Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Do we need a Christian Psychology?

Recently I've been bombarded with various notions a Christain psychology. This can mean a variety of different things, but I am using the term very broadly to refer to Christian specific practices or approaches to psychology. This seems like an obvious approach to psychology for Christians, but would it actually differ from secular psychology? Whether or not we need or would benefit from Christian psychology comes down to a fundamental understanding of what psychology is.

When I ask people what they think psychology is, most of them say something about counseling. This is a big part of the field of psychology, but it's only about half of it, if that. Either way, counseling is the primary area where people envision a Christian psychology and it's the area that is controversial among Christians so that is where I will focus.

So what is psychology? Broadly speaking, it is the scientific study of human nature. Psychologists observe people (and animals) in every way that we can to draw conclusions about how and why people think and act the way they do. Counseling is simply the area of psychology that attempts to use what is learned to improve mental health.

Psychology is a science and science revolves around peer-reviewed journals. To publish in a peer-reviewed journal requires your paper to be scrutinized by experts in the field (usually three people) to ensure your methods are legitimate and unbiased. Once published, the article becomes public so anyone can replicate your methods, either for practical use or as an attempt to disprove them. As scientists continue to test and retest various treatment methods, the ones that are most effective will become the most widely used.

Obviously, this is extremely idealistic since science isn't quite so cut and dry (or fast), but in a broad sense, and over long periods of time, this is how science works. For this reason, Christian and non-Christian psychologists will eventually reach the same conclusions about what is and isn't effective for improving mental. If something works for Christians, it will also work for non-Christians, unless it is based on beliefs that non-Christians are unwilling to accept. A simple example might be forgiveness. A non-Christian may think forgiveness is wrong, and therefore, not be willing to do it even though it would improve their well-being.

On the other hand, what if Christian specific methods are not as effective as non-Christian methods? In these instances, I would say Christians should adjust their methods and their theology of methods. The potential issue of Christian specific methods is the assumption that correctly following Christ will guarantee psychological well-being, but that's not true. In fact, it's really just another version of the prosperity gospel. God promises us salvation from sin so we can spend eternity in heaven with Him. We'll get some benefits here and there along the way, but those aren't promised.

Conclusion
So do we need a Christian psychology? No, we don't because it will eventually be the same as secular psychology (if both are done well). Instead, we need more Christians in the field of psychology, and we need them to be testing and publishing what they think are biblical or Christian methods of counseling in peer-reviewed journals so others can know about their methods.

Unfortunately, in our society, many of the Christian voices in the debate have little to no scientific training, yet they make grand claims about their methods that are completely unsupported. I think there is great potential for Christianity to influence counseling methods for the better, and at the same time, an opportunity for scientific study of counseling to improve theological views about mental health. However, none of this can be accomplished without testing and publishing our ideas in scientific psychology journals.

For those seeking counseling
I feel I must finish this article with two important warnings for anyone who might be looking for a therapist or struggling with mental health. Christians and non-Christians counselors are liable to err in opposite directions. A Christian might have bad theology regarding mental health and be poorly trained as a psychologist while a non-Christian might be accepting of sin and only willing to treat the adverse consequences of it rather than the core issue. Both are equally bad so be careful not to fall in either direction.

In a perfect world, all counselors would be committed Christians with doctoral degrees in psychology and theology. Since it's not a perfect world, I would suggest looking for a Christian who is licensed as a psychologist or counselor. This does not include biblical counselors who are only trained in theology and have no required training in science, psychology, or statistics. If you can't find a licensed Christian, then I would expand the search to licensed non-Christians. If this seems scary, realize that I say this because I don't know of any mainstream therapy technique that is sinful for Christians to participate in. The only potential problem I can think of would be treating the symptoms rather than the disease, but that's something you could address with your psychologist.

For less severe problems, a pastor, chaplain, or other mature Christian may be a good person to talk to. I would just caution you to look out for any anti-scientific views that might be expressed about psychology because this suggests they probably don't know what they're talking about.

If you have questions or need someone to talk to, please let me know. Navigating the different types of therapy and counseling can be tricky, and it's only made worse by the unfortunate stigma against counseling. It would be my honor help out in any way I can. The best way to reach me is at jaymedenwaldt@hotmail.com

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Is Sleep Deprivation a Sin?



