A place where ideas stir the waters of our mind.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Is Marijuana HARMFUL to your health?

The push for the legalization of marijuana for medical and recreational use continues to plow ahead.  In the past week, members of Congress as well as members of my State Assembly have joined the pro-pot push. I also noticed an article describing the “useful” tax revenue generated by the legalization of medical marijuana in Colorado.  When money is in the mix, it’s often not long before legislators want a piece of the pie. 

Lost in the move to legalize recreational and medical marijuana are the questions about the health effects of marijuana use. It seems hard for pro and anti-pot proponents to have even a useful conversation to answer health-related questions concerning this drug. Repeating the mantra that “marijuana is safe and no more harmful than alcohol” (including a certain oval office holder), the legalization train keeps chugging ahead and minimizing or ridiculing data concerning harmful health effects.  The anti-marijuana crowd tends towards knee-jerk reactions to these issues, and don’t consider the plight of those struggling with painful and debilitating diseases that don’t respond to conventional treatments.
I wonder what would happen if both sides just took a deep breath (not a long toke) and took a serious look at studies documenting the physical and psychological damage that smokers of marijuana are likely to experience.  Would it then be possible to have an informed dialogue?  Government policies concerning marijuana are too important to be made by those who ignore data in pursuit of a buzz, those on the “Reefer Madness” bandwagon or politicians looking for new revenue to fund pet projects.

Difficult Answers
From the outset, several issues make the marijuana health debate more complicated.
First, the majority of medical marijuana users are those who began using cannabis in adolescence.  That means that those pushing most for legalization also have a long-term history of getting high.  Do we really want the loudest voices influencing this debate to be those looking for a legal high – justified on medical grounds?
Second, it is also clear that some proponents of legal medical marijuana are suffering from long-term intractable conditions or the side effects of cancer treatments. As a person who has a long-term, chronic disease for which there is no cure, I am highly sympathetic to anyone seeking relief from pain or other debilitating conditions. The fact that some potheads are pushing for legal marijuana does not mean that all proponents of legal marijuana are looking for a quick buzz.  There are medical conditions that respond uniquely to cannabis.
Third, there are over 100 cannabinoids marijuana. THC is the cannabinoid that receives the most attention because it is responsible for the “rush” of pleasure when marijuana is used, but is only one of a multitude of the active ingredients in pot. Science is still in the process of trying to better understand and isolate individual cannabinoids to determine their efficacy for medical use.  Is it possible to isolate specific cannabinoids to more effectively treat specific diseases, and deliver the proper dosage in a medium that minimizes or eliminates the health effects of other cannabinoids? This question should be answered, but I’m sure that anything that might eliminate the THC buzz would be quite unpopular with those who see medical marijuana as a quick route to an easy high.
Fourth, the degree to which marijuana users experience harmful marijuana side effects depends on the age of first use, as well as the frequency and duration of use. Studies on the health effects of marijuana must control for these issues, and the good news is that some research already is.
Finally, marijuana does not have uniform concentrations of cannabinoids. What someone smokes in England may be chemically different from what someone smokes in California.  Therefore, it’s important to note that studies of the health effects of marijuana need to control for this and other factors as well as the use of other substances and behaviors.

So, what are studies suggesting about the health effects of marijuana?
For a good overview of current studies about the health effects of cannabis, please check out Dr. Michael Schatman’s article, “Medical Marijuana-the State of the Science” published in Medscape Neurology, February 2015.

Effects on the brain
SPECT scans from Dr. Daniel Amen (Amenclinic.com) show marked decrease in activity in the brain’s prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is one of the biggest things that separate us from other creatures like lizards. When the prefrontal cortex is impaired, we begin to function like very relaxed lizards and lose a variety of essential brain functions.  The functions impaired include:
  • ·        the ability to effectively regulate emotions
  • ·        maintain effective real-time interactions with others
  • ·        resolve conflicts
  • ·        think creatively or resourcefully
  • ·        impulse control
  • ·        motivation and goal-directed behavior
  • ·        understand the emotional consequences of behavior
  • ·        focus attention

In addition to these problems, a study of over 1000 participants showed that cognitive impairment among adolescent users continued long after they stopped using marijuana. In fact, nobody knows how long these effects will last or if they are permanent.  Proponents of marijuana need to recognize that anything making pot more accessible to teens is dangerous to the brain, including teens or children who use marijuana for medical reasons. Do the health benefits of marijuana outweigh the known long-term cognitive impact of marijuana on the developing brain?
In response, marijuana proponents are quick to point out that only those 21 and older should be able to buy marijuana legally. They argue that the 21-year old age limit will ensure that marijuana legalization will not affect teens. Really?  Really?  How many teens already find access to marijuana now?  Can we really believe that increasing the available supply of available marijuana will somehow magically make it less accessible to kids?

