Volume Twenty-Nine — Article 6 Volume 29 | Home

How Spiritual Health Is Impaired by Neglect of Physical and Mental Health
D. Weston Allen, F.R.A.C.G.P.

Today if you are physically sick, you visit a doctor. If you are mentally disturbed, you have an appointment with a psychiatrist. And if you are spiritually distressed, you see your pastor. But this was not always the case. In ancient times the priest was the doctor, and the doctor was the priest. The surgeon was the servant of the priest. While this had some obvious disadvantages, the person was treated as a whole.

Under the influence of the Greek philosophers, especially Plato and Aristotle, a dualistic view of man was generally accepted — with an overwhelming emphasis on the soul. In the temples of Aesculapius soul-medicine was almost exclusively practiced. There was a time when the church was so influenced by Platonic dualism that the body, being matter, was regarded as evil and unworthy of any attention, study or care. Thus the spurious anatomy and physiology of Galen were unquestioningly taught as fact for over 1,000 years. The body was not only ignored but actually punished and abused in the interest of treating the soul. Virtually all disease was ascribed to demons. The use of matter for treatment of the body was considered to be the deification of earthly things. The temples of Aesculapius were replaced by monasteries where the priests performed their superstitious rites for the sick, including magic charms, hypnosis and faith healing. Thus began the rift between soul-oriented priests and body-oriented doctors — a rift which has been widening.

With the discovery of the germ and the study of physiology and biochemistry, rational body-oriented medicine was born and quickly assumed dominance over the priestly ministry, which retreated even more into the specialization of soul care.

The enormous advancement of medical, anthropological and psychological knowledge in the twentieth century has resulted in hyperspecialization and the further fragmentation of man. Thus the man who visits an otologist and happens to mention his abdominal discomfort is referred to the gastroenterologist with the unexpressed comment: "To me you are an ear, and the rest of you a tumor." Even the clergy, in an attempt to regain lost territory, are becoming hyperspecialists — marriage counselors, psychologists, sociologists and demonologists. Each tends to see disease, whether physical or spiritual, through his own specialty rather than as it relates to the whole person.

For example, a demonologist is inclined to see all abnormal behavior as a result of demon possession or oppression, while a psychologist may attempt to explain all behavior from a rational viewpoint which denies any supernatural influence. Both are likely to ignore the body and its influence.

An example of such hyperspecialization was recently told to me by a very sensible pastor who was confronted with a situation in which some self-styled demonologists were attempting to exorcise demons from a young woman who was obviously mentally disturbed. The woman was becoming progressively worse, more aggressive, destructive and uncontrollable, while all the time the demons were getting the blame. She was able to disrupt any journey by threatening to jump out of the car. Only by telling her to go right ahead if she wished to did her attitude begin to change! When the pastor confronted her with her moral and personal responsibility in life (toward herself, her body, and toward others) and with the objective gospel, the change in this young woman was quite amazing, and the "demons" left at once.

The cause of disease, whether physical, mental or spiritual, is nearly always multifactorial — that is, it has more than one cause. For example, heart disease is often caused by a combination of cigarette smoking, a high-fat diet, inactivity, obesity, hypertension, stress, diabetes and maybe heredity. The cause of tuberculosis is not merely the tubercle bacillus but a combination of incorrect breathing, malnutrition, alcoholism, fatigue and unhygienic practices. The organisms flourish in damp, dark, squalid environments and are rapidly destroyed by direct sunshine. The cause of disease is not merely the germ but the violation of one or more of the laws of life. Your peptic ulcer may be caused by a combination of what you eat and what eats you — and the later more important than the former.

The Body/Mind Relationship

There is a vital relationship between the body and the mind. Whatever affects one will affect the other. It is impossible to have health in one without the other. The concept of psychosomatic disease (psycho — the mind; soma — the body), conceived by Paracelsus in the sixteenth century, has been well accepted. In almost every disease the mind plays some part, either to a greater or lesser extent. The powerful effect of the mind on the body has become the subject of a highly specialized science and field of medicine. It has been popularized in many books, such as None of These Diseases, by Dr. S. I. McMillen (London: Lakeland, 1972).

So intricate is this relationship, however, that it is seldom a simple case of mind over matter. The mental state itself may be caused by the physical condition — a sort of somato-psycho-somatic state. Dr. John Ellard, psychiatrist in the Northside Clinic, Greenwich, N.S.W., Australia, rightly states, "More and more it becomes clear that there is no absolute distinction between physical and psychological illness and that in the understanding of every illness, these factors (and social ones) need to be considered . . . a precept often ignored, even in the most lofty of institutions." — Modern Medicine of Australia, Mar. 17,1975, p.55. He emphasizes the need to consider all factors for each individual, to look at the whole man. "In a sense, the wheel has turned full circle; man is becoming a unity again and the old psyche-soma division is more of a hindrance than a help." —Ibid.

  While Socrates taught, "You should not treat body without soul," Christians today need reminding to not treat soul without body. Many a good Christian has become distraught over his spiritual state — his lack of faith, failure in prayer, gloomy and pessimistic thoughts, lack of love, joy and peace of mind, irritability, anxiety, depression — when the real problem is largely physical.