I only got about five hours of sleep last night and six the night before. I need a shade over eight to maintain peak cognitive functioning. Have I sinned?

I suspect that most people are inclined to say no without careful consideration, but once we do think about it, the answer in most cases is yes, it is a sin. I say most cases because there are always extenuating circumstances and legitimate reasons for sleep deprivation, but those aren't the norm. I am referring to people consciously choosing to not get enough sleep for ungodly reasons, including reasons that seem godly on the surface.

I've already written on the theology of sleep and how it applies to apologetics, which might be helpful to review before we discuss whether or not sleep deprivation is a sin. I am defining sleep deprivation as getting less sleep than needed in a single night and the less sleep a person gets, the more sleep-deprived they will be. Additionally, the effects of sleep deprivation are cumulative so sleeping only five hours for two consecutive nights causes greater sleep-deprivation than only sleeping for five hours for a single night.

With this basic understanding of sleep deprivation, why do I think it's a sin? There are two main reasons: the effects of sleep deprivation and the causes of it.

Image result for sleep joke

Effects
When scientists study sleep deprivation, they have to deprive people of sleep This is somewhat of a problem because sleep deprivation causes cognitive impairment, which can be dangerous. To get sleep deprivation research approved by an ethics board, known as an Internal Review Board or IRB for short, scientists have to take some precautions which are costly and make research more difficult.

For example, when participants are sleep deprived, the researchers have to ensure they do not drive home or go to work directly after participating. To do this, scientists have to pay for people to get a cab to and from the research facility and physically ensure they do not drive away afterward. When I participated in a sleep deprivation study years ago, I had to give consent that I would not drive home after the study and the researchers had to walk with me outside to physically watch me get into the vehicle as a passenger. Had my wife not picked me up and dropped me off, they would have paid for me to get a cab to and from, which would have cost them about $100, which would have been in addition to the $500 I was paid to participate.

Why such precautions? Sleep deprivation impairs cognitive functioning. While it doesn't impair us exactly like alcohol does, it is similar enough that researchers will often use blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) as a comparison.

We all recognize that drunk driving is a sin, so why don’t we call it sin to drive while sleep-deprived, especially considering sleep deprivation can easily cause cognitive impairments greater than the legal limit for BAC when driving. The bottom line is that when we are sleep deprived, we become more dangerous to ourselves and others. Driving is the obvious application, but that’s only part of it. Being sleep deprived negatively impacts us and those around us in every way.

Causes
Even if there were fewer negative side effects of sleep deprivation, I would still consider it sinful in many cases because of the reasons behind why we choose to be sleep deprived. There are valid reasons for not getting enough sleep. Life happens and sometime we just can’t sleep, our kids get sick, special events happen, etc. I don’t want to claim there’s never a good reason or create a false illusion that we always have control, but I do want to point out a couple common reasons which probably aren’t good ones.

In my case last night, I had work to get done that was due at midnight. Whether it’s work, school, ministry, hobbies, or something else, sometimes life gets busy and we need to make room for it. Cutting out a few hours of sleep every now and then probably isn’t a big deal. However, if we’re being honest with ourselves, is this usually the case?

For me, it’s rare. Usually, when I have to stay up late to get work done it’s because I procrastinated and was undisciplined in the days or weeks leading up to my late nights. I could have spent a couple hours working over the weekend or been less easily distracted during the week last week, but I wasn’t. When this happens, we’re faced with a choice with choosing the lesser of two evils. Is it better to go to bed and honor God by getting sleep but not doing quality work or is it better to honor God by getting good work done and skimping on the sleep. Every situation is different so I’m not going to pretend to have an answer for you, but I do know that this conundrum can usually be avoided if we are diligent in our work and avoid procrastination.

What about those times when we just have too much going on and cannot get it all done even when we are disciplined? In those cases, we should be asking ourselves why we have too much going on in our lives? There could be all kinds of reasons, again, many of them valid, especially in the short term, but I also suspect many of them come down to pride. We want and strive for importance and to make ourselves great. Often this is hidden as “the Lord’s work” or ministry, but it’s usually just our inflated sense of self-worth.  Whatever you’re doing that has you so busy can probably stop and it will have little to no effect on the world or even an individual person. It might be that we need to scale back the extra things in our lives or even cut them out completely.

