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Emotions and our Physiology

(Psalms 31:9-10 NKJV) Have mercy on me, O LORD, for I am in trouble; My eye wastes away with grief, Yes, my soul and my body! {10} For my life is spent with grief, And my years with sighing; My strength fails because of my iniquity, And my bones waste away.

In Psalm 31 above David cries out at how his emotions are affecting every aspect of his physical being. His body and his emotions were in continual interaction. Yet only recently has Greek based Western thought fully grasped this rather obvious fact. Anger turns the face red, fear turns it white, a pizza at bedtime can give you nightmares, a pill can make you high, alcohol can relax you and too much coffee can make you anxious (I believe there is even a clinical condition called “caffeine anxiety neurosis”!).

I have seen this relationship in a dramatic way in my own life. As an epileptic since childhood I have adopted a quite different personality under each change of medication. On phenobarbitone I was “out of it”, while on Tegretol I was happy, Dilantin made me dizzy and Valproate makes me rather depressed. Coming off phenobarbitone at age 33 was one of the very best things I ever did and my life and personality improved immensely.

The Body of Jesus

Earlier in this book we saw that at the incarnation God prepared a special sin-free body for Jesus that was perfectly designed for doing the will of God. The perceptions and beliefs of Jesus generated emotions that interacted with and were expressed through His body for the edification of the hearers. The body of Jesus was primarily a vehicle for ministry including the unusual task of martyrdom, but more than martyrdom, dying as the perfect Lamb of God without a bone of His body being broken then being raised from the dead. The fact that Jesus’ physical nature was sinless and special and had a unique destiny does not make His body artificial or an illusion. Jesus body was real and had the same feelings that our bodies do.

Under duress Jesus wept, groaned deeply, and even sweated drops of blood. (Luke 22:44) So we see Jesus’ emotions affected His body. But did His body affect His emotions? Was Jesus so fixed on the Father that His physical emotions of hunger, thirst etc were not even noticed?. Did He sort of float above our earthly existence? Not at all. Jesus felt His physical life just like we all do and even cried from the cross “I thirst”. However the physical life did not dictate His behavior or responses; even after fasting forty days in the wilderness Jesus was able to resist the temptation to turn the stones into bread. Jesus was tempted in all points as we are including by emotions generated from within the human body and by the intense cravings of the flesh. Yet He was able to resist His physical desires when it would have been sinful to give in. At other times He quite legitimately satisfied them with a drink of water from the well or a breakfast of fish on the beach.

So we see that intense physical cravings can push us towards sinful responses but that like Jesus we can overcome them and master them. We also see that emotions can affect our bodies and bodies our emotions. Finally our physical bodies are to be consecrated to God s vehicles for ministry expressing His thoughts and doing the good deeds He has prepared for us.

Spirit, Soul and Body

Our emotions are so heavily modified by our diet, fitness level, medications and other aspects of our physiology that it leads researchers to ask questions such as: Do we really have our own emotions or are all our emotions just a product of our biology? If a change of medication or a bump on the head can modify our emotions completely - were they ours to begin with? Do we have a spirit and soul that is “inside us” and relatively stable and the source of many of our emotions – or are we just a bundle of rather well trained biological responses?

The view of this book is that we do have a spirit and a soul and that the emotions generated there are expressed to the world through the body. When we are sad we cry, when we are happy we dance. In a perfect world our body would report the world accurately to us through the senses and express our feelings to the world with poetry, poise and clarity. Unhappily we live in earthen vessels in a fallen world. Communication does not happen as well as we would like and we neither understand clearly, nor are as well understood as we wish. Plato saw this dilemma and concluded that the soul was trapped within a material body that was inherently evil. This is not the Christian view. Christian belief has it that the spirit and soul reside in a good body, which has unfortunately been tainted by the Fall. The body now has evil resident within it but it is our present bodies will be redeemed and transformed at the resurrection of the dead. [It was Jesus human body, the one in the grave, which rose and was resurrected. The grave was empty. Similarly it is our present human body that will be transformed in the twinkling of an eye at the resurrection into a glorious spiritual body. We do not lose our bodies; we have them changed.] Notwithstanding this redemptive hope the body is a problem - perhaps the biggest problem of all.

