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Theology

PAUL vs. JAMES? Dealing with Bible difficulties

“For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” - Paul, writing in Romans 3:28 “You see that a person is justified by works, and not by faith alone.” - Jam­­es, writing in James 2:24

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Supposed contradictions in the Bible can be unsettling. I had a few aggressive professors in university who offered up Biblical contradictions in a proselytizing sort of way. They were looking to win converts to their atheistic (or, in one case, theistic evolutionary) ways by attacking the trustworthiness of the Bible. I had attended a Christian high school and had almost entirely Christian friends, so I’d never run into this type of attack before. I didn’t know how to respond. Did trusting God mean just ignoring these challenges? Should I just keep believing despite all these seemingly irreconcilable difficulties being offered? Well, contrary to some popular Christian notions, our faith in God isn’t meant to be blind. We trust Him, not despite the evidence, but because of His track record – He has proven Himself trustworthy again and again. And because we can trust Him, we can go all “Berean” on these supposed contradictions. We can look at them closely, without fear, knowing that because God is true, these contradictions are no contradictions at all. Now, not only can we proceed without fear, we can even delve into these with a spirit of anticipation. Why? Because some of these “contradictions” are among the most enlightening passages of the Bible – we can look closer knowing that by better understanding these difficult passages we are learning more about our God. A CLOSE LOOK AT ONE DIFFICULTY One of the most illuminating “contradictions” occurs in James 2. It’s here that James seems to take a direct shot at much of what Paul writes. In Romans 3:28 and James 2:24 the contrast is clearest. Here Paul takes a stand for faith apart from works, while James is certain that both faith and works are needed. This is a big problem here – the Bible appears to contradict itself about the most important of matters: how we are to be justified! We aren’t the only ones confused. In his book Interpreting Puzzling Texts in the New Testament Robert H. Stein calls James 2 the one biblical passage that has “probably caused more theological difficulty than any other.” Martin Luther, who loved Paul’s book of Romans, also had problems with the book of James, in part because of this seeming works vs. faith dilemma. ENGLISH TEACHERS TO THE RESCUE? There is a problem here, but it turns out it is the sort of problem that can be solved by any decent high school English teacher. It was your English teacher who taught you words can have multiple meanings. For example the word bad means both not good (“You are a bad boy!”) and very good (“You is bad boy!") depending on the context. While words have a degree of flexibility to them, there are limits to this flexibility – if a word could mean absolutely anything, no one would know what it meant (the word bad might mean both not good and very good but it doesn’t mean blue, root beer, or canoeing). FAITH The word faith also has a degree of flexibility and even has numerous dictionary meanings. As Robert Stein notes, it can mean any one of the following: a religion (the Hindu faith) a branch of a religion (the Protestant faith) a specific set of theological doctrines (A church’s statement of faith) a living vital trust in God (she has real faith) The problem that many people have with James 2 and the contrasting passages written by Paul, is that they assume both James and Paul are using the word faith in exactly the same way. This isn’t so. If we take a look at the context in which Paul uses the word we find him speaking of: faith that seeks to please Christ (2 Cor. 5:7-9) faith coupled with love for the saints (Ephesians 1:15) a faith like Abraham’s (Romans 4:9) and a faith that is accompanied by the Holy Spirit (Gal. 3:14). James uses the same word quite differently. He talks of: a faith that allows Christians to see brothers in need and ignore them (James 2:14-16) a faith that is purely intellectual (James 2:19) and a faith that even demons have (James 2:19). James and Paul are not using this word the same way! WORKS There is also a notable difference in the way that James and Paul use the word works. Paul talks about works as something men boast about before God (Romans 4:2) or as a legalistic way of earning salvation (Gal. 5:2-4) or as something that people rely on instead of God’s grace (Romans 11:6). James on the other hand talks about works as the natural outgrowth of faith. James’ use of the word works includes Rahab’s hiding of the spies (James 2:25) taking care of the poor and other acts of compassion (James 2:15-16) and works as acts of obedience to God (James 2:21). So again, Paul and James’ meaning is significantly different. THE VALUE  If Paul and James mean different things when they use the words faith and works, then the apparent contradictions between Romans and James, turn out to be no contradictions at all. But it is only by studying these “contradictions” that we can get a proper understanding of the relationship between works and faith. James’ book can be seen as a rebuke to Hyper-Calvinists – people who take the doctrine of salvation by faith alone to mean they don’t have to do good works. Paul’s many letters are a rebuke to people on the other end of the spectrum – Pelagians who believe that they have to earn their own way into heaven by doing good works. And in between these two polar opposites are Calvinists who know that faith without works is indeed dead, but that our works do nothing to earn us salvation. It is indeed by faith alone. And by grace alone. The result of wrestling with this seeming contradiction is that we’ve gained in our understanding of what God has done for us, and what God expects from us! CONCLUSION  So how then are we to deal with supposed Biblical contradictions? Ignorance is not bliss. We don’t need to turn a blind eye. God is trustworthy and that means we can trust that His Word will not contradict itself. We can trust that examining the Bible closely will not be dangerous, but only to our benefit. Trusting God also means that when answers are not so easily had, or just aren’t coming at all, that shouldn’t lead to doubt. We will be able to resolve the vast majority of troubling texts presented to us but we also need to understand some difficulties will remain, and some questions may not be answered for years. Why is that so? Because omniscience is one of God’s attributes, not one of ours. We aren’t going to understand everything. But even if we are limited, there is still so much more we can learn about God. So trust Him enough to seek solutions to any biblical difficulties you’re presented with. And trust Him enough to be content when you only get 9 out of 10 questions answered.

