Peter Adam on depression

I’ve been on a roll talking about mental health lately, so I thought I’d share this video I’ve just found (courtesy of the Gospel Coalition). It’s of Peter Adam talking about mental illness – in particular, his suffering with depression for 30 years.

It’s a very honest interview and well worth watching.  Three points jumped out at me:

  1. How helpful it was to know that the depression was not random or pointless, but that God was sovereign over it. In particular, Peter was able to give some ways in which God had been able to use his depression over the years to good effect. This doesn’t make a bad thing good, but makes me give thanks to God that he always uses evil things for good purposes in the end (Genesis 50:20).
  2. He says that mental health shouldn’t be considered a different kind of issue to others which people experience. We are all broken in all sorts of different ways. The church is a place where sinful and broken people come together to find forgiveness and healing.
  3. I really liked what he said about the church. Someone once said “The church is a hospital for broken people, not a museum for perfect people.” I think this is true: sadly, a lot of churches are museums for perfect people – where the relationships never really get beyond the superficial. In my home group lately, I think all of us have begun to reach the level in our relationship where we are able to share what’s actually going on in our lives, to open ourselves up to being vulnerable. It has been immensely helpful for many of us to open up, share, pray for and support one another. The verse Peter mentions is Galatians 6:2, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” Carrying each other’s burdens – a wonderful picture of the church.

I hope you enjoy the video, he says a lot of helpful things which are well worth listening to from someone with 30 years experience.

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Follow-up on mental health

A few weeks ago I blogged about a Christian perspective on mental health. In that piece I started out by saying, “There is far, far more to say and I just wanted to make clear from the outset: this is just the beginning.”

Well, today Glen Scrivener wrote an excellent piece on the Gospel Coalition website which I think is well worth reading as a sort of follow-up looking at how the gospel actually works in his and his wife’s particular example – dealing with anorexia. I said that there was plenty more to say, and I think this piece is an excellent complement to what I originally wanted to say.

I hope that this kind of thing encourages Christians to speak up more in the context of mental health. I can’t remember where I read this now, but last week I came across a quote, saying something like: “Christians can’t answer every question, but every Christian should be able to finish the sentence ‘only God got me through…’

Churches shouldn’t be museums of perfect people but hospitals for for the broken.

Glen finishes the article:

It’s always tempting to think these struggles are a departure from the trajectory you’re meant to be on. Life is meant to be an unbroken ascent into . . . wait . . . that’s a theology of glory, isn’t it? As theologians of the cross, we ought to know Jesus is at work right here and right now, even—and especially—in suffering. He’s willing and able to redeem us from all evil (Gen. 48:16).

We aren’t meant to sidestep or outwit this “departure” from our plans. The Lord knows how to redeem the years the locust has eaten (Joel 2:25). Maybe you’ll be able to comfort others with the comfort you’ve received in your affliction (2 Cor. 1:4). But whatever happens, you can let him handle those details.

So friend, receive from Jesus, get in community, look at your own sins, love your partner, and pray, pray, pray. Jesus enters the mess and says, “Here I am. Let’s engage right here, right now.”

Homophobic bullying and CofE schools

Today the Church of England unveiled a new document designed to help tackle homophobic, biphobic and transphobic (HBT – because there aren’t enough acronyms already) bullying in schools. You can read the press release on that page, and the document itself is linked at the bottom.

Personally I find the document deeply troubling – although I (of course) agree that all bullying is wrong, I think the document is on the wrong track about the solution needed. The main problem I have is simply this: the document has an entirely secular view of what it means to flourish – which, for a church publication, is pretty awful. And, secondarily, it doesn’t really get to grips with a Christian response to LGBT pupils.

Let me write briefly about those two things.

What is human flourishing?

The document seems to make a lot of human flourishing. The Executive Summary (p5) says:

Church of England schools have at their heart a belief that all children are loved by God, are individually unique and that the school has a mission to help each pupil to fulfil their potential in all aspects of their personhood: physically, academically, socially, morally and spiritually.

