While I have never been formally diagnosed, I personally struggled with the symptoms of PTSD. I am well enough that it can be contained so that it doesn’t have a severely negative impact at any single point of time, but I am also broken enough for it to flood my thinking and feelings with things I wouldn’t feel on most days. The best way I can describe what it is like to a person who doesn’t quite understand it is that it is like there is a ghost that is always howling in the back of my mind. Most of the time you can tune the noise out, but occasionally something happens that gives the ghosts a megaphone and what becomes a howling you can ignore becomes a shout you can’t get away from.
Now, there isn’t a literal ghost haunting my mind. Nor would I even try to turn that voice into the devil, though as a Christian I do believe in a transhuman, but not transcendent, force or power that works towards evil. This “ghost,” to my best understanding, emerges from the way my amygdala in the brain has ‘developed’ due to various events in my life. For most people, the amygdala works outside of our conscious awareness, processing our sensory experiences for anything that resembles encoded memories of threats, and only “triggers” our awareness when some very salient, potential threat is detected. However, for me, it is best described as emotional tinnitus, that is always only the margins of my awareness. Most of the time, I become ‘aware’ of something being a potential threat, only to think about it for a second and to know what I am worried about isn’t actually a real concern. However, there are still times where the fear floods me, and thankfully I have learned to isolate myself during such events, and it can even subtly impact my behaviors in ways that I am not even consciously thinking about.
I mention all this to say that I feel like I have a unique vantage point to talk about what it means to be human. My specific experience with PTSD has brought me to place where I am (a) aware of a lot of what happens underneath the surface to people who are usually unaware of how fear impacts them and (b) can contrast between being controlled by fear and not and the differences in thinking and living that operates between the two. Allow me to frame this discussion with a Biblical passage from the Apostle Paul in Romans 8.5-8 based upon my own translation of the Greek:
For those who are acting according to the flesh think about the things of the flesh, and those who are acting according to the Spirit think about the things of the Spirit. For the flesh thinks1 about death, and the Spirit thinks2 about life and peace. Therefore, the thoughts of the flesh are hostile towards God, for it does not submit to God’s Instruction3 because it is unable.
There is a little bit of brush clearing we need to do here before I can connect this to my experience with PTSD. The “flesh” (σάρξ) is not the “sinful nature” that many evangelical translations rendered the term as. Certainly, the flesh is responsible for human sinfulness in Paul, but Paul does not define the flesh by its negatives outcomes but as the personal experience of human embodiment with all its compulsory desires and overriding impulses (cf. Gal. 5.16-17, 24). This is to be distinguished from the body (σῶμα) which is a more “objective” thing that we perceive with our eyes rather than with our feelings. Paul does not envision the human body as evil due to the presence of sin. Rather, the body is something to be redeemed (Rom. 8.23).
However, we need to further clarify Paul’s understand of the flesh and its desires. Paul is not simply thinking about the bare existence of something we now today call a desire. Emotional experience in Paul’s day was largely defined by the Stoic account of emotions and passions, which understood emotional experiences and desires in terms of those passions that overwhelm and control human thinking. Thus, the flesh refers to the predilection of human embodied experience to have desires that entirely controls their thinking and impulse towards action.
A good example of this is an obsession, in which a person becomes fixated on something they want or fear and their thinking is unable to let go of it. For instance, think of the way modern society talks about sex and love in popular media. Their portrayal of love and sex is best described as an obsession in which a person may experience a desire for sex and romance that controls everything they think about and do to the point that they can not let it go or act appropriately. Or, in my case of PTSD, there are moments where I can not let go of the fear that someone is out to pull the rug out from under me. While not quite a full-blown obsession as I can recognize I have no real knowledge of this nor that I have no real control of it at the moment even if it were true, when I get in that mode of thinking I am distracted from adequately focusing on anything else. It is this type of psychological phenomena, both in its full-blown obsession and it’s lesser form of dysfunctionally distracted thinking that characterizes the Stoic concern about the passions and Paul’s understanding of the desires of the flesh.