This interface between the soul and the body is complex and poorly understood yet it is one of the main areas of problems in the Christian life. Is it unspiritual for me to have bouts of depression that are induced by the medication that keeps me alive? Is the terror of a child with high fever and delirium a failure of spiritual nerve? Is post-natal depression a sign of sin in a woman’s life? Is the weariness of chronic arthritis or the sudden emotional swings that come to people with spinal damage a sign of unbiblical behaviour? I hope you have answered a firm “No” to all these questions. No-one with malaria wants bizarre dreams, visions and tropical terrors. No-one with a damaged spine wants to suddenly find themselves swinging emotionally. These emotions arise unbidden and unwanted from neurological damage and from chemical imbalances in the body. Yet they affect us deeply and are a large part of our spiritual struggle.

Where emotions have a physiological basis changing the underlying physical condition will often bring emotional relief. When the fever goes the delirium and its terror passes and is simply a memory. If the person manages to give up drinking too much coffee their anxiety levels decline. Thus it makes sense for Christians to visit a physician and to see if there is some underlying physical cause for their emotional condition. There may be a medication with fewer side effects than the one you are using or there may be simple lifestyle changes that can make you feel much better.

The body seems to have an emotional memory of its own as well. A person may find themselves physically repelled by mushrooms after a previous dose of food poisoning despite knowing that the present mushrooms are fine. Many a person has sworn off drinking port after a night on the town. There is a deep physical and emotional reaction to those substances that the body associates with illness and pain and even towards certain odours associated with them.

The problem comes when a psychological problem remains after the original physiological issue has subsided. For instance when a small child becomes afraid of a certain object that may have been the focus of nightmares or delirium. In one childhood measles case the flowers on the floral curtains seemed to turn into huge attacking spiders and this terrified the poor child for days on end. The parents pointing out “there is no need to be afraid of the floral curtains any more” didn’t help. The damage from prolonged fear is too deep for common sense. In these cases the body has affected the soul. Counselling and proper therapy are needed. It may even be simpler to buy new curtains!

Repeated physiological stimuli can set off permanent physical changes. These changes include the chemical cravings in alcoholics and drug addicts or some of the neurological changes reported among torture victims and those with post-traumatic stress disorder. Since the problem is now physiological or chemical and seems to be lasting then the response may involve medication, behavioural conditioning or even, in severe cases, neurosurgery. Much research is currently being done on how our neural pathways are affected by our life experiences and the degree to which they can be retrained. It is an extremely interesting but very complex area.

Our emotions have an incredibly complex series of physical correlates that include hormones flooding our system, changes in blood supply, the activation of an emotional region near the stomach, neurones firing and neural pathways and various associations in the brain. The “fight-or-flight” response [which I will spend the next chapter discussing] is a massive activation of the body by the emotion called “fear”. According to some recent research our more instinctive fight or flight reactions seem to be processed in the limbic system especially in the amygdala. On the other hand our more balanced, less fearful, more refined and thought-out responses come from the pre-frontal cortex. The two areas are connected with the cortical region normally modifying information from the amygdala. When the amygdala or pre-frontal cortex is damaged people lose connection with many of their emotions. These regions of the brain seem to do much of the processing associated with our perceptions of emotional reality.

Damage to these regions can lead to coarse and vulgar expressions of emotion including a distinct lack of impulse control. I once counselled a woman who had tragically been the victim of unethical experimental psycho-surgery and had both her frontal lobes removed as s treatment for depression She was a kind and loving person but her speech was laced with uncontrolled profanities. Her control over finer expression had been totally lost when her frontal lobes had been removed. This unfortunate woman was a born again Christian but could not attend church because of her constant swearing. Was she really sinful and unspiritual or would we all end up like her given the same neurological damage? I think the latter. Her kind and loving heart was evident. There was not a trace of meanness or hatred in her soul. She was in love and wanted to know whether or not to marry the very patient man who cared for her despite her condition. After a few sessions of counselling I gave them my blessing. The brain was damaged but the person was intact. This leads to the next question – what is the relationship between the mind and the brain?

The Mind-Brain Problem

The philosopher Descartes posed the problem of how the physical organ called the brain and the subjective phenomenon of ‘mind’ interact. Is my mind merely the product of my neural activity - a perfectly predictable thing that obeys the laws of physics so that I have no free will as Thomas Huxley proposed in 1874? Are mind and brain the same phenomenon but viewed from different angles so that the brain is how we view it from outside and the mind is how we view it from inside? Bertrand Russell held this view. The philosopher and mathematician Leibniz saw them as parallel universes in perfect harmony but not interacting. Mind and brain were like two matched clocks that kept the same time though they were quite separate and without interaction. The Idealists such as Hegel saw Mind as the only reality and the physical brain as simply a creation of Mind. This is regarded by most as an extreme view. Twentieth century philosophers have been taken with the notion that Mind is just a computer program running on the hardware called the brain thus there is no mind-brain duality and no problem. There are almost as many solutions as there are philosophers. Some invoking quantum states and others reverberating neural circuits. It’s a fascinating subject and if you have the time just search on the Internet for “mind-brain problem” or “consciousness” and you will find as many articles as you like with as many different theories as you can manage. Well is there a Christian, biblical and Scriptural solution to it? Is our consciousness simply a physical part of us or is there some “entity”, a soul or spirit, which is separate from the body and possesses consciousness?

