The Immaturity Problem

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

Decisions in a society focused on youth culture pose a special problem because of the refusal of many to shoulder responsibility for their actions. As mentioned previously, in an ideal world we would approach important decisions as well-informed adults who understand our own weaknesses and consider carefully the options presented to us, taking our time to consult with our mentors, friends, and family and being devoid of dysfunctions, like mental illness or drug use. Even in the absence of external manipulation, youth culture undermines decision-making out of ignorance, impatience, and unwillingness to rectify obvious dysfunction.

The Designated Adult

Families and organizations manage to survive in this environment, not by encouraging greater rationality, but by weakly tolerating a few designated adults who tirelessly attempt to hold things together while many others simply party on. Family systems theory refers to this phenomena as overfunctioning (Friedman 1985, 210-212). Gilbert (2006, 17) notes that the overfunctioning individual usually pairs up with an underfunctioning individual to form one functioning person out of two.

In a church context, a pastor may be hired to rescue the congregation from a decline in membership only to find that members refuse to accept the new members that the pastor welcomes into the church. Churches of this sort may go through a series of pastors and eventually close their doors because the members refuse to adapt to and accept the changing demographics of their community. Parents unwilling or unable to practice “tough love” may find themselves saddled with caring for children that fail to launch and for grandchildren engendered by the same.

The One-off Solution

Postmodern culture encourages this behavior by refusing to insist that participants hold an internally consistent set of values and preferring one-off solutions.

Probably the most obvious example of this problem arises with the American drug culture that arises, in part, as the dark side of the propensity of Americans to place too high a value of an unsustainable work ethic. When attempts to compete in this unsustainable work culture fail, recreational drug use spirals into addiction and destroys any possibility of further advance in one’s career. At the heart of the problem is the attempt to live a licentious lifestyle alongside of a career that requires exacting personal discipline.

In this example, recreational drug use is proffered as a one-off solution to the problem of stress. Instead, of living a balanced lifestyle with time devoted both to work and self-care, the worker self-medicates and skips the trip to the gym or the family outing. Drug use starts out as the solution to the problem of stress through self-medication, not perceived as a problem in itself.[1] This confusion between problem and solution can lead to addiction, but—more to the point—it began by trying to find a one-off solution to the problem of stress, rather than mitigating the stress itself.

When the usual pattern of problem solving is to seek a one-off solution—looking for a pill to solve our health problem—we are less likely to perceive the spiritual problem that may be behind many of life’s challenges.

More than the Usual Background Noise

Every age has had its distractions. The postmodern era stands out because the volume of the background noise has been turned up significantly while the usual institutions—family, church, community—for dealing with it have been seriously weakened. It is now up to the individual to turn off the cell phone, computer, and other media or, alternatively, screen the massive amount of information available for specific information of use in making decisions. Meanwhile, the pace of life and work has accelerated rendering this filtering process for the conscientious decision maker more difficult.

But not everyone steps up to this challenge.

Presented with an overstimulating environment, many people opt simply to check out, self-medicate, or insulate themselves with white noise—the omnipresent headset, the television never turned off, or refusing to leave their rooms or other comforting environments. This latter option functions much like rumination that keeps the individual from reflecting on their daily challenges as they obsess about events in the past, especially past trauma. The individual who ruminates (or employs white noise) essentially refuses to think about current decisions and, as a consequence, frustrates their own maturing process becoming developmentally impaired.

Decisions in a Sub-Optimal Decision Environment

The problem of relying on designated adults, rather than aspiring to maturity, and habit of seeking one-off solutions both undermine the decision environment that many people face in the postmodern era. Many people reach the age of consent or of legal maturity well before they are able to function as self-reliant adults leaving them unable to make good decisions, vulnerable to manipulation, and unable to advance spiritually.

References

Clinebell Jr, Howard J. 1978. Understanding and Counseling the Alcoholic Through Religion and Psychology (Orig. Pub. 1956) Nashville: Abingdon.

Friedman, Edwin H. 1985. Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue. New York: Guilford Press.

Gilbert, Roberta M. 2006. The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory: A New Way of Thinking about the Individual and the Group. Front Royal (VA): Leading Systems Press.

Footnotes

[1] Clinebell (1978, 19) observes: “Does the person’s drinking frequently or continuously interfere with his social relations, his role in the family, his job, his finances, or his health? If so, the changes are that that person is an alcoholic or on the verge of becoming one.”