Psychological Effects
Studies report that acute anxiety in marijuana users has risen as THC content has increased and studies that suggest a correlation between marijuana use and anxiety date to 1944. Some studies also suggest that depression, suicidal ideation, and increased risk for suicide are correlated to the use of marijuana. One study by Hadland and Harris found that “frequent marijuana use by teens predicted depression and anxiety later in life”, and a more recent study determined that “use of marijuana among adolescents was associated with adult-onset anxiety.” (Michael Schatman PhD Medical Marijuana-the State of the Science; Medscape Neurology February 2015)
Dr. Schatman also reports a correlation between the use of marijuana and psychotic disorders, schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder. The relationship between marijuana and these mental health issues is complicated. Frequently people with a variety of mental disorders use substances like marijuana to self-medicate, so it’s unclear if marijuana is the causative factor. Risk factors associated with marijuana use and psychosis include: early use of marijuana, childhood abuse, a family history of schizophrenia, as well as a variety of genetic factors. While it would be inaccurate to state that marijuana use leads to these mental health issues, it is equally difficult to unequivocally state that marijuana does not lead to those problems. It would be helpful if proponents of legal marijuana were willing to consider the psychological issues associated with marijuana use of repeating the mantra, “marijuana is safe”. This isn’t about fear it’s about scientifically informed decisions about marijuana use.

Physical Effects
Marijuana is not good for your lungs, and it’s been known for years that cannabis contains carcinogens. A report from The American Lung Association notes that there are 33 cancer causing chemicals in marijuana. In fact, “marijuana deposits four times as much tar into the lungs as cigarettes when equal amounts are smoked”. Add to this other respiratory problems related to marijuana including bronchitis, lung irritation and infection.
Marijuana also affects the heart.  Dr. Schatman notes studies showing a connection between inhaling marijuana and higher rates of heart attack and death. In general people who use marijuana had higher rates of death from lung cancer. They also died more frequently from car accidents. The use of marijuana can also make it more difficult for women to become pregnant. A report in WebMD indicates that marijuana also affects men’s reproductive health. In fact they state, “The smokers weren’t the only ones who got high. The drug effected their sperm too. These stoned sperm party hard and are hyperactive… they’re too fast, too early… and then poop out.” In other words, the sperm of those smoking marijuana tend to swim hyperactively initially, and then to “burn out” and stop moving before they ever reach the egg. I wouldn’t consider marijuana to be an effective form of birth control, but it does effect fertility.
I don’t know about you, but the impact of marijuana on the brain and cognitive functions, along with the psychological and physical effects, strongly suggest that marijuana is not the “harmless drug” that proponents report.

So, what can we make of this information? Is marijuana a safe drug?
It seems best to say that the data is still coming in, but studies definitely indicate there is a dark side to the use of marijuana. We need solid research to study the health effects and benefits of the many cannabinoids in cannabis. Furthermore, we need research to determine the best non-harmful delivery system for medical marijuana.  If a specific cannabinoid can treat a disease effectively, is it possible to deliver it medicinally without the harm caused by smoking marijuana?
Parents opting to use marijuana to treat diseases in children need to carefully weigh the benefits and longer term harm of cannabis prescriptions.  The evidence suggesting long-term damage to the developing brain is compelling. The accompanying psychological effects can also be serious.
Should we deny adults with conditions that tend to respond only to the use of marijuana access to the most effective treatment for their disease because anti-marijuana are afraid? As with any medication, shouldn’t patients become educated about the side effects of their prescriptions, and then be free to make their own informed decisions about usage?

In closing, perhaps it makes sense to look at the health effects of marijuana this way.  When the buzz feels good it’s hard to imagine the harmful effects of marijuana – unless you are a marijuana smoker who is dying of lung disease, stroke, or heart attack. Then it doesn’t seem quite so harmless at all. 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

"Getting high" and Medical Marijuana

The active ingredient in marijuana associated with the rush of euphoria is the cannabinoid, THC. Both medical marijuana legally available from dispensaries as well as cannabis available “on the street” have much higher concentrations of THC than in the past. Users are getting “higher” than ever before. But is marijuana with high THC concentrations really the best use of cannabis for medical reasons?

Patients with chronic pain that is unresponsive to other therapies use marijuana with high concentrations of THC to relieve their pain. Some doctors prescribe it for chemotherapy patients to control nausea and stimulate appetite. Anecdotally, many medical marijuana users report significant improvement in their conditions. With over 100 cannabinoids in marijuana, is euphoria-causing THC responsible for these reported medical benefits? Are high concentrations of THC really the most medically effective cannabinoid in marijuana?

Is the debate over medical marijuana being informed by science - or is it driven by those who use see the medical marijuana debate as an opportunity to legitimize “getting high”?

