Housewife Theologian

The Gospel Interrupting the Ordinary

Blame It on the Brain?

Written By: Aimee Byrd - Aug• 01•12

Blame It on the Brain?, Edward T. Welch (P&R, 1998)

Studying the brain just fascinates me. There’s so little that we do know about it, and that knowledge reveals how amazing the brain really is. In some ways I think being a psychologist is similar to being a meteorologist. As we gain more fancy instruments to predict bad storms, we still have to name each separate one, and are not sure how many houses they may take with them. And we really can only diagnose the weather as it is already forming. I mean really, with all the fancy educations and equipment we have, how reliable is even the 10-day forecast? We are still trying to nail down where it comes from and where it goes. The brain’s “chemistry” can be just as illusive.

We live in a culture that likes to use the word disease or sickness over sin. Since the brain is so mysterious, it can be an easy scapegoat—especially within the materialistic worldview many people hold today. It’s pretty obvious when we are talking about a head injury or Alzheimer’s disease that the brain is the culprit. But what about depression? What about Attention Deficit Disorder? How can you tell if these conditions are physically caused, or the result of a spiritual struggle? What about all the evidence that is pointing toward homosexuality as a biological condition? Can alcoholics blame their state on the brain as well? These are questions that we wrestle with.

I believe Welch accomplishes well beyond his goal that is stated in his subtitle: Distinguishing Chemical Imbalances, Brain Disorders, and Disobedience. This book is both educational and spiritually encouraging. It is part of the “Resources for Changing Lives” series from P&R, and it truly is that. It compassionately equips both those who suffer, and those who care for affected loved ones. As Christians, we have an advantage in learning about the brain because there is a spiritual component even in the obviously physical conditions such as a brain injury. A suffering person always has a spiritual need!

One important highlight that I appreciate is that Welch not only educates us better with his expertise in these areas, but he is also bold in pointing out what we do not know. In fact, it’s important to note what the research actually shows, so that we can look at all the options. There is so much about the brain that we just do not know.

The first part of the book discusses the mind-body relationship. Welch carefully defines our terms of body and spirit, and affirms with a C.S. Lewis quote thrown in:

We are “composite beings—a natural organism tenanted by, or in a state of symbiosis with, a supernatural spirit.” We are spiritual beings clothed in an earthly tent (2 Cor. 5:1). This duality or duplex is introduced almost immediately in the Bible. God made man out of two substances: dust and spirit (Gen. 2:7). This distinction is then assumed and elaborated upon throughout the Old and New Testaments (33).

Once he clearly sets the biblical categories for mind and body, Welch offers some guidelines to help distinguish between sin and sickness:

  • Any behavior that does not conform to biblical commands or any behavior that transgresses biblical prohibitions proceeds from the heart and is sin.
  • Any behavior that is more accurately called a weakness proceeds from the body and is sickness or suffering. Sickness or suffering can also be caused by specific sin, but we must be very careful to have ample justification before we make such a link (43-44).

He even provides a helpful chart listing “symptoms that can initially be categorized as physical or spiritual” (45).

In Chapter Three, Mind-Body: Practical Applications, we learn about the theology behind the interrelationship of the heart and the body. This is such a helpful chapter! It is based on four practical applications that Welch wonderfully elucidates. The most encouraging application is the first:

The brain cannot make a person sin or keep a person from following Jesus in faith and obedience (49).

No matter the condition, it is unloving for us to excuse sinful behavior by merely blaming it on the brain. Welch gives two good reasons:

First, it takes away the privilege of turning to Jesus for power to grow through difficulties…

It is humanizing. It shows respect. It leads us to treat each other as people created in God’s image. It also offers hope (50-51).

As Christians, we have the benefit of God’s Word to us, especially the gospel and how it can change a heart. God’s Word can reach anyone, no matter their condition. This first part of the book provides a foundation for Part 2. Of course, I’ve already taken up too much space for a blog post, so I will be reviewing Part 2 of the book in a Part 2 of my own. There Welch categorizes which conditions we can blame on the brain, which ones we can’t, and which may be a more complicated combination. More importantly, he offers biblical and practical help on how to care for those suffering.

