In my ongoing study of the subject of mental/emotional illness, counseling, and the church; I found a very helpful chapter in the recently released book, Christ-Centered Biblical Counseling. The final chapter, “The Complex Mind/Body Connection,” is written by Dr. Laura Hendrickson. As a trained medical doctor, and board-certified psychiatrist, Laura brings insight that is welcomed by, and appreciated within, the biblical counseling world.
In this chapter, Laura explores the complexity of our humanity and seeks to bring biblical wisdom to bear upon the mind, body, and psychiatric medication. In this post, I will summarize and highlight her main conclusions. For the full benefit you would do well to get yourself a copy of Christ-Centered Biblical Counseling.
There Is Mystery in the Human Body, which Is Made by God. Just as Christians have many misconceptions about emotions [the subject of the preceding chapter] so “the body fares little better, perhaps worse, in our mind’s eye.” But it is important to remember that “our emotions and our bodies are God’s idea….The interrelationship between body and soul defies our capacity to fully comprehend. The complexity of the mind-body, soul-brain connection is both majestic and deeply troubling to many.” Hendrickson then refers to the Biblical Counseling Coalition’s Confessional Statement, and reflects upon the dozen drafts of the portion that addresses the mind/body connection. This section of the confession closes with the following paragraph: “We recognize the complexity of the relationship between the body and soul (Genesis 2:7). Because of this, we seek to remain sensitive to physical factors and organic issues that affect people’s lives. In our desire to help people comprehensively, we seek to apply God’s Word to people’s lives amid bodily strengths and weaknesses. We encourage a thorough assessment and sound treatment for any suspected physical problems.”
The Bible Keeps the Soul and Body Together. “Body and soul are not antithetical. Psalm 63:1 links them inseparably—the soul thirsts and the body longs. In Hebraic thinking, we do not have a body, we are a body; we are animated bodies. The flesh (basar in the Old Testament) is our whole life substance organized in corporeal form—embodied personalities. Body (basar in Hebrew and sarx in Greek) represents humanity in a certain type of relationship to God—one of finitude, contingency, neediness, weakness, frailty, and mortality….We are works of God’s hands, 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.”
Later, when addressing the intertwined body/soul, Hendrickson writes, “We are ‘psychosomatic wholes’ with the material and immaterial aspects of our lives intricately interwoven. We are one unified being with a spiritual inner person or heart, and a physical outer person or body.”
The Heart Controls the Body…Most of the Time. “It’s important to note that because the brain is an organ of our body, it is not the responsible source of our thoughts, feelings, and choices. Scripture teaches that these activities originate in our inner person. But since the brain is the ‘master controller’ (the CEO) of our other bodily functions, it makes sense to think of it as a mediator that translates what’s inside of us into physical form.”
However, the Body Can Affect the Heart. Also, the “Bible teaches that what is going on in our body affects what goes on in our heart. If we’re sleep deprived, sick, in pain, or on medicines that make it harder for us to think clearly, these physical changes will influence our thoughts and emotions. They may even tempt us to make wrong choices.”
A Balanced Way to Think about Chemical Imbalances. “The thoughts and feelings of our heart change our brain’s chemical balance. The opposite is also true. Medicines that change our brain’s chemical balance can affect the thoughts and feelings of our heart. This view accepts the findings of medical science on the role of the brain, without insisting that our emotional pain comes solely from our body.”
Some May Be Helped by Psychiatric Medication…Some of the Time. Hendrickson begins the next major section of her chapter with this accurate assessment: “Addressing the brain/soul connection inevitably leads to the important issue of psychotropic medication. And any discussion of the use of psychiatric medicine prompts strong feelings among God’s people.”
The author then calls believers to a balanced view when she writes, “I believe we can agree that our bodies play an important role in our emotions without insisting that all painful feelings are due to a disease. I also don’t think that it’s a sin or an admission of weakness to take psychiatric drugs. But taking a medication without considering spiritual issues may leave the most important factor unaddressed. In fact, it’s been my experience, through twenty years of psychiatric and biblical counseling practice, that a medicine-only approach doesn’t resolve emotional pain completely or permanently in most cases.”
As Hendrickson puts it all together, she stresses, “It is important to realize that every emotion involves a complex interaction between body and soul. For example, the Bible teaches that improving the way our body feels can change our emotions for the better. Medical science confirms the Bible’s teachings….Remember Elijah’s story. Rest and food fortified his body, but they didn’t solve his emotional problems. He wanted to give up because he’d decided that his situation was hopeless and his ministry was a lost cause. Elijah’s hunger and tiredness didn’t do this to him, and food and rest alone couldn’t solve it. It took an encounter with God’s truth to set Elijah’s heart right….In the same way that food and rest revived Elijah, medications may improve the balance of chemicals in our brains. But by themselves they can’t solve complex spiritual problems. We need to hear God speaking truth to our hearts as Elijah did. We also need to actively use God’s Word, as Jesus did, when we are struggling.” Hendrickson then reminds her readers of Martin Luther and Charles Spurgeon, both of whom battled depression and anxiety and times of great weakness throughout their lives.
Comforted by Jesus, the Non-Cookie-Cutter Counselor. Hendrickson writes, “I’m comforted to realize that Jesus, in His time on earth, helped different people in different ways,” and then goes on to give a number of examples. Applying these examples, she writes, “So why are we surprised that the Lord doesn’t solve everyone’s painful feelings in the same ways today? We’re told that one of Martin Luther’s faith struggles was settled instantly by reading a single Bible verse. On the other hand, Luther wrote extensively about his lifelong struggle with and against spiritual depression/anxiety. Similarly, in my experience, some counselees grasp right away what God’s Word has to say about their problems and recover their emotional balance quickly. But others, not less godly or committed, may toil slowly in counseling for many months.”
“Some come to me in so deep an emotional hole that it seems best to recommend the physical boost of psychiatric drugs in addition to the ministry of God’s Word to restore them. Others come to me already on medications, having already spent many months in counseling, but still grappling with painful feelings. And finally, some people have diseases that require continued medical treatment, as well as biblical counseling, if they are to remain emotionally stable.”
“Thus, it is dangerous to assume that all emotional struggles can be changed by strictly ‘spiritual means.’ For some, spirituality includes embracing physical weakness. 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. It would be equally wrong to suggest that medication is all someone needs….My confidence as I come alongside suffering counselees is this: Jesus, who healed a number of blind men five different ways, still provides what each of us needs to increase our faith and restore us.”
A Biblical Counselor’s Personal Testimony: Hendrickson’s chapter ends with a lengthy testimony from Bob Somerville, a biblical counselor and Bible college professor who endured an excruciatingly painful time of deep depression and discovered that God ministered to him through many means, including some he did not expect (you should read it in full). Hendrickson concludes her chapter with these words: “Bob’s story illustrates the message of Christ-Centered Biblical Counseling. Understanding people, diagnosing the root causes of problems, and prescribing wise ‘treatment options’ requires robust, relational, comprehensive, and compassionate care grounded in our shared redemptive relationship to Christ.”
[By the way, when I blog through books, which is often a practice of mine, I do so by my own volition, not because I have been asked by any publisher. In the case of this book, Christ-Centered Biblical Counseling, I am especially appreciative of my colleagues at the Biblical Counseling Coalition who are responsible for compiling this important collection of essays on theological and methodological issues in biblical counseling today.]
You may also be interested in Laura’s book, Will Medicine Stop the Pain? — Finding God’s Healing for Anxiety, Depression, and Other Challenging Emotions, co-authored with Elyse Fitzpatrick.