The Immaturity Problem

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

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

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/2BKihbl

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Unprepared


ShipOfFools_web_07292016“My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me;

nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” (Matt 26:39)

Unprepared

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In graduate school, I met and dated quite a few women, particularly during my time at Cornell University. Ironically, Cornell had just gone “co-ed” during my time there so the girls I met were often quite choosy and many guys I knew had very little success dating. But since my definition of success was developing a more permanent relationship, my frustration with dating grew to be a major theme because the women I dated did not seem to value relationship, except within limited bounds. Offering a 100 percent commitment and finding a 20 percent commitment being offered in return left me feeling used and abused.

Commitment, of course, meant that I needed to make some adjustments—expecting to meet “miss right” meant that I had to become “mister right”. In the 1970s as now, “mister right” had to have the financial capacity to support a family and not everyone was willing to date someone with great expectations. With rapid inflation, high energy prices, and a deteriorating job market, my economics training suggested that the package for “miss right” also needed now to include a serious career, which suggested that dating attractive younger women was risky because a serious career required more commitment than many people—male or female—were willing to invest.

Those women willing to invest the time and energy in a career expressed less interest in men and had much higher expectations, which posed a real problem in dating. The problem was simple—career expectations for men were going down with a weak economy and competition from women while the expectations of attractive women with career potential of eligible men were going up. If women’s expectations were unrealistically high because of the historically unique nature of this problem, then the dating market need not yield a solution—a disconnect would emerge.[1]

This disconnect was obvious to me from the quirky responses I received from American women that I dated. One woman I dated broke up with me because she wanted to spend more time with the rowing team; another women who I dated was still in the process of divorce; still another wanted to meet me and bring along half-a-dozen friends from her department; another was engaged but wanted just to hang out with me until she got married. By the time I left Cornell, I resolved not to date American women because of all the relational confusion and the pain that it caused. It was simply much easier to date foreign students who were more committed to and conventional in their relational expectations.

During the late 1970s, I had a serious relationship (more than a year) with a foreign student—let me call her Betsy (not her name) and let me be vague about time and place and nationality so that I can speak more freely. Betsy and I worked hard to find a financial path to marriage while continuing our education. While that path never materialized, another problem emerged to threw our relationship in disarray.

This disarray began when Betsy and I traveled to her hometown to visit her mother, where Betsy put me up for the night with a friend. In the morning when Betsy came to pick me up, she looked like someone who had been beaten up—unkept and shaken—and she had been. At this point, she shared with me that she was an only child and her mother had had her at a young age out of wedlock; her untimely birth caused a scandal so her parents never married; and in the years that followed her mother became an alcoholic and blamed Betsy for all her troubles. When her mother learned that Betsy was dating an American, she went nuts and beat her up—as a consequence, my introduction to mom never took place.

Unprepared to deal with physical abuse and alcoholism, I quietly freaked out. I had never the financial nor the emotional resources to offer Betsy the shelter she needed. I was no use at all—useless, helpless, and unable to process what was happening. I offered her the support that I could, but I was clearly out of my league, having hit my emotional threshold. Sheltered in family and church, I had never learned to deal with abuse, addiction, or a chronic illness—the bandwidth on my empathy was too limited and I withdrew emotionally. Over the next few months, our relationship melted away, like an ice cream cone left too long in the sun, and we eventually broke up.

In my shame, I started reading about alcoholism, especially Howard Clinebell’s Understanding and Counseling the Alcoholic (1978). I learned to recognize the signs of alcoholism, some of the contributing factors, and the spiritual nature of the problem. More than simply learning the details of the problem and of various groups, like Alcoholics Anonymous, that have attempted to deal with it, I gained an appreciation for the need to study brokenness before attempting to deal with it—a lesson which has served me well over the years. Clinebell’s book was the first counseling book that I ever read; interestingly, it is still in use and is considered a classic in counseling addicts.

The spiritual side of alcoholism is well known. For me, the story of Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemane is most instructive—when we are faced with a difficult pain or decision, do we turn to God in our hour of need or do we turn into our pain? If we turn to God, our faith is strengthened and he promises to walk with us through our afflictions; if we turn into our pain, then we are easily deceived into thinking that our drugs of choice—food, liquor, sex, work, or narcotics—are part of the solution, not part of the problem. This confusion over problems and solutions means that the alcoholic cannot be helped until this twisted thinking is exposed for what it is—Satan’s bondage.

While I was never myself an alcoholic, alcoholism runs in parts of my mother’s family, which suggests that I may be genetically predisposed. Since this experience I have felt fortunate to have learned enough about the problem of alcoholism in time to learn to avoid it—not everyone I know has been so fortunate. During this period of my life, I began avoiding hard liquor and, significantly, I made a serious effort to enter the mission field, applying for a position in Latin America with the Reformed Church of America.