This sounds like management speak. The language of ‘potential’ is one which is not taken from the Bible: fulfilling our potential sounds very ‘me-focussed’ – we are not here to fulfill our potential but to glorify God.

Jesus said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35) The real genius, if I may put it like that, of Jesus’ words is that we only find our true potential when we deny ourselves and take up our cross – when we die to ourselves, we find true life.

It’s precisely this kind of language which is absent from the CofE document.

The core of education in the CofE Vision for Education is “Life in all its fullness”, which is explicitly taken from John 10:10 (see page 10). The problem is, this is completely devoid of meaning if it is taken out of the context of John’s gospel. When Jesus said those words, he didn’t mean that he wanted everyone to have the kind of life they always dreamed of living, or have a good life whether they believed in God or not. As I explained in my post about mental health, this is God’s world. We only achieve “Life to the full” when we live in accordance with God’s will and his ways – in contrast with “the thief” who comes “only to steal and kill and destroy”. As Jesus said in the previous verse “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.” You can’t take ‘fullness of life’ as a principle and ditch the rest. It just doesn’t work!

The next page of the CofE document goes on (and I could pick many examples, but I will make this the last one): “At the heart of Christian distinctiveness in schools is an upholding of the worth of each person: all are Imago Dei – made in the image of God – and are loved unconditionally by God”. Again – one cannot talk about being made in the image of God without talking about the Fall, where we – as one of the CofE confessions puts it – “marred your image in us”. One cannot talk about unconditional love without talking about Jesus dying on the cross for our sins.

Quite frankly, all this is sub-Christian. This doesn’t even mention the basics of the gospel, let alone have a coherent theological framework.

Supporting LGBT pupils

On page 19, the report talks about supporting LGBT pupils. It says:

An important aspect of creating an inclusive school environment is the support offered to LGBT pupils. Many LGBT pupils do not feel supported at school and many report that they do not have an adult at school with whom to talk about being LGBT. This can impact on the mental health and wellbeing of pupils and it is therefore important that school staff members receive appropriate training to support young people. For many, coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans or non-binary is a joyful liberation into full selfhood. However for others it can become a lens through which other issues of personal non-acceptance are magnified. Supporting pupils struggling to feel at home within themselves requires careful discernment and loving wisdom.

This paragraph does not read to me like it was written by someone who actually believes what the Bible (and the CofE – for the moment) teaches about marriage. Surely a Church of England school should have the confidence to believe and teach what the Church of England believes? As I said before about Tim Farron, God doesn’t simply give us arbitrary commands because he feels like it. God doesn’t want to spoil our fun, he wants to maximise our joy – which is why he gives us good rules to live by. Those who go outside of these rules are harming themselves.

Surely this has a big impact on how we offer support to young people. We can’t simply say that we’ll offer support to affirm children in whatever decisions they want to make on these issues. If we believe in the Bible, if we believe in what Christians have always believed, we have to say that we cannot affirm things which are against God’s will. And that’s what baffles and distresses me about this document – there is no gospel at all in it. There is not even a hint of a suggestion that God might want us to live in particular ways. Although it recognises that there may be different opinions about sexuality etc. in the school, it simply sides by default with the ‘affirming’ viewpoint.

This is simply not a Christian document.

Responding to bullying

I believe that children should not be bullied. I was bullied at school, I know many others who experienced the same – it can affect you well into adult life. Nonetheless, I don’t think this response is sufficient when it comes to bullying.

Jesus tells us that the second greatest command is to “love others as yourself”. He demonstrated what that meant in his own life. You can love people while strongly disagreeing with them – in fact, loving them sometimes requires you to disagree with them! (Ian Paul wrote a great blog post about this today.)

Jesus’ response to those who he considered sinful (i.e. everyone) was not to condemn: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:17). Instead, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt 9:36). Jesus had compassion on those who were broken and hurting – but it was a compassion which led to transformation.

People who truly believe in the traditional Christian ethical teaching on marriage and sexuality should never bully anyone – because loving people is part and parcel of that same ethical teaching. But it is from love that we should boldly proclaim God’s way of living.

