We both love how Matthew has taken the concept of sin and given a breath of fresh air to the topic. You must read this book because in its pages you will finally gain a biblical perspective on sin and what it takes to free yourself from the bonds that so easily entangle!

Gary and Michael Smalley
Smalley Relationship Center
When mental illness afflicts a loved one, how can we understand what is happening and respond appropriately? This biblically-literate and scientifically-informed book offers helpful insight, encouragement, and practical advice. For pastors and for those who hurt for those who hurt, Matthew Stanford offers sensitive and welcome guidance.

David G. Myers, Ph.D.
Professor of Psychology, Hope College and author of Psychology Through the Eyes of Faith.

Monday, November 23, 2009

B.A.B.S.

Several years ago my wife and I attended a fund raising dinner for an international ministry with which we are involved. I was excited to go to the dinner for two reasons. First, I am very supportive of this ministry’s work in advancing the gospel message around the world and second, I wanted to hear the invited presenter. The guest speaker, a retired professor of psychiatry, was to talk about his involvement with the ministry’s efforts in several foreign countries. But that isn’t why I was so interested, what peaked my curiosity was the qualifying label that had been printed under his name on the flier for the dinner, “Born Again Brain Scientist”. When I first read that I kind of laughed. I thought isn’t it obvious that anyone invited to speak by the ministry would themselves be a Christian. Or is there something inherent in the title “scientist” that would lead people, especially people of faith, to think that such an individual is not a believer. Unfortunately, I think the latter may be true.

The fact that many in the Christian community equate the title “scientist” with atheist is troubling to me, because much like the invited speaker I am also a “brain scientist” more specifically a neuroscientist and a follower of Jesus Christ. To this day my friend Dave (who was also at the dinner that night) begins his emails to me, “Hey B.A.B.S.”. A second misinformed association comes from within the scientific community itself and is just as troubling, faith is little more than a set of superstitions and myths held by unenlightened individuals.

It seems that you can’t pick up a magazine or turn on the television these days without seeing a story on the conflict between science and religious belief. The disagreement tends to focus around three main issues: the sanctity of life, the origin of life and sinful behavior. Sanctity of life includes topics such as the use of embryonic stem cells, abortion, euthanasia (e.g., physician assisted suicide) and cloning. The second point of contention, the origin of life, is seen in the on-going dispute between the proponents of naturalistic evolution and those that believe the universe shows signs of intelligent design. The third point of conflict has to do with biblically defined sinful behavior for which science has shown some biological predisposition or basis. Some of the most emotionally debated behaviors include homosexuality, addiction and criminality.

As a Christian and a neuroscientist, I stand at the boundary point of what appears, at least on the surface, to be two very different worlds, or perhaps it is more precise to say worldviews. From my unique vantage point, I have unfortunately seen scientific knowledge distorted to justify sinful behavior and perhaps more disturbingly, I have seen Christians misuse the scriptures to demonize and alienate the very ones that they should be reaching out to. The underlying cause of this problem in the church is a lack of knowledge, both of basic science and scriptural teaching. The relevance of the Gospel in our present scientific age goes without question but if we, as followers of Christ, are going to successfully engage the culture we must stop reacting out of fear of science and start leading the discussion.

Monday, November 16, 2009

AD/HD

Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD) is a controversial topic. Within Christian circles some have gone as far to suggest that AD/HD is nothing more than rebellion resulting from bad parenting or society’s attempt to turn sin into sickness. There are troubling statistics that may make one doubt the legitimacy of AD/HD as a diagnosis. For instance, why has the incidence rate for AD/HD increased significantly in the United States in recent years but remained relatively stable in Great Britain? How do we explain the 700% increase in psychostimulant use during the 1990s? Are we having an AD/HD epidemic? And if so what has happened to cause so many of our children to be damaged? Although answers to these questions are complex, overdiagnosis and the overuse of medications are legitimate concerns that trouble many parents whose children are affected by this problem. I suggest three explanations for the recent and dramatic increase in the diagnosis of AD/HD. It is likely that there are many other factors that have contributed to this increase, but I would like to focus on the three I see as most influential.