Another cannabinoid in marijuana that may show more promise than THC for treating a variety of conditions is CBD (Cannabidiol). Research indicates that CBD "mitigates the euphoria associated with THC" (Iverson, The Science of Marijuana). To give marijuana users more “high” for their buck, scientists working for the drug sellers figured out how to boost the amount of THC in the marijuana plants, and subsequently reduced the amount of CBD. So, while THC concentrations increased from around 2% to nearly 10%, the concentration of CBD decreased 300%.

To put it simply, scientists increased THC and reduced CBD content to give users a more intense high. Interestingly, the THC potency in states with legally protected dispensaries is significantly higher than in states without dispensaries (Sevigny, Pacula and Heaton, 2014). This means that medical marijuana will get users very high with low levels of CBD. It also means that harmful side effects associated with THC are maximized in medical marijuana and potential benefits from CBD are minimized.

What are possible medicinal usages for CBD?

In this discussion, I want to be clear. I am NOT arguing for the expansion of medical marijuana or for legalization of marijuana. I am suggesting that more research with CBD is important; I am NOT advocating that “getting high” is the way to solve serious medical problems. I also don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater and argue that marijuana has absolutely no medicinal value at all. I want patients suffering from severe, chronic, life-altering medical problems to have the benefit of every effective treatment option supported by data generated from numerous scientific research. As we will see, CBD may be a promising intervention for a long list of medical conditions. If further studies suggest that CBD is an effective treatment modality, I would be much more inclined to support its use, especially if produced synthetically and administered apart from marijuana and its harmful side effects.

Furthermore, it is important to understand that CBD research is still in its infancy. Short-term trials and experiments with animals suggest that CBD may be medically useful, but there isn’t sufficient data from long-term human trials with CBD to draw any final conclusions.

Administration of CBD shows promise when in addressing the following conditions:
·         Epilepsy and seizure disorders - Data suggests that CBD helps reduce seizure frequency including treatment resistant pediatric epilepsy.
·         Parkinson’s Disease – CBD reduced Dystonia and Rapid Eye Movement Sleep Behavior Disorder
·         Pain relief – Patients with MS and spinal cord injury found significant pain relief from CBD without unwanted side effects compared to those receiving the placebo. CBD also seems to have anti-inflammatory and anti-spasmodic benefits.
·         Cancer – In hundreds of human an animal cell studies, CBD interferes with cancer cells’ ability to reproduce themselves.
·         Anxiety & PTSD – While THC tends to increase levels of anxiety in some users, studies show that CBD reduces anxiety and arousal of the autonomic nervous system. CBD also reduced anxiety in patients with generalized social anxiety disorder in a placebo-controlled trial.
·         Psychotic Episodes – CBD has antipsychotic effects and may reduce psychotic symptoms in patients with acute paranoid Schizophrenia and Schizophreniform Psychosis.
·         Addictions – Early research suggests that CBD may be useful in helping smokers reduce cigarette usage compared to those treated with a placebo. CBD may also be useful to reduce opioid seeking behavior; this research is in its infancy.

What conclusions about THC, CBD and medical marijuana can we find?

First, we cannot allow the agenda of those wishing to legitimize their “high” to drive the debate about medical marijuana. A 2014 study found that customers at medical marijuana dispensaries started using marijuana in their teens and 50% had indications of risky alcohol use. 20% had recent histories of prescription or illicit drug abuse. Its unclear form these numbers if these are potheads who have found a new and legal way to continue to get high. However, these numbers do suggest that a significant number of medical marijuana users have a long-term history of using illegal and mind-altering substances. Are these really the people we want driving the movement to legalize and legitimize the use of medical marijuana?

Second, marijuana in its current form at medical dispensaries has higher concentrations of THC than pot sold elsewhere. Furthermore, marijuana available “on the street” has much higher concentrations of THC than was available in the past. Because there is an inverse relationship between THC (which causes euphoria) and CBD (which lessens euphoria) it is virtually impossible to determine the efficacy of CBD from medical marijuana. This also means that serious users experience the maximum health risks associated with the use of marijuana, with minimal potential benefits of CBD.

Third, there is a significant need for more research into the use of CBD for medical purposes. Studies and trials suggest the potential health benefits of CBD for a variety of medical conditions. To understand the benefits and harms associated with CBD, we need more solid data from unbiased scientific research.

Fourth, data suggests that CBD has fewer side effects than marijuana with high levels of THC. As I’ve pointed out in my previous blog, marijuana in its current form has strong addictive potential and is associated with a variety of physical and psychological impairments. We definitely need studies documenting the bio-psycho-social impact and the addictive potential of CBD.

Fifth, clearly there is considerable debate concerning the use of cannabis for the treatment of a variety of physical and psychological conditions. Serious research should inform this debate. We can ill-afford political expediency driven by those hiding out in the purple haze to hijack this necessary medical debate. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Is Marijuana addictive?

For years, pro-marijuana lobbyists, users, and potheads have vociferously defended marijuana as non-addictive. Arguing that marijuana's non-addictive POTENTIAL made it a safe and relatively harmless substance, marijuana proponents have pushed for legalization and strong liberal protections for the medical use of marijuana.

