We both love how Matthew has taken the concept of sin and given a breath of fresh air to the topic. You must read this book because in its pages you will finally gain a biblical perspective on sin and what it takes to free yourself from the bonds that so easily entangle!

Gary and Michael Smalley
Smalley Relationship Center
When mental illness afflicts a loved one, how can we understand what is happening and respond appropriately? This biblically-literate and scientifically-informed book offers helpful insight, encouragement, and practical advice. For pastors and for those who hurt for those who hurt, Matthew Stanford offers sensitive and welcome guidance.

David G. Myers, Ph.D.
Professor of Psychology, Hope College and author of Psychology Through the Eyes of Faith.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Body, Mind and Spirit

You and I are not an accident or a chance biological occurrence (Psalm 139:13). We were created for the sole purpose of glorifying God (Isaiah 43:7), and He has laid out a divine plan for each of our lives (Proverbs 16:9; Jeremiah 10:23; 29:11). The scriptures teach us that we are a complex being having both physical (material) and non-physical (immaterial) natures (1 Thessalonians 5:23). We are the union of a physical body with an immaterial mind and spirit. To be able to fully understand the role that biology plays in sinful behavior, it is necessary that we have a better understanding of the three-part being of man: body, mind and spirit.

We exist in a physical body so that we can interact with the material world around us. Our bodies have been specifically designed to take in information from the environment and relay it to our brains. We see, hear, taste, smell and touch the world around us. The processing of sensory information by our brains produces thoughts, feelings and emotions which then result in some outward behavioral display. Paul refers to the body as an “earthly tent” (2 Corinthians 5:1-2, 4) and makes it clear that we are more than physical (2 Corinthians 5:8). Indeed, we are more than simply a brain riding around in a body. There is an immaterial, nonphysical aspect to our being, what some would call our soul or mind.

Are our thoughts, feelings and emotions merely the product of neurochemical changes and electrical discharges in our brain or is our mind something more, something immaterial, more than the sum of our parts? The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. While the functioning of our brain is integral to the existence of our mind, that alone is not sufficient to explain it. Similarly, to imagine our mind as completely separate and unrelated to the physical does not seem correct either. Mind and body are intimately connected and each affects the other.

It is in our mind that we interact with God through prayer (1 Corinthians 14:15), receive divine revelation (Luke 24:45) and are transformed by the indwelling Holy Spirit (Romans 12:2). It is also in our mind that we choose to sin (Romans 8:6-7; 2 Corinthians 10:5). A physical body formed by the hands of the Maker in union with an immaterial mind which controls and plans our behavior is a truly miraculous and perhaps a difficult idea to grasp. But the scriptures teach us that we also have a third and even more amazing level of being, a spirit.

God created us as a three part being, much like himself. In our inmost being we are spirit, the very breath of God placed into a shell of dust (Genesis 2:7; Ecclesiastes 12:1). As a spirit being, it is possible for us to be in an intimate spiritual union (Proverbs 20:27; Romans 8:16) with our Creator who is also spirit (John 4:24). No other living creature, not even the angels, has been given such an opportunity.

Let’s look at a simple visual representation to better understand the interaction between body, mind and spirit. Figure 1 shows the body, mind and spirit in relation to one another, each separate but interacting with the one above and/or below. The brain, via the body’s sensory systems, is in contact with the earthly environment (outside) and the mind within. The middle ellipse is the mind which is connected to the body through the functions of the brain and nervous system but also in contact with our immaterial spirit (the inner most rectangle). The body senses and reacts to the external environment and the mind uses that information to perceive, understand and interpret our surroundings. The mind also forms our thoughts and plans out our actions. The spirit, when connected to God, works to transform the mind into the very image of Christ which results in an ever increasing display of godly behaviors through the body. We are the masterpiece of creation (Ephesians 2:10)! The physical interacting with the immaterial; the Creator of the universe in communion with His beloved creation.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Eating Disorders

Eating is a biologically driven behavior that involves a number of brain areas and systems. While scientists understand a great deal about how our brains tell us that we are hungry or when to stop eating, they actually know very little about the biological basis of eating disorders. While a number of brain areas and neurochemicals have been found to be abnormal in persons with eating disorders (particularly anorexia nervosa), most of these return to normal once a healthy weight and diet have been obtained through treatment. This suggests that these differences were most likely the result of malnourishment related to the disorder rather than an underlying cause of the problem. In addition, the causes of the eating disorders are not as simple as a single brain area or a given neurotransmitter system but reflect a complex interaction between biology predispositions and environment factors.