The first is the problem of misdiagnosis (overdiagnosis). Clearly some children are misdiagnosed with AD/HD and wrongly given psychostimulants. Misdiagnosis can happen with any illness whether it is mental or physical in nature (an accurate diagnosis is always the product of quality professional training and an efficient evaluation). Parents must search out qualified professionals who will take the time to rule out all other possibilities before making a final diagnosis. Misdiagnosis and the overuse of medications in children are not unique to AD/HD. We can look no further than antibiotics to find another example. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s pediatricians wrongly, but knowingly, prescribed antibiotics for non-bacterial infections. This was done in many cases to pacify the parent who demanded something be done for their sick child. Because these children had viral infections the antibiotics were useless in their treatment. Ultimately this overuse of antibiotics has led to antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria and infections that are now more difficult to treat. Is it a far leap to imagine that the same scenario may occur with AD/HD; a troubled child, a weary teacher, a struggling parent, and a pediatrician trying to better the situation? It is imperative that a child showing AD/HD-like problems and behaviors receive a full medical and psychological assessment prior to diagnosis. While I believe that misdiagnosis definitely occurs and may have contributed to the increase in AD/HD diagnosis and treatment, I do not believe that to be the only reason.

A second factor contributing to the increase in AD/HD is that a better defined set of criteria and greater acceptance of the diagnosis has lead to more children who actually display AD/HD problem behaviors being diagnosed and treated. This is not a bad thing! We all know that children are each unique. They develop and mature at different rates. Some will acquire physical skills quickly, others more slowly. Still others will never acquire certain physical abilities. Is it so difficult to imagine that the same can be said of cognitive abilities? Some children will struggle cognitively, regardless of their environment and parents. Appropriate diagnosis and treatment gives these children a chance at a normal and productive life that they would not have had otherwise.

A third factor that I believe has contributed to the dramatic increase in the prevalence of AD/HD is related to societal changes that have placed greater demands and expectations on children. Anxiety levels in children and college students have increased significantly since 1950. This increase has been associated with a lack of social connection and a sense of a more threatening environment. Our fast paced, high stress society is damaging our children. Just think for a moment about some of the things that younger and younger children are exposed to everyday: divorce, fear of violence, drug use, unlimited materialism, unrealistic academic expectations and absentee parents. Dr. Sam Goldstein, a prominent AD/HD researcher, says it this way, “…a review of all sources of childhood data suggests that children are finding it increasingly more difficult to meet the expectations and demands of our culture. In response, more and more are experiencing problems…Thus, increased cultural demands upon children increases the number struggling to meet the expectations of the culture. This acts as but one more force leading children to the doorsteps of physicians and psychologists… Even if it is one out of twenty, that is five percent of the population. That is five percent of all children who simply struggle to sustain effort, and require more time, patience and support to develop the self-discipline necessary to deal with life’s daily requirements.”

It is my hope that you will recognize AD/HD as a real disorder that affects the lives of real children and their families. These children wrestle daily with debilitating physical, psychological and spiritual issues. While mistakes may have been made in relation to diagnosis it does not change the fact that children who struggle with this disorder can be effectively treated and the church has a significant role to play in that healing.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Speaking the Truth

If you are like me, there have been times in your life in which you have allowed your circumstances to define the character of God for you. When times are good, He is a great and loving God. During difficult times, He is distant and uncaring. Stress, guilt, fear, grief, anger and suffering can all cause us to lose sight of the true nature and character of God. The Bible gives us several examples of this: overcome by shame and guilt as a result of their sin, Adam and Eve try to physically hide from God (Genesis 3:8); in his overwhelming pain and suffering, Job begins to believe that God is punishing him unjustly (Job 9:2); driven by anger, Jonah believes he can alter God’s plan by physically running away (Jonah 1:3); fearing for his own life, Peter denies Christ three times (Matthew 26:69-75). These are all examples of misunderstanding the true nature of God.