But is it really non-addictive? 

The new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) disagrees.

The new DSM-V which was released in 2013 includes 5 cannabis-associated disorders. These include:
  •  Cannabis Use Disorder (While the DSM-IV included separate categories for substance abuse and dependence, the DSM-V has included both abuse and dependence in its new cannabis use disorder.)
  •  Cannabis Intoxication
  •  Cannabis Withdrawal
Other cannabis related disorders include, Cannabis Intoxication Delirium, Cannabis Induced Psychotic Disorder, Cannabis Induced Anxiety Disorder and Cannabis Induced Sleep Disorder. From the DSM-V, it appears clear that the use of marijuana can be far from harmless.

How is Cannabis Use Disorder diagnosed?

Cannabis use disorder is defined as the following:
A problematic pattern of cannabis use leading to clinically significant impairment or distress, as manifested by at least 2 of the following, occurring within a 12-month period:

  • Cannabis is often taken in larger amounts or over a longer period than was intended.
  • There is a persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control cannabis use.
  • A great deal of time is spent in activities necessary to obtain cannabis, use cannabis, or recover from its effects.
  • Craving, or a strong desire or urge to use cannabis.
  • Recurrent cannabis use resulting in a failure to fulfill major role obligations at work, school, or home.
  • Continued cannabis use despite having persistent or recurrent social or interpersonal problems caused or exacerbated by the effects of cannabis.
  • Important social, occupational, or recreational activities are given up or reduced because of cannabis use.
  • Recurrent cannabis use in situations in which it is physically hazardous.
  • Cannabis use is continued despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem that is likely to have been caused or exacerbated by cannabis.
  • Tolerance, as defined by either a (1) need for markedly increased cannabis to achieve intoxication or desired effect or (2) markedly diminished effect with continued use of the same amount of the substance.
  • Withdrawal, as manifested by either (1) the characteristic withdrawal syndrome for cannabis or (2) cannabis is taken to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms

In my years of working in this field, I've always known that addiction is characterized by tolerance, withdrawal, the disruption of normal psycho-social and relational functioning. These are the kinds of issues that are discussed in typical intake interviews and bio-psycho-social assessments. In looking at the co-occurring issues that must be present in a diagnosis of Cannabis Abuse Disorder, one can clearly see a similarity between harmful use of marijuana and other drugs.  

Notice the presence of cravings, which may often occur despite serious impairment in health, schoolwork, relationships with family and friends, employment, and threats to one’s own health and safety.  These cravings and the urge to “use” which are the subject of some pretty funny stoner movies and stories, are really no laughing matter. The urge to use marijuana is perfectly capable of destroying family, friends, and motivation for school, work, and home.

It is interesting that the DSM-V recognizes the development of tolerance in the use of marijuana. Tolerance means that our body requires increasing amounts of the same substance to achieve the desired effect. In other words, it takes more marijuana to get the same high. For years I heard that it was impossible to develop tolerance for marijuana. It seemed that tolerance was an issue related to heroin or later stage alcoholism – but not use of cannabis. I was wrong!

I also heard that there was no withdrawal associated with the use of marijuana. Proponents of legalized marijuana and potheads argued that the awesome “buzz” had no push back. They could quit anytime they wanted to, but they just didn’t want to. Now it seems clear that one of the factors that drives ongoing use of marijuana is withdrawal. Users are not just chasing the buzz; they are trying to stave off the physical and psychological symptoms of withdrawal. With heavy use of marijuana withdrawal symptoms can include: irritability, anger, or aggression, anxiety, nervousness, decreased appetite, restlessness, and a depressed mood. Physical symptoms can include: significant discomfort, abdominal pain, shakiness/tremors, sweating, fever, chills, or headache. I don’t know about you, but these symptoms describe use of a drug that is far from harmless for serious users.

The debate over legalization and the medical use of marijuana will continue. The pro-marijuana lobby seems committed to a world in which marijuana is readily accessible for all who want it. This is not likely to change anytime soon. As we move forward, it’s important that we consider the full addictive potential of marijuana for already committed stoners as well as casual or curious users. Nobody sets out to become addicted. It is the addictive nature of marijuana that takes the unwary as well as heavy users captive. 

It’s time to stop inhaling the smoke exhaled in our direction by those who simply want to pursue their high, and come to grips with the addictive potential of this supposedly "harmless" drug.

*top photo courtesy of Paul at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Saturday, October 18, 2014

What is Healing? Part 5


Our Relational Design: Ideal or Real?

Is God’ relational design for our lives more than a nice theoretical guideline – or are loving relationships with God and others something we need to take seriously?

Many of us long to live for God more deeply. We want to see God move more powerfully in us and through us to accomplish His purposes. We’d like to have the kind of joyful, loving fellowship described in the Book of Acts. Some of us would even like to see the miraculous in our day. Why does it seem that despite our deepest longings, our desires for “more of God and His works” often seem unfulfilled?