So, with that in mind, here is where my thinking about PTSD overlaps with Paul’s discussion on the flesh in Romans 8. What I have come to comprehend about PTSD in a way that a textbook never taught me is the way that our bodies are geared towards survival. This is the case even when one is not actively feeling fear. Much of what we desire as something good is deeply connected with the instinct for surviving and our need to get away from it. The desire for a good career and to save money is connected to the sense of survival. The desire for sex can be a form of distracting oneself from the struggle with surviving, whereas the desire for a romantic partner is connected to someone to take care of our needs. While the most basic existence of the instinct for survival and the desires it can elicit are not bad or evil, it is the very predilection of our own embodied experience to become fixated on our own desires to the point that they become controlling, survival complexes (to use a term from the history of psychology).
To that end, it overlaps with what Paul says about the thinking of the flesh is death. Far from simply describing the cessation of all physical life, death for Paul refers to the suffering in the world that both emerges from sin and contributes to the emergence of sin.4 As a consequence, the flesh is thinking about death in terms of alleviating the suffering that is deeply associated with death.
Now, in our modern Western world, we might be inclined to think of death as symbolic for negative emotions and life and peace as symbolic with positive emotions. We might think Paul is describing the leading of the Spirit as bringing about the experience of happiness. However, this is a huge mistake. Paul is not thinking like a Western, Cartesian thinker who has a deep introspective awareness of all of his emotional experiences. Death is not code for “bad feelings” and life and peace is not code for “positive feelings.” In fact, this is far from the truth. Emotional experience is subtly different from desire and fears in that emotional experience is determined by the realization of what we want or fear. Positive emotions are often very intense and strong when we are trying to survive. I remember one person who after later reflection I suspect grew up in a situation of emotional abuse or deprivation, and when I showed them kindness, they responded to my kindness with an extreme, almost abnormal emotional reaction. They were experiencing a great positive emotion as a person who was trying to survive. Or, consider the susceptibility and power of addiction to people whose life situations are incredibly stressful and burdensome: whether it be drugs, alcohol, sex, money, popularity, etc., they get a huge emotional high as they are trying to survive. When we feel we are trying to survive, when we are trying to stave off suffering, we experience huge emotional highs that come when our wants, hopes, and goals become realized; of course, the reverse is true in that we can also experience incredible emotional lows when things don’t go as we wish or even as we fear.
Rather, I want to describe Paul’s contrast between the flesh and the Spirit as the difference between surviving and thriving. Whereas the thinking of the flesh is based upon survival, the thinking of the Spirit is based upon thriving, that is, living well.
In recent years, there has been an increased discussion in theology, philosophy, psychology, and politics, and sociology has focused on the idea of human flourishing. Martin Seligman’s Flourish and Miroslav Volf’s Flourishing represent two books specifically on the topic in the past decade. I do not think flourishing is the best description of what Paul is getting at. Flourishing is too associated with the modern notion of positive emotionality and the social and economic conditions for it to adequately describe Paul’s understanding of the Spirit. For instance, Seligman refers to a study by Felicia Halpert and Timothy So that define the core features of flourishing as (1) positive emotions, (2) engagement, interest, and (3) meaning, purpose. All three of these terms convey some sense of an affective state. While Paul does associate the work of the Spirit with positive emotions (Gal. 5.22-23), the focus on affect presents an epistemological dead end as positive emotions can also be experienced in a state of survival, but nevertheless, people in such a state and experience are not necessarily in a positive place. My concern isn’t that emotions are unimportant or to diminish the affective life, but rather to provide a more fitting interpretation of Paul that I feel common understandings of “flourishing” can not provide.
Paul defines the Spirit’s thinking as being about life and peace. It is actually probably more appropriate to think of the Greek term εἰρήνη as closer to the Hebrew concept of shalom. Shalom is a more relational term that concerns the relation of people to each other and the well-being that emerges from right relationships (that is, righteousness), whereas the modern understanding of emotions and affective experience and those concepts based upon them as a unit of analysis are a risk of methodological solipsism that dovetails into epistemic skepticism and strong relativism. In other words, shalom looks at the well-being of life in terms of one’s relationships and the factors that constitute to shape of those relationships, such as trust, shared norms (e.g. covenants), resources and skills to be shared, etc.