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

16 Comments

  1. Tim says:

    I like how you brought us into the effect of God’s word there at the end, Aimee. I recently heard a preacher describe the work of Scripture as discussed in Hebrews 4:12 –

    “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”

    He took these as three couplets on the same subject, so that soul/joints/thoughts run parallel to spirit/marrow/heart. If this is so, then the second set is deeper than the first as marrow of a bone is deeper than the joints that hold the bones together externally. It also means that in dividing between soul and spirit God’s word is working on our thoughts in such a way that it affects our heart attitudes – God’s word keeps the deepest part of our identity (spirit/marrow/heart) from being affected by what is not at our deepest core (soul/joints/thoughts).

    I’m probably not making much sense out of what I was hearing in that sermon, but your post here got me thinking along these lines anyway!

    Tim

    • Aimee Byrd says:

      Wow, Tim. I like what you said about how God’s Word affects the deepest part of our identity. When applied to these kind of conditions it must be so comforting to know that your diagnosis isn’t your identity either.

  2. Lyndsay says:

    Hi Aimee,

    As a Therapist in Canada there is some truth to your idea that being a psychologist is similar to being a meteorologist. I am always trying to track the weather patterns of my clients, and often clients can relapse or change with the wind (and Solomon is right, no one can predict the wind).

    At the same time, there is a strong amount of reliable and peer reviewed research that supports the field and its diagnostics. I do think that there is a need to be cautious when examining Welsh’s supposition on the brain (within a biblical framework). The brain can, and does, influence people toward sin. Even though we are formed in God’s image, and God has designed us, our physical bodies are subject to the same fallen world as our emotional lives.

    For example: Say I have a genetically predisposition toward addiction (well established in research), grow up in a home devoid of love (!!!) and where abuse teaches me to fear (also established in the research), and my only coping mechanism for the damage I feel is to reach out to drugs. Abuse changes my brain chemistry (see research on Domestic violence and children), and then if I start doing those drugs I actually change the brain chemistry. The neuroreceptors start picking up the extra chemicals I am dumping in to them, and they send out messages of craving to the body that are *nearly* impossible to stop (esp. for opiates). This is why you see the emergence of methadone clinics to help physically ween people off of opiate based drugs. This is why some severe alcoholics who quit cold turkey can die, they have physically altered their chemistry and their body literally dies without alcohol.

    Thus the influence of the brain on the body and our decisions is substantial, and can be permanently impacted by the consequences of Sin (either my Sin in choosing drugs over God, or the Sin in my home leading me to drugs in the first place).

    The brain can also influence our ability to Sin by limiting our access to the reasoning areas of our mind (cortex) in situations where we are highly aroused in a state of fear (previous trauma makes this scenario likely).

    In all of this we can also make choices NOT to sin. But where we have been given little inner emotional resources, where we have never learned how to love, or where significant trauma has impacted us, our ability to make choices is vastly altered. If we don’t know Jesus, or having loving people around us, then it is even harder to make better choices.

    Psychologist believe that change is possible for all individuals (even those with sever and highly medication dependent conditions like Schizophrenia). The change must be mediated by the client’s goals in therapy, and if a client doesn’t see the need for change, they simply won’t (without divine intervention). I see how the Holy Spirit can guide my secular counselling, and help me to illuminate the dynamics in therapy and make me more effective in aiding in encouraging a change process in my client.

    I agree that it can be unloving to blame sin “on the brain,” but Welch’s argument is profoundly flawed as he fails to truly recognize the robust scientific evidence of how the brain influences behaviour. Though there is MUCH we don’t know, there is a large body of knowledge available. In ignoring this research he unwittingly opens the door to “the devil made me do it.” (though in a very small amount of cases the devil is not to be discounted).

    Blaming the devil/evil/statan/your mother, is just as dangerous for mental health issues as it is still minimizing personal accountability (which I see is the major upshot of Welch’s argument against the brain, blaming the brain dismisses personal accountability).

    Though part 2 has not yet been posted, my suggestions for Christians who wish to help others who are facing both mental illness and issues with Sin are:

    1. LOVE THEM. This is so critical. Love is the foundation for human boding, human community, and is foundational to God’s plan for us. Love God, Love Others. The absence of Love can foster profound sin in others!! In this Love do not discuss how they are sinning, but ask them if they are Happy? Ask them why they get joy from their actions, ask them if they feel they are out of control? Ask them what they would change. Ask them who they want to be! Support them in finding well qualified mental health resources that can manage the illness. Keep them connected to a pastor so they can work on building a spiritual life, help them find a church community. Even if the depression/anxiety/other disorder is a result of poor emotional processing, sinful behaviour, or chemical imbalance, community will be a very important thing.