Typically what I see when people are not sleeping enough is because they’re also too busy to do other things that Christians should be prioritizing, such as reading the Bible, praying, fellowshipping with other believers, and spending quality time with our spouse and children.

Conclusion
The effects of sleep deprivation are much worse than most people realize. In fact, the research shows that people don’t consciously perceive how it negatively impacts them because we don’t have the awareness to notice or enough direct feedback mechanisms to reveal it. But just because we don’t notice doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

Because of the negative side-effects of sleep deprivation, it’s usually a sinful choice; however, it's also suggestive of other sins in our lives. I am using this as an opportunity to repent for my recent sleep deprivation and I pray you will too. Let’s put a stop to this go-go-go mentality that is so damaging to our lives and relationships. Generally speaking, when we prioritize sleep, it gives us more time, not less. I know this seems paradoxical, but sleep allows us to work more effectively and efficiently.

Although it's more complicated than this, we essentially need to organize our lives in such a way that allows us to get enough sleep and maintain the discipline to stick to it. For more details on how to prioritize sleep and practice good sleep habits, please read my other sleep article.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Virtue Apologetics

Image result for virtueA recent article in Psychology Today has been making the rounds on my social media. The article discusses a peer-reviewed paper from 2015 that showed that Christian children are less generous than non-religious children. The original paper was touted as proof that Christianity leads to less virtuous behavior than other religions and as a result, it received more media attention than the typical scientific paper. However, this contradicted previous research so when another scientist analyzed the data, it was discovered that the results were due to an error in how the data were coded. The original paper has since been retracted, and it only took three years since the mistake was discovered!

My point in writing this is not to attack science, the media, or anyone else. They all did what they're supposed to do in this situation. Instead, I want to discuss how the science of virtue applies to apologetics.

I work in an experimental psychology lab called The Science of Virtues Lab. We seek to understand what virtue is, how we can develop it, and how it affects well-being. The scientific study of virtue is not a huge area of psychology, but it's growing quickly because it has shown promise for improving well-being. This creates a conundrum if we think Christians will average higher levels of virtue than non-Christians. As we learn more about the science of virtue, the more likely it is that non-Christians will use that science to their advantage

Broadly speaking, the scientific evidence shows that virtue is correlated to well-being and religious belief is correlated to virtue (and well-being). However, as this knowledge seeps into culture, more people will practice virtue for the sake of well-being without corresponding religious belief. Some of the gratitude interventions, such as journaling, are very easy to do and require no religious belief to enhance well-being.

Virtue Apologetics
The first lesson from the science of virtues for apologetics is that Christians shouldn't be surprised or defensive if and when a psychological study shows atheists equal or outperform Christians on a measure of virtue or other desirable trait. I would even go a step further and say we should encourage this and pray for it. Part of the reason we do what we do in our lab is so all people can experience greater well-being and improved mental health, regardless of what they believe. I think all Christians should desire this for others and even pray for it. If Christianity is true, and I strongly believe it is, there should be some level of fulfillment that is only achievable by faith, so we can still desire the well-being of non-Christians.

Image result for virtueThe apologetic value of virtue isn't necessarily in comparing non-Christians to Christians, because it can and will change, and there are many other factors to consider, such as where a person starts from when they become a Christian. Instead, the apologetic value in the source of knowledge about virtue. Generally speaking, following a biblical morality will lead to greater psychological well-being, regardless of what your actual beliefs are (although there are some caveats to this and occasional downsides). The Bible correctly identifies virtuous behavior that modern science is just beginning to recognize as beneficial for human flourishing. Even more astonishing is that biblical ethics were fanatically counter-cultural in Greco Roman society, especially on the topics of sex and humility, which are both supported as beneficial by science.

The other important apologetic point for virtue has to do with the way we as Christians live our lives. A virtuous life is a desirable one. If we want to convince people that Christianity is worth their time and effort, we need to practice what we preach. It's much more important for us to slow down our lives and work on getting the logs out of our own eyes that it is to study the best arguments for Christianity. This was clearly apparent this week when an act of forgiveness, another Christian virtue, sparked a positive conversation about God among Today Show anchors.

Christianity doesn't guarantee to make us better people. As a group, Christians may or may not be more moral than any other group, but individually, it should have a noticeable effect on our lives. "Conduct yourselves with such honor among your unbelieving neighbors, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us." 1 Peter 2:12