Paul’s inclusion of εἰρήνη/shalom in Rom. 8.6 serves to demonstrate that the differences between the thinking of the flesh and the thinking of the Spirit is not just simply a binary opposition between good and bad, but perhaps more significantly, that there is a qualitatively different way of life that emerges from the think of the Spirit. Rather than the difference between flesh and Spirit operating simply along the lines of personal experience of life and death, it is also a contrast between positive relations (εἰρήνη) of the Spirit, with the negative hostility (ἔχθρα) towards God that the thinking of the flesh engenders. The way of life of the Spirit can not be distinguish between the flesh along the lines of any single way of evaluating between the two, but they operate as demonstrably different ways of thinking and living. When transferring this understanding into my understanding of experience in more modern terms, I describe this qualitatively different way of life as “thriving” largely due to its rhyming with “surviving” so as to connect the two while distinguishing them apart.
What would I say from my more modern psychological perspective that distinguishes between surviving and thriving? I wouldn’t say it is the presence of positive and negative emotions. Rather, I would align it more closely with a basic, overarching way people respond to and cope with the fulfillment of their desires, goals, hopes, etc. Underneath the survival mechanism is the high degree of contingency between our sense of well-being and specific experiences. People who are in survival mode can respond to many of their experiences almost as if it is a matter of life and death, even when there probably isn’t truly a threat.
But what is key to understanding “surviving” isn’t that one feel bad, unhappy, or continuously threatened. If you are a person who fears not having enough money and you have saves millions upon millions of dollars, you likely aren’t going to feel like you are trying to survive financially. Now, if you regularly choose to save money in the face of other important needs for yourself or others, some might consider it being greedy. However, sans the moral judgment, that type of behavior is part of a survival “complex” that continues to be activated even though poverty is not even a remote threat. That you are perpetually successful at ‘surviving’ doesn’t mean you aren’t still trying to survive. At the core of trying to survive isn’t whether we are succeeding or failing, but whether we can or can not let go of something we value in the moment.
Now, before proceeding, I am not calling the survival instinct bad. There are situations and circumstances in our life where we do have to immediately if we are to protect our well-being. The problem is when the survival instinct transforms into a survival complex, which usually becomes focused on specific desires for money, social approval, sex, social distance, etc. and fears such as not having enough, abandonment, being harmed, etc. when there is no warranted reason to consider those things highly important or a threat in the moment. The survival instinctive is highly adaptive, the survival complex is maladaptive.
But even if maladaptive, one can still be successful in one’s maladaptive behaviors. One can be on top of the “food” chain, but one can still be trying to survive, with the results that other people have to pay the consequences for their maladaptive behaviors. This is where the problem of pervasive sin enters into the picture: when we are perpetually trying to survive by staving off death, suffering, and the fear of them, we can act in ways where we routinely and wrongly transmit consequences, pain, suffering, and even death onto other people. No wonder the preacher of Hebrews talks about the devil as the one who has the power of death and the people’s slavery to fear in the same breath in Hebrews 2.14-15.
By contrast, to be working towards thriving is to be experience a more flexible approach to life, that allows us to respond to our desires, fears, emotions, etc. with greater flexibility such that we can readily sacrifice one thing we value for something else that we determine to be more important in the moment. For instance, the thriving millionaire is able to give generously to a person in need, because they are able to value the well-being of another person more than some voice in the back of their mind that tells them they need to save their money. Furthermore, life may throw a person who is thriving some difficult circumstances, but so far as what we might refer to as their “coping resources” aren’t entirely depleted, they can face those trials without falling into the trap of feeling the need that they have to always survive. People who are thriving can negotiate their various goals, desires, and fears based upon the reasonable and even some of the unreasonable situations that they face.
But, to be clear, this flexibility isn’t what defines a thriving person, but rather it is a condition that is necessary for thriving. The ability to have the sort of flexibility that a thriving person has comes from the combination of general and specific life circumstances and the way we appraise them. A person who is surviving readily sees their situations teetering towards a significant threat, whereas a thriving person explains situations in a way are more reasonable and apropos to the circumstance.
Now, in connecting surviving and thriving to Paul’s discourse in Romans 8, one might be tempted to draw a connection between personal prosperity in thriving by the Spirit or Christian faith. But that isn’t what Paul is precisely getting at. A key, overarching theme of Romans, particularly Romans 1-8, is the theme of God’s righteousness. Righteousness is primarily about acting appropriately, justly, and in a trustworthy manner towards people who engages with and is obligated to. Essentially, to live righteously is to act appropriately in our obligations and commitments, both with God and others. So when Paul is talking about the thinking of the Spirit brings about life and peace, Paul is not thinking simply of personal thriving and prosperity. Rather, people lead by the Spirit are those people who through the Spirit’s leading bring about life and peace; they cultivate thriving. The Gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t a gospel of personal prosperity, but it is a Gospel that promotes relational and communal well-being.