    2. Maintain healthy personal boundaries. If you are trying to walk with another person through mental health challenges it can be VERY difficult. Boundaries are critical to establishing a healthy separation between your identity, and the identity of another. I would recommend Cloud & Towsnend. Their book is available through Amazon.com and additional resources are on their website http://www.cloudtownsend.com

    3. Pray! Use God’s word to refine yourself, use His word to renew yourself, use His word for guidance. Pray that God will intervene in the lives of others who are struggling with Mental Illness (including addiction), and pray that they will seek out help, and pray for strength for them to withstand their inner challenges (what ever they be).

    In closing, I am posting this because I think it is very important that mental health struggles not be reduced to only an individual choice to sin. There are a multitude of factors that play into mental illness, and Sin is one of them, but when it is reduced to Sin alone great harm has been done to others. By understanding that mental illness and the physical body are constrained by our broken world and fallen nature, we can turn to God, and pray for the healing and restoration of ourselves and others. We can also be the hands and feet of God, helping others see a renewed life through Jesus. For the love of God to truly impact those struggling with mental illness (and in a way that is truly of God) they must have some mental health support from a qualified counsellor.

    Aimee I have a great appreciation for you raising the issue of mental health in the Church though this interesting book review.

    With much love,

    Lyndsay

    • Tim says:

      Lyndsay, thank you so much for all these insights. I work with a lot ofpeople whose mental illness has landed them in my courtroom, whether under the criminal statutes or civil commitment or family law issues. I’ve seen much of what you describe manifested in their lives.

      And as for Cloud and Townsend’s Boundaries, I agree that it is very helpful. Much of what I read in it confirmed what I knew or did, but there were also niggets of information that were new to me. All of it was worthwhile.

      Thanks again,
      Tim

      • Lyndsay says:

        Tim, I can only imagine the uniqueness of managing those issues from a courtroom perspective, and not that of a therapists office. The intersections of the law and mental health are often very challenging for all (esp. family law).

        I often enjoy your responses on Aimee’s page, thank you for your frequent insights!

        Lyndsay

  3. I read “Blame It On the Brain” in a biblical counseling class and have also read “Boundaries”. Both are really good books even though they have been around a while.

    I am not as professional as Lindsay or Tim but on a part-time basis I teach classes here in Florida for DUI offenders. I have taught thousands who have been through the court system and we discuss alcoholism and sometimes drug addiction. Recently I took a week study for my recertification on “Addictions” and learned a lot. I train students to never ever get that second DUI by sticking to a plan,to have a support group, whether you can blame your brain or heredity.

    At the end of each class now, I also share with them how my husband and I were hit by a DUI driver. Click on my name and you can see our story. One can go to jail for killing someone when you drove impaired even if they were the bad driver, or you can take responsibility for your addiction.

    Addictions can be copouts, I feel, whereas chemical imbalances such as my husband’s Alzheimer’s can be blamed on the brain. Whatever we might feel we are addicted to, genetically or not, the Christian can “put on the LORD Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh” as we read in Romans 13:14.

    Look forward to Part 2 of your review, Aimee.

    • Tim says:

      Carol, in California one can be convicted of murder for killing someone while driving impaired. I’ve had those convictions happen in my courtroom.

      Tim

      • Absolutely this happens in Florida as well. 44 years for one man last week in Florida when he killed someone.

        Tim, I see you guest blog on the blogs of others. Love for you to guest blog on one of my three blogs.

        • Tim says:

          I’d be happy to, Carol.

          Tim

          • E-mail Aimee at her e-mail on this blog and we can connect for your writing about DUIs in California. Thanks, Tim.

          • Tim says:

            Oops, I shy away form legal writing on blogs, except as a legal concept may be ancillary to some doctrine or scripture passage. Doctrine and scripture along with family and are my main focus points. I’ll send some links to past articles so you can see if they fit your blogs or not.

            Thanks,
            Tim

    • Lyndsay says:

      Carol,

      Thank you for highlighting the important fact that even if addictive behaviour leads to individual sin, that Sin can have far reaching consequences for others. Very important. It is also important for us to remember that we can all be susceptible to addiction (or Sin in general), and we can all be guilty of poor self reflection, procrastination, and ignoring God’s convictions on our hearts. By His Grace we are saved, and by loving others with God’s Grace we demonstrate the power of Christ.