Reference

Clinebell, Howard J. Jr. 1978. Understanding and Counseling the Alcoholic: Through Religion and Psychology. Nashville: Abingdon.

[1] Evidence of this disconnect between the expectations of men and women was everywhere to be seen, but it was most obvious in the high divorce rates during this period. Many of my male colleagues in graduate school had married their high school sweet-hearts who supported them both financially and emotionally during graduate school only to divorce on graduation—evidence that the guys were taking advantage of their new earning power to divorce.

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Tension Within Ourselves

Life_in_Tension_web“For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Rom 7:15 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

We are the best fed generation of all time and most pampered people on the face of the earth. Yet, suicide has reached epidemic proportions among both our young people and senior citizens. Author Max Lucado (2012, 5) observed: “ordinary children today are more fearful than psychiatric patients were in the 1950s.”

Why? One answer is that we are isolated from ourselves. Henri Nouwen (2010, 89) writes: “We live in a society in which loneliness has become one of the most painful human wounds.”  We are strangers to ourselves and the person that God created us to be.

Psychiatrists talk about rumination. Psychiatric patients obsess about traumatic events in their past. Such obsessions can be about the slightest little thing, real or imaged. Rumination becomes a problem because of repetition—daily or even hourly obsession with this memory. Because psychiatric patients have trouble distinguishing reality and illusion, each repetition is remembered as a separate, very real event. A single occurrence of parental discipline at age 8 could be remembered as a daily or evenly constant beating by age 20 and evoke rage when remembered.

Magnified in this way, normal relationships become strained. Time and emotional energy focused on this rumination displaces and slows normal emotional development because the patient was busy ruminating and has not devoted that energy to other, more pressing life issues like being fully present at school and in relationships. The ruminator becomes isolated from those around them and from themselves.

The thing of it is, we all ruminate. We all daydream; we all isolate ourselves from other people; and we all do it substantially more than other generations. The ever-present earphone with music, the television always on, the constant texting, the game program played every waking hour, and the work we never set aside all function to keep dreary thoughts from entering our heads having the same effect as rumination [1]. We are distracted every waking hour from processing our thoughts and from dealing with our emotions. Much like addicts, we never reflect on our condition. We become anxious and annoyed when we must actually are forced to tune into our own lives—a kind of escalation [3].  Rumination, stress addiction, and other obsessions have become mainstream lifestyles that leave us fearful even to be alone [2].

Jesus understands. He said:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matt 11:28-30 ESV)

Sabbath rest, prayer, and forgiveness all work to break rumination by encouraging us to reflect on our past, present, and future in Christ and by refusing to let sin hold our relationships with God and our neighbors hostage.

In the Beatitudes, Jesus addresses disciples and says that we will be blessed in at least 3 ways:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
 (Matt 5:3-5 ESV)

Jesus reframes threats to our identity, self-worth, and personal dignity by offering promises that we will receive the kingdom of heaven, be comforted, and inherit the earth.  But we must accept the yoke of discipleship; these promises are not extended to spectators [4].

We are not alone—God is with us and we can be part of God’s community on earth—the church.  This community focus is obvious in the Beatitudes  because Jesus addresses his disciples in the plural [5].  Through our faith and our participation in the church, we can also be at peace with ourselves (John 14:27) even when we are alone.

 

[1] Technology connects yes, but it more often isolates us from one another.  A “Facebook friend”, for example, is denied a vote if you get tired of them and remove them as a friend.  Real friends give us immediate feedback and require explanations.

[2] Nouwen (1975, 25) sees loneliness as related more to addiction than to rumination.  Blackaby (2014, 47 ) talks about getting stuck in a particularly sad or particularly happy season of life.

[3] Escalation is another term from psychiatry which describes the tendency of psychiatric patients to amply rather than dissipate any tension in conversation.  Even polite disagreement with such patients will quickly evoke an increasingly hostile response from such patients.   Even in normal people, escalation is a flag for personal instability.

[4] The yoke (Matt 11:28-30) Jesus describes is a leather collar worn by a work animal, such as a horse, to allow them to bear the burden of the work.  Disciples bear the yoke of discipleship; spectators do not.  This implies that the blessings of Jesus are available exclusively to disciples.  This is what James, Jesus’ brother, means when he says:  “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” (James 1:22 ESV)

[5] In verse 3, for example, the Greek reads: “Μακάριοι οἱ πτωχοὶ τῷ πνεύματι, ὅτι αὐτῶν ἐστιν ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν.” (Matt 5:3 BNT)  Both πτωχοὶ (those poor) and and αὐτῶν (theirs–genitive plural).

