying to decide whether to take a full-time job or to enroll in college. From a behavioral learning perspective, the job provides an immediate benefit while college enrollment requires an immediate expense for tuition and living expenses so the obvious decision is to take the job. From a rational learning perspective, the lifetime earnings in the job may be only a small fraction of the lifetime earnings after completing a college degree, even accounting for costs involved so the decision likely is to enroll in college. While both alternatives involve uncertain outcomes, the behavior learning model focuses on short-term costs and benefits, while the rational learning model employs more information than simply immediate costs and benefits.

From a faith perspective, how we learn clearly affects our attitude about our faith, especially when it comes to future events. Think about our attitude about children. When our children are young, they require a lot of expense and attention. Even if they care for you in your senior years, such benefits are far into the future. Considering only the short-term costs and benefits, the behavior learning model suggests that having children is only a present cost, while the rational learning model weighs the current costs against future benefits. The calculation applies to living out our faith today in view of our future life in Christ. The sacrifice of praise on Sunday and of living a moral life the rest of the week has both present and future benefits, but only a rational evaluation sees beyond the sacrifice. Trust in God’s goodness and provision for our needs is also required

If blind response to stimulation leaves the exclusively behavioral learner at risk of addiction and of missing out of benefits preceded by costs, the exclusively rational learner falls prey to analysis paralysis. The rational learner patiently considers all available options, comparing costs and benefits. We all know Christians who get stuck evaluating all their options in life decisions and spend more time studying their faith than living it out. Coming to closure on decisions is frequently a problem for those specialized in rational decision making.

How do we come to closure on decisions? When should options be limited and a decision made?

In my experience, this is an opportunity to pray for God’s guidance. Where the behavioral decision maker needs to focus on developing patience in decision making, the rational decision maker needs to pray for guidance to be satisfied with the doors that God has already placed in front of them.[2]

Reference

Ortberg, John . 2015. All the Places to Go—How Will You Know? God has Placed Before You an Open Door: What Will You Do? Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.

[1] Compare, for example, (Prov 1:7; Isa 11:1; 2 Cor 4:6; Phil 1:9) with (1 Cor 8).

[2] John Ortberg (2015, 257) sees the opened door is a fitting metaphor for how God invites us to step out in faith and service rather than having us wait for confirmation and comfort. He writes (10): “It’s an open door. To find out what’s on the other side, you’ll have to go through.” This opened door invitation always appears riskier than it really is because of who offers the invitation and for what purpose. The purpose that Ortberg sees is intensely interesting: “God’s primary will for your life is not the achievements you accrue; it’s the person you become.” (15). As God tells Abram: “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:3; 9, 35). In offering such blessings, God invites us to decide which doors to go through as part of our sanctification (16) and our decisions form our character and mold our identity (8).

 

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Behavioral Learning

In my earlier discussion of perceptions (click here), I argued that we learn to respond behaviorally a long time before any rational decisions are made. Behavioral learning starts with a simple idea: do more of activities that bring pleasure and do less of activities that bring pain. By contrast, rational learning starts with making comparisons: activity A brought more pleasure than activity B so let’s do more of activity A. Such comparison require pattern recognition and memory not required in behavioral learning. Success in implementing rational learning also requires patience.

This simple distinction between behavioral and rational learning lies at the heart of many ethical controversies, because behavioral learning can lead to logical traps. For example, the fish that grabs every tasty worm is likely to end up the fisherman’s dinner. In a study of such traps, Cross and Guyer (1980, 3-4) write:

“The central thesis of this book is that a wide variety of recognized social problems can be regarded from a third view [Not stupidity; not corruption]. Drug use, air pollution, and international conflict are all instances of what we have called ‘social traps’. Put simply, a social trap is a situation characterized by multiple but conflicting rewards. Just as an ordinary trap entices its prey with the offer of an attractive bait and then punishes it by capture…’social traps’ draw their victims into certain patterns of behavior with promises of immediate rewards and then confront them with [longer term] consequences that the victim would rather avoid.”

Following this line of thinking, the existence of conflicting patterns of rewards and punishments create ethical dilemmas in decisions focusing exclusively on behavioral responses.

For example, the example of short-term benefits followed by long-term costs arises in the case of smoking. The pleasure of smoking a cigarette poses no immediate health risk, while a lifetime of smoking can lead to cancer and early death. In the case of smoking, the short pleasure of cigarettes leads one into a pattern of addiction that would not be chosen, if the entire pattern came into view at the outset. Smoking therefore poses an ethical dilemma because hypothetical future costs must be compared with tangible present benefits, which poses a problem for many people.

