The interplay between our physical and spiritual selves does not seem to get enough talk time within the Christian community. Especially how a conflict between two people can lead to diminishing health.
I have counseled some couples in which the wives have declining health problems that parallel the acrimonious relationships they have with their husbands.
In nearly every case, the husband is verbally abusive, by being demanding, angry, manipulative, controlling, and other forms of selfish anger, including relational passivity and neglect.
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Though the relationship between our spiritual and physical selves is subjective at best when applying it to a particular couple, there is a biblical precedent regarding the occurrence of sin and the physical effects of sin.
Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night, your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. – Psalm 32:3-4 (ESV)
David was living in sin. He would not confess his sins and his lack of confession began to take a toll on his body. Physical atrophy is one of the effects of sin. In David’s situation, repentance led to physical restoration.
Where it becomes complicated is when the un-confessed, un-forgiven, and un-repented sins of another person continue within a relationship.
Like David, if my sin is affecting my health, I can repent and find restoration. If the sin of someone else is affecting my health, I am at the mercy of that person owning and removing the sin from our relationship. In some marriages, the abusive spouse does not repent–a situation that leaves the victim spouse vulnerable.
This idea was re-stimulated in my mind after I listened to a weekly podcast from the People’s Pharmacy. I enjoy listening to Joe and Terry Graedon and have benefited from their perspectives on health-related issues.
Here is an excerpt from the podcast, which is not what the podcast was about, but only a part of their eclectic introduction where they provide headlines and medical updates.
Social isolation is a recognized risk factor for morbidity and mortality, but interacting negatively with family, friends, and neighbors have its drawbacks. A ten-year study of nearly 10,000 middle-aged Danes found that those who had acrimonious relationships were far more likely to die from cancer, heart disease, liver disease, or accidents.
The research estimates that frequent arguments or stressful demands from close contacts such as partners or children could increase the risk of death from any cause by at least fifty percent.
Constant arguing had an unusually adverse effect, and men who were out of work seemed to be most vulnerable to this stress. The investigators speculate that conflict management skills could help people lead longer, healthier, as well as happier lives.
I do not believe there is a valid argument that would dismiss the connection and interplay between our physical and spiritual selves. The real issue to consider is to what degree a person is affected by the ongoing, unrepented sin in their life or relationships.
This issue is both genuine and subjective. I have experienced this when public speaking. In the early years of my public ministry, I would have a hard time dealing with fear when it was time to speak.
This fear had a measurable, physical effect on my body. It was a spiritual issue–fear of man–that played out in my physicality. When the speaking event was over, my body settled down, and everything was back to normal.
There are other instances of the physical/spiritual interplay in my life, and I am sure you have your stories too. For example, exercise is not a cure-all for depression, but it can be part of the overall solution for some people who are depressed.
In other situations, I have recommended physical exercise in the context of a person’s spiritual well-being, and I have seen measurable results with a few individuals who have added this discipline into their daily routine.
What am I to do?
This discussion stirs a few concerns, especially from a person who is in an abusive situation. Here are four of those possible concerns:
- Am I a victim?
- What about the grace of God in unrepentant relationships?
- If my spouse is affecting my health, can I leave him?
- Where do I find help?
Victim – In the grander scope of the human condition, we all are victims. The sin of Adam and Eve created a death march toward the grave (Romans 5:12). We are victims, in a sense, of the cosmic crime between God and man, and God justly punishes us for such offenses.
At the point of conception, there is a physical depreciation because death is part of the conceived child’s DNA. Like driving a new car off the car lot, it becomes of lesser value the moment you take it home.
Sin is always affecting us in atrophic ways. We are in a constant degenerate condition because of human depravity. Paul called it wasting away.
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. – 2 Corinthians 4:16 (ESV)
Though we do not need science to validate or affirm the veracity of the Word of God, we can sign off on the Dane research study quoted above because it makes biblical sense. The Word of God affirms the truthfulness of their research.
Grace – Because we are victims of sin and the impact of sin on our lives can be degenerative, we must talk about the transformative power of the Gospel that God gave to us. It is important not to lose heart, as Paul said.
God is merciful. Though we have created this problem between sin, life, and death, the LORD does not leave us alone. He always provides a way of escape when sin is tempting our lives (1 Corinthians 10:13).