Spiritual Problems Are Sometimes Somatically Based

Obvious somatic causes of mental and spiritual problems include the organic diseases which affect the brain and nervous system. Destruction of brain cells through an injury, tumor, poison, infection or stroke may result in mental apathy, impairment of mental, moral or emotional faculties, and marked changes in the whole personality.

For optimum functioning the brain must have a good circulation of good-quality blood, supplying the twelve billion brain cells with a rich supply of oxygen, nutrition, fluid and hormones. Insufficient thyroid, adrenal and sex hormones can all greatly affect the personality and depress the mood and spirit, which in turn may further depress these endocrine glands of the body. Conversely, an overactive thyroid can cause extreme irritability and loss of emotional control, again creating a vicious cycle.

But there are much more subtle changes than these, which often greatly affect the Christian's sanctification. Mrs. T. is just one example of this. A Christian for most of her life and a regular churchgoer, Mrs. T. was beginning to experience some problems in her marriage. Her husband no longer attended church, and her own interest was waning. Bible study seemed a laborious effort. Concentration and memory were failing. And her thoughts would wander even during prayer. Mrs. T. was particularly worried about her increasing tendency to "explode" at her husband and the children for no apparent reason, and she was even more worried about her bouts of depression, which were becoming more severe and more frequent. Mrs. T., aware of her spiritual problem, went to her pastor and was given some very helpful counseling on the gospel, Bible study, prayer and interpersonal relationships, but she made no marked improvement. It seemed that God was no longer real to her, and the gospel seemed too difficult to understand. Castigating herself for her lack of faith and ineffective witness, she became even more depressed. At times she would be so overcome with guilt that she felt she must have committed the unpardonable sin against the Holy Spirit.

The cause of Mrs. T.'s condition was neither wholly spiritual nor wholly physical, but both. Her diet was greatly impoverished, consisting almost entirely of highly refined and processed food, with large quantities of sugar and fat. She had no regular exercise other than her (semiautomated) housework, was considerably overweight, ate too much at night, slept poorly, and whipped her tired nerves with six cups of coffee throughout the day. Waking with a furred tongue and bad breath, she would usually get the day off to a bad start by skipping breakfast. Mornings were usually a mad rush to get the children off to school before leaving for work herself. Evenings were little better, and her only relaxation was in front of the TV before going to bed.

This typical Western lifestyle was largely responsible for Mrs. T.'s mental and spiritual condition. Her brain was so starved for good fuel (and vitamins), so choked up with waste matter, and so drained through constant stimulation with caffeine that it was almost impossible for her to discern spiritual things, which in turn affected her physically. She was caught in a downward spiral. Only by paying careful attention to her physical and mental habits, as well as the spiritual, could Mrs. T. break the vicious cycle. This she did. By forgoing her TV viewing and going to bed earlier, she was able to arise earlier in the morning and prepare herself and her family a substantial breakfast (their main meal) without the usual rush. Refined sugar and cereals were replaced with fruit and whole grains. Fats, spices and stimulants were virtually eliminated from the diet. Instead of coffee a large glass of water (six per day) and a walk were taken during coffee breaks. A long walk with the family in the evenings after a light supper and hiking on weekends provided additional exercise. Within days of commencing her new lifestyle Mrs. T. began to feel like a new woman. Her spiritual life improved greatly, and today both she and her husband are attending church with renewed zeal and are rejoicing in the gospel. They would not go back to their old lifestyle for anything.

There are others whose spiritual life is impeded by their physical habits and poor health. A famous doctor at the turn of the century was consulted by a woman with severe depression and spiritual problems, certain that she had committed the unpardonable sin. When the doctor saw her tongue, he exclaimed, "No wonder!"

If a pastor has a good message and yet finds his congregation apathetic, it may not all be Satan's doing. Experiments have shown that oxygen deprivation from stale air impairs the judgment, dulls the intellect, and makes people impatient and irritable. If you pray for the Spirit to open the people's hearts, you may have something to do by opening the windows.

Vitamin B deficiency (due largely to eating refined, processed cereals) results in insomnia, irritability, confusion, forgetfulness, apathy, inability to concentrate, hallucinations, delusions, and manic and paranoid behavior. At the famous Mayo Clinic a group of women were placed on a vitamin B deficient diet not dissimilar to the average American diet. Within days there was a complete change in personality. They became so nervous, irritable, neurotic and uncooperative that the experiment had to be prematurely terminated.

Many people, possibly one in ten, suffer from functional hypoglycemia, and many of these are nervous and irritable as a result. The cause is excessive consumption of sugar and other simple carbohydrates, which over-stimulates the pancreas and actually results in starving the brain of sugar. A substantial protein breakfast can go a long way in helping this situation. The tendency to impatience and irritability in midmorning may not be due to lack of prayer but to lack of a good breakfast. Artificial coloring and flavorings in processed foods have recently been shown to cause hyperactivity in children. According to Dr. Ben Feingold of the Kaiser Permanente, they tend to be restless, naughty, quarrelsome and often dishonest.