The Bible is quite clear that consciousness persists after death. To put it bluntly the mind continues to exist after worms have eaten the brain. Thus the mind does not depend on the brain for its existence. But does that lead to the Idealist position where the Mind creates the brain? Not at all! The Bible states that the body was formed before the mind. God made Adam out of clay – Adam’s body existed, presumably including his brain, before the spirit of life and consciousness was breathed into him and he became a living soul. (Genesis 2:7) Therefore if the body existed before the mind it is not created by the mind. The Idealist position collapses. The separate natures of Mind and brain can be seen as follows: a) We live on after death therefore the human mind can exist independently without the physical brain. b) When God created mankind He made the physical body first. Therefore the physical brain can exist independently without the human mind. This is called the “strong dualist” position. If you think about it it’s the only position that can support any sort of free will or morality. If the mind, that is my humanity and reason, is simply a biochemical or computing phenomenon, a somewhat predictable entity like a complicated billiard ball then I am relieved of all responsibility. I am predetermined by a complex set of initial conditions and my reactions are simply Nature taking its biochemical course. Hitler and Mother Teresa are just different neurological arrangements and society happens to prefer the latter over the former. For a Christian this is an entirely untenable position despite its appeal to the deconstructed amorality of the modern world.

To me the Christian position seems to fall out as follows:

1. Mind and brain are separate entities. Mind is eternal but the brain is temporal.

2. Mind is grounded in consciousness, which arises from the soul that is quickened by the spirit.

3. The brain as we know it mainly acts on sense data from the physical world and co-ordinates the physical functions of our bodies. In maps of the brain complex physical tasks such as the co-ordination of the thumb take up most of the space. Brain maps show very little space devoted to the existential matters of the Mind.

4. Thus while we are in this physical world we need a physical brain. It’s the data link between an immaterial soul and a material universe. The physical brain mediates how our mind communicates with our bodies and receives sense impressions about the external physical world. When the mind expresses itself it does so through our bodies which are co-ordinated by our brains.

5. The spirit is designed to handle communication in the spiritual realm directly and intuitively. So when we are not in this material realm, such as when we with God in heaven, we can have consciousness via the spirit without the presence of a physical brain. A case of this is the souls under the altar, which can speak, feel and communicate with God. (Revelation 6:9,10).

6. Thus, as we saw in the chapters on perception we can receive knowledge directly and intuitively from the spirit in Spirit-to-spirit communication. Such communication goes directly into our Mind. When it occurs it can be very powerful because it is so direct. When Daniel received prophetic messages it left him emotionally drained. (Daniel 10:8)

7. We can also receive communication directly through our senses into our brain. This input is filtered before it reaches consciousness and does not necessarily get there. For instance we can come out of a daydream to be suddenly aware that the kettle has been furiously boiling for a few minutes and that our brain knew this at the time but it just was not getting through to our consciousness. Consciousness can ignore sense data. Input to the brain does not necessarily mean input to the Mind.

8. Damage to the brain is mainly damage to our ability to process sensory data and to interact with the physical world.

9. Brain damage does not affect Mind and our ability to have a soul or a spirit or to experience salvation. Christians working with people with mental disabilities have no doubt about the spirituality of their clients.

10. While this is so most people have a strong interaction between Mind and brain, which produces wisdom, intelligence and creativity. While the Mind is ultimately independent of the brain; damage to the brain can reduce our ability to experience our Mind in this life for instance in the case of the deep confusion that accompanies Alzheimer’s disease.

Thus our emotions flow most fundamentally from our soul and spirit but are then connected to the world and the senses through the body, which includes the brain. This connection is intimate and deep and unless something disturbs it mind and brain appear to be a seamless whole as the body-soul-spirit complex functions as one integrated entity.

In the case of the client with dual frontal lobotomies her ability to interact with and evaluate her vocabulary was missing. She did not know the difference between appropriate and inappropriate words. This was a loss of cognitive processing in the brain not a deficiency of character or spirituality. Also the personality changes that come with medication do not necessarily affect a person’s salvation or their spirituality though they do affect how that person experiences his or her spirituality.