      I truly believe Loving those who struggle and do not have a strong foundation in Christ is the most important thing we can do to spread the word of God as a Christian community.

      I LOVE your comment on making a plan within the courses you teach to prevent repeat DUI’s, and having participants build a community around them to encourage healthy choices!!! That is fantastic.

      Wishing you much encouragement in your teaching, and that your story inspires others to move toward healthy choices, and a life in Christ!

      Lyndsay

  4. Aimee Byrd says:

    Lyndsay,

    Thank you for all your valuable input you so carefully laid out in your response. Have you read Welch’s book? I’m not so sure you would disagree with what he is saying. He certainly reiterates over and over all of the complicated factors that can make up these “brain issues”–physical, nurture/environmental, and spiritual. Theologically, it seems that we are all in line that our brains and our hearts are certainly corrupted by the Fall. I think his distinction is that while we may be influenced to sin, our brain does not make us sin.
    He also addresses the medical research well. In congruence with what you stated above, he explains:
    “At the level of the brain, this unity [heart & body] suggests that the heart or spirit will always be represented or expressed in the brain’s chemical activity. When we choose good or evil, such decisions will be accompanied by changes in brain activity. When we think about how to disciple our children, there will be unique brain activity. This does not mean that the brain causes these decisions. It simply means that the brain renders the desires of the heart in physical medium. It is if the heart always leaves its footprints in the brain” (47,48).
    I don’t believe that he even referenced the devil as a scapegoat for any sin. He emphasized the fallen human heart. But I hope that the emphasis I put on the sin issues didn’t overshadow that fact that Welch does acknowledge the brain’s physical role in certain disorders, including anxiety and depression. And yet, while medication can alleviate certain symptoms, it can not change the heart. He is not against medication, but he wants to be clear about what it can an cannot do. And he is clear to say that there is no research that medications change the brain’s chemistry.
    His counsel is very instructional in love, not pointing a judgmental finger.
    I can’t imagine the difficulties that would be involved in counseling a patient who doesn’t know the Lord, and the greater hope beyond their current condition. I have much respect for the field. Thanks for engaging in this conversation with your professional knowledge and experience in this field. There really are so many factors, and obviously many people who are suffering. May God bless your work!

    • Lyndsay says:

      Hey Aimee,

      I don’t necessarily disagree with Welch, but rather the extension of some of his arguments as they can be/have been applied (or may have been interpreted from your post). I have seen so much damage caused by well meaning Christians who refer to mental health/addiction as just a “sin/prayer/lack of faith” issue, I am VERY cautious in proceeding in that direction as a professional. I agree his counsel is loving, but when we position mental health issues as exclusively heart/sin issues, often Judgement precedes love for others.

      As to his points on the heart being an influence on the brain – I do agree. I believe, however, that the brain is shaped and influenced first by our developmental experiences from in utero, through childhood, and our early developmental influences can actually alter our capacity to be in touch with our Heart (essentially shutting down what makes us human). For an interesting reflection on neuroscience, development, and early childhood experiences I think you (and Tim!!) would ADORE the writing of Dr. Bruce Perry. He is one of the top specialists in Child Trauma, and has written a reasonably accessible book on the impact of child trauma on brain development, and subsequently personality formation, and the ability to form community bonds. It is exclusively secular, but the biblical implications are so beautiful. It is something that has made a huge difference in my faith and trust in God’s greatness. His book is called “Born for Love – Why empathy is essential and endangered.”

      I truly adore your blog, and your ideas. They are so challenging, and though I lean differently theologically on certain points – I value what you bring to my faith journey.

      God Bless you too!

      Lyndsay

      • Aimee Byrd says:

        Thank you, Lyndsay. I love that my readers are such thinkers! I’m afraid that my post may have insinuated a view that Welch does not hold. He definitely addresses physical components to mental health. Hopefully I can demonstrate this in Part Two. Although, you may not agree with all of his breakdowns, I think you would be enriched by the book.
        Thanks for the book recommendation. I will write that one on my list. And thanks for interacting and reading when you don’t always agree! Hopefully we can be iron sharpening iron with God’s Word. I really appreciate hearing my reader’s thoughts to my writing.

What do you think?