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Scientific answers to these questions have been posited and argued in earnest since the early 1800s, yet discussions of the etiologies of human mindsets, behavior, and social interaction remain mostly speculative from a strictly scientific perspective.
We explain the absence of concrete empirical evidence to prove why children behave the way they do by the simple fact that we interpret all children’s (and adult’s) behavior through one’s moral system/worldview.
In other words, our faith ultimately determines how we understand, explain, and approach our children’s behavior. Proverbs 20:11 states,
Even a child makes himself known by his acts, by whether his conduct is pure and upright.
This verse, among many others, exposes that people by nature discern children by their behavior, that a child’s behavior ultimately reveals the child’s character, and that how one interprets behavior is always done according to his/her presuppositional moral standard (what is considered pure and upright). Thankfully, the Bible offers explicit instruction on how to discern a child’s behavior.
To start with, Scripture offers the believer a simple moral categorization of children and their behavior: children are either foolish, or they are wise; they are either pursuing Christ, or they are listening to their destructive wisdom. Foolish children (fools) are not morally fixed, though; they are either digressing further toward becoming a hardened scorner, or they are drawing closer to God and becoming a wiser disciple.
Consequently, their moral behavior will consistently be getting worse or getting better. Scripture regularly utilizes the words foolishness/foolish/fool/scorner/unwise to expose behavior and thus character that is morally unacceptable to God hurts/impairs the individual, and negatively affects society.
The Bible not only discusses in great detail the right moral standard from which to interpret behavior, but it also reveals which actions people should consider to be moral. In fact, Scripture makes it clear that discerning the morality of a child is determined by his/her behavior: Proverbs 13:16 states,
In everything, the prudent (wise) acts with knowledge, but a fool flaunts his folly.
Similarly, Ecclesiastes 10:3 says,
Even when the fool walks on the road, he lacks sense, and he says to everyone that he is a fool.
Truly, people (not just children) are known by their behavior. Establishing what conduct is wise, pure, and upright, then, becomes foundational to anyone’s interpretation and explanation for a child’s behavior.
In today’s culture, however, there is an abundance of moral systems that attempt to explain the etiology of human behavior, and many of these moral systems directly oppose God’s Holy Word.
Christians are those who not only have an intimate covenant relationship with the one true God, but they also have embraced God’s moral system found in His Word. Despite the claim to have embraced God’s righteousness and standard, antithetical moral systems—presenting themselves as altruistic and scientific—have crept into the church and convinced many that sickness or physical defect could cause children’s moral behavior.
One of the most well-known and widely accepted secular moral systems in today’s church is that of psychiatry found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed. (DSM-5). The DSM-5 is a book of 400+ systematized and categorized interpretations of all sorts of human behavior and ways of thinking.
This “psychiatric bible” is an apparent attempt to replace God’s moral system. Psychiatrist and co-founder of the World Federation of Mental Health, Brock Chisholm once said,
The re-interpretation and eventual eradication of the concept of right and wrong which has been the basis of child training, the substitution of intelligent and rational thinking for faith . . . are the belated objectives of practically all effective psychotherapy.
He later stated,
The pretense is made, as it has been made in relation to the finding of any extension of truth, that to do away with right and wrong would produce uncivilized people, immorality, lawlessness and social chaos. The fact is that most psychiatrists and psychologists and other respected people have escaped from moral chains and are able to think freely.
Furthermore, he does not shrink from revealing who he believes must take on the task of eradicating morals:
If the race is to be freed from the crippling burden of good and evil, it must be psychiatrists who take the original responsibility.
Psychiatry does not eliminate morality; it simply tries to explain it away by asserting a new system. Yet, many prominent psychiatrists admit that you cannot practice psychiatry and every approach to humanity without a guiding “value system.” Psychiatrist and member of the DSM-III task force committee, Z.J. Lipowski explains,
It follows that a purely scientific and technological approach to man, to medicine and psychiatry, may be dangerous unless it is guided by a humanistic value system.
Psychiatry, along with its DSM-5, is the humanistic moral system necessary to justify the theory of evolution and attempt to explain impairing and distressful behavior.
Many of the proposed behaviors offered in the DSM-5 are considered amoral from a Biblical viewpoint, while the Bible considers other behaviors listed in the DSM to be foolishness/moral failure that exposes character.
For example, the DSM-5 insists that a child who “often blurts out an answer before a question has been completed” (APA, DSM-5, 61) should be viewed as physically ill. In their opinion, such behavior is an indication of an invisible and unproven neurological disorder. Proverbs 18:13 however, indicates that such behavior is not only normal, but it is also foolish and shameful:
If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.
One moral perspective claims that the nervous system is causing behavior, while the other claims it is the naturally depraved nature.
Unfortunately, many Christians have chosen to accept secular thinking over Biblical wisdom to discern children’s conduct when humanistic morality is packaged into scientism and given a medically sounding term. Fallenness is not a disease or necessarily a sin.
We have begun to look at mindsets (such as anxiety) as an abnormality or disease instead of a part of our normal fallen condition. These mindsets can certainly be more exposed with physical impairment, but they are sourced in the heart rather than the nervous system.
We have gone so far away from God’s moral system in our society and churches, that we are willing to interpret a child’s outright rebellion—even without any empirical evidence—as “Oppositional Defiant Disorder.”