Perhaps the heart of the matter is this: it’s hard to experience or express the life of Jesus when we live outside of His relational design for our lives. According to His design specs for our lives, God created us to function best only when we are connected with Him and others in love. Love, experienced and expressed in relationship with God and others (and not more power, authority, influence, ministry opportunities, miracles, church attendance, memorized Bible verses, miracles, signs and wonders) is the “Gold Standard” in Christianity.

The failure to take seriously Jesus’ commands to love God and each other with His love keeps us weak, frustrated and unfulfilled in our lives as Christians. Furthermore, it blinds us from recognizing our overwhelming need for healing.


What does Jesus tell us?

On the night before He died, Jesus shared a last meal with His disciples. Knowing that His arrest was only a few hours away, Jesus poured out His heart to His dear friends one last time. This was not a moment for empty words; Jesus used the short time he had to tell his disciples what was most important.

Here Jesus established a new and more demanding vision for love than they’d ever heard before. He said, "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love [Greek tense: love and continue to keep loving] one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." (John 13:34-35, NIV, parenthesis mine). Here, there is little room for negotiation or debate; Jesus is quite clear. He commands His disciples to love each other with the same love that He has for them.


What did his disciple John say?

Fifty years later, John the beloved disciple had not forgotten Jesus' commands. Addressing the influences of Hellenism, early Gnosticism, Eastern Mysticism and Roman pagan religion on the early church, John takes us back to the Last Supper as he writes,

  • Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did. (1Jn 2:6)
  • And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. (1Jn 3:23)
  • This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1Jn 4:10-11)
  • Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister. (1Jn 4:20-21)

I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that if we claim to follow Jesus, then we are commanded to love God and each other – just like Jesus.

Love isn’t a one-time event – Jesus intends it to be our lifestyle.

The idea of Christianity marked by signs, wonders, power, authority, spiritual gifts and ministry opportunities without love is a myth – and a poor substitute for the life of Jesus. As much as I would like to at times, I just can’t find any wiggle room to avoid the commands to love God and others like Jesus!


The challenge of love, the need for healing

Healing is the restorative work of returning me to my original relational design so that I can mature in love and overcome my own internal resistance to love.

When I take God’s design for loving relationships seriously, I am confronted by my own lack of love – and secret wish that I could exclude really annoying people from the list of those I am supposed to love. I come face to face with my own internal resistance to both receiving and allowing God’s love to flow through me to others. Jesus’ command to love as He does is hard – and makes me realize how much I need to mature in love and deal with my own internal resistance to love. I desperately need to be restored to God’s relational design for a life of love. We’ll continue discussing our need for restoration in our next blog.

Love challenges me to leave my comfort zone and enter the hard work of engaging with the love of God in Jesus so that I can learn to love and live like Jesus with those around me.

Friday, September 26, 2014

What is Healing Part 4

What is Healing? Part 4

Our Relational Design: Sharing Life Together

In our last blog, we began studying the scriptures to reveal God’s relational design for our lives and discovered that from the beginning, we are created to enjoy loving relationship with Him. Since our Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are an eternal, joyful, loving, relational Trinity – and created us in their image and likeness – everything about us is designed to be just as relational! 

Today, we’ll continue by taking a look at how God intends the life and love we share with Him to flow into our relationships with others.  As I pondered this topic, I realized that this subject is just too big for one blog, so I decided to spread our discussion about God’s design for our relationships with others over several weeks. 

God’s Love Initiates

According to God’s design, our relationships with each other work best when they reflect the characteristics of the relationship the Father, Son and Spirit share together. 

It’s important to note that experiencing this type of relationship with others is only possible when we are connecting with God in Christ to receive His love.  It’s impossible to live in this kind of love – and share it with others – if we haven’t received it first. We simply can’t give what we haven’t received. John makes the connection between receiving God’s love – and our ability to love others clear in 1Jn 4:7-11:

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love. In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.  Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love (in Greek, love and keep on loving) one another. (NKJV, parenthesis added).

He emphasizes this theme later in the same chapter when he writes:

We love Him because He first loved us. If someone says, "I love God," and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also.  (1Jn 4:19-21, NKJV).

These passages show a clear sequence: 
  1. God’s loves us first and takes the initiative to show us love.
  2. We receive His love and life.
  3. We respond to His love with love.
  4. We relate to others with the same love. 

Reflecting God’s Love

From the Greek texts, we also learn something seriously exciting!
In these passages of Scripture, John uses the word (agape and variants) to describe God’s love for us and the love God asks us to share with others. The New Testament uses this word to describe God’s unconditional love, and is different from the kinds of love that express feelings, warm affection or even a kiss. God is not just asking us to be friendly, affectionate or nice to others in response to His love.  God asks that we respond to His love by sharing the exact same type of love with those around us.