The possibility of escape is good news because there could be a temptation for a person to give up, choosing not to access these means of grace the LORD gives us. The temptation to quit and not to fight is always real.
Many adults give up the fight against sin and let their bodies go. They feel the gravitational pull of death on them, and rather than finishing strong, they yield to the ever-increasing physical and spiritual tugs.
Whether it is the degenerative effect of the sins of Adam, due to our fallenness, or the sins within our inter-personal relationships that we are uniquely bound to, there is a way of escape (1 Corinthians 10:13).
Separation – I think if I were in a situation where my spouse’s abusive sin was affecting my health, one of the things I would consider is separation. That makes sense to me. Of course, this response should motivate me to wade through these waters with carefulness.
Biblical grounds for separation, which leads to divorce, are (1) adultery and (2) desertion. An unrepentant mean man does not fall within those grounds, but this does not leave you in a helpless situation.
For example, if a person was physically or sexually abusive, we are talking about crimes, as well as sins, and these crimes are punishable by law. An individual who is physically or sexually abused by someone should not hesitate about reporting the criminal to the authorities while escaping the situation.
If someone knows about these sin-crimes happening, that person(s) should report them immediately. If someone is abusing you, there is only one option: you run and report the abusive criminal to the authorities. This responsibility is non-negotiable.
For the Christian, there is a process for abuses that have an adverse impact on a person’s spiritual and physical wellbeing. That process may include separation.
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. – Matthew 18:15-16 (ESV)
The first call to action is to appeal to the abuser–if you can. In some situations, this is not possible. For example, I am not talking about sexual or physical abuse. In those cases, you do not appeal first. You run. You get away from the abuse.
However, in other abusive situations, where your physicality is not in the kind of threat that sexual and physical abuse causes, you make an appeal to the abuser to stop. If the person does not stop, you call for help.
Do not try to persuade a domineering person to cease to be domineering on your own. The LORD gave us a process for such meanness. You have an advocate in the body of Christ–an excellent means of grace to come alongside those who are victimized by the sins of others.
Help – There will be many people who read this and say, “Yes, but my church does not have the means, competency, or the concern to help me.” I will not argue with you. I have been counseling people and churches for a long time. My vocation is a wonderful blessing in many ways, part of which is how it gives me a realistic view of the local church.
In some situations, we have failed the body of Christ. I am critiquing myself here. I am talking about us. I am speaking of my family—the body of the LORD Jesus as manifested in local churches.
There are many people, especially women, who live in marriages where the men are not pursued, helped, or held accountable. They are not called to change, as they continue to live in unabated sinfulness, but this is where we must be careful.
It would be misguided to lay the sinfulness of people in the lap of the church. That is not a reasonable charge; it is not biblical. Many churches are stellar in the fight against sin. They are like me in that the need is far greater than any one person’s or institution’s ability to resolve.
Furthermore, it would be placing the cause of the problem in the church. There is no doubt the church can and should do a better job, but the real issue has to do with how sinful people do not want to change.
It is similar to the hospital: the help is available, but the person who needs the help must access it. Many, if not most, of the people who live in unrepentant sin are elusive. They are not part of a local church, which puts the local church at a disadvantage. Their unwillingness to change is a dilemma.
So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin. – James 4:17 (ESV)
I have never met a person who truly wanted to change, who could not change. If a wicked person wants to stop his sinfulness, there is enough power in the transformative Gospel, with or without the local church, for him to do that.
If you are in an abusive situation, do not keep silent. Find a way to speak out; go for help. Our ministry has been a refuge and a lifeline to many people who have found no other place to turn.
We are not the local church, and we are not a replacement for the local church, but we can complement the local church by bringing care to the body of Christ.
We also have been a means of grace to help the church in learning how to be useful in their discipleship practices. I permit you to share this content and our ministry with your church.
Additionally, it may be possible for you to find a counselor through our organization, a person who can come alongside you to help walk you through the dangers of your relationship.
Do not try to fight the fight against sin alone, whether it is your sin or the sin of others. Your spiritual and physical life will be affected in proportion to the amount, degree, and type of sin that is waging war against you.
Also published on Medium.