Years ago, respected physician, Dr. S.I. McMillan, taught the college Sunday school class at the church I attended. He gave a series of lectures on how certain thoughts and feelings can cause pain in many parts of the body. Dr. McMillen included material by Dr. O. Spurgeon English of Temple University School of Medicine.
Up to this time, I had always assumed that pain meant something was wrong with the body and that a physician would know how to fix it. When there was a problem, you simply got it fixed, much like you would take your broken watch to a jeweler. The proper choice of pills or an injection would hopefully do the job. It simply never occurred to me that thoughts and feelings could affect the body.
According to Dr. English, the emotional state of a person can cause a perfectly healthy heart to beat faster and irregularly. There can be the sensation of tightening, pain, and numbness. There can be a shortness of breath and the feeling of faintness, weakness, or even giddiness.
The information that interested me the most was about the autonomic nervous system. There are certain emotional centers in the brain that are linked to the entire body through the autonomic nervous system. This system can be compared to the wires that carry electricity from a main power source to all the outlets in your house.
Charges of emotions are relayed from the brain, down the spinal cord, and through the autonomic nerves to the blood vessels, muscle tissues, mucous membranes, and skin. When you are under emotional stress, all parts of your body can be subject to physical discomfort because of a change in blood nourishment, glandular function, or muscle tone.
A healthy example of this is when a speaker who is about to be introduced before a crowd becomes fearful over facing the audience and suddenly his mouth will become dry. That’s because his blood vessels have constricted and glandular activity has been reduced. When the fear goes away, the dryness also goes away.
It has also been proven that emotional stress will increase the size of the blood vessels in your head; this, in turn, produces pain because of the stretching of the tissues around the blood vessels and the consequential pressure on the nerve endings.
Within the medical community, it has been know for decades that emotional or relational problems that remain unresolved can be “turned over” or “taken up” by some other part of the body. When an irritating friend or a troublesome family member cannot be coped with, the patient develops physical symptoms. A medical doctor cannot find any real reason for the symptoms, but knows that the true cause of these body pains may be because of emotional conflict.
Dr. English wrote a list of the thoughts and feelings that can disturb the autonomous operation of the body: envy, frustration, worry, oversensitivity, ambivalence, inferiority, fear, ambition, resentment, self-centeredness, hostility, need for approval, guilt, repressed hostility, sorrow, rage.
He then gave us a list of words that were very similar. This list came from the Bible: “When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division” (Galatians 5:19-20). In essence, many of our negative emotions are actually sin manifesting itself in our lives.
Bob was a young pastor fresh out of college and just beginning seminary. He wanted to do well in his first church staff position. Bob had always wanted people to accept him and approve of what he said and did. However, not long into his new job, he discovered that not every church member liked what he said and did.
Bob began to notice that reading caused tremendous pain in his eyes. Normal lighting in his office gave him headaches. He couldn’t sleep at night. He was not as relaxed as he once was. Sitting still was almost impossible. Nervous twitching compelled him to see a Christian medical doctor. Bob was convinced that he had a brain tumor.
After the examination, the doctor said to him, “Bob, the good news is that you don’t have a brain tumor. The bad news is you have a severe case of stress! I will recommend two solutions to your problem and you can decide which one you want to try. I can give you tranquilizers to help you relax; or, you can leave my office, spend time with God, and ask Him to show you why you can’t relax.”
Bob left the doctor’s office knowing what he needed. He knew why he couldn’t relax. Although he respected the judgment of the people who did not approve of all he said and did, he also resented them and tried to cover it up in their presence. This was self-deception. The result? Restlessness and sleeplessness.
Bob’s experience illustrates these two Biblical principles: 1) “For not he who commends himself is approved, but whom the Lord commends” (2 Corinthians 10:18) and 2) “Then He said to them all, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me” (Luke 9:23).
After Bob repented of his hypocrisy and allowed the Lord to give him genuine respect for the people he once despised, the headaches, nervous twitching, and all the other symptoms were completely gone within a week. Like the red warning light on the dashboard of a car, Bob’s body warned him that not all was well with his spiritual life.
Bob’s experience is not an isolated one. Over the years, I have met many people who have had similar experiences.
One day during a counseling session, David spoke of his problem at home. Often he would arrive in a good mood and would be hungry enough to eat a side of beef. Then his wife would begin to air her complaints. Perhaps he had slammed the door when he came in. Or, he might have been a few minutes late. So just before dinner was ready, his body would become tense and he would lose his appetite. His angry, resentful reaction to his wife produced drastic bodily changes.
A young girl reported she suffered from severe headaches. Careful questioning disclosed that the headaches always occurred when her fiancé failed to call when he said he would. A further look back through her life showed that she had headaches whenever something went wrong with her plans. She also resented anyone who interfered with her plans.
Ed sought counseling at the recommendation of his physician. “How can you help me get over a stiff neck?” he asked, truly puzzled. As he told his story, it became clear that life, to him, was one big pain in the neck. The tenseness of his neck muscles gave him the pain. He was tense because he approached the problems in his life as if he were a football lineman charging his opponent. He had a quick temper.