Exercise is one of the best remedies for tension, anxiety, depression and hypochondria. It improves psychological stability. Adequate sleep is also very important for a right mental attitude and a healthy personality. Prolonged sleep deprivation will cause apathy, depression, irritability and aggression.

We could give many more illustrations of how improper treatment of the body affects the mind and, inevitably, the spiritual life. Obviously, no Christian interested in his spiritual health should ignore sensible living habits.

Mental Habits and Spirituality

Others are mentally and spiritually sick because of their mental and emotional habits. They expect the mind to be healthy when they never give it any stern exercise, grappling with difficult problems, new thoughts, or questions of truth. Instead, they feed the mind on a diet of newspapers, exciting fiction stories, television and gossip. The sensory input to the mind determines one's beliefs and attitudes, which in turn determine one's actions and reactions to life situations.

The will in many cases is poorly developed through disease or wrong use. Many are sick through the wrong action of the will. They make their decisions on the basis of subjective feelings rather than the objective weight of evidence. They do something because they feel like it, not because it is right. Many chronic invalids would be well if they only thought so and enlisted the aid of the will to be so.

Many make no attempt to guard or direct their thoughts but allow themselves to daydream or dwell on the past, their mistakes and failures, sordid and depressing themes, or the future with anxious forebodings. Such thoughts flow on to the feelings, producing "negative" emotions — guilt, remorse, depression, anger, lust, frustration, fear and anxiety. These are the primary cause of both physical and mental disease. Giving expression to thoughts, both good and bad, more indelibly fixes them in the mind and influences the emotions. Repressing negative thoughts and emotions, however, is also destructive to health. Repressed anger surfaces as depression. How important it is, therefore, to fix the mind on noble and elevating themes! (Phil 4:8).

Spiritual Problems Affect Mental and Physical Health

In many cases of mental "illness" the problem is largely spiritual or moral. Professor J. E. Adams, in his book, Competent to Counsel (Grand Rapids: Baker), takes issue with Freudian and Rogerian philosophy which denies human responsibility to the mentally ill. By confronting people classified as mentally ill — even schizophrenics — as morally responsible people, a change in attitudes and beliefs can often be achieved and the "illness" cured or alleviated (pp.26-33). Mental "illness" is often a camouflage—a means of self-justification or of self-acceptance. A person may find that he can live with his mental illness (blaming his nerves) more easily than with his conscience or moral and social responsibilities. His mental illness justifies (explains) his actions, his selfishness. It may even promote his selfcenteredness. All his mental mechanisms (denial, projection, repression, compensation, etc.) are attempts at self-justification and expiation of guilt. Such attempts, however, usually serve only to intensify the guilt. Guilt is a God-sized problem, and only God can expiate it.

A very common cause of mental and spiritual "illness" is ignorance of the gospel. Being ignorant of God's righteousness (justification), people go about to establish their own (Rom. 10:3). Playing "God" can be a very stressful business.

Mr. H. was actively involved in the church but extremely anxious and depressed. There appeared to be no physical reason. His diet was good. He had no worries at home. And there was no apparent cause for his condition. However, when given a Spiritual Health Appraisal Test, the cause of his condition became apparent. He believed that God accepted him on the basis of his faith in Jesus Christ. He was "sure" of his acceptance with God because Christ was living in his heart. When asked what was the basis of stable Christian experience, he answered that it was his maintaining a warm heart relationship with Jesus Christ. His sense of self-worth and his self-image were determined by and based upon what God's grace was accomplishing in his life. He also believed that he was rendered pleasing to God by letting Christ take control of his life. His whole spiritual life was subjectively based. It was all directed to his faith, his inner life, his heart experience, and what Christ was doing in his heart. No wonder he was often anxious and depressed! The good news of the objective gospel has brought relief to both body and mind of many prisoners of a hopelessly subjective religion.

I have known of patients who became absolutely distraught about their vain attempts at developing a "happy, radiant Christian personality." This overwhelming preoccupation with the inner experience is self-defeating. It is unhealthy — spiritually, mentally and physically. If ministers of religion do not preach the gospel of God's work for us in Christ and make that the foundation of faith, they turn people into spiritual neurotics. True faith is a way of health for the whole man because it goes out of itself to Another. To live by faith is to get your eyes off yourself and to live by focusing on a new center.

Of course, one cannot conclude that a person who suffers mental illness does not believe the gospel. There are many good Christians who fully understand the gospel and who take every possible care with their health but yet are plagued with nervous disorders. The effects of heredity and environment cannot be entirely overcome. Early childhood experiences, social factors, and hormonal and other medical conditions quite beyond our control may be responsible.

In all cases of disease, whether physical, mental or spiritual, a law has been violated, either by ourselves, by our ancestors, or by others. The wages of such transgression are disease and death upon the entire human race, but the gift of God is eternal life — total health forever — through Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom. 6:23). Although we cannot achieve total physical, mental and spiritual health until glorification, we may possess it now by faith because it is God's gift in Jesus Christ. Motivated by the gospel and empowered by the Holy Spirit, we then begin to practice this total health now in sanctification through compliance with the physical as well as the mental and moral laws which govern our being.