We live in strange times, where even defending the traditional Christian view of marriage can get you into hot water (see e.g. Tim Farron and Jacob Rees-Mogg for two examples lately – there are many others). Some people think that simply stating the case for Christian marriage is bullying!

What is incomprehensible to me is that the CofE should be encouraging its schools to essentially deny the gospel and contribute to a secular worldview which is leading to the demise of the CofE. Affirming children in sin is unloving, uncompassionate, and fundamentally unChristian. And the church should have no part in it. Rather, the church should be holding out the light of Christ to all, teaching children what it means to follow him.

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

Worship Guitar for everyone else

A few weeks ago I had a really crazy idea about starting a YouTube channel about playing guitar. To be quite honest I thought I was mad, and dismissed the idea. But over the past few weeks I haven’t been able to dismiss it very easily, and I wonder whether this is perhaps God’s way of prodding me to do it.

So, without further ado, this is my new (possibly short-lived) project. I’d explain it here, but I thought it’s just as easy to actually show the video where I talk about it.

I apologise in advance for annoying facial tics etc, I tried to keep it to a minimum but it’s been a long day! I just wanted to get something out there. Do let me know what you think – you can comment on the YouTube video or contact me directly.

A Christian perspective on mental health

Mental Health is the issue of the day, it seems. For example, the official charity of the 2017 London Marathon was Heads Together, a mental health charity started by Prince William, Catherine, and Prince Harry (you can see a video of the three of them discussing it on YouTube). Mental health is a big deal at the moment. The solution of Heads Together is to get people talking about mental health, which is fine as far as it goes, but I don’t think it goes deep enough.

I believe that Christianity alone provides the deeper perspective on mental health which is lacking. But how?

Firstly, a quick caveat: this is, of course, not even close to everything that could be said when it comes to Christianity and mental health! There is far, far more to say and I just wanted to make clear from the outset: this is just the beginning. With that in mind…

1. What is mental health?

This is a pretty key question. The MentalHealth.gov website (a US government initiative) defines it this way:

Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood.

Emotional, psychological, and social well-being. That’s a pretty vague definition, isn’t it? It’s very difficult to pin down. What is well-being? Is it the same for everyone, or does it vary from person to person? This is the fundamental place where I believe the Christian faith makes a difference. Let’s think about the question: what is a human being ‘for’? Why are we here, what is our purpose? That makes a massive difference to the way we tackle and think about this issue.

Imagine a man from a remote tribe who has never seen modern technology before. Imagine this man picking up a smartphone and looking at it, trying to discern its function. It’s not heavy enough to be a good hammer, it’s not sharp enough to be a weapon, it doesn’t seem to be very useful! You can’t really assess its function without knowing what it is for. Once you know that it is for making phone calls and accessing the internet (etc), you can assess how good it is at those things and then if there are problems you can fix them.

Similarly with human beings. If you have no vision of what a healthy human being is, of what a healthy human mind is, then you will struggle to define mental health and struggle to fix it. Our view of what a human being is will determine both how we define mental health and how we go about healing it.

When I was at college, we studied pastoral counselling. We looked briefly at three different models of counselling:

  • Psychodynamic. This basically assumes that a human being is a product of their past experiences – if you can access the memories, access the past, you can identify what makes someone behave in the way that they do and then you can go about fixing it. For a while my wife had some counselling with a psychodynamic counsellor who kept trying to delve into her childhood and her past. I’m not sure that my wife found it particularly helpful!
  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). This is the type of counselling which I believe has been adopted by the NHS. This is more of a ‘carrot on a stick’ approach – if you give someone the right carrot on the right stick, they’ll be able to change their behaviour – appeal to someone’s motivation.
  • Person Centred. This is the vaguest of the three I looked at – it seems to be about listening to and affirming someone until they feel better about themselves.

All of the above models of counselling explicitly assume a postmodern worldview, that is, they all assume that there is no ultimate truth. The only real arbiter of mental health is your own personal feelings about whether you think you are OK or not.