Mrs. Diamond was a beautiful, cultured, well-educated woman. But in certain situations she was having difficulty swallowing her food. I learned that these times of difficulty came in connection with appointments that her husband demanded she make and keep and which she resented.
The Bible acknowledges the connection between certain feelings and bodily affliction. For example, King David was aware of the relationship between sin and pain: “There is no soundness in my flesh because of Your anger, nor any health in my bones because of my sin. For my iniquities have gone over my head; like a heavy burden they are too heavy for me” (Psalm 38:3-4).
Proverbs 28:13 tells us, “He who covers his sins will not prosper, But whoever confesses and forsakes them will have mercy.”
Unfortunately, I have met with many righteously indignant Christians. They came to me because their physicians ruled that their headaches, stiff necks, skin problems, chest pains, breathing difficulties, digestive problems, and tensions were caused by emotional stress. Regrettably, theologically trained, highly respected staff people from the churches they attended had justified those symptoms by attributing them to righteous indignation. However, righteous indignation is often a disguise for sinful anger.
You may be thinking that to explore the possibility of sinfulness is a harsh approach. If so, be assured that most people I talk with think the same as you do. Let me simply remind you that Jesus came to save us from our sins, and that if your problems are linked to sin, you are just a prayer of repentance away from wholeness and restoration. Is it not heartless cruelty to treat people for sickness if they are only sinful? When a Christian is suffering bodily pain, exploring the possibility of sinfulness should have priority.
A dear woman named Mrs. English asked me for an appointment. I was reluctant to do so because it appeared to me that she was merely sick and in need of a physician. She later wrote about our experience together; it is a startling illustration of the interplay between sickness and sinfulness:
Fighting for my life! That’s what I was doing. Pain creeping through my body had progressed from aching hips to aching spine, both knees, now one ankle. A horrible nightmare, but I was living it!
X-rays revealed the discomfort in my hip was osteoarthritis. Within two years the hurt had traveled over almost my entire body and I was frightened and appalled at what lay ahead.
One year later I went to a very fine specialist. He ordered x-rays and blood tests and, then announced that although I did have arthritis, the pain was too severe to be caused only by my physical condition. I left his office in a daze. Getting into the car, I pled, “Lord, if these pains are psychosomatic, I need to know.” It was very perplexing, for supposedly I was a happily married woman with her needs met, one who had no real excuse to worry and who claimed her trust in God meant that, through Him, she could be joyful, loving, peaceful, gentle, and good. But I wasn’t. Active in Christian circles, I was regarded as a “nice, sweet lady.” But I wasn’t.
For the next three days, I felt much better and again went to the Throne of Grace and said, “Father, You have healed my body but how about my mind?” That evening someone disappointed me. When I went to bed, my bones felt as though they had been lit with matches. This was so devastating that I fell on my knees and cried, “Help!”
An eminent Christian psychologist was coming to town a few months later and a one-hour interview was arranged. I prepared for it by reading his book “The Struggle for Peace” and by compiling a list of “what bugs me.” A pattern began to emerge as I read and made my list–every time I did not get my own way, I had adverse reactions!
As my counselor read the list, I told him of my nasty feelings and reactions, admitting hatred for the way I felt and acted, but being unable to prevent it. He dropped a bombshell! He said I was an angry person–that I like being an angry person or I would have changed long ago.
I could hardly believe it, but I had no choice. I was fighting for my health. So I took it on faith that I was in the right place at the right time, listening to the person God had sent to help me out of this mess.
The doctor further explained that I had fooled many people, including myself, making them think I was what I should be.
Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?”
I was denying what was in the inner recesses of my life and thus was in great conflict. By now I was in tears, recognizing that actually it was a question of violating a divine principle of spiritual living, just as someone who is sick has broken some medical rule of living. I couldn’t wait to hear what would come next because I was looking for a way of escape.
As I continued to cry my heart out, my counselor pointed me to answers from the Bible:
I began with Proverbs 28, “He who covers his sins will not prosper, but whoever confesses and forsakes them will have mercy.”
Going from Scripture to Scripture he showed me the way out.
I confessed my sin and received forgiveness for my reactions. Since that day, I have asked that I might not yield to the temptation to strike back at anyone, but prayerfully ask Him to take away these feelings and fill me, by His Spirit, with love, joy, and peace. Then I remind Him that I am thankful that He is so gracious, kind and good to me. He is always so gentle, yet firm, in His corrections.
I could hardly believe what happened. My severe joint pains were relieved, blood pressure was down, a new ability to relax developed, and my first reaction was not always [that] of anger. He began filling me by His Spirit with a new kind of peace and joy and a capacity to love.
Was it real? More than two years have elapsed since my visit to the Christian psychologist, and I feel better now than then. I have come to know the Lord Jesus Christ more intimately, to appreciate the work of the Holy Spirit in my life as never before and to trust God for all things in a way unknown in the past. Each new day I look forward to increased spiritual growth.
When your body hurts, check your spirit. The pain may be a signal to pay attention to your thoughts and emotions.