In 1843, John Williamson Nevin wrote a book simply entitled The Anxious Bench. He was writing during the time when Charles Finney’s revivalism was sweeping american churches. These revivals downplayed substantive Christian teaching of any kind, and instead heightened the experience of a salvific moment in one’s life. Knowing the Bible, being catechized, having a sound understanding of who Christ is and what he has done for his people, a real understanding of what kind of obedience was required in the Christian life – all of these things were downplayed so long as a person could point to a moment in their life where they “accepted Christ.” Getting the greatest number of conversions was the new endgame of Christian ministry. No longer did pastors need to invest in long term pastoral care, affective Christian preaching, or learning sound doctrine. Instead, they began to use what would soon be called the “new measures.” These “new measures” were essentially any method, by any means necessary, where a preacher would manipulate a person into making a Christian confession.
One such method was known as the “anxious bench.” Think of modern day methods of “everyone close your eyes and bow your heads but raise your hand if you want to become a Christian,” except more intense. Essentially there was a bench at the front of a church where a preacher would force people at the end of a service to come up to the bench, and would not allow them to leave until they made a public profession of faith. Capitalizing on people’s anxiety of being put up in front of a church, this method was hailed as the greatest sign of spirituality and revival in a church.
Writing against the “anxious bench” and the “new measures,” Nevin came down hard on this method and its widespread use. This was for multiple reasons:
1) It gave people a false assurance of their salvation. Just because you had this experience where you gave in to pressure and your anxieties doesn’t mean the Holy Spirit actually did anything in your heart.
2) Man cannot control the movement of the Holy Spirit.
3) Professing Christians no longer had any idea of what the Scriptures taught (since catechesis and sound preaching were thrown out the window), and therefore had no idea how to live the Christian life.
4) Any sort of Christian knowledge is perceived as “cold” and “dead” – antithetical to the “spirituality” of a conversion experience.
5) Pastors and preachers no longer had any sort of inward spiritual strength, but instead relied on their own talent and skill to manipulate others into a “Christian” profession.
Writing specifically on this last point, Nevin says this:
“The man who had no power to make himself felt in the catechetical class (that is, teaching), is deceived most assuredly and deceives others, when he seems to be strong in the use of the anxious bench. Old forms must needs be dull and spiritless, in his hands. His sermons have neither edge nor point. The services of the sanctuary are lean and barren. He can throw no interest into the catechism. He has no heart for family visitation, and no skill to make it of any account. Still he desires to be doing something in his spiritual vocation, to convince others, and to satisfy himself, that he is not without strength. What then is to be done? He must resort to quackery; not with clear consciousness, of course; but instinctively, as it were, by the pressure of inward want. he will seek to do by the flesh, what he finds himself too weak to effect by the spirit. Thus it becomes possible for him to make himself felt. New measures fall in exactly with his taste, and are turned to fruitful account by his zeal. He becomes theatrical; has recourse to solemn tricks; cries aloud; takes strange attitudes; tells exciting stories; calls out the anxious, etc. In this way possibly he comes to be known as a revivalist, and is counted among those who preach the gospel “with the demonstration of the Spirit and with power.” And yet when all is done, he remains as before without true spiritual strength. New measures are the refuge of weakness.
The system of New Measures then is to be deprecated, as furnishing a refuge for weakness and sloth in the work of ministry, and in this way holding out a temptation, which, so far as it prevails, leads ministers to undervalue and neglect the cultivation of that true and inward strength, without which no measures can be at last of much account. This is a great evil.
A man may be mighty in the use of new measures, preaching every day if need be for three weeks to crowded congregations, excited all the time; he may have the anxious bench filled at the close of each service, and the whole house thrown into disorder; he may have groaning, shouting, clapping, screaming, a very bedlam of passion, all around the alter; and as the result of all, he may be able to report a hundred converts or more, translated by the process, according to this own account, from darkness into God’s marvelous light. A man may so distinguish himself, and yet have no power to study, think or teach. He may be crude, chaotic, without cultivation or discipline. He may be too lazy to read or write. There may be no power whatever in his ordinary walk or conversation, to enforce the claims of religion. Meet him in common secular connections, and you find him in a great measure unfelt, in the stream of worldliness with which he is surrounded. Often he is covetous; often vain; often without a particle of humility or meekness. The truth is, he has no capacity, no inward sufficiency, for the ordinary processes of evangelical labor. Much is required to be a faithful minister of the New Testament; while small resources in comparison are needed for that resemblance of power, to which a man may attain by the successful use of the system now in view.”