A counter example arises when short-term costs are followed by long-term benefits. The classical example is the student who hates to study (a short-term cost) and drops out of school losing a lifetime of additional income. Investment decisions more generally have the characteristic of a short-term cost followed by a long-term benefit.

In both examples, smoking and education, conflicts in patterns of short-term and long-term costs and benefits lead those specialized in behavioral learning into ethical dilemmas that cannot be avoided without considering the entire sequence of costs and benefits. The need to study and learn patterns of costs and benefits involving ethical dilemmas provide the inherent motivation for most ethical teaching and for avoiding an exclusive reliance on behavioral learning.

While trap avoidance motivates ethical teaching, teaching self-discipline (a kind of rational learning) has its own benefits. In the early 1960s, Walter Mischel ran an experiment with pre-schoolers (4 year olds) focused on delayed gratification. The children were given a choice: eat one marshmallow now or, if you wait about twenty minutes, you can have two. Mischel then tracked the performance of the children over time, reporting:

“The more seconds they waited at age four or five, the higher their SAT scores and the better their rated social and cognitive functioning in adolescence. At age 27-32, those who had waited longer during the Marshmallow Test in preschool had a lower body mass index and a better sense of self-worth, pursued their goals more effectively, and coped adaptively with frustration and stress.” (Mischel 2014, 4-5).

In other words, self-discipline is at the heart of achievement as we know it (and predictable even in preschool) and impulsive (behavioral) responses lead to under-achievement. The good news in Mischel’s research concerned how self-discipline could be taught, thereby avoiding a lifetime of under-achievement.

If self-discipline is important in worldly success, then why do so many people continue to live a hedonistic lifestyle, pursuing only happiness and pleasure? The short answer is that we become addicted to dysfunctional behaviors much like we get addicted to cigarettes—knowledge about the likelihood of cancer and an early death is normally insufficient to giving up cigarettes. Worse, industries have profited and grown from encouraging people to indulge their addictions—why else would bootleggers and drug dealers be so popular?

The Good News is that Christ died for our sins so that we don’t have to.

References

Cross,John G. and Melvin J. Guyer. 1980. Social Traps. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Mischel, Walter. 2014. The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

 

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The World of Perception

One of the oldest photographs of me as a baby shows me in a high chair. I am smiling with my hands in the air and oatmeal on my face wearing a diaper and a top covered with a bib. The date on the photograph is February 1954 which means that I was about two months old.

Does little Stephen remember this early meal? Hardly. Did little Stephen climb into this chair or prepare his own food? Hardly. We know, however, from the picture that little Stephen is well fed and cared for because he is plump and happy. We suspect that little Stephen has a mom that loves and cares for him, but she is nowhere in the picture.

How does little Stephen perceive his world?

As parents (or siblings) we know that little Stephen needs constant watching because everything in arm’s reach goes straight into the mouth. Science tells us that babies are actually born blind, but babies can still feel, smell, and hear, although the mouth has priority. For the baby, trying something out generally means putting it in the mouth. No amount of reasoning by mom will change that behavior.

So how do little Stephen’s perceptions change with time?

If stuff goes into the mouth that does not belong there, little Stephen cries and cries, but that does immediately mean that it won’t go into the mouth a second time. If little Stephen does not like smashed peas, for example, he will still try them a few times before learning to refuse them on sight.

In the same manner, dad and other relatives may initially hold little Stephen, but pretty soon he will recognize that they are not mom and may get anxious and cry unless mom is in sight and comforting him.

How sophisticated is little Stephen’s decision making?

Through tasting, little Stephen learns that he likes some food and does not like other food—and other random, mouth sized objects. Good food gets a positive response from little Stephen; bad food gets a negative response. This tasting elicits a behavioral response, with either positive or negative.

Through sight, little Stephen compares his food and visitors with his prior experiences and either accepts or rejects them. Although these comparisons come much later than tasting per se, they form the basis of early rational decision making.

Who provides little Stephen’s template for thinking about God?

In little Stephen’s world, mom is the early model of God’s immanence because she brings him into the world and cares for him. Dad’s role as progenitor and provider is less obvious and serves as an early model of God’s transcendence.

How does little Stephen relate to his parents?