2. Who does the Bible say we are?

This is where the Bible comes in. It says that we are not products of random chance or blind evolution, or atoms floating around inside an uncaring universe. Psalm 24 begins:

The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,
    the world, and all who live in it;
for he founded it on the seas
    and established it on the waters.

Everything in the universe – including you and me – only exists because God created it. We do not belong to ourselves, we are not free agents – we belong to God. We exist by His will and for His purposes. If we get this wrong, we won’t get anything else right.

So what implications does that have for how we are supposed to live? Jesus was once asked what the greatest commandment was. He said there are two greatest commandments:

  1. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.
  2. Love your neighbour as yourself.

People often think of the second commandment while skipping over the first. Jesus said the commandment of first importance was to love the Lord with all our heart, soul and mind – with everything that we have. In other words, part of our primary duty and joy as human beings is to love the God who made us. This is fundamental to who we are.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism has as its first question: “What is the chief end of man?” (i.e., ‘what are we ultimately here for?’) The answer is, “To glorify God and enjoy him forever”. Our primary purpose here is to glorify God and enjoy him. If we get that wrong, we will never even begin to get anything else right. As the author of Proverbs put it, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7).

Someone once said, “everyone has a God-shaped hole”. I think that’s a bit simplistic but expresses something true about our experience: a life lived without God is a life lived without realising our true identity and purpose. We’ll never understand ourselves unless we grasp this basic truth.

But that’s not all there is to say.

3. What is wrong with us?

Mental health problems assume that there is something wrong with us – but what, exactly? And how do we solve it? As I’ve already said, there are various different ideas about human beings and various solutions on offer, but none of them get to the heart of the problem according to the Bible. As we just saw, Jesus said that what God has created us to do is love Him and love others. How exactly we do that is spelled out in the rest of the Bible – this is the purpose of the commandments, for example. But the problem is that none of us love God and love others as we should.

I’ve been reading through Calvin’s Institutes recently, and I came across a helpful quote just this morning:

… it is clear that keeping the commandments means not love of self but love of God and of our neighbour. Thus whoever lives as little as possible for himself, lives a good life. Conversely, no one leads a more disordered life than the man who lives for himself and who thinks only of his own gain.

This is a very helpful insight: the fundamental problem with each one of us is what the Bible calls sin. You could call it disordered self-love – we love ourselves more than we love God or other people. Call it selfishness, call it what you like, it’s a failure to live up to God’s standards of love.

Now, do you think a disordered life of self-love will be satisfying and lead to well-being? No, of course not. Without even trying I can think of many, many examples of people who have been ruined in this way – who have loved possessions, or money, or their career, or so on, too much. I see a lot of it in my work – people who have every material thing but are still desperately unhappy.

Now of course possessions, money, career etc. are bad things in themselves, but when a good thing becomes an ultimate thing, it becomes destructive. A rampantly materialistic culture, for example, which encourages people to love things, will never be satisfied – you’ll never have enough to make you happy.

The Bible says that each one of us is a sinner, all of us have fallen short of the glory of God, and we all fail to live up to the life of love which God calls us to live. We are all guilty. However, there is a solution.

4. The solution: Jesus

Jesus was the one who lived a perfect life of love for us. He died the death that we deserve, the punishment we are due for turning away from God, and he offers us his life in exchange. Jesus can forgive us all our sin, can remake us, restore us, heal us.

Once we have accepted that God made us, once we have accepted that we are not as we should be, then we can fix our eyes on the solution that God has given us in Christ Jesus. All this makes it sound a bit clinical (Jesus is more than a ‘solution’), but I hope this starts to make some sense.

There’s more. Yesterday I was watching Mike Reeves on the reformation (part of this excellent series). He was talking about the puritan Richard Sibbes, and his work The Bruised Reed (that article is worth reading for a summary). One of his ideas is that all of our experiences, all of our ‘bruising’, should cause us to take our eyes off ourselves and onto Christ: because of God’s grace, demonstrated in Christ Jesus, we know that God’s love is shown towards us in everything that happens – even the difficult times.