Although this was written in 1843, Nevin’s critiques of the “new measures” in his time almost mirror the same phenomena we see happening in our churches today. Perhaps we have a resurgence of “new measures” happening in American Evangelicalism that even supersede what Nevin saw in his own day.
This desire Christians have to set knowledge against experience – substance against zeal – is the cause for all of our evangelical shallowness today. Our shallow preaching which all to often relies on lights, sounds and theatrics instead of convicting exposition of the Scriptures; exalting “ministers” who are all zeal but no knowledge – as if you can have true love without deep truth; “Christian” books that cater to some sort of weird pseudo-Christian mystical felt-needs rather than teaching that resembles anything like what Christians have believed for the last 2,000 years.
When will we learn that little substance and little knowledge is not the answer to an emphasis on mere knowledge and mere substance? When will we learn that to have a sustainable witness in this world we must have churches that engage both mind and heart? When will we learn that our own experience does not dictate how the Bible is supposed to be read? When will we learn that we need to grow in discernment over what we read, how we worship and what we participate in?
Friends, let us grow in worshipping and following Christ in both Spirit and in truth.
To read this article as a PDF, click here.
We’ve all felt it.
That pain in our soul that lies somewhere in between that ache in our chest we felt when we first experienced grief and loss, and the cold sweats we have in the evening before a big presentation at the office. The exhaustion that comes from spinning thoughts in our heads over and over. It’s the inexpressible confusion that can only be summarized by the question, “Oh God, why is this happening to me?”
This is the question we all ask when suffering hits and we do not know how to process it. We swing back and forth between emotions like a grandfather clock gone haywire. Our cultural influences tell us to react in one of two ways. On the one hand, we are told to rise above our suffering and our circumstances in order to remove ourselves from the situation. The other tendency, which is perhaps more dominate in Western culture, is to suppress and avoid suffering altogether. This view could best be summarized by the last great Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius who said, “Indeed in the case of most pains let this remark of Epicurus aid you, that pain is neither intolerable nor everlasting if you bear in mind that it has its limits…When then you are discontented about any of these things (pain), say to yourself that you are yielding to pain.”
While the cultural norms instruct us to believe that purpose is found above or away from suffering, the Bible teaches that hope and purpose is found in the midst of our suffering. The best way for us to understand this is first by briefly looking at a Christian theology of suffering. We will then be able to see God’s purpose for us in the midst of our afflictions.
A Theology of Pain and Suffering
It is impossible to avoid suffering in this life. From the moment of conception to the day we are laid to rest, we are subject to pain and sorrow in this life. There is a popular misconception that individuals turn to Christianity in order to have suffering alleviated or altogether removed. But this is entirely antithetical to the message our God gives to us.
Did you know that there are more Psalms of lament than any other genre? Surely this gives us a clue to how common the experience of pain and suffering is going to be in this life. Jesus promised us in John 15 and 16 that we will suffer for following him. The entire letter of 1 Peter is written to a group of Christians who are facing trials and suffering for the sake of the gospel. Paul tells us in Romans 8:17 that we are children of God if we suffer with Christ. Again he says in 2 Timothy 3:12 that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” The author of Hebrews reminds us that those who are not disciplined by God are illegitimate children (12:8). Many Christians today are taught that suffering occurs as a lack of our own faith. It is a sobering thought to examine just how much we’ve bought into this lie in light of the Bible’s cohesive teaching on the subject.
The message is clear: Christ-followers will suffer in this life. But what does it mean to experience pain and affliction as the Bible teaches us? I think most of us are led to believe that these passages speak to some unique form of Christian persecution which comes from publicly following Christ. While this aspect of suffering is certainly included, these passages are not speaking of only this kind of suffering. Dr. Richard Gaffin summarizes Christian suffering well: “Christian suffering, then, is everything in our lives in this present order, borne for Christ and done in his service. Suffering with Christ includes not only monumental and traumatic crises, martyrdom and overt persecution, but it is to be a daily affair – the mundane frustrations and unspectacular difficulties of our everyday lives, when they are endured for his sake.” Any and all suffering and affliction we endure in this live – when we endure them for Christ’s sake – are uniquely Christians sufferings.
You might be asking, “How can this be the case?” After all, don’t Christians experience many of the same that non-Christians do? Cancer isn’t uniquely Christian, so why is it that if a Christian is diagnosed with cancer it becomes Christian suffering? The answer lies in the fact that as children of God who have placed their faith in the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ, our suffering is redeemed. God uses the very things that are intended to destroy us to mature his children and make them more like Christ (1 Peter 1:3-9).
