Blame It on the Brain?

Blame It on the Brain?, Edward T. Welch (P&R, 1998) Studying the brain just fascinates me. There’s so little that we do know about it, and that knowledge reveals how amazing the brain really is. In some ways I think being a psychologist is similar to being a meteorologist. As we gain more fancy instruments to predict bad storms, we still have to name each separate one, and are not sure how many houses they may take with them. And we really can only diagnose the weather as it is already forming. I mean really, with all the fancy educations and equipment we have, how reliable is even the 10-day forecast? We are still trying to nail down where it comes from and where it goes. The brain’s “chemistry” can be just as illusive. We live in a culture that likes to use the word disease or sickness over sin. Since the brain is so mysterious, it can be an easy scapegoat—especially within the materialistic worldview many people hold today. It’s pretty obvious when we are talking about a head injury or Alzheimer’s disease that the brain is the culprit. But what about depression? What about Attention Deficit Disorder? How can you tell if these conditions are physically caused, or the result of a spiritual struggle? What about all the evidence that is pointing toward homosexuality as a biological condition? Can alcoholics blame their state on the brain as well? These are questions that we wrestle with. I believe Welch accomplishes well beyond his goal that is stated in his subtitle: Distinguishing Chemical Imbalances, Brain Disorders, and Disobedience. This book is both educational and spiritually encouraging. It is part of the “Resources for Changing Lives” series from P&R, and it truly is that. It compassionately equips both those who suffer, and those who care for affected loved ones. As Christians, we have an advantage in learning about the brain because there is a spiritual component even in the obviously physical conditions such as a brain injury. A suffering person always has a spiritual need! One important highlight that I appreciate is that Welch not only educates us better with his expertise in these areas, but he is also bold in pointing out what we do not know. In fact, it’s important to note what the research actually shows, so that we can look at all the options. There is so much about the brain that we just do not know. The first part of the book discusses the mind-body relationship. Welch carefully defines our terms of body and spirit, and affirms with a C.S. Lewis quote thrown in:

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

Once he clearly sets the biblical categories for mind and body, Welch offers some guidelines to help distinguish between sin and sickness:
  • Any behavior that does not conform to biblical commands or any behavior that transgresses biblical prohibitions proceeds from the heart and is sin.
  • Any behavior that is more accurately called a weakness proceeds from the body and is sickness or suffering. Sickness or suffering can also be caused by specific sin, but we must be very careful to have ample justification before we make such a link (43-44).
He even provides a helpful chart listing “symptoms that can initially be categorized as physical or spiritual” (45). In Chapter Three, Mind-Body: Practical Applications, we learn about the theology behind the interrelationship of the heart and the body. This is such a helpful chapter! It is based on four practical applications that Welch wonderfully elucidates. The most encouraging application is the first:

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

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

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

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

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