There are a number of very helpful books for digging into Bible difficulties including Robert Stein's "Interpreting Puzzling Texts in the New Testament," James W. Sire's "Scripture Twisting: 20 Ways the Cults Misread the Bible," D.A. Carson's "Exegetical Fallacies," and Jay Adams' "Fifty Difficult Passages Explained." 

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Redeemer University

Adult non-fiction, Book Reviews

Calvin’s Magnum Opus: a review of "Institutes of the Christian Religion"

A “magnum opus” is an author’s greatest work. When it comes to John Calvin his Institutes of the Christian Religion is one of the classics of Protestant theology. However, as often as it is referenced, it is seldom read as a complete work from front to back. I first purchased my copy of the McNeill/Battles edition before starting pre-seminary studies in university, more than twenty years ago. Over the years I have read bits and pieces and there, often as a need or interest required but it wasn’t until this past year that I finally read the Institutes from beginning to end. In this essay, I will share some of the highlights of my complete tour through this theological masterpiece, and those highlights will include both points of appreciation and critique. I read the two-volume McNeill/Battles edition published in the Library of Christian Classics. This edition is based on the final version Calvin published in 1559. I also occasionally referred to the older editions of Beveridge and Allen, and even sometimes checked the original French and Latin. Different translations and editions Calvin originally wrote the Institutes in 1536 as a sort of catechetical handbook. It was never designed to be a systematic theology – such a creature did not yet exist. It was also not designed to be a book of extensive commentary on Scripture. No, its original purpose was catechetical – to summarize the teaching of Scripture on essential matters of faith and life. However, as the work progressed to its final form in 1559 – twenty-three years later – it did take on a more systematic form. In some places there is limited commentary on Scripture – for example, when dealing with the Ten Commandments (2.9) or the Lord’s Prayer (3.20.34-49) – and there are extensive references to Scripture, but generally Calvin leaves biblical exposition to his commentaries. A Scriptural foundation…most of the time His approach is typically theological, with the Scriptures explicitly as a foundation. However, by way of exception, there are parts that are more philosophical. For example, in 1.15.6-8, Calvin discusses the soul. There is almost nothing directly from Scripture in this discussion. Instead, Calvin works more with philosophical ideas from the likes of Plato. For a modern reader unfamiliar with Greek philosophy, this discussion is difficult to follow. Related to that, there are places where Calvin follows Platonic notions instead of biblical ones. One of the most well-known examples is how Calvin speaks of the body as the prison house of the soul. He does this in at least four places (1.15.2, 2.7.13, 3.7.5, 3.9.4). This devaluing of the body does not accord with the biblical worldview. In Scripture, the body is redeemed by Christ just as well as the soul (1 Cor. 6:19-20), and will be raised at the last day (1 Cor. 15). Well-read and it shows The attentive reader will pick up on Calvin’s copiousness – he read widely! Throughout the Institutes, Calvin refers to numerous authors going all the way back to the early church. Two stand out in particular. The most quoted and referred to author is Augustine. This is not surprising since Augustine is the most influential of the church fathers on the Protestant Reformers in general. Most of the time Calvin quotes Augustine approvingly, but there are also occasions where he dissents. The other author is Bernard of Clairvaux, a Cistercian monk who lived from 1090 to 1153. While Bernard lived before the worst developments in Catholic theology, he was still not exactly a medieval quasi-Protestant. Nevertheless, Calvin made use of Bernard’s best insights. In 2.16.1, Calvin gives this beautiful quote from Bernard’s Sermons on the Song of Songs:

