Spiritual or Physiological? How to Know?
I've written two hubs on the subject of worry and faith: Is it Anxiety or Responsibility? and Integrating Physiological Components of Anxiety with a Christian World and Life View. My second was an answer to a response to the first and this one is an answer to a response to the second. Now you tell me, "Who's on first?" "Who's on second?" :-)
So here is a reader's question. "If I am struggling with worry, what are some of the litmus tests to determine the nature of that worry? If I am struggling with depression, how do I know if it is something more medically focused as opposed to primarily spiritual at its core?"
These are good questions but I wonder what difference it would make if the answers could be given with certainty. In other words, if one could determine with absolute certainty that a particular bout with depression were physiological in nature, how would it change attitudes and behavior? If worry were clearly a faith failure what would be done differently?
Plato in the background
I suspect my reader's questions betray a few stray strands of neo-Platonism. Plato, the 4th century BC philosopher, taught that what we perceive with our senses, the physical, is necessarily deficient and evil; while the real and perfect will be found in the non-material realm of ideas. From this basic tenet it's easy to see how many have come to believe that one's physical body is fraught with decay and error while one's soul is permanent and pure. So erupts the need to distinguish with certainty what is physical and what is spiritual.
This notion has infected the Christian faith for centuries. In fact there are those who believe that the Apostle Paul owes much of his thinking to Plato. Did he not write, "Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace" (Romans 8:5,6). On the surface this sounds pretty platonic, no?
But a careful reading of Paul's thought reveals that he uses the word "flesh" not in the platonic sense but as a figure of speech for all that is sinful. For instance, he speaks of setting one's mind either on the things of the flesh or on the things of the Spirit. If we set our minds on the things of the flesh we displease God and court death (Romans 8:5-8).
Resisting Plato, following Paul and Paul's Lord
The key to answering the questions posed above is to recognize that every human weakness or failure has physical, emotional and spiritual components. We are responsible before God for how we handle all three. For instance, last night I was short and rude to my wife. Since that clearly violates I Peter 3:7 which calls me to treat her in an understanding and sensitive way, I displeased my Lord (spiritual). Along with the rest of the country, I was wrought up over the killing of children in Newtown, CT. (emotional). My body was tired and my eyes yearned to be tucked in for the night (physical). Why was I rude to my wife? I was mindless of my Lord, distracted by current events and neglectful of my body.
I realize that my example concerns one incident. I started to write "isolated incident." Would that it were isolated! Working on that. But suppose this became a habit, a way of life. We'd call it depravity, depression and disease. A wise Christian counselor would call me to be responsible before God at all three levels. He'd urge me to consult a physician to treat or rule out any physiological contributors. A minor chemical imbalance can make a person pretty weird. He'd then help me to think through and accept past traumas that have over-sensitized me to troubling current events. All along he'd be reminding me to live the gospel, by confessing my sin both to my wife and to the Lord, accepting their forgiveness and moving on to face the future with lessons learned.
Often an approach to a person's presenting issues is judged by how quickly and thoroughly he feels relieved of them. If medication can bring about immediate relief, that must be the right way to go. For the worldling, who has only this life to live, it's a no-brainer. Get the pills or weed or latest relaxation fad.
Those who know their Lord recognize that pain and discomfort are part of living in a broken world. Thorough and permanent relief will surely come one day when "the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea" (Habakkuk 2:14). That day awaits our Savior's return. Until then Christians focus on being faithful, not comfortable. If God, in mercy, spares us from earthly troubles and grants some relief to our suffering, we thankfully rejoice.
"Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone" (Philippians 4:4,5).