I’ve really gone very quickly through all of this, and there is much more that could be said, but I want this to be a blog post rather than a book! So let me conclude by quoting just three hymns of the many which have struck me as I’ve been thinking about the issue of mental health from a Christian perspective.

Jesus! the Name high over all (Charles Wesley):

Jesus! the prisoner’s fetters breaks,
And bruises Satan’s head;
Power into strengthless souls it speaks,
And life into the dead.

O that mankind might taste and see
The riches of His grace!
The arms of love that compass me
Would all the world embrace.

How sweet the name of Jesus sounds (John Newton):

How sweet the name of Jesus sounds
in a believer’s ear!
It soothes our sorrows, heals our wounds,
and drives away our fear.

It makes the wounded spirit whole
and calms the troubled breast;
’tis manna to the hungry soul,
and to the weary, rest.

How firm a foundation:

In every condition, in sickness, in health;
In poverty’s vale, or abounding in wealth;
At home and abroad, on the land, on the sea,
As thy days may demand, shall thy strength ever be.

When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of grief shall not thee overflow;
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.

The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to its foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.

The core of what the church sings about is how we are saved, rescued, healed, redeemed – the Father has “lavished” his love on us (1 John 3:1) in adopting us as children through Jesus Christ. He promises never to leave us or forsake us, that all things will work together for the good of those who love him. This is great news, truly great news, which is worth shouting about – not just in mental health but in everything.

Postscript: ‘But what about…’

At the beginning I said that this wasn’t all that could be said about mental health from a Christian perspective. Absolutely true. I appreciate there will be many who have questions about depression, or anorexia, or other issues and I simply don’t have time to explain here how those things relate.

Just a couple of quick observations:

  1. All this is the ‘beginning’ – the foundation stone. The gospel is the cornerstone, without which nothing else will be right. It’s important to remember that just because more may need to be said about other issues, if the gospel is missing then whatever the solution is will be incomplete.
  2. Richard Sibbes’ work ‘The Bruised Reed’ (which I mentioned above) is very helpful on thinking about how pain and suffering work in the Christian life. It’s important to remember that God gives us difficulties so that we might turn to Him and walk with Him through them – He doesn’t save us from all of our issues, but rather uses them for good.

I find the work of the Christian Counselling Education Foundation (CCEF) very helpful, and more can be found on their website – in particular, it would be worth reading the book ‘How People Change’ by Lane and Tripp which outlines their the core of what they’ve about.

No more boys and girls: they’re not good enough apparently.

symbol-male-and-female-mdOn the BBC recently there was a two-part programme entitled “No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free?” (Still available on the iPlayer at the time of writing). I watched both parts, and the programme was both intriguing and annoying in about equal measure.

The basic premise of the programme is not a new one: we have long debated the most important factor in children’s development – nature or nurture. It’s not clear what is nature (i.e. inbuilt, genetic) and what is nurture (i.e. down to the way that you were brought up, environment etc.) Everyone agrees that both are factors, but there doesn’t seem to be any consensus on exactly how important they are.

This programme took a fairly strong line on ‘nurture’: basically it took the view that men and women were essentially the same, except for a few basic biological differences. In particular, it claimed that male and female brains were the same. The only difference which exists between boys and girls is because they are socialised that way – i.e. they are brought up in different ways. For example, boys don’t have superior spatial skills because of genetics (nature) – they are just given Lego to play with (nurture) and it develops those skills.

The programme tested the hypothesis by trying to make a ‘gender neutral’ classroom, where boys and girls were treated in exactly the same way.

I don’t know where to start with all of this, to be honest.

The biggest question to my mind was simply this: what rationale was given for the whole experiment?

The surface reason was, of course, equality: boys and girls, men and women, should have equality. But no justification of this was given, except for a brief discussion with neuroscientist Gina Rippon about the difference (or lack thereof) between male and female brains. It just seemed to be assumed that girls doing stereotypically ‘girly’ things and boys doing stereotypical ‘boyish’ things was not good enough. If you believed the programme, both boys and girls should be doing the same things – biological sex should simply not count for anything. There was no discussion about equality and how that might work out in this situation.