In my own life, this circumstance-altered view of God became most apparent after my wife had a miscarriage during our second pregnancy. Julie was overcome by grief, and she was angry at God. How could He allow such a thing to happen? For my part, the person who I looked to most as an example of living a life submitted to God was now questioning God’s sovereignty. Where did that leave me? I wanted to understand what had happened. Was the fetus truly a child? Was he or she now with God? What about my wife, was she losing her faith? I was drawn into the Word, and God dramatically changed me. More than ever, I began to recognize His providence in all things and see His faithfulness and love for those He has called His children. God was also faithful to Julie. He ministered to her through cards and notes from friends, through meals brought out of compassion and through a simple red rose. She saw His faithfulness daily and over time she began to see Him again for who He truly is, the sovereign God of the universe who loves her.

Even under normal conditions, we far too often fall into this trap. But imagine for a moment that your mind has been altered by a mental disorder. You question your own thoughts and feelings as to whether they are true. You behave in ways that seem contrary to who you are. Why would God allow this? Does He hear me? Does He care? Does He even exist? Those suffering with a mental illness, like all of us, need to be reminded of the truth. We must be there to lift up Christ, and He will draw them to Himself (John 12:32). While every person struggling with a mental illness is different, I have found that generally, people who are suffering have one main spiritual issues for which they are seeking an answer, Where is God in my suffering?

The Bible records a powerful example of how not to minister to a person who is suffering. We find it in the book of Job, and our bad examples are Job’s friends Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar. These three men traveled a great distance to comfort their suffering friend (Job 2:11). When they first see him, they are overcome with grief (Job 2:12) and are silently present with him in his suffering for seven days. These men were truly Job’s friends, and they wanted the best for him. They wanted to see their friend healed and restored. Unfortunately, their own misguided views of God lead them to verbally assault Job. Their words did not help Job’s situation, but only brought him pain and confusion. Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar wanted to fix Job. In one sense they wanted their friend to be healed, in another, his prolonged suffering made them question the very nature of God. Even though Job suffered greatly he had prepared himself for the trail long before it ever happened by building an intimate relationship with the Father (Job 29:4). The scriptures tell us he was blameless and upright (Job 1:1), a man who feared God and shunned evil (Job 1:1). His friends were not as well prepared, their view of God was limited and their relationship with Him was superficial. In the end, God was angered at the three for not speaking the truth about Him to Job (Job 42:7). I believe that we have the same call in situations in which we minister to those who are suffering with mental illness, speak the truth about Him.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Biology is not Destiny

It is clear that the ancient Hebrews and first century Christians were na├»ve in their understanding of how the brain and nervous system function. However, they were not unaware that this biological system played a significant role in behavior. They understood that disease or injury to the nervous system resulted in dramatic behavioral changes and physical manifestations, many of which are mentioned both in the Biblical text and other ancient writings such as the Talmud (an ancient record of Jewish laws and traditions). It is also clear that the Biblical writers understood that we struggle to control deeply ingrained, biologically related sinful impulses. The scriptures make several references to these inborn sinful patterns and our attempts to bring them under control. Peter suggests that those who indulge in such “fleshly lusts” and “corrupt desires” behave like unreasoning animals driven by instinct (1 Peter 2:11; 2 Peter 2:10-18). Jesus, when challenged by the Pharisees in relation to ceremonial cleanliness and the food laws, taught that defilement comes “from within, out of the heart of men” where sinful thoughts and behaviors originate (Matthew 15:19; Mark 7:21). John teaches us that the “lust of the flesh” is not of God and should not be pursued (1 John 2:16), while James instructs that the source of temptation is the innate lusts within each of us (James 1:14-15). Paul mentions these same fleshly patterns of lust and desire throughout his epistles (Romans 7:17-18, 23; 1 Corinthians 7:9; Galatians 5:16; Ephesians 2:3; 1 Thessalonians 4:5) describing them as overpowering and difficult to control (Romans 7:18-19; Galatians 5:17). However, biology is not destiny. When we fully understand the effects of original sin on our physical bodies it becomes clear that broken biology can never be used as an excuse for sinful behavior. Biblical scholar Dr. Robert Gagnon says it this way, “A biology-equals-morality rationale has no place in a worldview that talks of denying oneself, losing one’s life, taking up one’s cross, dying with Christ, new creation, and living for God.” The fact that we have sinful DNA is simply another example of why we so desperately need a Savior with the power to completely re-create us. We have been made new spiritually (2 Corinthians 5:17), and ultimately, we will be transformed physically (1 Corinthians 15:53; Philippians 3:20-21).