Purpose in Suffering
But why does God allow us to suffer? It is impossible to know the exact reasons for what we are going through: it might be a result of the general state of the world and natural forces, it might be a result of someone else’s or our own sins, or it could be from a host of many other reasons. However, the important question to ask is not “Why is this happening to me?” More often than not, we will not be able to answer this question. Instead, we should be asking “What is God’s purpose for me in the midst of my suffering?”
In today’s Christian subculture, we love to make signs, posters and desktop backgrounds with “inspirational” Bible verses (Philippians 4:13, 1 Corinthians 13, and 1 John 3 all come to mind). Unfortunately, one of the most beautiful passages in the Bible is often skipped on these signs. That passage is 2 Corinthians 1:3-7. The Apostle Paul writes:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.
This is one of my favorite passages in the whole Bible. Paul teaches us that God is the source of all mercy and comfort, even in the affliction we cannot see or feel him working in. We are told that although we share in Christ’s sufferings, we will also share abundantly in comfort as well. God comforts us in our affliction so that we will be able to comfort others in their affliction.
So what does this passage teach us about the purpose of suffering in the Christian community? Our suffering is meant to create an army of Christian counselors who become uniquely equipped to comfort others in their suffering. This is a part of God’s glorious and beautiful outworking of redemption in his people! While the world around us tells us to flee suffering, God instead equips us to live out the second greatest commandment (Mark 12:31). For this reason, we agree with Charles Spurgeon who wrote, “I am almost persuaded that those of God’s servants who have been most highly favoured have suffered more times of darkness than others.” It doesn’t matter whether your suffering is depression or cancer, God’s purpose for you is to receive his comfort and then take it to others who are suffering. As we suffer, our churches are collectively strengthened. In this way, the church is to be marked by Christians who faithfully provide godly counsel to one another – even in the midst of their own pains and afflictions.
You could be tempted to doubt that this is the purpose for all Christians in the midst of their suffering. Perhaps you think that you can provide no comfort to anyone else because you’re barely hanging on. However, don’t underestimate your ability to comfort and provide counsel to someone who has already thrown in the towel.
Recently I’ve been weighed down by an immense fear over the future – job, finances, family, children, etc. In moments where my fear is especially strong I become overwhelmed with the temptation to just give up and pursue a new vocation with more stability and predictability. During one of those moments this week, a friend of mine emailed me telling me that he would be experiencing a job change soon. He asked me to pray that he would remain faithful during his transition. Even though he didn’t know it, he provided so much encouragement to me! Just when I was tempted to despair, a friend was able to motivate me to keep going simply by a demonstration of his faithfulness.
Friend, don’t underestimate what God is doing for his people in the midst of your suffering and affliction. God’s purpose for your suffering is to be a benefit not only to you as he makes you more like Christ, but also to bless and benefit his other children who are suffering. The counsel you bring to others as they experience pain and affliction will have a ripple effect in your Christian community that you will likely never see. It is a beautiful thing when we all play our part in the household of faith!
 Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 54.
 Richard Gaffin, “The Last Adam, the Life-Giving Spirit” in The Forgotten Christ, 231.
 Charles Spurgeon, The Valley of the Shadow of Death, The Journal of Biblical Counseling Number 3, Spring 2000.
The critiques, arguments and authors of the New Paul Perspective largely receive a bad reputation in Reformed/Evangelical circles. In my experience, those who are unfamiliar with the arguments of the New Paul Perspective (NPP) instinctively dismiss it wholesale because of rumors or assumptions they have heard from others. On the other hand, those who understand the NPP arguments and authors to a greater extent might interact with the arguments, but only to point out the weaknesses of them. While I agree with my Reformed Evangelical commitments and tradition, I believe that both of these interacts with the NPP fail to do justice to the arguments being made. Despite the weaknesses of the NPP, when we better understand the critiques and arguments of its proponents we are actually able to embrace the benefits it has to offer the Reformed faith. Specifically, we will find that the NPP allows us to more faithfully understand the context in which we read God’s Word, our understanding of Covenant Theology is strengthened, and the scope of God’s salvation is expanded. For the scope of this essay, I will briefly summarize the writings of Krister Stendahl, James Dunn and N.T. Wright, and then turn to my own reflections.