It blows my mind to think that this kind of love is what the Trinity experienced together before creation.  It is even more incredible to understand that Father, Son and Spirit are generously pouring out that love to us today so that we can freely receive it, live in it and share it with others. 

But wait…it gets even better!

You are I are created with a relational design to experience and share this kind of love. This means that everything about us functions best – according to God’s design – when we live in love with God and each other. As apprentices of Jesus, we are all in the process of learning to continually receive love, respond to love and share love. God designed us and intended for us to live this way with Him and with each other.

God’s Design Specs and the “3 R’s”

The relational nature of our design is not just a “nice spiritual truth” or interesting point of discussion we can tuck away in a file drawer under “good things to think about later.” We can only grow to experience the full capacity of God’s original design for us when the “3 R’s” (receiving, responding and relating to God and others in love) are alive and active in our lives. To function within God’s design parameters, we must be interactively experiencing the 3 R’s as we relate to God and to others. When any of the 3 R’s are missing, we are functioning outside of our design specifications – and that means that we malfunction and break down. 

We will never understand healing and God’s desire to heal if we miss His relational design for our lives – and the malfunctions and breakdowns that occur when we operate outside of our design specs. 

Coming Attractions

My next blog we want to answer the question, “Is the relational design for our lives something that is ideal (but can’t really exist) – or is it real (something we can experience as part of a “normal” Christian life?  You don’t want to miss this discussion as we move forward to establish a new understanding of healing.

Remember, our purpose in this series of blogs is to move towards a new definition of healing that:
  • Is broad enough to include physical healing as well as healing for those who are hurting on the inside.
  • Uses terminology explicitly found in Scripture to end the “is it Biblical or not” controversy.
  • Proactively focuses on healthy growth and maturity, and avoids a self-limiting emphasis on pain, problems and suffering. 
  • Is Invitational, and helps all members of church community recognize the significant role they play in healing and maturity.
  • Multiplies easily from one person to another (self-propagates).

Friday, September 19, 2014

What is Healing? Part 3

The Reality of Relationships

Our Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are an eternal, joyful, loving, relational Trinity. Created in God’s image and likeness, everything about us is relational too! He designed us so that we function best when we are joyfully connected to Him and to others, and learn to see ourselves through these eyes of joy. That’s why relationships are the foundation for life, growth and healing.

As we move towards a fresh definition of healing, I want to spend my next several blogs exploring God’s relational design for our lives. We’ll explore why both scripture and neuroscience agree that relationships are foundational for life and growth. We will also discover why joy-based relationships are essential for healing and equipping in the Body of Christ. I will also discuss the role that grace plays in healing of all kinds.

Remember, we are working towards a new definition of healing that must be:
  • Broad enough to include physical healing as well as healing for those who are hurting on the inside.
  • Use terminology explicitly found in Scripture to end the “is it Biblical or not” controversy.
  • Proactively focus on healthy growth and maturity, and avoid a self-limiting emphasis on pain, problems and suffering. 
  • Invitational, and help all members of church community recognize the significant role they play in healing and maturity.
  • Multiply easily from one person to another (self-propagate).

Today, our journey begins with a look at what scripture has to say about God’s relational design for our lives and His desire for life giving connections with us.

From the beginning

We need to look no further than the book of Genesis to discover God’s relational design for our lives. In Genesis 1:26-27, we read:

Then God said, "Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth." So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. (NKJV).

When God said, “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness”, we catch a glimpse of God’s eternal relational nature. Always in harmony, each member of The Trinity moves in everlasting unity and love. There is no strife, no jealousy, no selfish ambition. The Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit do not argue about “who gets to be in charge and make decisions now.” The Father never has to referee arguments between Jesus and the Holy Spirit about anything.

You are I are created in the image and likeness of a relational God to be just as relational!

The divine attributes of God revealed to us in Jesus are present at creation. Love, joy, peace, wisdom, compassion, mercy, patience and humility pour into our design. Righteousness and justice are the foundation of God’s throne, and He weaves a hunger for these into our design. The drive to share the life, character and gifts God has given us with others in new places is part of our God-given spiritual DNA. The “one another” passages in the New Testament describe what it looks like when we follow Jesus and share His relationship with each other.

The relational nature of our design means that our deepest desires and needs are for lasting connections with God and others that reflect His character and nature. God’s design means that you and I literally function best in these relationships. God never intended us to live an isolated life, and living in a relational vacuum is antithetical to His design for us.

The greatest commandments are relational

When reading the books of the Law and the Prophets in the Old Testament, many Christians mistakenly conclude that God’s biggest concern is making people behave – and then “smiting” those that do not. Nothing could be further from the truth! The law and prophets proclaim the heart of a relational God who desires loving connections with His people. He also desires that people who follow Him live in love with each other.