REFERENCES

Blackaby, Richard . 2012. The Seasons of God:  How the Shifting Patterns of Your Life Reveal His Purposes for You. Colorado Springs:  Multnomah Books.

Lucado, Max. 2012. Fearless. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Nouwen, Henri J. M. 1975. Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. New York: DoubleDay.

Nouwen, Henri J.M. 2010. Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society (Orig pub 1972). New York: Image Doubleday.

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Prayer Day 16: A Christian Guide to Spirituality by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Available on Amazon.com
Available on Amazon.com

Loving Father. You clothe the birds that neither spin or reap (Matt 6:26). You send the rain and the sunshine on the just and the unjust without discrimination (Matt 5:45). You make the day and the night to bless us with activities and with sleep (Gen 1:5). We cast our obsessions and addictions at your feet. In the power of your Holy Spirit, heal our relationships and soften our hearts that we might grow more like you with each passing day. In Jesus’s name, Amen.

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May: Addictions Need not Enslave

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Gerald G. May. 1988.  Addiction & Grace:  Love and Spirituality in the Healing of Addictions.  New York:  HarperOne.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The goodbyes this week to beloved actor and director, Philip Seymour Hoffman (July 23, 1967 – February 2, 2014) place the specter of addiction and death in the public eye. This week it is heroin addiction but the drug of choice changes over time.  In a society that has trouble placing limits on personal freedom (boundaries) of any sort, the pain of addiction bites particularly hard because we all share a bit in the blame.

What is addiction anyway?

In his book, Addiction and Grace, Gerald May (June 12, 1940- April 12, 2005), a Christian psychiatrist specializing in addictions, defined addiction as:

Any compulsive, habitual behavior that limits the freedom of human desire.  It is caused by the attachment, or nailing, of desire to specific objects (24-25).

May notes that true addiction has 5 characteristics:

  1. Tolerance,
  2. Withdrawal symptoms,
  3. Self-deception,
  4. Loss of willpower, and
  5. Distortion of attention (26).

On reading May’s description in 2011, I became aware of my own addiction—stress.  I loved my work too much—it had become an obsession—evidence of tolerance.  Taking time off away from the office was harder on me than the pounding stress—evidence of withdrawal symptoms.  I told myself that I was advancing my career—this was a self-deception.  I could not help myself; I had to work hard—evidence of loss of willpower.  Was I aware of it?  No—I was convinced that other people were the problem in my career advancement.

When I became aware of this addiction, I took it to the Lord in prayer and committed myself to practicing Sabbath rest.  May advises—the only cure for an addiction is to stop the cycle (177).  Not working on Sunday (not even for God) has freed up time for family; other interests; and self-respect.  I continue to feel the urge to work, but with God’s help my stress addiction is over.

What are you addicted to?

Notice that May’s definition of addiction talks about freedom.  May writes:

Free will is given to us for a purpose: so that we may choose freely, without coercion or manipulation, to love God in return, and to love one another in a similarly perfect way…addiction uses up desire…sucking our life energy into specific obsessions and compulsions, leaving less and less energy available for other people and other pursuits.  Spiritually, addiction is a deep-seated form of idolatry [idolatry is anything that substitutes for God] (13).

Psychologists talk about addiction as an attachment disorder.  In order to be free in any sense of the word, we need to be detached from our desires enough to regulate them (14).  This is why the first of the Ten Commandments reads:

I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me (Exodus 20:2-3 ESV).

The other gods here are things that we become addicted to.  What the Bible is saying is that addiction is a form of slavery from which God can free us.  In my experience, freedom is harder than slavery for many people because they are enslaved to their passions—work, bad relationships, substances, expensive toys, compulsive sex, money, and so on.  My stress addiction is a typical case because our minds are rigged to facilitate habit formation—we all have addictions, albeit not all addictions are life-threatening (57).

Addiction and Grace is written in 8 chapters:

  1. Desire:  Addiction and Human Freedom.
  2. Experience: The Qualities of Addiction.
  3. Mind:  The Psychological Nature of Addiction.
  4. Body: The Neurological Nature of Addiction.
  5. Spirit: The Theological Nature of Addiction.
  6. Grace:  The Qualities of Mercy.
  7. Empowerment:  Grace and Will in Overcoming Addiction.

These chapters are preceded by a preface and followed by various notes.

Clearly, I have left out many of the details that May generously supplies.  Anyone struggling with addiction (or who cares about someone who does) will find this book a godsend.  I clearly did.

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