May 18, 2019
Here's some excerpts from J.P.'s interview with Eric Johnson, especially focusing on the spiritual and psychological lessons J.P.'s learned over the last few years:
What role do you think the body and brain play in disorders like anxiety and depression?
We have to begin with a biblical view of the body. In Romans 6, Paul says, “For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification” (v. 19, ESV). He doesn’t just mean this in a moral sense but in a more expansive sense of the “members” of our bodies functioning the way God meant them to function. How do you, say, present your stomach to God as an instrument of sanctification? You engage in certain practices, like fasting, over and over again, until you “re-groove” the muscle memory or the nervous system patterns in that organ, so that instead of automatically triggering sinful or self-destructive behavior, they orient you toward righteousness and flourishing.
With anxiety and depression, the brain and the heart muscle are the two most important organs to present to God. There are cells called neurons in the heart muscle and the brain, and they can fire as a group. When this happens, they wire together and form a network, or “groove,” which can become deeper and deeper. So negative thoughts literally reshape the brain structure to form negative neural patterns. The solution is to present my brain to God as an instrument of righteousness by recognizing negative self-talk and turning away from it, while moving toward something that takes my attention in a better direction. Analysts have done brain scans showing that, after time, this can shift your default condition back to joy and peace rather than negativity, anxiety, and depression.
How do you respond to Christians who criticize the use of psychotropic medication?
There is no cause for embarrassment if you need to take medication. It does not mean that you are not spiritually strong. Sometimes anxiety and depression get bad enough that it becomes a brain chemistry issue rather than a spiritual or psychological issue. At that point you need to address the biological side of it. You need to take medication.
These medications are essentially food for the brain. They restore serotonin and other chemicals you can’t produce for yourself. Now, there are side effects to discuss with your doctor. But the good news is that these medications can help you return to a point of being able to deal with your issues on a spiritual and a psychological level, because the pain isn’t making you dysfunctional. It is hard to work on joy in the Lord when your thumb is being hit with a hammer. You have to lower the pain level to a certain point and then you can go back and rejoice.
You focus primarily on anxiety and sadness. However, shame and guilt are also important emotions in the Christian scheme of things, and they are often correlated with anxiety and depression. Have you thought about how shame and guilt might also contribute to psychological problems and how the gospel especially helps Christians address these emotions?
Issues of guilt and shame are absolutely huge. Researchers have discovered that if you do not feel forgiven and shame-free and are unable to extend forgiveness to others, you are apt to die of heart disease more quickly, your blood pressure can increase, and there is greater risk of psychological damage. The problem is: Where will I find forgiveness, and how can I deal with the shame that I actually deserve? That is where the gospel comes in. I return often to Romans 8:1 and to Colossians 2:14, which speaks of our sins being nailed to the cross. Those ideas are so powerful to me, and they play an important role in our healing.
Read the full-text of the interview at ChristianityToday.com. Eric L. Johnson is the director of the newly developed Gideon Institute of Christian Psychology and Counseling at Houston Baptist University. The interview appears in Christianity Today print version, June 2019, Vol. 63, No. 5, Pg 74, titled, "The Anxious Apologist."