In the following section on Stress I am using the published work of Brisbane based Christian psychiatrist and stress researcher Dr. William Wilkie and in particular two chapters from his book “Understanding Psychiatry”.

Stress is an interesting area in the mind-brain problem because stress is the emotion we experience when our brain cannot cope with all the processing that is required of it. The physical brain is like you desktop computer and if you have too may programs running it can slow down or “hang”. There is “just so much” your brain can do at once. Dr Wilkie theorises that this is due to the capacity of the reticular formation, an area at the back of the brain that filters incoming data and decides what will get attention and what will be discarded.

For instance you are driving along a pleasant country road in Australia, listening to the car radio and enjoying the view. Then a 6ft tall red kangaroo jumps out in front of your car. Your reticular formation switches the focus of your attention in a split second, you no longer pay any attention to the radio or the view and every particle of your attention is focussed on the kangaroo and how to avoid hitting it. Deciding what is urgent and important and of value for the brain to process is the job of the reticular formation and most of the time its automatic. You do not consciously think “’I’d better stop listening to the radio and looking at the view, I think I’d better concentrate on the kangaroo.” That’s too slow. Most of the time the change in attention is lightning fast and automatic and not under a great deal of conscious control. Now the problem comes if in addition to the kangaroo you have a truck coming in the opposite direction and a ditch on one side of the road and a large tree on the other. In this case you will probably hit the tree. Why? Because the reticular formation won’t cope with all the situations at once. It will process the huge oncoming truck and the sudden movement of the kangaroo and maybe even the yawning menacing ditch by the side of the road but the tree is just “part of the landscape” and there are lots of trees so you “won’t see it” and you will hit it with horrible consequences.

On a much less dramatic scale this happens to busy modern people every day. There is too much to do and “stuff falls off the plate”. There are some things that we know we should be paying attention to, that just don’t happen. We get that clogged up feeling in our head and we might even say “If I have to think about one more thing I’ll scream” Or “Stop the world I want to get off!”. That clogged up, “I cannot cope with all this” feeling is what we call stress. We feel stress when we have too many things, that are too urgent, too complicated or too important, to be all processed at once. In extreme case sit can lead to burn-out or stress breakdown. Stress breakdown has three stages. Firstly our system fires warning bells about the overload we are experiencing and we feel stressed and anxious and uptight and tense. These uncomfortable feelings are trying to tell us that we are doing too much and it would be a good idea if we slowed down. They are saying “You are driving yourself too fast, back off.” Many people ignore these warning signals, they like “driving fast”, living on adrenalin and they have an image of wanting to do more than others. So they suppress the anxiety by an act of will and keep going. They then become in danger of second stage stress breakdown. In stage two the person loses control of emotions and finds themselves getting angry or upset very easily. They can cry one minute and laugh the next. These sudden emotional changes are termed “emotional lability”. The person in stage two stress breakdown also lose their ability to adjust to change and to motivate themselves to get started though once they have started they can work as hard as anyone else. The system is beginning to crumble at this point and the person becomes subject to psychosomatic disorders as the body tries to slow the person down. These include migraines, headaches, asthma, dermatitis and hay fever. The immune system suffers and resistance bacteria and viruses already present in the person’s body may be able to cause disease. These include common infections such as colds and ‘flu, herpes virus infections, mouth ulcers, lobar pneumonia, boils and pimples, tonsillitis and urinary tract infections. Most people get the hint at this point and slow down but for some who do not they can go into severe, third stage stress breakdown commonly called burn-out. This is characterized by three things, and unfortunately they are generally not recognized as being stress related. The three symptoms of third stage stress breakdown are:

1. Avoidance of sensory stimulation

2. Development of intolerance, and

3. Apparent change in personality.

The brain’s circuit breakers have cut in. Everything is being rapidly simplified to reduce the number of issues the person has to deal with.

In order to avoid sensory stimulation the person may retreat to the countryside, separate from their partner, stop having sex, avoid loud music and stop going to shopping centres. Sounds will seem too loud, ice too cold, lights too bright. They will switch off the radio when others turn it on. They will go outside and walk around and just “space out”.