We are now living in an age where ‘equality’ is paramount. Everything has to be equal – so much so that when same-sex marriage was described as ‘equal marriage’ I suspect it won many supporters. Who wants to be anti-equality, after all? But when the drive for equality overrides even the ability to process fairly common sense observations, it’s all got a bit silly.

A few weeks ago, at the beginning of August, James Damore – senior software engineer at Google – was fired for writing an “anti-equality” memo (you can read it online here). James Damore is a smart guy – he has a PhD in biology – and although the memo was not perfect, the science was basically right (see the response of four scientists here, and a comprehensive review of the science here).

One of the best articles I read in response to the firing was by Ross Douthat. Douthat is a commentator who is often insightful and well worth reading, and this is no exception. He says this:

This growing difference seems to be a striking aspect of modern Western life. In societies where both sexes have greater freedom — and women have more educational and professional opportunities relative to men than in the past — the sexes’ academic interests tend to diverge relative to more traditional societies. And not only their interests but their personalities as well: The more officially egalitarian a society, a credible body of research suggests, the stronger the differences in stereotypically male and female personality traits.

Take a second to think about that: the more officially egalitarian a society, the stronger the differences between male and female interests and personality traits. The harder a society tries to be egalitarian, the less egalitarian it becomes. I find this fascinating, because it goes against pretty much everything that we instinctively believe about equality. I wonder if the problem is that the more ‘gender-neutral’ a society becomes, the more confused men and women are going to be and the more men and women are going to go to the extremes in order to feel secure (or, perhaps, the more people are going to identify as transgender. But that’s another story). When you eliminate traditional male and female roles, how are men and women going to express their identity as men and women?

Douthat goes on:

But since the usual way to reintegrate the sexes is to have them marry one another and raise kids, what Silicon Valley probably needs right now more than either workplace anti-microaggression training or an alt-right underground is a basic friendliness to family, pregnancy and child rearing.

I think he’s hit the nail on the head here. The elephant in the room when it comes to the difference between the sexes is reproduction – and it’s notable how often it is left out of these discussions. Many of those young boys and girls in the BBC show will go on to become fathers and mothers at some point in their lives. Is that of no significance? Is the traditional role of a mother – caring for and nurturing children – valueless now?

During one of our recent general elections (we’ve had so many…) my wife – currently a stay-at-home mum – said that she didn’t feel valued: there was so much  focus on everyone who is able going out to work, where was the commendation for mums (or dads, for that matter) who stay at home to look after the children? Where did any of the political parties come out and say “we value those who raise the next generation”?

One of the privileges of my job is being able to talk to a lot of different people about their lives. As it turns out I’ve spent quite a bit of time chatting to young mums – either through our toddler group or baptism preparation. What I find interesting is that there is a common theme: the mums, by and large, although they may have to work, generally do not want to – most of those I’ve spoken to say they would prefer to be with the children. I have yet to meet a dad who has told me that they would love to be with the kids all day except they have to be out at work.

Equality is a good thing, for sure. I think everyone should have the opportunity to do what they want to do. But, for that same reason, isn’t it wrong to basically be telling children that traditional male and female roles are not just unequal but wrong? Should we be telling them that the only value that society sets on them is as a worker, and the only achievements to be celebrated are academic ones?

I wonder whether creating a ‘gender-neutral’ classroom is actually going to hinder rather than help things. Personally I have found it very helpful in my own life to actually acknowledge differences between the sexes and to recognise the ways that men and women complement and relate to each other. It feels like I am now working with the grain of the universe, rather than against it.

As a Christian, I don’t think this is surprising: being created male and female is there at the beginning, it’s one of the most fundamental things you can say about us as embodied creatures. If you make a classroom ‘gender neutral’, you will not eliminate gender; and, in fact, I believe it will create far more problems as children struggle to work out their identity. This doesn’t mean that equality is not a laudable goal to have, rather that equality of opportunity needs to recognise that boys and girls, men and women might want slightly different things and that is OK. It’s not just OK, it’s good.

