According to legend, the Greek god Zeus left his son Dionysis at the palace one day while he ventured out to slay some dragons. “Dio, if the Titans come, ignore them!” he warned, referring to the enemy monster-giants who roved the land looking for weak spots in the pantheon.
“Okay, daddy!” Dionysis chirped.
All seemed well in the kingdom that day, but Zeus underestimated the lure of the monsters and the weakness of his son’s resolve. Thundering to the palace door, they used their craftiest deceit to lure Dionysis out the door. “We have toys! Come see!” they lied.
A brief fricassee later Dionysis lay, chewed to a pulp, in the stomachs of the monsters.
All might have ended well for the Titans if their complacency had not led them to linger. As the story goes, Zeus returned, zapped the giants with a thunderbolt, crafting the human race out of the ashes. The ashes were a mix of good and evil, of divinity and corporeality. According to Greek thought, humans therefore possess two components: a body of evil, and a core—an essence, a spark—of divine life.
This myth perfectly conveys, in narrative form, the Greek concept of human nature. We call this body-soul dichotomy, meaning that the body and soul exist in separateness, joined briefly in this earthly life only to be finally separated when the body dies and the soul floats off to the spirit-realm. This makes the soul a little piece of heaven, planted within the body, which is a necessary, temporary, disposable evil. Thus, the Greek idea of human nature is that the soul is good and divine, and the body is evil and earthly.
In contrast, the Bible teaches wholeism that the aspects of human nature exist in union. Let’s observe this idea in the setting of the biblical narrative: Human beings came forth from the hand of the Creator in a “very good” state (Genesis 1:31). Unfortunately, the sin in Eden ruined all that, and we now have a fallen, corrupt nature. Listen to Isaiah’s graphic description of our moral depravity: “The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faints. From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in it, but wounds and bruises and putrefying sores” (Isaiah 1:5,6, NKJV). Notice that the “head,” meaning the mind, is sick. Far from divine and pure, our minds are messed up like infected wounds! Until God changes our hearts, we have no innate goodness. From God alone we receive moral regeneration. From God also, we receive eternal life, for He “alone has immortality” (1 Timothy 6:16, NKJV).
The Invasion of Greek Thought
Early Christians understood these things until about 300 A.D., during a time historians call the Great Compromise, when in an effort to bring in more pagan members, the Christian church blended Greek and Christian thought in several key areas, including the nature of man.
Now Christians began to believe, like the ancient Greeks, that the soul possessed innate, underived, unborrowed life. In other words, apart from God, we were self-sustained, because we had a little smidgeon of God in each one of us. Sounds innocuous enough, until account is taken of its effect. For one, physical health didn’t matter. Why should one care for a body of evil doomed to permanent decomposition? For another, the biblical teaching of a time-delimited hell for the purpose of punishment and annihilation turned into an eternal torture extravaganza. Think about it: if the wicked, along with all humans, live forever apart from God, the lost must boil in the fires of hell through the ceaseless ages.
Think about how this change in Christian thought affected European history: Because of the lack of regard for the body, the Black Death reduced world population from 450 million to between 350 and 375 million in fourteenth century Europe. Arab historian lbn Khaldun said, “It was as if the voice of existence in the world had called out for oblivion and restriction, and the world responded to its call.” Yet it wasn’t so much by some divine mandate, but because of various unsanitary practices that so many died. People barely bathed in Europe at that time, lived essentially with their farm animals, and drew a blank on the purpose of hygiene. It was even thought that care for the body constituted a denial of faith! Into this vortex of ignorance and superstition hopped the Oriental rat fleas, which fed off black rats’ blood. When engorged, the fleas’ stomach became blocked, which caused ravenous hunger. Humans became their next feeding ground. One bite would infect a person with yersinia pestis, a bacterium so deadly that the infected died within two weeks. Cemeteries overflowed. The plague didn’t discriminate between the echelons of society, gobbling up with the same ravenous teeth rich and poor, king or peasant. Erma Bombeck has said, “Never go to a doctor whose office plants have died.” If Medieval Europe was a doctor’s office, the plants and people had died, leaving a warning that this system is deeply flawed.
Our Beautiful Brain
We must sympathize to a degree. To scientifically unsophisticated minds, the soul seemed too complex to be housed in a physical organ. Pre-enlightenment Europe asked how something as primitive and brutish as the body could facilitate all the delicate, nuanced, multi-layered complexities of the soul. To them, this was about as likely as a dog reciting Shakespeare. How could a few pounds of gray matter conduct processes like creativity, reason, and love?
Recent scientific development has obviated this argument. I’ll quote evolutionary biologist Steven Pinker: “People naturally believe in the Ghost in the Machine: that we have bodies made of matter and spirits made of an ethereal something __ New imaging techniques have tied every thought and emotion to neural activity.” Because of the rapidly-advancing field of brain imaging, we recognize, as never before, the brain’s capacity for facilitating the activity of the spirit. No longer do the subtleties of human thought and emotion seem beyond the intricacies of the brain.
Scientists like Steven Pinker typically buy into naturalism, which denies the spiritual component of human life. How unnecessary! Just because we reject the “ghost in the machine” doesn’t mean we reject the Spirit of God in our hearts! In fact, the mind, body, and spirit work together in seamless union.
Let’s visualize a “map” of a human being. First there is the body, the “house we live in.” The human mind exists in the context of a physical organ, the brain. The brain exists in the context of the body. Incidentally, this fact provides a compelling reason to care for our bodies they house our characters, which are to reflect God’s character.
