Grace for the Afflicted
You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
and the book:
Paternoster (September 5, 2008)
Dr. Matthew S. Stanford is professor of psychology, neuroscience, and biomedical studies at Baylor University, where he also serves as the director of the Psychology Doctoral Program. He received his Ph.D. in neuroscience from Baylor in 1992. After graduating from Baylor he completed a post-doctoral fellowship in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Texas Medical Branch. Prior to returning to Baylor as a member of the staff in 2003, he was a faculty member in the Department of Psychology at the University of New Orleans.
List Price: $19.99
Paperback: 240 pages
Publisher: Paternoster (September 5, 2008)
AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:
The church we were involved with at the onset of my son’s [mental] illness did not respond to us when we requested that a team come out and pray over him. . . . We were looking for support and comfort, and the churches we encountered were
not equipped to give that to us because they did not seem to have a complete handle on what we were dealing with. We have fallen away from the church, but not from God. —Laurie, mother of a son diagnosed with schizophrenia
“The Scriptures tell us that in Christ we have everything we need for life and godliness, correct? So can you explain to me why Anna’s bipolar disorder and her dependence on medication is not an issue of weak faith or sin?”
Only two of us stayed after the church meeting that morning, talking over coffee. I was a deacon in the church at the time, and the man who asked the question was a friend and respected elder. The question took me by surprise, and initially I was speechless (a condition for which I am, unfortunately, not known). If you have a loved one with a mental illness—or you yourself struggle with the debilitating symptoms—your first reaction to such a question may have been more along the lines of sadness, disgust, or anger.
But in my friend’s defense, he sincerely wanted to understand something he saw as alien and frightening. Was Anna sick, or was she spiritually weak? We know from 2 Peter 1:3 that we do have “everything we need for life and godliness.” Yet, even though Anna professed Christ as Savior, her life was a mixture of family problems, shame, suffering, and strange behavior. How should the church respond?
Science and faith have had a long and tense relationship. A dangerous and damaging battle—a battle between faith and psychiatry/psychology—is being waged daily in churches throughout the world. And lives are being destroyed. Men and women with diagnosed mental illnesses are told they need to pray more and turn from their sin. Mental illness is equated with demon-possession, weak faith, and generational sin. The underlying cause of this stain on the church is a lack of knowledge, both of basic brain function and of scriptural truth.
Mental illness is a frightening experience, not only for the afflicted but also for those who witness an individual struggling with strange thoughts and behaviors. An estimated 26.2 percent of Americans ages eighteen and older (one in four adults) suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year.1 Centuries of tension between the church and the scientific community have made pastors and laypeople alike wary of adopting scientific explanations for behaviors and thoughts that, on the surface, may appear sinful (e.g., suicidal ideations).
Again, I believe that the lack of understanding in the church related to mental illness is rooted in spiritual ignorance and fear. So, let’s look first to God’s Holy Word to gain a better understanding of how we were created, what effects the Fall has had on our physical bodies and minds, and who we are in Christ.
How Are We Created?
We have been created in the very image of God (Genesis 1:26). We are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). We are complex beings, unlike any other living creature: the union of a physical body with an immaterial mind and spirit. While each aspect is separate, in some sense, they are connected and affect one another. The Scriptures attest to this truth.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (Deuteronomy 6:5)
My soul longed and even yearned for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God. (Psalm 84:2)
And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. (Mark 12:30)
Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thessalonians 5:23) (all emphases, author’s)
At one level we exist in a physical body so that we can interact with the physical world around us. Our heart pumps; our stomach and intestines digest; our muscles relax and contract; our lungs inhale and exhale; our brain cells fire. We are God’s creative masterpiece: a miracle of skin, bone, and blood formed from the dust of the ground (Genesis 2:7). But at the same time we are so much more. We perceive. We think and reason. We pray.
There is also an immaterial, nonphysical aspect to our being—what some call our mind or soul.