The name of Jesus is not only light, but also food; it is also oil, without which all food of the soul is dry; it is salt, without whose seasoning whatever is set before us is insipid; finally, it is honey in the mouth, melody in the ear, rejoicing in the heart, and at the same time medicine. Every discourse in which his name is not spoken is without savor.

Calvin appreciated Bernard’s fervor for Christ and his felicitous turn of phrase. Brilliant, but also inexplicable, word choices Calvin likewise employed language with a skilled eye to felicity. Calvin valued beautiful rhetoric – throughout the Institutes there are words so well crafted you may feel some salty moisture rolling down your cheek. Calvin’s Institutes feature numerous sections like this in 3.2.42:

Accordingly, in brief, hope is nothing else than the expectation of those things which faith has believed to have been truly promised by God. Thus, faith believes God to be true, hope awaits the time when his truth shall be manifested; faith believes that he is our Father, hope anticipates that he will ever show himself to be a Father toward us; faith believes that eternal life has been given to us, hope anticipates that it will some time be revealed; faith is the foundation upon which hope rests, hope nourishes and sustains faith.

Calvin was indubitably a master of using language to powerful effect. Regrettably, I have to say I also encountered instances where Calvin uses strong, questionable, or even offensive language. He uses strong language when it comes to unbiblical and dangerous ideas. But he also uses strong words for the person of his theological opponents: “blockheads” (3.20.25), “stupid men” (3.21.7), “swine” (3.23.12), and many other such insults. I have read enough Reformation literature to know Calvin was not unusual in using this kind of language – and our day tends to be far more sensitive about throwing invectives around in our theological polemics. I am far less inclined to give Calvin a pass on some other language he uses. In three places, Calvin uses the exclamation “Good God!” (3.4.29, 3.4.39, 4.16.27). In each context, it is clearly an exclamation and not a sincerely-meant prayer to God. The expression was used in Calvin’s original Latin of the 1559 edition (“Bone Deus!”), but for some reason he dropped it in the French. In each instance, the older translations of Beveridge and Allen omit these exclamations. I have encountered the same expression in the writings of Guido de Brès. I find it troubling and I cannot find a way to excuse it. I would suppose that, being former Roman Catholics, they became accustomed to using this exclamation to express great horror – a blind spot. Challenges and benefits For readers today there are some challenges in reading and benefiting from Calvin’s Institutes. Some of the discussion has less relevance to us. For example, I found the discussion about the sacramental theology of the Roman Catholic Church to be one of the most tedious parts of the work. It may be interesting from a historical standpoint, and it might still be valuable to someone actively engaged in apologetics with Roman Catholics, but for the rest of us, the temptation to skip through this section is difficult to resist. Persevering readers will encounter some of Calvin’s best and most well-known theological insights. Among them: The Scriptures serve as spectacles to help us see God clearly (1.6.1, 1.14.1) “…man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols (1.11.8) Calvin believes the world to be less than 6000 years old (1.14.1, 3.21.4) Justification “is the main hinge on which religion turns.” (3.11.1) Fasting “is an excellent aid for believers today (as it always was)…” (4.12.18) If baptism is to be denied to the infant children of believers because Scripture is silent on the explicit practice, then women should also be denied access to the Lord’s Supper (4.16.8) The Lord’s Supper should be celebrated frequently, preferably every week (4.17.43) Aristocracy, or perhaps a system compounded of aristocracy and democracy “far excels” all other systems of government (4.20.8) Revolts are possible when led by lower magistrates (4.20.30) Reading Calvin’s Institutes will remind Reformed believers today that Calvin is not the gold standard for what it means to be Reformed. After all, there are several points at which much contemporary Reformed faith and practice departs from Calvin. For example, in 4.3.16, he discusses the laying on of hands in connection with office bearers. He argued that this laying on of hands ought to be practiced not only with the ordination of “pastors and teachers,” but also deacons. Interestingly, the original Belgic Confession also said that all office bearers should be ordained with the laying on of hands. While there are Reformed churches which follow Calvin on this, there are also those (like the Canadian Reformed Churches and the Free Reformed Churches of Australia) which do not involve the laying on of hands in the ordination of elders or deacons. Conclusion Let me conclude with noting that the McNeill/Battles edition is generally well-done. There are comprehensive indices. There are immense numbers of helpful explanatory footnotes. It must be said, however, that some of these footnotes reflect the editor’s liberal theological bias. For example, in a footnote in 1.8.8, the editor informs us that Calvin did not hold to the modern view of a late date for Isaiah 45 and its mention of Cyrus. Well, I guess not, seeing as how Calvin believed the Bible to be the Word of God! As another example, in a footnote in 4.8.9, the editor claims Calvin does not explicitly support biblical inerrancy anywhere. While it would obviously be anachronistic to expect Calvin to affirm every jot and tittle of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (written in 1978) there is plenty of evidence to affirm Calvin has far more in common with biblical inerrantists today than their opponents. For most Reformed people today, Calvin’s Institutes will remain a reference. No one should expect regular church members to pick it up and read it straight through with profit. Those who try will almost certainly get frustrated and give up. We must be realistic. It is a work from an era in which theologians could expect far more from their readers. I wonder whether even many of today’s pastors would be able to digest everything Calvin serves up. Some of his discussions and references certainly went beyond my ken. We live in a strange time where we have more access to information than anyone else in the history of world, and yet, compared to Calvin from 500 years ago, we are dullards. Reading through the Institutes certainly drove that point home to me.