One system however that does appear to be involved in eating disorders is the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA). The HPA is part of the endocrine system and is made up of the hypothalamus (a structure on the lower aspect of the brain), pituitary gland (a small pea shaped gland below the hypothalamus in the middle of the head) and the adrenal glands (which are located on top of the kidneys). The HPA is involved in the control of our reaction to stress and the regulation of appetite, weight, digestion, mood and immune system response. It has been suggested that a dysfunction in the HPA, most likely brought about by a combination of early life experiences (e.g., sexual abuse) and genetic factors, leaves the adolescent female vulnerable to chronic stress. This vulnerability is further exacerbated by the hormonal changes that occur at puberty (this event occurs just prior to the most common age of onset for the eating disorders). It is suggested that exposure to a significant stressor during this period results in a dysregulated HPA response leading to a chronic reduction in appetite and weight.

From a spiritual perspective an eating disorder is rightly recognized as a disorder rooted in deception. Women (and to a lesser frequency men) with eating disorders believe they are overweight, unattractive, inadequate, unaccepted and unloved. They believe the lie that only women (and men) of a specific body type are beautiful and accepted. While all mental illness has physical, mental and spiritual aspects, I believe that in the eating disorders we can more clearly see the spiritual effects than in any other disorder. This is not to say that biological and psychological factors do not play a role in the eating disorders, but this disorder has a deceptive quality to it that is different from all the others. It is somewhat ironic that the original sin described in the scriptures involved the deception a woman about food which brought about shame related to her body (Genesis 3:1-7). Of course, I’m not trying to imply that Eve had an eating disorder or that having an eating disorder is sinful, but believing a lie can be destructive. Satan is the father of lies (John 8:44). The lie that he promotes in those that struggle with an eating disorder is that their bodies are not good enough. Paul tells us that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit who lives within us (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). We have been purchased with a price and set free by the one who is the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6), and it is only that Truth that can bring about full healing in those who have believed the lie.

It is in the eating disorders that we clearly see how a spiritual deception (e.g., your worth is based on your physical appearance) can take advantage of a physical vulnerability (e.g., HPA dysregulation, over active serotonin system) and result in the symptoms of a mental illness (e.g., negative self-image, purging, self-starvation). Eating disorders aren’t really about food, but instead about how a person views herself. The Bible has a great deal to say about who we are as children of God. The scriptures teach us that we have been fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14) in the very image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26). He formed us in our mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13), planned out our days (Psalm 139:16) and brought us into this world (Psalm 22:9). By faith we have received spiritual birth (John 3:3-6). His Spirit has taken up residence in our bodies (1 Corinthians 6:19), and we are without fault in His eyes (Ephesians 1:4). Indeed we are the very children of the living God (1 John 3:1). These are the truths that we must continually pray and speak over those who are struggling with an eating disorder. The lie that is at the core of this disorder must be replaced by the foundational truth of who we are in Christ. It is only then that true healing can begin.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Pornography and the Brain

It is impossible to pick up a newspaper or magazine, watch television or log onto the internet without being exposed to highly sexual entertainment and/or advertisements. Images used in marketing today would have been considered pornographic by the average person just a generation ago. The pornography industry which includes internet sites, videos, strip clubs, cable TV and magazines generates approximately $13 billion dollars in annual revenue in the United States. World-wide pornography revenue estimates exceed $90 billion dollars per year. Every second 28,258 internet users are viewing pornography. This is not just a problem for men either; one out of every three visitors to internet pornography sites is a woman. Seventy percent of female internet users report that they keep their online activities a secret, while 17% report struggling with a sexual addiction. Perhaps the most troubling part of this is how vulnerable home internet access has made our children. The average age of first internet pornography exposure is 11, and 80% of 15-17 year olds report having had multiple exposures to hardcore pornography. This societal preoccupation with sex has also had a detrimental effect on our marriages and families.

I want to direct you to an exciting new book on the subject, Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain by Wheaton neuroscientist Dr. William Struthers. From the product description – “In this book neuroscientist and researcher William Struthers explains how pornography affects the male brain and what we can do about it. Because we are embodied beings, viewing pornography changes how the brain works, how we form memories and make attachments. By better understanding the biological realities of our sexual development, we can cultivate healthier sexual perspectives and interpersonal relationships. Struthers exposes false assumptions and casts a vision for a redeemed masculinity, showing how our sexual longings can actually propel us toward sanctification and holiness in our bodies. With insights for both married and single men alike, this book offers hope for freedom from pornography.”