Introduction: You’re reading Part 5 in a blog mini-series on Emotional Intelligence. Read Part 1: Emotions: God’s Idea, Part 2: Why We Feel What We Feel, Part 3: Good News about Good Moods, and Part 4: What Went Wrong? I’ve developed this series from material in my book Soul Physicians.
A Defining Question
In a recent CCEF Ask the Counselor video, biblical counselor David Powlison addressed the question, “Do you believe that there is a biological basis for depression which may endure, despite the fact that heart issues have been successfully addressed through biblical counseling? If so, is there a place for long-term use of medication?”
In his nuanced, loving, balanced response, Dr. Powlison noted that, “this is one of the defining questions of our age.” Listen to David’s full response at Is Depression Purely Biological?
A 1,000-word blog post can never provide the final word on this defining issue. Instead, consider these words simply an introduction to the Bible’s teaching on the complex inner-working of our body/soul, brain/mind connection.
Jars of Clay
In the beginning, God designed us as body-soul beings. “The LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). Even before the fall, we were more than inner person—we ere and are embodied beings.
Our bodies are works of art fashioned by our heavenly Father who fearfully and wonderfully handcrafted us (Psalm 139:13-16). We are works of God’s hand; made, shaped, molded, clothed with skin and flesh, and knit together with bones and sinews (Job 10:3-12). We are not to despise our physicality.
After the fall, the Bible teaches that we inhabit fallen bodies in a fallen world (Romans 8:18-25). Paul calls our fallen bodies “jars of clay” (2 Corinthians 4:7). As one commentator has mused, we are cracked pots! Paul also describes our bodies as a mortal earthly tent—perishable, weak, flesh and blood (1 Corinthians 15:42-47).
Paul is not saying that the flesh is bad or evil. He is saying that our bodies are weak and natural, prone in our fallen state to disorder and dysfunction.
Some modern Christians seem to take a hyper-spiritual approach to the brain/mind issue. They act as if inner spirituality eliminates all the effects of outer bodily maladies. Some seem to imply that giving any credence to the fallen bodies influence on our emotional state is something of a Trojan Horse that sneaks secular, materialistic thought into Christian spirituality.
Not So the Puritans
The Puritans would have been shocked by such a naïve perspective on the mind-body issue. Puritan pastors and theologians like Robert Burton, William Ames, and Jonathan Edwards recognized that problems such as scrupulosity (what we might call OCD) and melancholy (what we might call depression) might, at least in part, be rooted in the fallen body. They warned that such maladies sometimes could not be cured simply by comforting words or biblical persuasion (see A History of Pastoral Care in America, pp. 60-72).
Edwards described his sense of pastoral helplessness in the face of the melancholy of his uncle, Joseph Hawley. He noted that Hawley was “in a great measure past a capacity of receiving advice, or being reasoned with” (see A History of Pastoral Care in America, p. 73). Eventually, Hawley took his own life one Sabbath morning. Shortly thereafter, Edwards advised clergy against the assumption that spiritual issues alone were at work in melancholy.
Emotions: Bridging Our Inner and Outer Worlds
Emotions truly are a bridge between our inner and outer world. Think of the word “feeling.” Feeling is a tactile word suggesting something that is tangible, physical, touchable, and palpable. “I feel the keyboard as I type. I feel the soft comfortable chair beneath me. I feel my sore back and stiff wrists as they cry out, “Give it a rest!”
We also use this physical word—feeling—to express emotions. “I feel sad. I feel happy. I feel joy. I feel anger.” It’s no surprise that we use this one word in these two ways—physical and emotional. We know what the Israelites understood—our body feels physically what our emotions feel metaphysically (see my Th.M. thesis Hebrew Anthropological Terms as a Foundation for a Biblical Counseling Model of Humanity).
When I’m nervous, my stomach is upset. When I feel deep love, my chest tightens. When I’m anxious, my heart races. When I’m sad, my entire system slows.
We know much more about the brain than the Israelites knew. It is a physical organ of the body and all physical organs in a fallen world in unglorified bodies can malfunction. My heart, liver, and kidneys can all become diseased, sick. So can the physical organ we call the brain.
Embracing our Weakness/Embracing God’s Power
It is important to realize that every emotion involves a complex interaction between body and soul. Therefore, it is dangerous to assume that all emotional struggles can be changed by strictly “spiritual means.”
For some, spirituality includes embracing physical weakness. In fact, this is the exact message Paul communicates when he calls us “jars of clay.” Why does God allow us to experience physical weakness? “To show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (2 Corinthians 4:7). It’s the same message Paul personally experienced in his own situational suffering (2 Corinthians 1:8-9) and in his own bodily suffering (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).
We can act as if we are more spiritual than the Apostle Paul. However, in actuality, pretending that our external suffering and our physical bodies do not impact us emotionally involves an arrogant refusal to depend upon and cling to Christ alone.
Certain emotions, especially anxiety and depression, involve physiological components that sometimes may need to be treated with medication. When we ignore the importance of the body, we misunderstand what it means to trust God. It is wrong to place extra burdens on those who suffer emotionally by suggesting that all they need to do is surrender to God to make their struggles go away.
On the other hand, it would be equally wrong to suggest that medication is all someone needs. That would be like a pastor entering the cancer ward to talk with a parishioner who was just told that she has cancer. “Well, take your medicine. Do chemo. You’ll be fine. See ya’ later.” No! That pastor would support, comfort, talk with, and pray for his parishioner.
Sickness and suffering are always a battleground between Satan and Christ. So, while medicine may sometimes be indicated for certain people with certain emotional battles, spiritual friendship is always indicated. Physicians of the body (and the brain is an organ of the physical body) prescribe medication. Physicians of the soul (and the mind is an inner capacity and reality of the soul) prescribe grace.
The Rest of the Story
So how’s your EQ—your Emotional Quotient? In our next post, we’ll summarize and apply what we’ve said so far by presenting an EI Test: an Emotional Intelligence Test.
Join the Conversation
I know today’s post is controversial. What’s your take? Where do you stand on the issue of causes and cures for emotional distress? Does the body potentially play a role? Is medicine ever part of God’s ordained treatment?