Little Stephen has a definite preference for mom because she cares for him and is always present. This preference only changes once trust is established both with mom and with dad.

Isn’t telling that we, as postmodern people, have grown fat and irritable? In our anxious world, the fascination with food reflects a mass regression to a child-like state, where we trust only things that go into the mouth—not because we are hungry, but because we are anxious—and where we cry for the one who cares for us, even if we do not even know his name.

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Why We Care About Epistemology

Our concern with epistemology is simple: faith is a lifesaver and, when faith is undermined, people suffer.

To see why faith is a lifesaver, let us return to our earlier discussion of the scientific method, when we consider the steps—problem definition, observations, analysis, decision, action, and responsibility bearing—the key step typically is the first one: problem definition. Glenn Johnson (1986), a friend and former professor, used to talk about how researchers would get stuck on a pre-step in problem definition—having a felt need—which does not mature into an actionable, problem definition. A good problem definition requires insight in the problem and creativity that is frequently absent.

Viktor Frankl offers an interesting problem definition in reflecting on faith and the meaning of life. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl shares both his concentration camp experiences during the Holocaust and his observations as a logotherapist (meaning therapist) on the meaning of life. He observes:

“Every age has its own collective neurosis, and every age needs its own psychotherapy to copy with it. The existential vacuum which is the mass neurosis of the present time can be described as a private and personal form of nihilism; for nihilism can be defined as a contention that being has no meaning.” (Frankl 2008, 31)

He defines neurosis as an “excessive and irrational anxiety or obsession”[1] while an existential vacuum (lack of meaning in life) “manifests itself mainly in a state of boredom” which afflicts 25 percent of European students and about 60 percent of American students, according to Frankl’s own statistics. He concludes that meaning comes not from looking inside one’s self, but from transcending one’s self (Frankl 2009, 110,131). In his book, he repeatedly associates this existential vacuum with despair and suicide, based on his experience both as a concentration camp survivor and a professional psychiatrist.

If our culture obsesses about individual freedoms, encourages individuals to look within themselves for meaning, and rejects faith out of hand,[2] then Frankl suggests that we should observe epidemic levels of anxiety, depression, and suicide, as we observe. Lucado (2009, 5) puts it most succinctly: “ordinary children today are more fearful than psychiatric patients were in the 1950s.” Frankl and Lucado’s observations about the emotional state of a society are hard to quantify in a statistical sense, but the New York Times recently reported that suicide rates in the United States had reached a thirty-year high.[3]

How did we reach this point?

Part of this story is one of a stagnant economy where about half of all Americans have seen no increase in real income since about 1980. Families under economic pressure have increasingly both spouses working full time which implies both smaller families and fewer economic and emotional reserves, especially for those with only a college degree or less. When both spouses work, it is harder to set aside Sundays for family and church, reducing spiritual reserves. When a family crisis emerges for families already stretched to the limit, the absence of reserves—economic, emotional, and spiritual—can be stressful. Remove faith from this mix, the absence of reserves can be devastating.

Faith is more than a spiritual reserve, but it is certainly no less. If faith functions as a reserve, then its removal leaves the family more prone to stress. We accordingly care about maintaining the vitality of our faith at least as much as our economic and emotional vitality. If our faith informs our work ethic and our devotion to marriage, as indeed it does, then the vitality of our faith is actually more important than our economic and emotional vitality because it is more primal. Attacks then on our faith are the most basic threats to our life both here and now, and eternally. So we care about epistemology because our lives depend on maintaining our faith.

Reference

Frankl, Viktor E. 2008. Man’s Search for Meaning: A Classic Tribute to Hope from the Holocaust (Orig Pub 1946). Translated by Ilse Lasch. London: Rider.

Lucado, Max. 2009. Fearless: Imagine Your Life Without Fear. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

Tavernise, Sabrina. 2016. “U.S. Suicide Rate Surges to a 30-Year High” New York Times. April 22. Online: https://nyti.ms/2k9vzFZ, Accessed: 13 March 2017.

[1] https://www.google.com/#q=neurosis&*.

[2] Guinness (2003, 145) describes prevailing attitude when he was a philosophy student during the 1960s as ABC—anything but Christian.

[3] Most surprising, the largest increase among men aged 45-64 (Tavernise 2016).