Some thoughts on “The Poor”

philip-north
Philip North, Bishop of Burnley, who criticised the Church of England for not caring for the poor

I’ve been thinking a bit recently about “The Poor” (apologies for the quote marks, I’ll explain why in a minute). Clacton, where I’ve been for the last three years, is not a rich area – according to the Church Urban Fund, the parish of Great Clacton ranks 892 out of 12,599 parishes nationally for deprivation. This is something which I’ve been mulling over for a while. Then, the other night I watched Professor Green: Living in Poverty, which was looking at the issue of child poverty in the UK (it’s worth watching, by the way). And today, I read that Philip North, Bishop of Burnley, has criticised the Church of England for abandoning the poor.

I don’t pretend to have any special insights into “The Poor”, but I offer here a few thoughts which I hope might prove useful to some.

“The Poor” are not an alien species

A month or two ago I got round to thinking about being in a more deprived area, and wondered – of the people I know round here, who are “The Poor”? And it made me realise two things: (1) I probably know people who would come under that label (people don’t usually talk much about their finances, of course); (2) they are not different to me.

People sometimes talk about “The Poor” as if they are other, as if they are different, as if there is a class of people called “The Poor” and they are on that side and we are on this side. We all know, of course, that the reality is much more complicated with shades of grey (the government have started using a Multiple Deprivation Index, for example, which takes into account seven different factors). But I think it’s easy to talk about “The Poor” as if they aren’t us, which is silly, because the poor are ‘us’. This is why I started out putting “The Poor” in scare quotes – because this is how I think it gets talked about a lot of the time.

I don’t think it’s wrong to talk about “The Poor” – Jesus did – but it’s important to remember to always have in mind that the reality is somewhat more complicated.

Housing is really important

One of the things that struck me about the Professor Green programme was that housing is really important. If the place where you live is secure, then you can cope with a lot. (There was another programme recently called “The Week the Landlords Moved In” which showed something similar).

When I was growing up, my Dad became the pastor of a small independent church in a Suffolk town. Although I didn’t really know much about it at the time, he was receiving a very low wage – far less than the national average. In fact, my Mum told me years later that sometimes she didn’t know where the next meal was coming from – she had to count every penny and make the most of everything. However, I always had what I needed (clothes, food, etc) – we never went without the essentials as a family. And I think the biggest reason for that is my parents did actually own the house.

People talk about a housing crisis in the UK, and unfortunately it’s those in the lowest income bracket who suffer the most because of it.

Family / marriage is really important

Another thing that struck me about the Professor Green programme is that of the three families he talked to, in two of them the Dad had abandoned them and in the other (as far as I could tell) the parents were not married. It’s not really surprising – when a family breaks down and splits up, it becomes very hard to manage. How can a single Mum be expected to bring up three children and work to earn enough money to support them?

I talked a little about this in my last post, but it should be deeply troubling to all of us that marriage is becoming exclusively a preserve of the wealthy. I did a little (and very non-scientific) experiment recently: when we were visiting my Dad, we took our daughter to the local park. It’s in a fairly nice middle-class kind of area. I made a point of looking around to see how many people were wearing wedding rings – lots of them were. Most of the parents were not that young – i.e. probably waited a few years to get married and then have kids. In contrast, in Clacton, the picture is very different – lots of younger parents, not very many of them married. This is backed up by the research – according to the Marriage Foundation:

There’s a growing Marriage Gap: 87 per cent of high earners (over £43,000) marry; only 24 per cent of low earners (under £16,000) marry. The rich get married (and stay together); the poor don’t.

Family breakdown causes huge problems, particularly for those on the lowest incomes. I’d suggest that if the government (and the church) want to do something for the poor, they could do a lot worse than promoting marriage.

Mental health and isolation

Two other issues which I noticed in the Professor Green programme. Firstly, mental health: all three of the families involved had someone who suffered from some sort of mental health issue and was unable to work. Mental health is becoming a massive issue – which is why the young royals (William, Kate and Harry) came up with the Heads Together campaign.