In his essay The Apostle Paul and the Instrospective Conscience of the West, Krister Stendahl popularizes the notion that the Apostle Paul may not have been as concerned with an introspective burden of conscience as Western Audiences assume. He argues that “the Pauline awareness of sin has been interpreted in the life of Luther’s struggle with conscience.” Western Christians then – in particular, those in the Protestant tradition – have read into Paul a burden from sin and guilt that the Apostle did not originally have. On the contrary, Stendahl argues that Paul actually had a very guilt-free conscience in regard to his participation in covenant law as a Jew. Paul was originally concerned with how Gentiles could be included in the messianic community, but he is now read as principally being concerned with man’s assurance of individual salvation. What was in focus for Paul’s theology then was not a burden of introspective conscience, but an insufficiency in the law now that the Holy Spirit has come. The problem of the law – which was originally meant to be a “digression” in Stendhal’s view – is now read as the main filter for understanding Pauline thought.
Scholar James D.G. Dunn picks up Stendahl’s line of argumentation and even takes it one step further. Dunn contends that “Protestant exegesis has for too long allowed a typically Lutheran emphasis on justification by faith to impose a hermeneutical grid on the text of Romans.” The problem, in Dunn’s view, is not necessarily the emphasis of justification by faith but what this emphasis is set in contrast to. The Western Reformed emphasis of reading Christianity as a religion of “salvation by grace” in contrast to a Judaism as a religion of “salvation by works” is entirely false, according to Dunn. Instead, he argues “Judaism’s whole religious self-understanding was based on the premise of grace – that God had freely chosen Israel and made his covenant with Israel to be their God and they his people.” Therefore, Reformed Evangelicals not only read Paul poorly and in the inappropriate context, but they miss the emphasis of his writing. Agreeing with Stendahl, Dunn believes that Paul was not talking about an individual’s salvation but instead was focused primarily on entrance into and maintenance of status within the covenant community.
N.T. Wright is the most prevalent popularizer of the NPP today, and his work is largely built on and is congruent with the work of both Stendahl and Dunn. Much of Wright’s work is principally focused on the ideas of righteousness and justification in Paul. Wright distinctly retells the history of Israel from a very covenantal focused framework. Israel, as a nation, was given the task of undoing the effects of Adam’s sin. Since they were unable to do so, Christ as the true Israel not only took on the curse but fulfilled the role the nation of Israel was always supposed to perform. In this framework, the terms “justification” and “righteousness” take on a very covenantal flavor. They are no longer associated with one’s moral standing before God, but instead are primarily associated with one’s standing within the covenant community. To be justified then is to have membership in the people of God.
Many Reformed Evangelicals have responded to the claims of Stendahl and Dunn, such as Cornelius P. Venema, John Piper and R.C. Sproul. More recently, Stephen Westerholm has done a sufficient and thorough job of responding to the claims of Stendahl, Dunn and Wright in his book Justification Reconsidered. Westerholm rightly argues that even if the Jewish religion had some concept of grace, it clearly wasn’t to the same extent that Paul believed was now present in Christianity. Further, humanity’s predicament – original sin and the fall – must actually be worse than the Jewish people originally thought. As Westerholm concludes, “Human beings, must not, after all, be capable of the modicum obedience required by the covenant…Along such lines, we may well imagine Paul’s thinking developed.”
The work of these Reformed and Evangelical leaders such as Westerholm is to be much appreciated. However, what I find missing in much of their writing is what we can learn and benefit from the arguments and critiques made by the NPP. The reality is, there are multiple benefits and ways the NPP can enhance our Reformed Theology. The first benefit I find from the NPP is the way in which it enhances our understanding of Paul’s context. Most Evangelical and Reformed circles deliver the gospel by declaring Paul’s message as a religion of grace contrasted to a religion of works. However, Stendahl and Dunn convincingly argue that the Jewish religion did have an understanding of grace behind God’s free choice of Israel to be his covenant people. While it may not be the same level and degree of grace that Christianity proclaims is actually necessary to receive from God in Jesus Christ, nevertheless we should no longer continue to caricaturize the Jewish religion in a false light. Faithful Bible teachers and preachers – as well as every day Christians – should desire to be honest and fair about how we understand and label people, even if it is people in antiquity.
Secondly, the fact that the Jewish religion understood God’s election of the nation of Israel to be motivated by his grace actually supports and strengthens a Reformed Covenant Theology and Soteriology. The fact of the matter is that God’s election has always been motivated by his grace. Whether it was because he loved Israel simply because he loved them (Deuteronomy 7:7) or because God predestines sinners to salvation (Acts 13:48), God has always operated and has been motivated out of his grace toward his people. This was true in the Old Covenant, and it is true in the New Covenant as well. By pointing out God’s grace toward Israel under the Old Covenant, Stendahl and Dunn can actually be cited to support many foundational Reformed convictions.