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Challenges to Faith

One of the most seductive arguments against faith in God is the idea that faith is optional. This argument is usually offered by people who refuse to accept any ethical obligations. This argument is insidious because it is normally preceded by excuses for why God does not exist or the church is unattractive or just plain obstinance. What matters is not the excuse given but rather the motivation—laziness, self-centeredness, and the like. The Apostle Paul had little time for such people and simply advised the Thessalonian church: “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” (2 Thess 3:10) However, since few people accept Paul’s admonition today without qualms, let us examine the arguments.

The first inference, that faith is optional, ignores the problem of idolatry and is simply counter-factual, from a scientific perspective. Let me turn issue to each issue in turn. Then, let me address the usual excuses.

If we treat faith as optional, we frequently fall into idolatry. The problem of idolatry today has less to do with worshiping statues of pagan gods than with misplaced priorities. We commit idolatry whenever we place anything other than God as the number one priority in our lives and it is a sin because it breaks the First Commandment given to Moses: “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exod 20:3). The sin of idolatry is often taken lightly, but this a mistake because idolatry is life threatening.

To see the threat posed by idolatry, consider what happens when alternatives to God become our number one priority. Common today, for example, is to place work as the number one priority in our life. What happens then when we lose our job or our ability to work? Americans, particularly men, are prone to depression and suicide when a job is lost and cannot be replaced for whatever reason.[1] People who cannot work, like the mentally disabled, the young, the old, the uneducated, are treated badly. When we neglect our faith in God, we end up committing idolatry, which threatens our self-esteem and our relationship with people we should care for.

If we treat faith as optional, we also fail to understand how faith undergirds modern science. Knowledge based on the scientific method follows a distinct method for testing knowledge’s veracity. These steps are usually employed: a problem is defined, observations are taken, analysis is done, a decision rule is imposed, an action is taken, and responsibility is born (Johnson 1986, 15). The very first step in the scientific methods (problem definition) requires beginning with assumptions and a hypothesis. These assumptions are faith statements—no testing can be done without them. Faith is simply not optional.

The two most famous excuses for why many people believe that God does not exist were given by Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud (1927). Marx (1843) commented that: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” By contrast, Freud (1961, 30) characterized religion as an illusion, a kind of wish fulfillment. While both Marx and Freud can be considered authority figures, the thrust of their argument is not due to a lengthy scientific analysis, but is presented more as simple slander, acceptable primarily as an excuse for decisions reached for other reasons. If we take faith as necessary part of a rational decision process, then simple slander does not warrant further investigation because burden of proof lies with those advancing a particular argument to make their case, which in this case was not done.

As Christians in a postmodern context, we have inherited a worldview which is quite capable of interpreting the world as we know it. In fact, Western civilization is built on premises advanced from the Christian worldview. The question for those who advance criticism of that worldview, normally by picking on some of its assumptions (or disputing its ethical requirements), is not how can we accept those assumptions. Rather, because those assumptions form a coherence and ethically defensible system, the question is whether alternative assumption can be used to construct a better system.

For the most part, proposed postmodern alternatives to the Christian worldview, such as deconstructionism, refuse to accept the responsibility for benefiting everyone, preferring to focus on criticism without advancing alternative, morally-defensible systems. Others talk about rights, but not responsibilities, for their client groups. Either position is morally reprehensible leaving many people hopeless and abandoned. Yet, powerful groups have advanced such changes primarily to enrich themselves at the expense of others.

These challenges to faith are repeated daily in the media, in our schools, and in society, yet they lack merit as an alternative to faith and cause significant harm to many people through their promotion of idolatry and other sins that isolate people from God, from themselves, and even from the science that has brought humanity numerous benefits.

References

Freud, Sigmund. 1961. The Future of an Illusion (Orig Pub 1927. Translated by James Strachey. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

Johnson, Glenn L. 1986. Research Methodology for Economists: Philosophy and Practice. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company.

Marx, Karl. 1843. Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (Zur Kritik der Hegelschen Rechtsphilosophie). Deutsch–Französische Jahrbücher. (Online: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opium_of_the_people)

Tavernise, Sabrina. 2016. “U.S. Suicide Rate Surges to a 30-Year High” New York Times. April 22. Online: https://nyti.ms/2k9vzFZ, Accessed: 13 March 2017.

[1] This observation is not hyperbole. The New York Times recently reported that suicide is now at a 30-year high point and the increase in suicide is greatest for men ages 45-64 (Tavernise 2016).