Development of intolerance is a mechanism for making life easy to classify, so the reticular formation can deal with the backlog. If the shades of grey and complex questions can be eliminated life becomes simple and things can be processed again. If everything can be reduced to the binary states the brain is most comfortable processing, then it can whiz through the decisions. As the decisions are made the clogged up feeling goes and some of the stress can be removed. Racism and intolerance may have their roots in our brains ability to process information and cope with change. Intolerance over things that our intolerance cannot hurt is actually, in a weird way, useful. Say someone was intolerant of Communists in Russia – that simplifies things for them and probably won’t hurt the Communists one bit. (I am not justifying racism and intolerance here, its wrong, but it may help to know some of why it arises). The danger is when intolerance is close to home and we apply it to people we know. In third stage stress breakdown people become totally intolerant of small things “If you leave your shaving hairs in the sink I will leave you”. I personally know of cases where that has happened. Just a small thing, that was previously tolerated or laughed at, becomes a major drama. Things previously tolerated become unable to be tolerated in third stage stress breakdown.

Lastly the person in third stage stress breakdown may have an apparent change in personality and change their values. They may be unable to resist cult recruiters, they are easily brainwashed, they have sudden changes in beliefs and ideas and attitudes that required some will or effort to maintain are likely to be abandoned. Some talk of a strange feeling of peace and purity that comes with this process as everything gets radically simplified. There is also a loss of the “law of strength”. Normally a slight tap on the knee elicits a slight movement and a large tap on the knee a large movement. The law that a small stimulus generally elicits a small response and a large stimulus a large response is known as “the law of strength” and is a sign of a normal functioning of the nervous system. In third stage stress breakdown the person ignores the electricity bill and major responsibilities while becoming preoccupied with trivia. When the electricity is cut off nobody in the house can understand why the bill was not paid. All the aspects of the personality change can be attributed to the person avoiding complexity in their life.

The above is pretty much just summarized from Dr. Wilkie, now we move into the Biblical EQ bit. We have seen that our emotions are linked to our brains ability to do the processing that the mind requires of it. The mind is the key here. It is what is actually telling the brain what it should and should not process. The mind labels the input as important or unimportant, urgent or not urgent. This labeling starts early in life and continues throughout life. Some people develop the anxiety producing habit of putting “urgent” labels on everything like a mistaken worker at the Post Office who puts Priority Paid on every article. This is a very stressful habit. Others put the urgent and important labels on things they have no control over. This may be even worse. If the way your mother treats your father is totally important to you, and as a small child you have no control over that, then you will become stressed out, anxious and helpless. Similarly if what the boss thinks of you is important, and you have very little control over that, then work will be stressful for you. If, on the other hand, the quality of your works is important to you, then you can control that. Focusing on your work rather than on people’s opinions is less anxiety producing and stressful and will probably impress the boss as well. Finally we can put urgent and important labels on totally the wrong things and get into fights over how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. W can totally stress ourselves out with apologetics issues that are of limited importance in real life. Its probably not your job to worry about every one of the 6000 cults on planet Earth and to refute their doctrines one by one. Thus our mind can make it impossible for our brain to work properly. Our mind can give our brain so many tasks to do that it freezes up. (Come to think of it, I used to feel that way about school homework!) The mind can overload the brain, you can ask too much of yourself. In such cases you need to ask yourself the following questions:

1. Am I trying to do too much?

2. Is what I am doing too complicated?

3. Is what I am doing too urgent? Am I trying to do too many things in too short a space of time?

4. I what I am doing “too important” am I telling myself that virtually everything is important?

Then make the necessary changes. I also find it very useful to make a list of all I am trying to do in one column, then have a second column where I decide whether or not that thing is under my control, God’s control or someone else’s control, then a third column where I write down what action I will take on those things where I do have some control. I often find that of thirty or so things that are worrying me they can be reduced to about eight concrete steps of action I can take. That eases my mind a great deal.

If the mind can pack the brain too full it can also unpack it. We can learn an emotionally responsible lifestyle where we ignore our egos and the demand to do more, more, more, and settle down to a quiet Christian simplicity that just does what God wants us to do. Paul says, “Make it your ambition, to lead a quiet life”. That seems a strange use of ambition in the 21st century. It was probably a strange use of ambition in the first century. We are to consciously and ambitiously aim at simplicity and quiet living and godliness and peace. By doing that we will be able to avoid burn-out and establish Christ-like and loving emotions.

(1 Thessalonians 4:11 NKJV) that you also aspire to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you,

(1 Timothy 2:2 NKJV) (pray ) for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence.

(1 Peter 3:4 NKJV) rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God.