Dr. Bredenhof blogs at Yinkahdinay.Wordpress.com where this article first appeared.

Sexuality

Propaganda disguised as Sex Education

In 2009 Dr. Miriam Grossman (a medical doctor) released a book that explains the problems and agenda of the modern sex education movement: You're Teaching My Child What? A Physician Exposes the Lies of Sex Ed and How They Harm Your Child. Though it is an American book, it provides a lot of material that is helpful for people in other English-speaking countries. Grossman explains the underlying motivation behind many school sex education programs, and explains how this motivation leads to the deliberate distortion of sexuality information given to students. The organizations and their agenda First of all, it’s very important to know about the main organizations involved in promoting sex education. Many of us have heard of Planned Parenthood, the US’s biggest abortion provider. Another key organization is the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS). Both Planned Parenthood and SIECUS are motivated by anti-Christian ideals. Grossman writes,

These organizations are still animated by the philosophies of the infamous sexologist Alfred Kinsey – whose work has been debunked – the birth control and eugenics advocate Margaret Sanger, the feminist Gloria Steinem, and Playboy founder Hugh Hefner. These twentieth-century crusaders were passionate about social change, not health. Their goal was cultural revolution, not the eradication of disease.

Because of the cultural aspirations motivating these organizations, the materials that are produced for sex education classes are not just about the nuts-and-bolts of human biology. They are deliberately designed to encourage behaviors that are condemned by traditional Western morality. As Grossman puts it,

Sex education is about as neutral as a catechism class. And like a catechism, the “information” and “guidance” offered is designed to inculcate particular beliefs in young people.

In short, “Sex education is not about health – it’s a social movement, a vehicle for changing the world.” [Editor's note: that is made even more apparent with SIECUS' recent rebrand – they now want to be known as "Sex Ed for Social Change."] Alfred Kinsey Dr. Alfred Kinsey, the infamous sexologist mentioned by Grossman, was a prominent American researcher of the 1940s and 1950s. He produced groundbreaking studies on the sexual behavior of men and women in the United States. These studies claimed to demonstrate that the vast majority of people engaged in some form of perverse sexuality, such as fornication, adultery, homosexuality and more. On the basis of his studies, and the supposed normalcy of these behaviors, massive cultural and legislative changes were undertaken in Western countries. These changes were justified by Kinsey’s science. But there was a big problem. Kinsey’s so-called “science” wasn’t science at all. His research was deliberately skewed to generate results that would justify his left-wing social beliefs. Kinsey wanted to overthrow traditional morality, so he conducted his “research” in such a fashion as to produce results he could use to undermine conventional views about sexuality. Kinsey’s fraud didn’t get properly exposed until the 1980s when Dr. Judith Reisman (currently at Liberty University School of Law) carefully scrutinized what Kinsey had done and published her results. Unfortunately, outside of conservative circles, Dr. Reisman’s research has not been widely disseminated. She deserves a Medal of Honor or something like it. Anyway, it’s important to realize, as Grossman points out, “In the upside down world of sex education, the ideology of Alfred Kinsey has been enshrined.” SIECUS The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) was founded in 1964 by Mary Calderone, who had been a director of Planned Parenthood. Grossman writes that the focus of Calderone’s