But not all odd or detrimental behavior can be chalked up to human depravity. There is also human fragility that is responsible for amoral behavior. For example, what about behavior that impairs the child, burdens parents and teachers, and for which the Bible does not declare to be moral issues?
We do not view uncontrollable twitches, sensory processing issues, and neurodegenerative symptoms (to name a few) as moral issues in Scripture. If the Bible does not indicate that particular behavior is moral, then Christians should not legalistically transform these actions into sin.
Autism, for example, is a construct that explains amoral behaviors such as trouble communicating, repetitive behavior, and sensory processing issues; none of which are found to be moral behaviors in Scripture. In contrast, Proverbs discusses throughout a lack of self-control over one’s words as normal foolish behavior. To attempt to medicalize moral behavior into amoral behavior is to deny God’s moral law and reframe anthropology.
So how do we know whether a child is behaving according to his/her flesh or according to a neurological disease/impairment? If we believe and follow God’s moral system, discerning the spiritual cause of behavior and which behavior is a symptom of neurologic disease/impairment becomes simple. If God says that behavior is moral, there is no need to search or theorize about other causes apart from human depravity.
Murder, as one illustration, is never caused by physical malady or neurological dysfunction. Of course, this truth contradicts the psychiatric theory of insanity and many recent news reports. James 4:1-2a states precisely why people murder:
What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder.
One must choose, then, to believe that either the physical nature causes people to kill or that human depravity is responsible; either people will utilize God’s moral system to interpret such behavior, or they will rely on humanity’s “value system.”
If murder is not always moral in nature as God decrees in the Ten Commandments, who is to say that all immorality is not biologically caused? God makes it clear, though, that murder is always caused by desire/lust.
What may be surprising to the reader is that the DSM-5 admits that you cannot objectively discern behavior through the scientific method or apart from one’s beliefs:
Even when diminished control over one’s behavior is a feature of the disorder, having the diagnosis in itself does not demonstrate that a particular individual is (or was) unable to control his or her behavior at a particular time. (APA, DSM-5, 25)
There is no objective way to prove a child could or could not help his/her moral behavior. Faith alone, then, determines our interpretations, explanations, and approaches to moral behavior.
What may seem initially to be confusing is when a child has a valid physical malady (e.g., such as Autism, Downs, Dup15q, Fragile X Syndromes), but he/she is more functional than others with the same problem.
Despite their physical maladies and subsequent amoral and sometimes odd behaviors, the existence of their human depravity is more easily observed with their high functionality. Too often, however, valid physical diseases and human depravity are viewed by believers as one in the same when physical maladies exist.
In many ways, we have accepted the materialistic moral system of evolutionary theorists and discern our children’s behavior through this new moral system. But discerning behavior only becomes complex when other moral systems apart from God’s wisdom are allowed into our thinking.
If a child with a valid physical malady acts on his/her anger, for example, the cause of his/her anger is rooted in the heart (like everyone) and not biology. Whereas, an obsession with water, insomnia, or nervous twitching are regularly caused by neurological damage/defect. Simply stated, what God says are moral behaviors must be accepted as such and not wrongly perceived as biological disorders.
Behaviors that are not addressed in Scripture or are physiological (e.g., repetitive twitching) must not be transformed into moral failure or be viewed as a sin. Still, each time that we explain why our children are behaving in a certain way, we expose our true guiding moral system.
If we wish to help our kids in the best way, we must return to discerning their behavior as God does—holding them accountable for moral actions and graciously, lovingly, and patiently helping them through amoral behavior.
One illustration of this confusion is seen in how physicians regularly present a child’s physical problems using spiritual terms. Anxiety, for example, is often the term used to describe nervousness (when the nervous system struggles to process information and affects the body).
Even by DSM-5 definition, anxiety is a thought process that regularly produces physical effects known as nervousness or “somatic symptoms of tension”: the apprehensive anticipation of future danger or misfortune accompanied by a feeling of worry, distress, and/or somatic symptoms of tension.
The focus of anticipated danger may be internal or external. Nervousness is not equal to anxiety and it can often be the result of valid physical impairment and disease rather than anxiety. In other words, what is often called anxiety by doctors is really nervousness.
Other times, doctors who have accepted a materialistic explanation of human nature are presenting a child’s spiritual struggles as biologically caused. Unfortunately, many Christians have become convinced that anxiety is a physical process rather than a normal spiritual condition we all face as Scripture clearly points out. In the Bible, anxiety is not merely fear or worry; it is specifically stated to oppose trust in the Lord.
Simply stated, what God says are moral behaviors must be accepted as such and not wrongly perceived as biological disorders.
Dr. Daniel R. Berger II is the founder and director of Alethia International Ministries (AIM), where he continues to write and to speak around the country in various churches, organizations, medical communities, and at various counseling and teacher’s conferences. He is also an experienced pastor, counselor, school administrator, and the author of ten books on Biblical counseling, practical theology, education, and the history and philosophy of the current mental health construct. Daniel earned his B.S. in counseling, an M.S. in counseling/ psychology, an M.A. in pastoral studies, and a doctorate in pastoral theology. Daniel is also an adjunct professor at several Universities and seminaries-including serving as the director of a post-grad degree at SEBI (Brasilia, Brazil) in Biblical Counseling, which is specifically focused on understanding the various aspects of the construct of mental illness from a biblical worldview.