Leading a quiet life was Paul’s aspiration and prayer and was precious in the sight of God. Rattling around in a stressed out state and living on adrenalin is worldly and foolish and emotionally irresponsible. God can better do the work of the Kingdom with people who live quietly and love deeply and rest in His guidance. Remember “My yoke is easy…and you shall find rest for your souls”. The harried, hurried Christian lifestyle is not spiritual though it may appear so. In 1987 I was on 27 Christian committees and I felt important. And feeling important was about all I achieved! We are important if we do God’s will, in God’s way, in God’s time, at God’s pace and live quiet loving lives in all godliness and truth.

I know I am preaching a bit here but my primary audience for this book, are my fellow missionaries, and they need to hear this! Stress can damage us emotionally and spiritually and lead us to make silly mistakes in ministry. It does not indicate a loss of commitment or a lack of spiritual strength and endurance to adjust your life so that it is quiet and godly. That is God’s will for you. My personal test of when I am too busy is when “the fruit of the Spirit start falling off the tree”. When patience falls away, when gentleness is not as there as it used to be, when joy is a memory and peace a wished for state, then I am too busy.

The thing that finally cured me was when I figured out that nobody really cared a great deal about how much I produced. But they did care about who I was and how well I treated them. What they really wanted was to see Christ in me, watch me grow and sense my love and care. You are a fruit tree not a factory and people want to taste the fruit. Fruit trees are quiet and grow best in quiet. Thus endeth the lesson.

Responsibility For Emotions and Emotional Expression

The September 2001 issue of Readers’ Digest chronicles the depression, violence and cruelty that come with the long-term use of “shabu” or methamphetamine. Previously normal people, once addicted, are transformed into cruel monsters that electrocute their wives and kill their children. Are these people truly responsible for their actions? Can drugs change us so profoundly that we become evil under their influence? When are our emotions “ours”? Can we be held responsible for actions based on our emotions when these emotions are the products of a chemical we have consumed? Drugs and other chemicals can remove inhibitions and make sin much easier to commit. In extreme cases the person becomes pleasure centred and disinhibited and unable to respond to the prodding of natural conscience in any effective way. At this point they are easily taken over by evil (including demonic influences).

This question has obviously got huge legal and spiritual ramifications. Interestingly the Law of Moses had no excuses for drunkenness or other acts of diminished responsibility. It seemed to take the view that you are an adult and are fully aware that alcohol or drugs and can make you become uninhibited and cause you to do foolish things. By choosing to become drunk you are thus choosing to make crime more probable. Therefore in biblical law you are responsible for the crime even if you now regret it. Generally however most modern law codes make allowances for some forms of diminished responsibility. This is the exercise of legal grace rather than strict justice.

The drug addict is an extreme case of a familiar problem. We all do things “under the influence”, things that we do not wish to do. Under the influence of anger we explode, under the influence of lust we commit fornication, under the influence of provocation we start an argument that never subsides. Later we wonder how or why we did such things. All of us are under the influence – of “the flesh”. In a similar fashion to the law courts above, God grants us grace as He understands the struggle we have with a fallen body that does not wish to obey His laws. (Romans 7)

The Good That I Wish I Do Not Do….

Christians are a mixture of Christ-like emotions and evil lusts. While we cannot stop the evil lusts arising within us (because of our fallen nature) we can prevent their controlling us completely. The classic verses on this are Galatians 5:16-18

(Galatians 5:16-18 NKJV) I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. {17} For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish. {18} But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

Christians are capable of victory because of the Holy Spirit within them. They make get angry but they do not murder, they may feel strong lust but they walk away from the temptation to commit adultery. The Spirit can bring the flesh under control so that it does not do all that it wants to do. We stop short. God pulls us back from the brink of moral disaster through the work of the Holy Spirit.

This leaves us with two obvious questions that need to be answered. Firstly – what is the nature of “the flesh”? And secondly “how do non-Christians, without the Holy Spirit, gain any measure of victory over sin?”

The “flesh” is the set of negative impulses that arise from our fallen bodies. Some translations call it the sinful nature but it is not a “nature” as such. It is physical, it is our physical flesh interfering with our quickened spirit and maturing soul. Its what Romans 7 calls “the law of sin in our members”.

Some people doubt that our sin nature is physical and is grounded in our mortal bodies. However it is quite clear that the “flesh nature” will no longer be with us after we die. All sinful impulses will stop when our body dies. While we are in this body we desire to sin. When we leave this body we lose the desire to sin. Therefore the desire to sin is located in the fallen physical body. If you were to shoot a born-again Christian and then a few minutes later go to Heaven and ask if anything was different about his or her nature they would say “all desire to sin is gone, I have left the flesh behind.” In heaven we shall neither sin, nor desire to sin.