Secondly, all of the families involved seemed to be suffering in isolation: I didn’t see many friends or family members helping out. This could, of course, simply be a matter of what they filmed / included – but it did strike me that none of them seemed to have anyone they could really call on for help. (And isolation probably doesn’t help with the mental health, either).

“Good news to the poor”

What can we say about this from a Christian perspective? According to Luke’s gospel, when Jesus began his public ministry in Nazareth, he quoted this passage from the prophet Isaiah:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

Jesus applied these words to himself, as the one who was anointed by God. But in what sense does Jesus proclaim ‘good news to the poor’?

Some people say that Christians should seek to serve the poor by transforming unjust structures in society – by calling on the government to build more houses, by creating more jobs, by giving out food and money to those in need etc. I’m sure all these are good things.

But what the Bible says our root problem is, fundamentally, is not unjust structures in society or lack of money but sin. The sin which separates us from God, the sin that separates us from our neighbour.

This is what came home to me as I was watching the Professor Green programme. Sin – failing to do what God wants us to do – was at the root of pretty much everything. Think about family breakdown: God has designed family life in a particular way, and yet we think that we know better and decide to improve on it. Sure, those women whose partners walked away from them weren’t can’t be blamed for their other halves walking out – but at some point in the past they had to decide to get together with them, to have children, etc. This is not trying to blame the victim, but simply to say that our choices have consequences.

Housing is also affected by family breakdown: if a family no longer lives together, two houses are going to be required rather than one. In the programme I mentioned about landlords, one woman said that she and her ex-husband were home owners – until they split up.

What about isolation? I was struck afresh recently by how the New Testament never envisions an isolated Christian. In other words, in the Bible, Christians are always part of the church – never separated from it. Christians are called to meet and share their lives together. In an ideal church – and no church is even close to ideal, but some are closer than others – people’s needs should be looked after and everyone loved and cared for. Jesus famously said: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). In those programmes, I often wondered what it would have been like if the people featured were actually part of a church family.

And finally – mental health. What does sin have to do with mental health? I think it has a lot to do with mental health. I don’t think that God takes all our problems away (physical or mental) in this life, but I think things are often more bearable when walking with God and walking in His ways. Augustine said in a prayer in his Confessions, “O Lord, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless above all things until they find their rest in you.” When we are living in right relationship with our creator, when we are living in accordance with the ways He has given us to live – these things are a big deal and make a huge difference.

The best news is, of course, that Jesus died for our sins: Jesus died on the cross to take the punishment for our sins so that we might die to sin and live for righteousness. Jesus sends His Spirit to us now, one who will walk with us and transform us day by day. We have hope, we have joy, we have the “life to the full” (John 10:10). Christians have been adopted as children of their loving heavenly father, and can trust that all things work together for the good of those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28).

This is why the gospel is good news for the poor: because the poor have the same problem as anyone – only, perhaps, the problems for the less well-off are more acutely felt because they don’t have the resources to be able to escape the consequences of sin so easily.

Which brings me to my last point.

We are all “The Poor”

Back where I started out: “The Poor” are not different – in fact, in God’s eyes, we are all “The Poor”. Jesus once wrote to the church in Laodicea:

You say, “I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.” But you do not realise that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so that you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so that you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so that you can see.

This particular church thought they were rich because they had material wealth – but they were poor towards God. They were poor in spirit – but they didn’t realise it! When Jesus began the beatitudes “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3), he meant people who realised their own spiritual poverty before God. Why are they blessed? Because those who recognise their own poverty are able to receive from God’s riches.

Recently at church we sang James Seddon’s hymn “Go Forth and Tell”, and was struck by the verse:

Go forth and tell where still the darkness lies;
in wealth or want, the sinner surely dies:
give us, O Lord, concern of heart and mind,
a love like yours which cares for all mankind.

“In wealth or want, the sinner surely dies”. This is absolutely true. Whether someone is a millionaire or doesn’t have a penny to put to their name – in God’s eyes both are equally sinful, equally poor, equally needing the gospel. The only question for both is: will you accept your spiritual poverty and come to the Lord Jesus, who proclaims good news to the poor?