What is the mind? This question has baffled philosophers and scientists alike for thousands of years. Are our thoughts and perceptions merely the product of neurochemical changes and electrical discharges in our brain? Or is our mind something more—something immaterial, more than the sum of our parts? I believe the truth is somewhere in the middle. The functioning of our brain is integral to the existence of our mind, but that alone is not sufficient to explain it. Likewise, to imagine our mind as completely separate and unrelated to the physical does not seem correct either. Body and mind are intimately connected, each affecting the other. We retrieve a past memory of a fearful event in our mind, and our physiology reacts. Our sensory receptors are activated by familiar stimuli in the environment, and past thoughts and feelings rush to consciousness.
The Scriptures often speak of the mind. It is here that we . . .
Plan our actions
The mind of man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps. (Proverbs 16:9)
Choose to sin
For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so. (Romans 8:6–7)
What is the outcome then? I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also; I will sing
with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also. (1 Corinthians 14:15)
Receive revelation and understanding from God
Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. (Luke 24:45)
Meditate on the truths of God
Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. (Colossians 3:2)
Are transformed by the indwelling Holy Spirit
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)
(all emphases, author’s)
It is with our mind that we think and choose. It is our mind that controls our actions. And it is our mind that God wants to change through the process of sanctification, conforming us ever closer to the image of His Son (Romans 8:29). A physical body formed by the hands of the Maker in union with an immaterial mind that controls and plans our behavior is a truly miraculous concept, though a difficult one to grasp. And the Scriptures teach us that we also have a third and even more amazing level of being, a spirit.
It is not uncommon for neuroscientists to talk and debate about the mind. We might use fancier words like consciousness or self-awareness to make it sound more “scientific,” but we are still talking about an immaterial, invisible aspect of our being. Things that can’t be seen make scientists uncomfortable. We don’t like to say that something is beyond our understanding or that it can’t be measured. We may admit that we don’t understand something presently but qualify our admission by saying that with enough study and the continued advancement of science we will one day. So to describe us as having a spirit, in addition to a mind and a body, seems almost heretical from a scientific perspective. But here is where we scientists must understand that Scripture is our ultimate authority and that it precisely describes our created being in the context of our relationship with God and our fellow human beings.
God created us as a unity of three parts, much like Himself. In our inmost being we are spirit, the very breath of God placed into a shell of dust (Genesis 2:7). That is how we differ from the other living creatures: both were created from the ground (Genesis 2:7, 19), but only humanity is created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). I like the way Paul Brand and Philip Yancey describe it in their book In His Image:
“And the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being” (2:7).
When I heard that verse as a child, I imagined Adam lying on the ground, perfectly formed but not yet alive, with God leaning over him and performing a sort of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
Now I picture that scene differently. I assume that Adam was already biologically alive—the other animals needed no special puff of oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide to start them breathing, so why should man? The breath of God now symbolizes for me a spiritual reality. I see Adam as alive, but possessing only an animal vitality. Then God breathes into him a new spirit, and infills him with His own image. Adam becomes a living soul, not just a living body. God’s image is not an arrangement of skin cells or a physical shape, but rather an inbreathed spirit.2
Our body, while we see it as our true identity, is little more than a container for our true essence, which is spirit (2 Corinthians 5:1). It is in our spirit that we have the opportunity to be in union with the very God of the universe (Proverbs 20:27; Romans 8:16).
Bringing It All Together
So how does all this work together—body, mind, and spirit? Let’s look at a simple visual representation. Figure 1 shows three concentric circles, each separate but interacting with the one above and/or below. The outermost circle represents the body, which is in contact with the earthly environment (outside) and the mind. The middle circle is the mind, which is connected to the body through the functions of the brain and nervous system but also in contact with our immaterial spirit (the innermost circle). The body senses and reacts to the external environment; and the mind uses that information to perceive, understand, and interpret our surroundings. The mind also forms our thoughts and plans our actions. The spirit, when connected to God, works to transform the mind into the very image of Christ, which results in an ever-increasing display of godly behaviors through the body.
We are an amazing creation! The physical (body) interacting with the immaterial (mind/spirit). Physical beings designed to be in an intimate communion with the very Creator of the universe, who is spirit (John 4:24). That is how we were created, and that is how it was supposed to be. But humanity fell (sinned), and the consequences of our disobedience are felt every day, both spiritually and physically.
