I am looking out on an ethereal scene of sunlight through the fog illuminating mottled tree trunks and backlighting golden autumn leaves. But I could not do this except for the wonders of a brain and nervous system that allow me to fathom my world and react to it. This amazing integrated system of intricate structures functions to help me experience life on many levels. These structures were designed to be inextricably linked through complex feedback loops. Working interdependently through a system of bio-electrical impulses, neurons send and receive messages using an amazing array of chemical transmitters and elemental gatekeepers.
This interplay of structure and systems allows me to think, feel, and express myself in many different ways. Scientists in the past two hundred years have added much to our knowledge of the inner workings of the nervous system. Using new tools, and in response to the need to understand when and how these structures and systems fail or are compromised, science continues to add to its knowledge of the physical realm. Many in the scientific community now believe that the physical brain is not only responsible for thought, but also for emotion, feeling, moral judgment, and physical responses.
The Brain and Medical Research
Through brain imaging studies, medical researchers have been able to pinpoint different areas of the brain that interact to allow for sight, movement, hearing, emotional responses, ethical behaviour and much more. Yet, they will readily admit that as knowledge increases, so do their questions. They may have “figured out” one way in which a condition like Parkinson’s manifests itself and the neural pathways that are affected or have been damaged. But, they also know that there are “Parkinson’s-like” symptoms that may have different roots. And they are still mystified as to why the damage has occurred in the first place.
Medical science has come a long way in documenting what they see in those individuals whose nervous systems are failing. They are able to give labels to conditions that share common traits and seem to affect similar areas of the brain and the nervous system. They are able to re-evaluate past conclusions about certain conditions and form new hypothesis about the mechanisms that are at play. And over time they have come to have a “big-picture” view of the interplay between intellect, emotion, our moral compass, genetics, and environment that has major implications for those like myself who are educators.
Yet, presently, the best medical science can do for many diseases/conditions of the nervous system is to treat the symptoms. And this they do with differing levels of success, using their present understanding of neurogenesis, the chemical pathways, and the electrical potentials in the system. But, I believe science is missing something. It is not their “fault,” as they deal only with the physical realm of structure, system, and bio-chemistry. However, based on my experience as a teacher, as someone who has personally dealt with brain-related issues and trauma, and as a believer in the Judeo-Christian scriptures, I know there is something more.
The Brain – Insights from the book of Job
When it comes to restoring health to the mind and emotions there is another element to consider.
The biblical story of Job gives us some insight into this matter!
Job was in a terrible mental, emotional, and physical state of grief and anguish over the loss of his family, and his health. But more importantly perhaps, was the stress of having his understanding of God challenged. Was God really a “just judge,” as Job had believed. Job’s intellect, moral dilemmas, ill health, and overwhelming emotions were driving him into a deep pit of depression. His friends had just added to Job’s misery by saying the situation was “all Job’s fault!” And Job knew that this was not true…so the cognitive dissonance that Job was experiencing was mind numbing.
Job over the course of his discussion with his “friends” makes some amazing declarations.
For the arrows of the Almighty are within me; My spirit drinks in their poison; The terrors of God are arrayed against me.
“Therefore I will not restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.
You have granted me life and favor, And Your care has preserved my spirit.
“My spirit is broken, My days are extinguished, The grave is ready for me.
Job understood something vital that medical science cannot fathom, because it is limited in its scope. Job knew that it was his “spirit” not just his brain and peripheral nervous system that was suffering under the conditions he was experiencing. Job knew who had given him his spirit, and who could preserve his spirit. Many have lost sight of this important understanding, that has a major impact on our well-being.
Elihu, a true friend, helped Job gain perspective. So speaking from his spirit, Elihu gave Job some much-needed spiritual insight.
Then the wrath of Elihu… was aroused because he (Job) justified himself rather than God. Also against his three friends his wrath was aroused, because they had found no answer, and yet had condemned Job…
So Elihu … answered and said:
“I am young in years, and you are very old;
Therefore I was afraid,
And dared not declare my opinion to you.
I said, ‘Age should speak,
And multitude of years should teach wisdom.’
But there is a spirit in man,
And the breath of the Almighty gives him understanding.
Great men are not always wise,
Nor do the aged always understand justice.
“Therefore I say, ‘Listen to me…
I too will declare my opinion.
For I am full of words;
the spirit within me compels me.
God is the one who created the human spirit as Isaiah recounts.
Thus says God the Lord, Who created the heavens and stretched them out, Who spread forth the earth and that which comes from it, Who gives breath to the people on it, And spirit to those who walk on it. Isaiah 42:5
And it is God who can heal a broken spirit. It is this spirit that can sustain us through times of severe trial when our physical body is breaking down under the onslaughts of life in our world.
The spirit of a man will sustain him in sickness, But who can bear a broken spirit? Proverbs 18
David’s Wisdom on the Human Spirit
David knew where to turn for help for a broken spirit. He knew and was assured of God’s goodness and his kindness. Sometimes, what we need is to have our spirit renewed when we are looking for healing from physical, mental, or emotional traumas. And God is the source of that healing power.
The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart, and saves such as have a contrite spirit.
I remembered God, and was troubled; I complained, and my spirit was overwhelmed…
I call to remembrance my song in the night; I meditate within my heart, And my spirit makes diligent search. Psalm 77
When my spirit was overwhelmed within me…
My heart within me is distressed…
Answer me speedily, O Lord; My spirit fails!
Do not hide Your face from me,
Lest I be like those who go down into the pit…
Cause me to hear Your loving kindness in the morning,
For in You do I trust;
Cause me to know the way in which I should walk,
For I lift up my soul to You…
In You I take shelter.
Teach me to do Your will,
For You are my God;
Your Spirit is good.
Lead me in the land of uprightness.
David understood the power of the human spirit. And every day in our world there are examples of people overcoming physical disabilities against all odds. They do this through the power of the human spirit. When coupled with a desire to live and a sense of mission in the world, the human spirit has helped many rise above their physical constraints to accomplish their purposes.
God’s Healing Spirit
But the Christian has a source of power beyond the human spirit that gives comfort and help in dealing with our infirmities. Working in concert with our human spirit, God’s spirit helps us in our trials. It helps us find meaning in our suffering and strengthens us to overcome against all odds, for it is the power of love and a sound godly mind that comes from God. His Spirit gives us renewed zest for living and clear purpose – to shine God’s light in the world.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, And renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from Your presence,
And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of Your salvation,
And uphold me by Your generous Spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors Your ways,
And sinners shall be converted to You…
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, A broken and a contrite heart— These, O God, You will not despise. Psalm 51
As Christians we can face many afflictions that are related to the functioning of our brain and nervous system. We can take steps to care for the “temple” of our bodies providing the physical nutrition our bodies need and avoiding those things that we know to be harmful. We can do as Paul advises and think on those things that are positive in order to still our hearts and calm our emotions. We can seek out a knowledgeable physician who understands the latest scientific information on our condition, to provide wisdom and counsel. We can pray for God to strengthen our human spirit and give us purpose and a sense of mission. Finally, we can call upon God for divine healing through the power of His Spirit.
Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain; and it did not rain on the land for three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth produced its fruit. James 5
God wants us to prosper and be fruitful, so we can pray in full assurance, knowing that our prayers are heard and God will give us what we need to serve him. Even as our physical bodies may be failing due to age, trauma, or environmental stresses, yet God can renew us in body, mind, and spirit.
As Paul counsels us, “ be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and… put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness.”