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Importance of Meta-Narrative

simplefaith_web_01172017A meta-narrative is a grand story which contains and explains the other stories that we observe. The meta-narrative of scripture, for example, is often described as a three-act play: creation, fall, and redemption.[1] Continuing the analogy to the theatrical model, Vanhoozer (2016, 98) argues for five acts:

Act 1: Creation, the setting for everything that follows (Gen 1-11)
Act 2: Election of Abraham/Israel (Gen 12-Mal)
Act 3: Sending of the Son/Jesus (the Gospels)
Act 4: Sending of the Spirit/Church (Acts—Jude)
Act 5: Return of the King/day of the Lord/consummation/new creation (Rev).

Other authors describe the meta-narrative of scripture in terms of covenants, such as the covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus, which provide insight into our relationship with God.[2] Each of these frameworks have a slightly different focus, but all serve to offer meaning within the narrative of scripture to the relationship between God and his creation.

The Book of Genesis begins with a picture of a creator God whose sovereignty rests on the act of creation and who creates us in his image as heirs to this created kingdom. Describing God as creator implies that he transcends creation where transcendence implies standing apart from (different than) and above (sovereign over) creation. This act of creation implies love because God allows creation to continue existing after the fall and even promises redemption (Gen 3:15).

This picture of a sovereign God is key to understanding both God’s role in our lives and who we are, especially in the postmodern age because God’s sovereignty depends on God transcending our own little personal worlds. When faith is viewed as a private, personal preference rather than as acknowledgment of our own place in the meta-narrative of scripture, then all meaning is lost. If God is not longer transcendent, God is also no longer sovereign. As the Apostle Paul writes: “And if Christ has not been raised [from the dead by a transcendent God], then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” (1 Cor 15:14 ESV) Jesus’ resurrection validates God’s transcendence; if you do not believe in miracle of resurrection, then the rest of scripture is only of historical interest.

But you say—“that’s not true; we still worship God and still believe in his sovereignty.” Yes, but the words are hollow if Sunday morning worship serves only to jazz us up, but our Monday morning lives differ little from the atheist in the next cubical. If God is not transcendent, then he is also not immanent—not in our thinking, not in our daily lives. A Sunday morning god is no god at all.

This is not a new idea, as we saw above in the reference to the Apostle Paul (1 Cor 15:14). More recently, Phillips (1997, 7) wrote:

“The trouble with many people today is that they have not found a God big enough for modern needs. While their experience of life has grown in a score of directions, and their mental horizons have been expanded to the point of bewilderment by world events and by scientific discoveries, their ideas of God have remained largely static. It is obviously impossible for an adult to worship the conception of God that exists in the mind of a child of Sunday-school age, unless he is prepared to deny his own experience of life.”

While in modern age weaknesses in our spirituality were exposed to public ridicule, as when Dorothy pulled back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz (1939)[3] to find a white-haired, old man, during the postmodern age our modern institutions have begun to crumble as their Christian presuppositions have been removed and secular substitutions are found lacking. Modern institutions, such as the mega church, public schools, democracy, corporations, and professions, presume objective truth, personal discipline and integrity, and human rights—products of the Christian meta-narrative—and function poorly, if at all, in the absence of that narrative.[4]

In this sense, the postmodern age is in the middle of a transition when our culture no longer looks to our past to find meaning and a new age has yet to emerge on the horizon, giving our time an end-time feel. To use an Old Testament analogy, we find ourselves wandering in the desert having left Egypt, but not yet having entered the Promised Land.[5] The Good News is, however, that it is in the desert where the people of Israel truly came to know, experience, and rely on God.[6]

References

Bridges, William. 2003. Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.

Card, Michael. 2005. A Sacred Sorrow: Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament. Colorado Springs: NavPress.

Hahn, Scott W. 2009. Kinship by Covenant: A Canonical Approach to the Fulfillment of God’s Saving Promises. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Phillips, John Bertram. 1997. Your God is Too Small (Orig Pub 1953). New York: Simon & Schuster; A Touchstone Book.

Vanhoozer, Kevin J. 2014. Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Wolters, Albert M. 2005. Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformation Worldview. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

[1] For example, see: (Wolters 2005).

[2] For example, see (Hahn 2009).

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wizard_of_Oz_(1939_film).