Third and finally, the view that Paul is merely concerned with entrance into the messianic community rather than the salvation of individual sinners is certainly an extreme reaction to the individualistic readings of Western Protestant culture. Nevertheless, this overreaction is a reminder to us that when we preach the gospel, we should remind people that they are being saved as individuals into a corporate body – the church. All who confess the name of Christ will be saved individually (Romans 10:9). At the same time, God loves and redeems the church as the Bride of Christ (2 Cor 11:2). We are saved individually and we are saved corporately. God the Father knows his children by name (John 10:14-15, Revelation 20:15) and he knows and loves all of his people by name (Isaiah 43:1). We should not be afraid to correct our own blind spots in our theologies and gospel proclamation. The NPP emphasis on entrance into and status within the covenant community is a good reminder and corrective for how Reformed Evangelicals understand their soteriology.
In our fight for orthodoxy and commitment to the grace of God we have received in Jesus Christ, we should not be afraid to listen to critiques and other views from outside our theological camp. While I have many disagreements with the consensus of the NPP, many of their arguments have shown me a view and angle on Scripture that I would not have otherwise considered. By wrestling with, digesting, and sorting through their arguments I believe my commitments to and understanding of Reformed Theology are stronger, not weaker. When we reject arguments from those outside of our theological camp entirely, we show ourselves to be closeminded and unwilling to acknowledge our own blind spots and weaknesses. In dialoging with the NPP further, Reformed Evangelicals could not only show themselves to be better at listening, but our faith and understanding of God’s grace would be strengthened.
 The scope of this application paper necessarily assumes that the audience has some familiarity with the arguments of the New Paul Perspective as well as the responses from Reformed Evangelicals.
 Krister Stendahl, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” The Harvard Theological Review 56, no. 3 (July, 1963): 200.
 Ibid., 206.
 Ibid., 213.
 James D.G. Dunn in Karl P. Donfried, ed., The Romans Debate, rev. and expanded ed. (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, ©1991), 300.
 Stephen Westerholm, Justification Reconsidered: Rethinking a Pauline Theme (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2013), 51-58.
 Ibid., 33.
This is a lengthy article. It is best read as a pdf, which you may find here.
There is a great scene at the end of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King that really captures what true friendship looks like. Sam and Frodo are nearing the end of their journey to destroy the One Ring. Frodo – even more so than Sam – is completely exhausted not only physically but also from the internal burden of carrying the Ring all this way. As they’re both collapsed on the side of Mount Doom, Sam asks Frodo, “Do you remember the Shire, Mr. Frodo?…Do you remember the taste of strawberries?”
Tragically, Frodo replies, “No, Sam. I can’t recall the taste of food…nor the sound of water…nor the touch of grass. I’m naked in the dark, with nothing, no veil between me and the wheel of fire! I can see him with my waking eyes!”
Sam, responding perhaps as the greatest friend in cinema history says, “Then let us be rid of it, once and for all! Come on, Mr. Frodo. I can’t carry it [the Ring] for you, but I can carry you!” He proceeds to pick up his dear friend, and although he can’t carry his friend’s deepest burdens, he can help get him to the place he needs to go. Recognizing his friend’s exhaustion, Sam helps him by meeting Frodo’s immediate physical need.
What do you say to your friend who comes to you and tells you they’re struggling with depression and/or anxiety (depression-anxiety)? Unfortunately, we in the Church today tend not to respond very well to our hurting brothers and sisters. Most of our advice amounts to nothing more than, “Take a dose of Romans 8:28 with this glass of John 3:16 and call me in the morning.” We brush our friends off with passive comments like, “It sounds like you just need to believe this truth, know that I’ll be praying for you.” By quickly passing off our friend’s deepest pains, we essentially provide them with an over-spiritualized version of “God helps those who help themselves.” This type of care is not only unhelpful, but it is not Christian and it is potentially destructive.
Think of it this way: what if Sam had looked in Frodo’s face and said, “It sounds to me like you just need to believe Gandalf wants you to make it to the top of the volcano. Remember that you’re loved and everyone is counting on you! I’ll pray for you when I’m back at home eating those strawberries.” Sam would have been an incredibly bad friend! He would have been passing over Frodo’s immediate needs without providing him any real help at all.
How can we as Christians, who have been called to care for and love one another, better respond to our friends who are struggling with depression-anxiety? We can do so by better understanding how the Bible presents the person as both a material (physical) and immaterial (spiritual) being. In other words, by understanding the person holistically, we will know how to respond and care for our hurting friends in a loving and Christian way.