When sin dwells in the flesh it programs our physical bodies to react wrongly by inappropriately activating physical appetites like food, sex and comfort and through the corruption of the natural fight or flight response. Thus the flesh is sum of the demanding impulses of the body that has been disconnected from reference to God and formed habits and neural pathways inimical to the Spirit. Neural pathways are like tracks through the grass that are worn by much travelling. They connect stimulus with response and sometimes with the wrong response.

I will illustrate with a brief incident in m own life. Prior to my conversion I was quick-tempered and would pick fights. After it I of course left this behind. Many years later some friends decided to “ambush” me for fun. In a split second I had my fists up before my thinking intervened and I of course put them down. The reaction programmed into me by sin was still there in my neural pathways and was activated by my previously well learned response to fight or flight situations.

The apostle John says that which is “born of God” cannot sin, nor does it desire to do so (1 John 3:9-11). That part of us that is born of God, that is Christ in us, has no desire to sin. However that which is, in the words of the gospels, “born of woman” does sin. The flesh, born of human genetics inherits the Fall. The “new man” part of the born-again Christian is born of heaven, born of the will of God, born from above and does not inherit the Fall. The “new man” is born of God, free from sin and even free from the desire to sin. Paul says this new nature is “enslaved to righteousness”. Thus Christians are a mixture of the Fallen which born of human genetics and the Eternal which is born of God.

The Decent But Natural Man

How then can non-Christians lead decent lives as many of then do? Through the law of God written in their consciences by the common and prevenient grace of God and activated by their will. God places some restraint on human evil through various checks and balances including government, the human conscience, the Law, religious teachings and examples and even though direct communication through dreams and visions, signs and portents such as Abimelech had when he was warned in a dream not to touch Abraham’s wife Sarah (Genesis 20:3-7). The non-Christian is given much assistance by God to restrain evil but they do not have the ultimate assistance of the indwelling Holy Spirit. The natural, not yet converted man has a conscience from God but is not yet born of God. The not-yet-converted can restrain sin to some extent but they cannot be truly holy in the eternal sense as they lack Christ in them.

The Mind, The Spirit and The Flesh

How then can a Christian have victory over the evil passions that arise within them? By setting our inner nature, our Mind, on the Spirit.

(Romans 8:3-8 NKJV) For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, {4} that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. {5} For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. {6} For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. {7} Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. {8} So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

After the tussle between flesh and spirit in Romans 7 Paul presents the secret of life and peace in chapter 8. The mind, which can be renewed (Romans 12:1,2) can be set on the things of the Spirit and bring life and peace. If it is set on the churning and burning desires of the flesh then there is trouble leading to death. We can chose where to set our consciousness, what to meditate on, what to think about. We are not forced to dwell on sin and negativity. Rather we can seek those things which are above (Colossians 3:1-4) and contemplate that which is beautiful, spiritual, noble and true.(Philippians 4:8).

This training of our consciousness is vitally important. Napoleon Hill puts this well from a secular perspective when he talks of “Your inalienable right to the full and complete control and direction of your own mind to whatever ends you desire.” He goes on to say: “Our mind is the only thing we can control. Either we control it, or we relinquish control to other forces, and our minds and our wills become as chips in a puddle of water, being swept one way then another, and never coming to any satisfactory conclusions, easily falling prey to any negative wind that blows.”

For the Christian we need to learn we have control of our minds and to forcibly direct them to the ends we desire such as eternal life and peace. If we want a victorious Christian life we must take charge of our minds and they must deliberately be directed on the things of the Spirit. The next chapter will look at this in some detail.

Don’t Forget The Medical Side And Common Sense

Not all emotional problems based in the body have a “spiritual solution”. Exercise, regular rest, a good diet and some basic disciplines can help alter our moods and emotions so we are happier and more easily spiritual. There is nothing terribly noble about praying for victory over emotions that need not arise in us at all with a bit of common sense. If you feel chronically out of sorts get a good “executive physical”. Maybe there is something wrong and your body is warning you. If a distressing emotion is being produced by a physical factor we can change, then it is up to us to change it. If your medication is literally “driving you crazy” see if it can be altered. If your air conditioning system makes you grumpy – see what can be done about it or install a fan. If a high level of caffeine is making you tense and anxious, praying for peace may be less effective than changing to decaf or lessening your intake. In short – don’t forget to see a doctor and use your common sense and take care of your health to keep you happy in body and soul.