[4] Secular values are a poor substitute for a Christian character, in part, because they are lightly held, not deeply ingrained. It is like comparing a foundation of sand with one of stone when building a house on a floodplain (Matt 7:24-29). Jesus’ insight into housebuilding may sound cheeky, but secular society deifies the individual, which makes sense only in dealing with adversities that an individual can deal with. Once adversity grows to overwhelm the entire society, individual rights and problem-solving are ignored and irrelevant—only a society unified under God can withstand such a challenge. The image of an ant shaking a fist at a shoe comes to mind; united as an army of ants, however, the wise foot will forebear to crush the ant.

[5] Bridges (2003, 43) makes the point that it took Moses maybe 40 days to get the people of Israel out of Egypt, but it took about 40 years to get the Egypt out of the people (Num 11:5). The point is that transitions begin with people looking backwards; proceed through a long period of uncertainty; and end as people began to adapt to the new environment (Bridges 2003, 100). After 40 years in the wilderness, it took new leadership, Joshua, to lead the people of Israel into the Promised Land.

[6] As God tells Moses: “And you shall say to him [Pharaoh], The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you, saying, Let my people go, that they may serve me in the wilderness.” (Exod 7:16) In other words, God was inviting the Israelite people to rediscover the God of their fathers through adversity—this paradox of blessing through adversity must have blown Pharaoh’s mind! (Card 2005, 16) After all, the entire sacramental system of the ancient world implicitly associated blessing with bigger sacrifices that only the wealthy could offer. And, of course, the wealthy were not inclined towards experiencing adversity!

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How We Learn

simplefaith_web_01172017

We most frequently follow one of three approaches to learning: the behavioral approach, the rational approach, and the authoritative approach. In the behavior approach, we follow the path of least resistance—we do more of things that have positive reinforcement and less of things with negative reinforcement. In the rational approach, we explore the alternatives presented and chose the best alternative based on our exploration. In the authoritative approach, we may start with either the behavioral or the rational approach but we limit our exploration to options suggested by a mentor or leader.

An example of the authoritative approach is found in Luke 8 following the Parable of the Sower, where Jesus gives his disciples a lesson:

Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away. And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience. (Luke 8:11-15 ESV)

In this context, how do we know what we know? In the passage, Jesus gives us an interpretive key: “The seed is the word of God.” We understand and accept the lesson in this passage for two reasons. First, the key comes from a reliable source: Jesus. As Christians, we trust the Bible to tell us about Jesus who is known to use parables in his teaching. Second, the key itself, like the Copernican mathematics of planetary motion, makes intrinsic sense—the parable which was posed as a riddle, suddenly becomes meaningful like a lock opened with a key.

While not all problems that we are confronted with take the form of a riddle unlocked with a key, the parsimony displayed in Jesus’ parable demonstrates the value of the authoritative approach in learning. Most learning both inside and outside the church follows the authoritative approach, in part, because it accelerates our learning. Unbridled skepticism is a rookie mistake or a cynical attempt to undermine faith.

Our discomfort in the present age arises because we have many more choices than tools for selecting among them and we have been convinced that we should prefer the rational approach, even though even the best scientists rely on the informed opinion of others. Just like good seminary students apprentices themselves to the best pastors and theologians, the best scientists compete to be students in the best universities and with the best professors. It seems to be no accident that Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century, was the son of Germany’s finest psychologists of that day.[1] The question as to whether the authoritative approach is a valid approach to learning is moot, because everyone uses it.

If we try to avoid the authoritative approach, we actually put ourselves at risk. If we adopt the behavioral approach to every problem, for example, the positive reinforcement of addictive substances and addictive circumstances will lead us to self-destruction. Alternatively, if we adopt a rational approach to every problem, analysis paralysis will lead us into burnout and untimely decisions will cause us to miss opportunities. In this context, trusting a divine mentor can lead us to limit our choices to better choices.

The Parable of the Sower offers at least one other insight into our learning process. Jesus tells his disciples a story in the form of a parable. Story telling accomplishes at least three things relevant to the learning process. Stories are:

  1.  Easily understood and remembered.
  2.  Suggest insights into how the world works indirectly which does an end-run around our natural, human resistance to taking advice.
  3. Provide context for the words used in the story, defeating the criticism that the meaning of words depends solely on the social context of the reader.

Far from being unsophisticated, Jesus’ use of parables suggests a level of sophistication seldom equaled in the modern and post-modern eras, even in mass media.

Reference

Metaxas, Eric. 2010. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[1] “In 1912, Dietrich’s father [Karl] accepted an appointment to the chair of psychiatry and neurology in Berlin. This put him at the head of his field in Germany, position he retained until his death in 1948.” (Metaxas 2010, 13)

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