A Biblical Foundation
There tends to be two extremes our society (and by extension, the church) takes in regards to our anthropology (our understanding of the person) today. On the one hand, secularists tend to view the person as a primarily physical being. When you follow this extreme, every issue within a person has a physical cause. Depression-anxiety becomes a disease that is a result of something gone wrong in the brain, but if you can fix the brain, you can fix the issue. Meeting one’s physical desires and comforts – such as the desire for sex – becomes a physical need that must be met, regardless of the relational, emotional, or spiritual consequences.
The other extreme is to view the person as a primarily spiritual being. This is happening today both inside and outside the Christian Church, now that spirituality is back in vogue today. With this extreme, the solution to one’s problem must be found in some sort of belief system, usually directed within the self. The gospel according to Oprah presents a world where believing in yourself and your own internal strength is the answer to your problems. In Christian circles, this over-spiritualization results in chasing spiritual “experiences” and “encounters” with God that give us a spiritual high. When the spiritual high runs out, we are told there is something wrong with us and that the answer is found in creating and experiencing another encounter like ones we have had previously. Like any addiction, the more we go down this path, the more we find that we need increasingly robust experiences in order to create the same feeling we had before.
In the middle of these two extremes is a biblical anthropology. The Bible presents a unique answer to the human dilemma by telling us that we are both material and immaterial, physical and spiritual. We are a mysterious blend of the two, what some might call an “embodied soul.” Counselors call this the “dichotomist” view of the person. C.S. Lewis describes us as “composite beings – a natural organism tenanted by, or in a state of symbiosis with, a supernatural spirit.” There are numerous passages that explain this view to us in Scripture, but I’ll just mention a handful of them:
- We are spiritual beings clothed in an earthly tent (2 Corinthians 5:1).
- God made man out of two substances, dust and spirit (Genesis 2:7).
- As Christians, when we die our bodies return to the ground but our spirits return to God (Ecclesiastes 12:7).
- Christ summarizes the person as both body and soul (Matthew 10:28).
- Paul, in his defense of the resurrection, cannot comprehend of a person without a corporeal nature (1 Corinthians 15:35-49).
If this is true, how do we differentiate between what is spiritual and what is physical? The Bible uses numerous words to describe the spiritual side of the person: spirit (pneuma), heart (kardia), mind (dianoia, phrenes, nous), soul (Greek: psuche, Hebrew: nephesh), conscience (suneidesis), inner self or inner man. These various terms have slightly different emphases, but ultimately can be summarized by the term “heart.” Herman Ridderbos describes the human heart as, “the concept that preeminently denotes the human ego in its thinking, affections, aspirations, decisions, both in man’s relationship to God and to the world surrounding him.” In other words, the heart is our “motivational center” that is at the root of all of our moral responsibility and behavior before the face of God.
But what about the material side of the person? With our description of the spiritual side of the person out of the way, we can conclude that the material consists of…everything else. The best way to comprehend this might be to look at a list of differences in symptoms between physical or spiritual issues.
Feelings of depression
Feelings of panic
Remembering and forgetting
Ability to read
Ability to calculate
Problems with attention and concentration
|Sin: sexual immorality, lust, evil desires, malice, greed, anger, rage, murder, strife, arrogance, boasting, disobedience to parents, unbelief, jealousy, gossip, drunkenness, lying, idolatry, pride.Righteousness (fruits of the Spirit): patience, love, joy, peace, gentleness, kindness, faithfulness, forgiveness, wholesome speech.|
What are we to make of this? When we properly understand Biblical anthropology, we are better equipped to understand how depression-anxiety is impacting our brothers and sisters, and how we can best care for them. What we have seen is that the person is a mysterious blend of both body and soul. This means that we should have the expectation that what is happening in one part of the person is going to be reflected in the other. The Bible predicts that an issue rooted in our hearts will manifest itself with physical symptoms (including changes in our brain). Similarly, an issue with a physical origination might have an impact on what comes out of our heart.
The Dichotomist View of Depression-Anxiety
Let’s start to direct this foundation toward the issue of depression-anxiety more specifically. What should you do when your friend or loved one comes to you to communicate their pain and struggles with depression-anxiety? The first task we have is to recognize what is happening as some form of depression-anxiety. While we all have some general idea of what depression-anxiety is, don’t assume that you understand what the experience is like for your friend. Ask good questions and listen more than you talk. Try to understand the experience your friend is going through. Allow their experience to drive you to compassion (Matthew 9:36, 14:14).