newly launched organization, which was, by the way, founded with seed money from Hugh Hefner of Playboy fame, was not to treat or prevent disease. Like Kinsey, she was crusading for social reform. Her book for parents reads like a primer for his views, and quite a few Kinsey disciples had eminent positions with SIECUS

Hefner subsequently provided additional funding as well. That is to say, SIECUS received financial support from the sale of pornography. In short, much of the impetus for modern sex education in public schools is provided by organizations with a clear left-wing ideological agenda. Dr. Grossman’s experience For twelve years Grossman was a student counselor at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles). She dealt with hundreds of students in their late teens and early twenties who had contracted a sexually transmitted disease (STD). She found that they had received sex education at school, but had not been warned about the harmful consequences that were likely to result from sexual activity. Grossman is not opposed to sex education as such. She is opposed to ideologically-driven sex education that deliberately withholds information from students in order to advance a political and cultural agenda. Pheromones and oxytocin Grossman is particularly sympathetic towards the numerous young ladies she counseled who have been harmed by premarital sexual activity. Recent medical research has helped to establish that women are especially influenced by male pheromones (a pheromone is a chemical produced by one person that can be perceived by other people) and the hormone oxytocin. Male pheromones “have psychological effects on women, like increased attention and a feeling of well-being.” Oxytocin, known as “the cuddle hormone,” is released in women who have physical contact with a man. Among other things, oxytocin promotes social bonding, leading (potentially, at least) to a certain degree of attachment to the man. The gist of all this is that young women who engage in premarital sex are likely to develop emotional attachments to their partners that can potentially cause intense emotional pain. Grossman believes this information should be shared during sex education so that girls can be forewarned about the likely emotional stress they will face from sexual activity. At this point, however, “These biological truths are omitted by the sex-ed industry because they fly in the face of the ideology animating their very existence.” Another important scientific finding involves the development of the cervix. Before a girl turns twenty, a region of her cervix called the “transformation zone” has a covering of cells that is only one layer thick. As she ages, the covering becomes 30 to 40 cell layers thick. But until then, there is little protection from viruses or bacteria. In other words, teenage girls are especially vulnerable to STDs, much more so than boys. Grossman writes,

Based on this finding alone – something gynecologists and pediatricians have known for at least twenty years, girls should be advised to delay sexual behavior. Yes, delay sexual behavior.

Anal sex Another area where sex educators fail to properly inform children has to do with the dangers of anal sex. These educators seem to encourage students to engage in any form of sexual behavior they desire (as long as the partner is willing), and anal sex is considered to be one of the legitimate behaviors to explore. Grossman points out that there is an inevitable “ick factor” in any discussion of anal sex. Anal sex inevitably and unavoidably involves contact with feces. However, she quotes a prominent sex education website as claiming that “negative attitudes about anal sex” sometimes result from a “disgust about feces” but “more of it is often based in homophobia and heteronormativity.” In this view, since anal sex is a common behavior of homosexuals, people who think it is gross are likely to be homophobes. Since homosexuality is good, anal sex must be good too! From a Christian perspective, this is obviously complete rubbish. Because of the strong support for homosexuality among sex educators, there is unwillingness among them to tell the truth about anal sex. Grossman has no such reservations and points out that

“feces are filled with dangerous pathogens: salmonella, shigella, amoeba, hepatitis A, B, and C, giardia, campylobacter, and others. These organisms and others can be transmitted during anal sex or oral-anal contact.”