How Have We Been Affected by the Fall?
After the shock had worn off, I thought for a minute about how to respond to my friend’s question about Anna. I asked him, “Do you know anyone who has heart disease and regularly takes medication?”
He said that he did, but before I could continue, he asked me if I was trying to say that Anna’s bipolar disorder and heart disease were somehow the same. Throughout this book, I will try to answer that question. How are they the same? How do they differ? But first we need to answer a more foundational question: What are the results of man’s sin?
When a follower of Jesus Christ is asked that question, he or she will often quote Romans 6:23: “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Such a response correctly points out that spiritual death, or separation from God, is the result of sin. As children of Adam, we are sinful by nature and therefore spiritually dead and separated from God at birth (Romans 5:12).
I have always thought it strange, however, that the answer to the question rarely goes beyond the spiritual. Clearly, spiritual death resulted from our sin. But what about the other aspects of our being, our mind and body? How were they affected by the Fall? I have suggested that the Scriptures describe us as a three-part being, with each part interacting with and affecting the others. If that is true, then our sin must have also adversely affected our mind and body. I’m not saying that this truth is completely unknown in the church today. Plainly, the Bible teaches us that we are fully defiled by sin (body, mind, and spirit)—caught in what some theologians call “total depravity” (see Romans 3:12). Yet the church emphasizes the spiritual effects of sin while minimizing or disregarding the mental and physical effects. As I stated above, I think this results from a misunderstanding of what the Scriptures teach about how we have been created.
At birth, we are physically alive but spiritually dead. We are born with an imperfect body, scarred as the result of generations of sin. On the day that Adam and Eve fell, they forfeited their intimate relationship with God, and they became mortal. And we were placed at the mercy of the environment and natural biological processes that wreak havoc on our bodies and minds. But as Jesus teaches in the story of the man born blind, each time we struggle with illness and physical weakness is an opportunity for “the works of God” to be “displayed” (John 9:1–3).
When Adam and Eve fell, we were forced to fend for ourselves in a hostile and fallen world. Look at figure 2 to get a better idea of how and why we think and act the way we do. As we grow and mature, our body and mind learn to interact with and react to our fallen environment, all the while spiritually separated from God by our sin. The body, physically affected by the Fall, gathers sensations and stimuli from the earthly environment (small black arrows). Our mind, knowing only sin because of our separation from God, chooses to satisfy itself by the “If it feels good, do it” lifestyle, or what we in psychology call the pleasure principle. In doing so, it associates normal physiological reactions and sensations with lustful desires and wants, causing impure thoughts to come to mind almost instantly in common, everyday situations (James 1:14–15). It is in our mind that we choose to sin (2 Corinthians 10:5); and it is with our body (Ephesians 2:3), or “members” (Romans 7:23), that we act out our sinful thoughts (large black arrows). This process is altered only in the individual who comes to a saving faith in Christ Jesus, and even then that believer continues to struggle with a sinfully programmed mind and body (Romans 7:14–25).
In addition to the sinful desires that attempt to control us, another result of sin is physical death and decay.
God told Adam that in the day he ate from the forbidden tree he would surely die (Genesis 2:16–17); and while He certainly meant this in the spiritual sense, He also meant it in the physical sense. The moment that Adam disobeyed he began to age and decay (Genesis 3:19). Physical death came a little closer each day of his life, and so it continues for us. In fact, the Scriptures tell us that the whole of the physical creation was affected by our sin and longs for the day of redemption (Romans 8:19–22). Our bodies are damaged because of sin. We age. We get sick. We suffer physically and die because the physical creation has been affected by the Fall.
However, while we were all born “dead in sin,” which affected our body, mind, and spirit, there is an amazing truth for those who have been “born again”: we are new creations in Christ; the old things have passed away; the new has come (2 Corinthians 5:17)!
