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Spiritual or Physiological? How to Know?

Updated on June 15, 2013

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 | Source

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.

Outcomes! Results!

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).

Comments - I'm listening.

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    • prairieprincess profile image

      Sharilee Swaity 5 years ago from Canada

      Bravo! I love your example about your wife. Yes, and taking responsibility at all three levels. Write more of these kind of articles. These are excellent, and address questions I have had for a long time! Take care!

    • liftandsoar profile image

      Frank P. Crane 5 years ago from Richmond, VA

      Indeed, teacherjoe52. Thanks for stopping by. The gospel of Jesus Christ, rightly understood and applied, transforms lives.

    • teacherjoe52 profile image

      teacherjoe52 5 years ago

      Good morning lifandsoar.

      Very well said.

      The sad thing is that many are becoming like 2 Timothy 3:1. These tragedies are the end result.

      This is from a Norwegian doctor Ogloff, the forensic psychologist who has studied both spree and serial killers in the U.S., Canada and Australia, said that a break-down in a relationship or a humiliating experience often acts as a triggering event for mass shooters. Mass killers act out of personal grievances. The attackers, often in a state of depression, believe society is malicious.

      All the more urgency to share Jesus' healing love with the world.

      God bless you.

    • liftandsoar profile image

      Frank P. Crane 5 years ago from Richmond, VA

      Well said, my friend. My point is that how would you know which is the "primary" cause of a malady unless you assume the possibility of some combination of causes, all of which are spoken to by Scripture? Of course one or another will surface as a "primary" cause. I think there's a tendency among us pastors to jump to0 quickly to one or another cause and be done with it. I know a young woman who within hours went from being a sweet and reasonable high schooler to being hostile and paranoid. She was taken to her pediatrician by her parents. The condition got worse and worse for six weeks while physicians and psychiatrist adminstered a variety of medications and her church prayed. Finally overnight she turned a corner. She is now a perfectly healthy person. Turns out it was a chemical inbalance that was corrected by meds. Eventally she grew out of it and is now both symptom and med free. I'd be hard pressed to identify what the causes were. But clearly a key component was physiological.

    • Pastor Brad profile image

      Brad Gromis 5 years ago from Richmond, Virginia

      When in doubt ... blame Plato. ;-)

      All jesting aside, good perspective. Oh, how often the thoughts of the past resurface in shiny new packages and tout themselves as whole new paradigms.

      However, I do not believe the core of the question posed on your last post actually centered on something as neatly defined as neo-Platonic thinking. Consider the following from the clarifying response posted there as well: "While I will readily admit that God has defined and designed us as much more INTEGRATED than my neatly-ordered request, there does seem to be sense that certain aspects of this life are more "one sphere" than another or can be examined "one sphere at a time" in an effort to gain a more complete understanding." (emphasis added)

      I believe the question rests on a firm foundation of understanding a wholistic approach. The question raised was in determining a system of differentiating among overlapping spheres. It is not that material = evil and nonmaterial = good. We are not trying to resurrect a Gnostic philosophy here.

      Rather, if a situation is primarily a spiritual issue, it must be addressed from primarily spiritual grounds. If it is primarily a medical issue, then medically. I do not believe it is at all neo-Platonic to understand individual situations on individual merits, as long as Biblical standards are consistently applied.

      Hopefully, I have not now channeled Aristotle.