From a health perspective, anal sex is dangerous (not to mention gross and disgusting). Grossman makes an appropriate biological conclusion: “Unlike the vagina, nature put a tight sphincter at the entrance of the anus. It’s there for a reason: Keep out!” Sexually Transmitted Diseases Another aspect that is improperly taught has to do with STDs. Sex educators do discuss STDs and how to prevent them. The emphasis is on how to avoid STDs, and failing that, how to get treatment. But Grossman says sex education curriculum does not discuss the emotional consequences of getting an STD. Many people who contract an STD get very distressed as a result of their diagnosis. But this is of little concern in sex education. Grossman writes,

Educators often mention the hardships of living in a sexist and homophobic society, but rarely describe how devastating it is to discover blisters “down there,” to worry about cervical cancer, and to learn that these viruses might stick around – for a long, long time.

All STDs are completely avoidable. Anyone who delays sexual behavior and finds a mate who has also waited will be free from STDs as long as they are faithful to each other. In other words, obeying the Bible in this area of life results in the avoidance of all STDs. Grossman argues that all of the negative effects of STDs should be taught. But this is not the focus of the sex educators or their websites:

Instead of sounding an alarm about health risks – the association of oral sex with cancer of the tonsils, for example, or the epidemics of HPV and syphilis among gay men – kids get a hefty dose of leftist indoctrination and recruitment. On these websites, the enemy is not genital infections; it’s our oppressive, heterosexist society.

Conclusion The controversies over sex education in North America will continue. This is all part of the ongoing culture war. Dr. Miriam Grossman has done parents a huge favor by analyzing the materials produced by the sex education movement and comparing them with modern medical knowledge. From a modern medical perspective (i.e., a genuine scientific perspective), the best thing for people is to save themselves for marriage and then remain faithful to their spouse. Does that sound familiar? Of course it does, because that’s what the Bible teaches. The science clearly demonstrates that monogamous heterosexuality is the healthiest sexuality for human beings. But as Grossman notes, that’s “information our daughters and sons never hear, because it challenges the institutionalized ideology and – gasp – confirms traditional values and teachings.”

A version of this article first appeared in the June 2016 issue.

Parenting

Just how bad is the teen anxiety epidemic?

Over the past year or so, I’ve noticed a significant increase in the number of people asking me for help with anxiety issues. While it seems to be affecting people of all ages, the most common problem is teens with anxiety, as the following stats underline:

  • Anxiety is the most common mental-health disorder in the United States, affecting nearly one-third of both adolescents and adults, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
  • Nearly a third of all adolescents ages 13 to 18 will experience an anxiety disorder during their lifetime, according to the National Institutes of Health, with the incidence among girls (38.0 percent) far outpacing that among boys (26.1 percent).
  • More than 6 million American teens are grappling with an anxiety disorder of some kind.
  • Anxiety is now the most common issue for which people of all ages seek counseling.
  • Over the last decade, anxiety has overtaken depression as the most common reason college students seek counseling services.
  • Since 1985, the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA has been asking incoming college freshmen if they “felt overwhelmed” by all they had to do. The first year, 18 percent replied yes. By 2000, that climbed to 28 percent. By 2016, to nearly 41 percent.
  • The American College Health Association has been recording about a 10% annual increase in anxiety rates over a number of years.
  • Recent studies have declared millennials, especially women, the most anxious generation in history.
  • Among 10- to 24-year-old females, seven to 14 per cent will experience an anxiety condition in any given year.
  • There’s been a doubling of hospital admissions for suicidal teenagers over the last 10 years, with the highest rates occurring soon after they return to school each fall.
  • A 2015 report from the Child Mind Institute found that only about 20% of young people with a diagnosable anxiety disorder get treatment.
  • Based on data collected from the National Survey of Children’s Health for ages 6 to 17, researchers found a 20 percent increase in diagnoses of anxiety between 2007 and 2012.

One Christian counselor said, “When I first started counseling twenty-four years ago, probably one out of every twenty kids coming in were dealing with anxiety,” she says. “Now, out of my new appointments, I would say at least sixteen of every twenty families are here for that reason, if not more.”

So just how bad is the teen anxiety epidemic? It’s really bad, isn’t it? I list these statistics, not to make everyone even more anxious, but to try to re-assure anxious teens and their parents that anxiety is a very normal abnormality. Due to the stigma that still surrounds anxiety and depression, especially in the church, many people suffer in silence and secrecy. They think, “I’m totally weird….There’s no one else like me.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. The statistics say otherwise. We are surrounded by kids who are suffering like this but most are afraid to admit it, and so are many of their parents. The kids therefore often continue to suffer without help or support. 

