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In the Land of Both/And: the case for faith and neuroscience

We hear it often said that life is a series of choices. For the most part, I believe this to be true. Every day we’re faced with decisions that, when carried out, in their sum total largely make up the life we live.

But, throughout my life I have found that in some situations, I feel forced to choose between two things that seem opposite, yet choosing feels…wrong. Both options feel right, or true at the same time. Yet, I feel pressure to choose.

People will tell you that things which seem opposite cannot be true at the same time. Many offer explanations why you must choose. Why it’s preposterous to believe both are an option at the same time.

I beg to differ.

My goal here is not to add confusion to life nor is it to say there are no absolutes, because if I said that I would, in fact, be stating an absolute. (Cue head scratch.) What I’m suggesting is that sometimes, choosing can be unhelpful and sometimes, downright dangerous. Sometimes, we need to camp in the land of Both/And in order to find what’s best for us. A lesson I learned firsthand when I started on my journey as a follower of Christ.

My story is one of many dark events; things that one might find hard to hear. It’s the kind of story that brings up difficult, uncomfortable emotions for the listener. And I understand that. There was a time when telling it brought up uncomfortable and downright terrifying emotions for me. So much so that I didn’t tell it for a long time.

After accepting Christ and becoming part of a body of believers, I tried telling my story again. But given the reception of some well-meaning individuals, I made the decision to call it all ‘handled’. Why would I do that you ask? Well, I was told “you’re a follower of Christ now.” I was told “You’re a conqueror!” I was told “You can do all things through Him”, etc. etc. And for awhile, that worked great.

Until it didn’t.

I felt like a failure for not being able to ‘get over things’. I knew life was different because of Jesus. In some ways I could feel it. But not in all ways. I wasn’t able to live as though someone had flipped a switch just because I had come to faith in Christ so my relationship with Him was the very thing that took a hit.

You see, the same shame I felt about telling people my real story and the shame I felt for not being able to ‘get over it’ (in the name of Jesus) was the same shame that I carried into my relationship with Him. I felt like I was doing it wrong and He was disappointed in me. In the meantime, I decided I would do my best to fake it until I made it. And trust me when I say, I wasn’t making it.

So, I quietly began to seek professional help to process my story. Fortunately for me, my counselors were believers and they helped me see that I was living under a false belief about needing to choose faith or therapy. What I’ve come to now call faith or neuroscience. They helped me see that while many in my life were well-meaning, they were also misguided.

The right and healthy choice was both/and. Faith and Neuroscience. Once I began to see the truth in this, the shame began to fall away. I felt balanced and began to understand myself. Which, wouldn’t you know, actually deepened my relationship with Christ. I was able to see all sorts of connections between His desire for my healing and the journey that I was on in therapy. A journey that without either element, I would’ve been trapped in the wilderness of my pain.

Eventually, it’s what lead me into the career I’m in now. It’s also why I chose to get my graduate degree at an institution that understands the importance of striking a balance between faith and neuroscience. That they are not antithetical to one another. Instead, they are essential partners in treating the whole person. Because that’s what we are. Not just physical or emotional or mental or spiritual, but all of those things.

I realize that the concept of holding two seemingly opposing things like these in tension is a difficult thing to grasp. But here’s a reason we should at least attempt to understand its importance. Real people who we really love are struggling with things like this every day. Often, their own shame keeps them from sharing what’s really happening for them internally. This in and of itself is dangerous. Here’s an example of what I mean.

Recently, I had a precious individual come to me grieving over their struggle with depression. They told me “I’ve been told that Scripture says the faithless are tossed about to and fro and that’s exactly how I feel. I thought I was a faithful person but now I’m being told I’m not because my emotions are everywhere. Depression is getting the best of me. I’m praying and praying but it isn’t getting any better.”

After taking a deep breath to swallow my sadness and, if I’m being fully transparent, my anger, at the individual who perpetuated this false interpretation of Scripture, I was able to have a conversation with this beautiful, struggling lover of Christ, helping them understand that what they were told is not what that Scripture means.

I was further able help them understand that we see examples in Scripture of people wrestling with emotional states. We also see examples of people able to hold joy and grief in tension as well as happiness and other emotions that seem opposite. I even jokingly said “Don’t get me started on David and his full spectrum of emotions; many portrayed all in one Psalm!”

This seemed to help and fortunately, we were able to get her to a therapist who is clinically trained AND is follower of Jesus.

Sadly, whether in the scientific or faith community, I think its fear that forces us into a position of choosing one over the other. Believing we can only be well if we choose one and stick to it. I think this is yet another tool of the enemy forcing us to stay disconnected, dis-integrated from ourselves and from others. Ultimately robbing us of living what Scripture calls ‘life to the full’ (John 10:10).

We are commanded to love the Lord our God with all our heart all our mind and all our strength. A holistic command. Nothing is emphasized over the other outside of loving God. It is certainly implied that to do that well we need our whole selves. Why? Because God cares about all aspects of us.

Just like we would not tell someone who needs treatment for a physical illness to simply quote Scripture at it or pray harder, we must be very wary of taking that approach to mental wellness as well.

The damage this has the potential to create is far reaching. Not only to the emotional state of an individual but to their spiritual walk as well. These are the kind of approaches that cause people to feel enough shame about their “lack of faith“ that they give up on a relationship with God, hiding from Him, believing that He cannot love them because they can’t ‘get it together’.

As part of the Church and part of the scientific psychological community, I for one, am in favor of looking at the whole person that God created us to be for the best approach to wellness.

In my opinion, it really is the best way to treat someone with the dignity they deserve.

If you’ve been wounded by the pressure you felt to choose between faith and therapy (faith and neuroscience) or to hide your story; I’m sorry.

If you’ve walled your pain off because of shame, I would ask that you give healing another chance, because healing is worth it and it is possible. And healing is ultimately what God wants for us. He can do this any way He chooses. Whether it looks like a flip of a switch or through clinical counseling from a redemptive world view.

Here's where to start. Look for a good counselor and a good church who recognize the importance of the whole person. When you find it, make sure to offer it for someone else in need as well. If you need help identifying how to get these kind of resources, please reach out to me. If feeling you had to choose has left you feeling stuck, I believe healing and wholeness can be found at the intersection of faith and neuroscience.

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