The next thing we must do is distinguish between physical and spiritual symptoms. This is important for two reasons: 1) because we do not want to hold people morally responsible for a physical symptom, and 2) we do not want to excuse spiritual problems or lose hope for spiritual growth when there has been a psychiatric or physical diagnosis. Here are some examples of what it might look like to distinguish between physical and spiritual symptoms for someone who is going through depression-anxiety.
|Insomnia or hypersomnia
Significant weight changes
Feeling of being restless or slowed down
Fatigue, loss of energy
Sense of alienation
Feeling sad, blue or depressed
Tight chest or heart palpitations
It may be difficult to begin to separate physical from spiritual symptoms. This is where most Christians begin to struggle in caring for their loved ones. What do we say? What questions should we ask? It is at this point our foundation of a biblical anthropology becomes exceedingly practical. With our understanding of the material and immaterial person, we can begin to care for and meet people’s physical symptoms while intentionally observing, listening to, and understanding the underlying heart and spiritual issues/symptoms. I believe this approach works best for a number of reasons.
- Focusing on the physical symptoms first builds trust with your friend. It is likely that you are not the first person your depressed or anxious friend has spoken to. In all likelihood, they have already spoken to multiple people who have brushed off their struggles with depression-anxiety as a small problem that needs a quick fix. By affirming the person’s struggles and then committing to helping meet their practical, physical needs, you will establish a deep relationship of trust with your friend. Depression-anxiety naturally creates a filter of skepticism in the individual; your commitment to their physical needs can go a long way in beginning to overcome this skepticism. As author John Lockley once said,
The presence, the availability, just the existence of a friend like this provides a tremendous degree of comfort to the depressed person, as it demonstrates in physical terms how much he is cared for, accepted, loved, as he is, warts and all. It is not difficult for the depressed person to go on to realize that if individual Christians can love him that much, how much more will God do the same.
- Caring for physical symptoms often draws out the deeper heart issues. If you offer care to someone and they reject it, you’re seeing their pride at work. If you tell someone they need more sleep but they respond that they can’t because of work commitments, you might have exposed an idol of control. If depression-anxiety always sets in during the evening, there might be a pattern of fear of man or circumstances that arises throughout the day. This is a pattern we see in Christ’s earthly ministry, where his physical miracles are often the catalyst to address a deeper spiritual need (John 6:1-59, Luke 13:10-17).
- If an individual has been struggling with depression-anxiety long enough, their physical, emotional and mental exhaustion will probably prevent fruitful counseling. If your friend hasn’t slept for weeks and is plagued by constant panic attacks, then they’re probably not in a good place to begin thinking hard about what is causing the panic attacks. One of the best things you can do is help provide the rest and nourishment they need to search their heart and mind for what is really going on.
- Caring for physical symptoms is a vehicle for evangelism. Our service to one another does not occur in a vacuum. There is a broken, hurting world looking at us to see if our actions line up with our words. Jesus himself said the world will know we are Christians if our love for one another mirrors the love he has for us (John 13:34-35). In this way, committing to and caring for physical needs will be peculiar to our broken and sinful world.
In addition, developing wisdom and sensitivity in meeting and caring for physical symptoms and needs equips you to care for not only Christians, but non-Christians as well. As we ask good questions, apply wisdom, and care for the physical symptoms of our depressed or anxious non-Christian friends, they will naturally want to know how we have the wisdom, insight, and care that we do. This is the perfect opportunity to point our hurting friends to our Savior, Shepherd, and true Caretaker who meets our deepest need: forgiveness and reconciliation with God.
Application: Practical Questions for Everyday Ministry and Friendship
So what should you say when your friend comes to you with their struggles of depression-anxiety? What questions should you ask? This is a wisdom issue for all of us. However, there are some questions we can have in the back of our heads at all times that can become good launching points for conversation, as well as finding and addressing physical symptoms and needs. My hope is that these questions, although not exhaustive, will serve you well as you seek to minister to your friends and loved ones both in and and outside of the church.
0. Affirm their decision to open up about their struggle with depression-anxiety. This isn’t a question (hence the number 0!), but it should always be the first thing we do. We have already said that depression-anxiety creates a skeptical filter toward individuals and the world. By affirming your friend’s decision to share what is going on in their life, you are removing the stigma our society carries and disarming their fear and skepticism.
1. How does depression/anxiety make you feel? What words would you use to describe your experience? This goes back to the idea of trying to empathize with your friend or loved one. Depression-anxiety tends to force the individual into one of two extremes: either a heightened sense of physical or spiritual pain, or a numbness to any kind of pain
2. Is there any way you have identified I might be able to help you? Your friend might already know they are struggling to get enough rest, eat well, or maintain a regular pattern. If that is the case, allow them to share that need with you before you ask any more specific questions.