Many different causes

So, if teen anxiety is so widespread, what’s causing it? On the basis of personal experience, counseling, and research, here are what I believe are the most common causes of teen anxiety.

Unresolved guilt: Teen years are often sin-filled years, especially in the area of sex, both virtual and real-life. This causes fear of being found out, fear of God, fear of consequences, and fear of judgment.

Unbelief: Related to the above, many kids are not saved, they have no peace with God, because they have never believed in Christ for salvation. But even teens who are believers suffer from anxiety through unbelief, just simply not believing God’s promises.

Physical problem: Oftentimes it’s not a sin or faith issue but a biological issue, where the “fight-or-flight” mechanism is disordered, constantly or periodically flooding the body and brain with “anxious chemicals” such as adrenaline, cortisol, etc. This is far more common than most people think and I’ll have more to say about it in another post.

Impossible expectations: Teens can impose on themselves perfectionistic targets in school, sport, work, and other areas of life, causing huge anxiety when they fail to live up to them. Although young, there’s often a sense that bad decisions already taken, or bad exam results, will ruin the rest of life, and that there’s no way back.

Parental pressure: Parents sometimes add their own unrealistic expectations, often with a view to getting scholarships, or of maintaining their social standing with other parents. Related to this is the problem of over-protective parents. Many kids are so spoiled or protected by their parents that they are totally unprepared for what the world throws at them as soon as they venture outside of the cocoon.

Over-busy parents: And the opposite of the above. Some kids just need quality and quantity time with Dad and Mom.

Broken homes: One of the most under-reported causes of teen anxiety.

Sleep deprivation: Teens need 8-9 hours of regular sleep to thrive, but many are getting less than six causing significant physical, emotional, and intellectual damage.

Technology addiction: The teen brain is being fried by the constant sizzle of social media and gaming, giving the brain no opportunity for calm and repair.

Social media: Regardless of the impact of how long and how often teens are on social media, there’s the constant performance anxiety that flows from seeing other teens “perfect” lives online.

Physical immobility: Teen bodies were not made to sit down all day. Lack of exercise reduces healthy brain and body chemicals and increases damaging ones.

Friends and enemies: There’s constant pressure to please and keep up with friends, and especially for girls, these relationships are often complex and fragile. Then add frequent bullying from enemies, sometimes in real life, but today more often online.

Neglect of Sabbath: God made the Sabbath for our good, but very few teens take a day off a week from studies, work, sports, shopping, etc., and are suffering the consequences of going against our Maker’s instructions.

Bad news: Our teens are exposed to a constant diet of negative news from the media, feeding anxiety and fear.

Unhealthy diet: Sugar, carbs, soda, and caffeine drinks make up a large part of many teen diets, a lethal cocktail for mental health.

Bad time management: Bad organization, wrong prioritizing, doing the wrong things at the wrong times, procrastinating, taking on too much, all combine to create a constant background hum of stress and tension.

Money worries: Poor planning, indisciplined spending, taking on debt, impulsive shopping, all stretch the budget and the nerves.

Practical godlessness: Without God as the foundation and framework of life, everything depends on us. Teens, yes even Christian teens, often go days and even weeks without praying and reading God’s Word. This results in a lack of a sense of God’s presence, plan, and power in their lives.

Faulty thinking: Teens can fall into a range of faulty thinking.

Trauma: Abuse, unexpected bereavement, exposure to violence, accidents, etc. can result in degrees of PTSD.

Conclusion

As you can see, parents, there are multiple cause of teen anxiety. I hope this list helps you to think and talk to your teens as you try to explore what factors may be contributing to your teen’s worries — it’s usually more than one. Unless we find out the causes, it’s unlikely we’ll discover any cures. I’ll pick out some of these in future posts for further explanation.

Dr. David Murray blogs at HeadHeartHand.org where this first appeared as a pair of posts. In the coming weeks he hopes to share more of his thoughts on the teen anxiety epidemic in the hopes of helping concerned parents understand what’s going in with their anxious kids, offering guidance on how they can help them, and giving practical and biblical advice on how they can contribute to their healing. And we hope to share his thoughts on our website too, and in upcoming issues of the print magazine.


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