What distinguishes the Gospel of Jesus Christ from all other forms of human morality, economics, therapy, and politics isn’t the possibility of thriving. Believers and non-believers alike can thrive. What distinguishes them from the framework of the New Testament is that by union with Christ through the Spirit, believers can become reliable agents of thriving. We as people can stumble upon thriving through chance that delivers us the right environment, learning, and opportunities to thrive. The Gospel brings order to a chaotic world of sin and death so that the promise of blessing for the nations given to Abraham can become realized through the people called to and Spiritually formed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The redemption of the Gospel, far from just bringing us well-being, actually makes us agents of thriving, makes us peacemakers, or perhaps more appropriately, shalom makers.
This transformation occurs through the realization of the death of Jesus Chris in our own life. Far from some masochistic death wish, the union of believers to Jesus Christ that Paul talks about in Romans 6 can be framed in part as an acceptance of suffering, pain, and death, though not surrender to it. When we experience such negative outcomes without viciously struggling to stave off the threat, we fight against the survival complex that binds us in fear and keeps us locked into a cycle of sin that emerges from our need to survive that devalues our obligations and commitments to others. To put it in Paul’s language in Romans 12.1, to be a living sacrifice means we are putting to death the deeds of the flesh and its way of thinking. Then, by presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice that experiences the suffering that comes with refusing to give in to the dictating desires of the flesh, the mind, which was previously enslaved by the powers of sin and death inhabiting the flesh/body (Roman 7.14-25), becomes freed to be renewed by the Spirit of God so that we can discern God’s will for blessing and thriving and the way He seeks to bring that about.
It is at this point, then, that the inspiration of the Holy Spirit is critical to being agents of the thriving that comes from God’s promised blessing. The world is marred by sin and death. As a result, we can’t simply learn from the world to know how to bring about thriving that comes from God’s blessing. Much of the ‘wisdom’ that the world produces is a wisdom of how to survive, which ultimately culminates in a hyper-competitive, conflict-oriented style of behaviors that protect me and my own. James calls such “wisdom” earthly, unspiritual, and devilish (James 3.14-16). Natural ethics may have some ideas that overlap with God’s will and purposes such that we can even find some “agreement” between some of the teachings of Scripture and various forms of ethical reasoning, but because such wisdom is derived from a marred creation, it is a wisdom that continues to self-perpetuate the damage it seeks to free itself from. Thus, we need the Spirit who formed us into the image of Christ to bring the whole of God’s will into our awareness and concern, not just isolated parts to indiscriminately mix in with other philosophies. Thus, we need the Spirit to creatively inspire us to learn anew and afresh ways to be agents of shalom, blessing, and thriving that we can not just learn from study and observation of the world. But to receive this discernment and to be agents of this shalom, we must first be united to and formed in Christ.
- Literally, “the thinking of the flesh.” While φρόνημα is a noun, it is a noun that is desribing the cognitive action of thinking that φρονέω describes. Since the noun profiles an action, it is better represented by a verb as English’s nouns about thinking by default profile a static, stable thought at a particualr point of time rather than a the process of thinking that changes across time.
- Literally, “the mindset of the Spirit.” See previous footnote.
- Literally, the Greek reads “the law of God” in τῷ νόμῳ τοῦ θεοῦ. However, Paul uses νόμος reguarly to refer to the Torah. However, as a result, νόμος was conceptualized as a source of instruction (cf. Rom. 2.18). By adding the genitival τοῦ θεοῦ, Paul thinks of the Torah as it originates and comes from God as a way of teaching Israel, rather than simply as a recorded set of laws and commandments that people read (cf. Rom 7.6.).
- I consider Romans 5.12 to describe the reflexive manner in which sin and death are mutually caused each other. I translate Romans 5.12 as “Therefore, just as sin entered into the world through one human, and death through sin, so also death spread to everyone, based upon which everyone has sinned.” I consider ἐφʼ ᾧ as describing the spread of death to everyone as the foundation for the universality of sin.