Other Matters In The Mind-Body-Emotions Interaction

There are many very interesting and even speculative areas of study in the area of the issue of the interaction of our mind, body and emotions. For instance:

· Feats of Strength Emotions can not only make you sick – they can also make you strong. Hormones released by emotions can strengthen the body to perform great feats of strength on desperate occasions. This is the positive side of the emotions-body interaction.

· Dissociation From The Body This is when people experience a separation between their consciousness and their physical body generally as a result of severe trauma. Some people report out-of-body experiences where the Mind seems to leave the body through dissociation and then return. Paul could say of his trip to heaven “whether in the body or out of the body I do not know” (2 Corinthians 12:2,3). There is also a clinical condition known as Multiple Personality Disorder or Dissociative Disorder where people have multiple consciousnesses in the one body, which seem to “take turns”. This seems to be the result of the person’s consciousness being fragmented by the trauma.

· Amnesia is physical damage that results in a loss of recent memory and in severe cases an inaccurate sense of “self”. Severe amnesiacs seem to be locked into the maturity level that they have the last lucid memories of so that a 45 year old amnesiac may remember nothing after he was 17 and still think he is 17 and dress and act culturally much like a 17 year old. The physical structure and memory storage that the Mind needs to interact with surrounding culture has been damaged and an inaccurate sense of self results. This shows that our cultural self-consciousness relies on data from the outside world such as time, age, and fashion. When this is disrupted our cultural identity is damaged.

· Emotions and Cognition Emotions release hormones which affect cognition. For instance in the fight or flight response blood flow to the brain is reduced and instead it is sent to the hands or the feet. This prepares us well for a good battle but poorly for an exam (where the blood flow needs to be going to the brain). Habitual aggressive or panicky emotions invoke this response which then reduces cognitive ability. Tests on emotionally troubled youth found them under-performing on academic tests while better-adjusted and calmer people did much better. This is no surprise to teachers who have observed this for years. Thus emotions affect cognition by affecting the physical structures the brain needs to do its clearest thinking. The mind does not seem able to express itself clearly and efficiently through the body if the emotions have hijacked the resources it needs to do so.

· Prayer and Meditation Goleman reports that “prayer works on all emotions”. Numerous studies show the calming effects on the body of prayer and even New Age authors such as Paul Wilson acknowledge that prayer is puzzlingly powerful in achieving states of calm. The physiological effects of a mind focused on God are clear, unequivocal and measurable by modern instrumentation. The mind can bring the body into a calm sate with lowered blood pressure and peaceful emotions.

All these puzzling things contribute to the awe and mystery surrounding how our mind and body interact and how our emotions are produced and coped with.


There is a complex interaction between our bodies and our emotions such that our health can affect our feelings, and our feelings can affect our health. Emotions are produced primarily in the soul and spirit but have very strong interactions with the body. Mind and body are separate but very inter-connected entities. Stress is what happens when our mind overloads our brain and asks too much of us. A quiet and godly lifestyle can prevent stress and assist our sanctification. The body presents the Christian with a problem since the Fall. Since the Fall, the body has been corrupted by sin and this corrupt physical state is known as “the flesh”. The flesh leads to sinful impulses and negative emotions, is weak, mortal and temporary and we will be rid of it at death. The flesh and the Spirit are at war. Our Mind is ours to focus and control and our consciousness is the decisive factor in many spiritual issues and can be focussed on the Spirit or on the flesh. Christlike emotions will flow when the Mind is focussed on the Spirit. Destructive out-of-control emotions will overpower us if the Mind is focused on the flesh. Emotional and spiritual victory depends on having Christ in us, the hope of glory, and in choosing to focus our consciousness on the things of the Spirit. This results in a constructive emotional state known as “life and peace”. We should also take care of our health and consult good medical advice. We should also acknowledge that there is much mystery here and much we do not know. The next chapter will at how the mind is the secret to personal mastery.

Discussion Questions

1. How does the body influence emotions, and emotions influence the body? How can good medical advice help us with apparently “spiritual” emotional problems?

2. What is “the flesh” and how does it affect the Christian? How does the Spirit control the flesh? What is the role of the mind in all this?

3. What is the difference between your mind and your brain? Are you just a bag of chemicals?

4. What is stress? What are the three stages of stress breakdown? How can we offload things that stress us? Why is living a quiet and godly lifestyle important?

5. To what degree are you responsible for your actions, even under the influence of drugs or alcohol?

6. How can non-Christians restrain sin and the flesh?

7. What do you think about some of the mysterious areas of the interaction between our emotions, our minds and our bodies?