3. Have you had a physical recently? Even if your friend had a physical at some point during the same year, if they have not received a physical during their depression-anxiety then they probably should. The reason for this is two-fold. One, because they can alert their physician to their struggles in case they need to come back and have a conversation about medication in the future. Secondly, because there are numerous diseases an individual can have that might manifest itself with depressive symptoms. These include:
|Medical Problems with Known Depressing Effects|
Viral or bacterial Infections
Certain types of headaches
Side effects of medication
4. How are you resting? Depression-anxiety often causes a person to get either more or less sleep than normal. We should know how it is impacting our friend or loved one specifically. Related questions might be, “How much caffeine are you consuming?” or “How much media are you consuming on an average day?”
5. Are you exercising? Physical exercise often helps our body get rid of unhelpful chemicals and instead produces helpful chemicals in our body. Encourage your friend to begin a modest exercise routine – perhaps even offer to go on a walk with them once or twice a week outside.
6. How are you eating? Similar to our sleep patterns, depression-anxiety almost always has an impact on our eating habits in one of two extremes: either we eat way too much, or we eat way too little. Help your friend identify their pattern, and offer assistance in providing healthy, routine meals.
7. How has this impacted your routine? While your friend may have once been the cleanest and hardworking person you know, depression-anxiety might be completely decimating their daily routines and habits. Good hygiene might seem like an impossible task, and showing up to work on time or being productive at all might be equally so. Try to identify small steps your friend can take to return to a normal routine. Help them create a schedule for the next week or two to accomplish some of their errands and chores, and hold them accountable to it.
8. Is there a particular time of the day or season of the year during which this has a greater impact on you? Seasonal depression-anxiety is not uncommon. If you can identify a time of the day or season of the year where depression-anxiety becomes particularly severe, then you can help your friend or loved one develop a “battle plan” to get the jump on depression-anxiety before it gets out of hand.
9. What are your priorities? An individual’s depression-anxiety might be the result of burnout from out-of-order priorities. These priorities might include family, work, church, neighbors or travel. Help your friend reprioritize their life and attend to what is necessary now while putting secondary commitments on hold. Once the individual has returned to a sense of normalcy they may be able to pick up some of the activities or commitments again
10. Have you thought about hurting yourself? Don’t avoid the hard question just because it is difficult. If your friend has thought of specific ways to hurt themselves, this is an indication that it is time to pursue immediate counsel and suicide watch.
11. Are you taking a Sabbath and participating in the Lord’s Day? The Sabbath was created as a means of rest for us (Mark 2:27). What a novel idea that the Lord knew we needed regular rest! Encourage your friend to obey the biblical mandate for rest and participation in worship with the saints on the Lord’s Day.
12. May I read a Psalm with you? Many Christians struggling with depression-anxiety are under the impression that the Bible does not allow for a Christian to struggle in the way that they are. However, the Bible is absolutely full of examples of God’s people crying out in pain, despair and lament in ways that mirror what we call depression-anxiety today. Great examples of this are the Psalms of Lament. Within these Psalms are beautiful demonstrations and prayers for God’s people to cry out in pain while simultaneously striving to put their trust and hope in the Lord. Reading through a Psalm of Lament with your friend may provide hopeful reassurance that God knows, hears, and is not ashamed of the things they are going through. It may also show your non-Christian friend that God’s Word has something to say to them in the midst of their brokenness or despair. The Psalm can be a perfect springboard into how your friend relates to the pain of the psalmist. Great examples of Psalms of lament include Psalm 22, 51 or 73.
The careful reader will take note of my indebtedness to the work of Edward T. Welch for much of my views in this article. In particular, his book Blame it on the Brain?, as well as the articles “Medical Treatments for Depressive Symptoms” and “Who Are We? Needs, Longings and the Image of God in Man” have been instrumental to me. My hope is that I am entirely faithful to the work that has come before me and the shoulders on which I stand.
 C.S. Lewis, Miracles, 126.
 Edward T. Welch, Blame it on the Brain?, 35.
 Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, 119.
 Edward T. Welch, Blame it on the Brain?, 45
 Ibid., 120.
 John Lockley, A Practical Workbook for the Depressed Christian, 338.
 Edward Welch, “Medical Treatments for Depressive Symptoms,” ed. David A. Powlison, The Journal of Biblical Counseling, Number 3, Spring 2000 18 (2000): 46.