In chapter 22, Mathew’s Gospel records a fascinating interaction between Jesus and one of the Pharisees, who were the religious leaders of his day. The Pharisees were experts in the details of Old Testament law, (as well as the hundreds of other commands they created) and were usually much more concerned with rules and behavior than they were with love for God or others. In verses 36-40, Mathew reports the interaction between Jesus and a Pharisee who wanted to know which commandment in the law was the greatest

"Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?"
This is the first and greatest commandment.
And the second is like it: 'YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.'
On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets." (Mat 22:36-40, NKJV)

What a relational response and revelation of God’s heart as revealed in the Old Testament! Here Jesus tells us that God’s intent for us is loving relationship with Him and with each other. Furthermore, Jesus is telling us that everything in Old Testament Law and in the prophets can only truly be understood when approached from the understanding that God’s greatest desire is for relationships of love.

Everything about us – and scripture – testifies to our relational design and God’s desire that our relationship with Him would be reflected in our interactions with each other.

Finding real life in real relationship

Have you ever wondered how to find real, authentic life? Volumes have been written on the subject and the “Self-Help” sections of bookstores are packed with answers. Today, people have become wealthy by packaging trendy new techniques to help people enhance their lives. Christians have also explored this question extensively, and devised many ways to help people make a “profession of faith” in Jesus to find eternal life.

Perhaps nowhere is the answer to this question expressed more clearly than in John 17:3. Not surprisingly, we discover that God’s answer is relational, and consistent with His relational design for our lives found throughout scripture:

“And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” John 17:3, (NKJV).

The relational nature of this statement becomes absolutely clear when we look to the original Greek that is translated “that they may know you” in English. In Greek, this portion of the verse means “should keep on knowing,” which indicates an active, growing and ever-deepening relationship with God in Christ. It means that we find eternal life only in an ongoing relationship with God in Christ. Eternal life, it seems, is much more than a one-time profession of faith, or mere intellectual assent to a “Christian” belief system. You and I find life and are restored to God’s design only in relationship!

There is much more to say about God’s love and our relational design, especially John’s declaration, “We love Him because He first loved us,” (I John 4:19, NKJV). Here, we find that love is our relational response to God’s initiating love. However, if I pursue each scripture describing our relational design, and God’s desire for relationships with us, I would never complete this blog!

A preview of coming attractions

In my next blog, we’ll explore how God designed us to relate to each other. We will discover how joyful relationships with other followers of Jesus help us heal, become equipped and grow in maturity as we connect to each other in love.

In future blogs, we’ll also look why Grace is foundational for healing, consider what neuroscience is learning about our relational design.

All Photos: Thinkstock.com

Thursday, August 28, 2014

What is healing? part 2

Those Pesky Emotions

Trying to answer questions about emotions and “emotional healing” always reminds me of the carnival/arcade game, “Whack-a-Mole.”  

 In Whack-a-Mole, the player stands with a large foam “whacker” in hand, and faces a flat surface with a series of holes in it.  The object of the game is to “whack” a mole on the head every time he pops up randomly from one of the holes.  Once whacked, the mole disappears back into his hole – and another one pops out somewhere else. Good whackers discover that the faster they dispatch a mole, the faster and more frequently multiple moles appear simultaneously. Before long, the moles are moving too quickly for the player to respond to them all.

Discussions about emotions and emotional healing generate questions in the same way!  Here are only a few of the kinds of questions that quickly arise:

  • What’s the best way to deal with emotions such as anger, sadness, shame or hopeless despair?
  • Are emotions like these inherently “sinful?”
  • Do we eliminate these primarily through repentance and renewal of the mind with God’s Word – or is the capacity to experience these emotions part of our God-given makeup?
  • Is emotional healing much more than changing our belief systems to change our behavior?
  • If negative emotions are part of our humanity, how do we learn to manage them?
  • Are deeply troubling emotions signs of a deep wounds and a painful past that needs healing?
  • Isn’t it better to “stuff” emotions than act out when we’re upset?
  • If we’re really walking with Christ, should we ever experience emotions like these?
  • And where in the Bible is the term “emotional healing” found anyway?

And lists like this tend to multiply exponentially for 2 very profound reasons.  First, the subjects of emotions and emotional healing generate controversy in the church. Second, we all experience sometimes confusing emotions to one degree or another as part of our human experience.

My purpose in discussing issues related to emotions and emotional healing is not to try to answer every question that has – or will arise – around these issues. I want to describe a fresh, clear definition for healing that includes each of the following elements listed below. 

Healing should:

  • Be broad enough to include physical healing as well as healing for those who are hurting on the inside.
  • Use terminology explicitly found in Scripture to end the “is it Biblical or not” controversy.
  • Proactively focus on healthy growth and maturity, and avoid a self-limiting emphasis on pain, problems and suffering.
  • Be invitational, and help all members of church community recognize the significant role they play in healing and maturity.
  • Multiply easily from one person to another (self-propagate).