Then there is the mind, the inner life, including imagination, drives, desires, appetites, passions, tastes, affections, and the complex range of emotions which we humans experience.
Finally in the center of this is what places human beings in contradistinction to all other animals: the spirit, or the spiritual aspect of human nature. The spirit acts like a switchboard between divine and human. Through the spirit we receive life force from God, and the ability to be influenced by divine things.
As we came forth from the Creator’s hand, our spiritual faculties presided over our mental and bodily urges. In other words our appetites, desires, impulses, drives, and affections submitted to spiritual faculties such as reason, conscience, and faith. The misery in which many of us live is due to the fact that we allow physical drives and emotions a position of control in our lives. This is like putting a two-year-old behind the wheel of a car. We can expect a crash.
Mind, body, and spirit resemble siblings in a tightly-knit family distinct, yet cohesive. So great is their influence upon one another that to affect one is to affect the other. I do professional counseling and often see this in action. Somatic psychology, or “body psychology” involves managing body processes to enhance psychological well-being. One client couldn’t shake depression until she started walking to work, thus getting serotonin-boosting sunshine every day. Immediately her mood brightened. The opposite, psychosomatic psychology, studies how the mind affects the body. One client with Crohn’s disease reminds me of the unsinkable Molly Malone with her cheerful spirit and humor. I know this reduces the impact of the disease.
The Health Club: Church
What of the impact of spiritual and social factors? Volumes and I mean volumes of research show the benefits of church on everything from finances to heart disease. Here are just a few:
* One study out of Detroit studied 700 women and found that regular church attendance significantly correlated with less depression and better global health.
* A study of 445 youths in Baltimore showed that if their mother attended church, they tended to be more functional and healthy.
* A study of Latinos correlated church attendance with better health and dietary practice.
* Research on senior citizens showed that the support received in church reduced the impact of financial strain. This study also researched the effect of support from secular networks, and the effect wasn’t as strong. Apparently the quality of support in church sets it apart from bars and Rotary Clubs.
I would like to lay out a sane, sensible, plan for care of mind, body, and spirit. Follow these simple principles to secure the best global health possible.
MIND: The care of the body naturally segues into care of the mind. Emotional health demands that we treat both our bodies and brains with care.
Use nothing that tampers with the nervous system. Caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, and drugs all alter the delicate balance of brain chemicals, not to mention the danger of addiction. As a clinician I urge all my mood and anxiety disorder clients to lay off alcohol and anything that ends with “-ine,” such as nicotine or caffeine. Temperance also entails even using healthy things, such as food, exercise, and work, in moderation.
Work, recreation, and social life must be kept in balance. I’m extremely task-oriented and tend to neglect vacations and kick-back days. Recently my husband and I rented an off-season room at the Marriot, swimming like little fishies in the hotel pool and knocking around town during the day. It was horribly boring except that we enjoyed one another’s company, so it didn’t matter.
Commit to cultivating solid, loyal bonds with friends. In my work, I encounter countless people whose dysfunctional homes of origin failed to teach them bonding skills. It’s never too late. Prayer groups, churches, clubs, and small groups lend themselves to relationship development.
Care should also be taken to control the thought life. Irrational, ungodly thinking can cause depression and anxiety problems. We can be realistic and optimistic at the same time. Jesus said, “In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:3, NKJV).
BODY: Nature features “doctors,” which, if consulted and obeyed, will bless us at no charge. Here are a few to try:
Move your diet away from refined foods and animal foods and toward unrefined plant foods. Greatly increase fiber and nutrient-rich foods. Reduce sugar and fat, especially animal fat. Mark Twain said, “The only way to keep your health is to eat what you don’t want, drink what you don’t like and do what you’d rather not.” Initially this may be true, but the good news is that the appetite adapts. For the record, my favorite food on earth is kale cooked with a little olive oil and garlic.
Exercise your little gluteus maximus off but subdue your ambitions. Over-demanding exercise programs lead to giving up. Make sure you enjoy yourself. Walking is actually the best all-around exercise. If possible, walk in the morning sun, which has mood-elevating benefits. Fresh, outdoor air is preferable to gyms. (I like to walk up hills in the richest neighborhood I can find and drool over the houses.)
SPIRIT: Human relationships have limitations. The needs of our hearts can’t be fully met by other people. As created beings designed for worship, we need heavenly connection to fill the God-shaped void in our hearts. Trusting in God through prayer, Bible study, and worship aligns our spirit with His. Proverbs 3:5-8 calls us to acknowledge this connection of spirit and body: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths. Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and depart from evil. It will be health to your flesh, and strength to your bones.”
Jennifer Jill Schwirzer is a counselor, author, seminar presenter, and singer/songwriter. Also a mother and wife, she considers her relationships with God, her family, and her friends to be her greatest accomplishments. To learn more about her work, visit http://www.jenniferjill.org
Originally published in Vibrant Life, used with permission.
Arredondo. E.M.. Elder. J.P. Ayala, G.X. & Campbell, N.R. (2005). “Is church attendance associated with Latinas’ health practices and self-reported health?” American Journal of Health Behavior. 29 (6): 502-508.
Krause. N. (2006). “Exploring the stress-buffering effects of church-based and secular social support on self-rated health in late life.” The Journals of Gerontology: Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences. 61B(I). S35-44.
All Bible verses are from the New King James Version