Our Identity in Christ
Have you ever thought about what it means that you are a “new creation”? It means that you have been fundamentally changed; what you were before becoming a Christian no longer exists. That is not how I used to see myself. I lived Sunday to Sunday, holding on to some kind of faith-based fire insurance that I could turn in at my death in order to get into heaven. I certainly didn’t see myself as Paul describes the believer in Ephesians 1, having every spiritual blessing. I now recognize that as a believer in Jesus Christ I was chosen before the foundation of the world; predestined for adoption as a son of the living God; purchased out of slavery to sin and death; forgiven of all my sins—past, present, and future; given spiritual wisdom and revelation; and marked as such until the day that I stand before Him holy and blameless.
Do you see yourself that way? If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, then that is exactly how God sees you—whether you accept it or not. It doesn’t matter if you are struggling with mental illness. You are a new creation in Christ if you have received Him by faith. And we who minister to those who struggle with mental illness should remember that they are His chosen children, if they are in Christ, and they should be treated as such.
A Transformed Life
We were born with a fallen nature, which we received from our ancestral father Adam. But when a person comes to faith in Jesus Christ, he or she is “crucified”! The “old self” is nailed to the cross with Christ, never to return (Romans 6:6; Galatians 2:20). God gives us His Spirit; Christ’s very life takes up residence in us (Colossians 3:1–3). We have His righteousness (1 Corinthians 1:30; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Philippians 3:9) and a new, Christlike nature (Ephesians 4:24). Spiritually, we sit at the very right hand of God Almighty (Ephesians 2:6).
So, just like my friend said, as believers we are complete in Christ, having everything we need for life and godliness in Him (2 Peter 1:3). That is true in the spiritual realm, but remember that we are a unity of three parts. What happens to our body and mind after we are transformed in the spirit?
Being Conformed to the Image of Christ
You were born affected by sin, and you lived some period of time before coming to Christ. Consequently, you have habits, thought patterns, and biological predispositions that are the result of your old self. This “sinful flesh” does not disappear because you have been given a new life. But change is now possible, whereas before it was not.
Let’s look at figure 3 to help understand our new life. We now see, in the inner circle, the very life of Christ within us. The Scriptures teach us that we are to submit ourselves to Christ, allowing Him to transform our minds (Romans 12:1–2). In the diagram this is represented by the small white arrowheads. As our minds are transformed and our thoughts are taken captive to Christ, He begins to take control of the “members” of our body (symbolized by the three large, black-and-white arrows), and our behaviors change (Colossians 3:5–10).
Why Write This Book?
At this point you may be saying to yourself, I thought this book was about mental illness and Christianity. When are you going to talk about my son’s disorder? I need to know what to do! Why am I having these thoughts and feelings? I don’t want to be like this!
Those emotional responses, and many more like them, are why this book has been written. But beyond that, I have seen the limitations of psychiatry and psychology firsthand.
As a research scientist studying human aggression, I see the results of the Fall every day—broken men and women who want to behave differently but feel as if they have lost control of themselves, wives who fear their husbands, children who seem destined to repeat the sins of their fathers. In my laboratory, we test the effectiveness of different medications on aggressive behavior. In many instances the treatments are successful: the patient’s aggressive behavior is reduced in intensity and frequency. But is that enough if the person still does not know Christ? The medication treats only the physical effects of the Fall. The mental effects often remain; and if the patient does not know Christ, so does his or her spiritual separation from God.
I hope this chapter has shown you that we have been affected by sin at all three levels of our being. Both believers and nonbelievers carry the physical and mental effects of sinful programming. Fortunately, believers have been transformed in their inner being and are righteous before their Maker. But that does not instantaneously remove the sinful “flesh” we still carry around. Sanctification is a process by which our minds are transformed through submission to Christ. Biological defects and weaknesses do not go away by themselves, no matter how much we want them to or have faith that they will. God can certainly choose to heal us supernaturally, and in some cases He does so. But we should see our weaknesses as an opportunity to grow in our faith (2 Corinthians 12:7–10; James 1:2–4). Like the man born blind, we are flawed so that “the works of God might be displayed” in us (John 9:3).
1. Ronald C. Kessler et al., “Prevalence, Severity, and Comorbidity of Twelve-Month DSM-IV Disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication (NCS-R), Archives of General Psychiatry 62 (2005): 617–27.
2. Paul Brand and Philip Yancey, In His Image (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), 22.