Emotions are important

First, we are created in the image and likeness of a kind, good, loving and intelligent God who has emotions. As the Son of Man, Jesus experienced an intense assortment of emotions ranging from serious anger (Mark 3:5), to sorrowful grief (John 11:35). In the person of Jesus, we see a living picture of God’s own character and nature. Jesus told His apprentices, the disciples, “He who has seen me has seen the Father,” (John 14:9).  In his letter to the Colossians, Paul wrote, “He (Jesus) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation,” (Col. 1:15). Jesus also spoke what he heard His Father saying (John 12:49), and told His disciples, "Most assuredly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do; for whatever He does, the Son also does in like manner,” (John 5:19).
This is profound! What was happening when Jesus was enraged at the stubbornness of hard-hearted leaders or cleansed the temple with a whip? What about the time he wept over Jerusalem or grieved at the grave of a dear friend? His emotions and actions were simply reflections of what He saw His Father doing. In the person of Jesus, we see the rich emotional life of God demonstrated for us! This alone makes emotions a very important part of our lives and design. 

Second, emotions are some of the most personal things about us, and to a large degree, tend to motivate our behavior.  Ignoring or dismissing the importance of how God, others or we feel is a grave mistake. This kind of behavior explicitly communicates, “God, others or self, I don’t really care what you feel or are experiencing emotionally right now.” As a result, we also implicitly, convey the message that we don’t value God or others – or our relationships with them – too highly either. Sadly, the tendency to ignore/dismiss the importance our own emotions tends to indicate that we don’t value ourselves as highly as God does. These messages of rejection bless no one, perpetuate relational breakdowns and prevent us from learning to regulate emotions in the way that Jesus did.

An example will help make this point more clearly. Suppose a child falls, skins her knee, bleeds a bit and starts to cry. What kind of parent would ignore their daughter’s obvious distress and continue to check email on their smartphone? What message would that communicate to a child in pain? Suppose the parent stopped looking at their phone long enough to say, “Stop crying and let me get back to this important task.” 

What kind of message would this communicate about God? What would the child learn from this experience? 

  • When I am in pain, no one (including God) cares or comes to help.
  • I am on my own and must take care of myself.
  • I cannot trust others to help me.
  • My pain is unimportant, especially when I am upset.
  • Nobody cares when I am in pain.
  • I am not very important.

Clearly, this kind of behavior is not OK and the messages learned create serious emotional and relational distortions in the life of the child. We could run scenarios involving the death of loved ones, overt racial intolerance, beatings and all manner of abuse, and the messages would be the same.  Ironically, we communicate the same kinds of rejection messages when we dismiss/ignore positive emotions.

Dropping a Bombshell

Having described the importance of emotions, let me now make a statement that may surprise many in the “emotional healing” community. I want to make this point now, and promise to develop much more fully in my next several blogs.  

While emotions are important, they are not the most important things about us and are not the primary issue that must be addressed in the context of “inner healing.” From a Biblical and Neurological perspective, the real problem with negative (and sometimes intense positive emotions) is that they damage, distort and disrupt our relational connections with God, with others and with ourselves. 

In my opinion, the term “emotional healing” sows confusion.  I would very much like to banish the term from the healing language used in church. Not only is this un-Biblical, it runs contrary to good neuroscience.

By definition, the name “emotional healing” suggests that emotions should be the real focus of healing ministry, and leads us off track in the inevitable and unending quest to “fix” our emotions so that we feel better. This term elevates emotions to a place they are not intended to be, and unintentionally makes emotions and “feeling better” an idol. I would like to smash that idol right now!  

Biblically, the restoration of relationships and the ministry of reconciliation are quite clear. We are created to learn to love God with all of our being and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We called to grow together into the “whole measure of the fullness of Christ,” (Eph. 4:13). The calls to love and relationships are Biblically non-negotiable.

Developments in neuroscience increasingly reveal that the brain really only learns to manage, regulate and express emotions in the context of relationships when those relationships are joyful.  To my brain, joy does not mean that I’m happy.  Joy is the fruit of an interaction with someone who is glad to be with me. Neuroscience defines joy as coming from others, and emphasizes the role that others have in helping us learn emotional regulation.  As a Christian, I believe that interactions with God, who is always glad to be with His children, are also an excellent source of life-transforming joy.

This is why reconciliation and restoration of relationships to God’s intended design are the solid foundation upon which healing ministry should rest.

As we’ve pointed out, emotions are important.  God feels deeply, is willing to share our distress and asks us to help bear one another’s burdens.  We never want to minimize the importance of anyone’s emotions. But, we also do not want to elevate emotions in life – whether positive, negative or horribly traumatic – to a place not found in scripture.

In my next blogs, we will take a look at what I believe is a proper focus for “inner healing” that is both Biblical, relational and true to the brain’s design. I will also begin to lay out exactly what I believe about emotions from both scripture and neuroscience as we move towards a fresh, clear definition for healing.