For those in conformity to the flesh are thinking about the things of the flesh, but those in conformity to the Spirit [are thinking about] the things of the Spirit. For the way of thinking of the flesh is death, but the way of thinking of the Spirit is life and shalom because the way of thinking of the flesh is hostility towards God for it does not subject itself to God’s Torah as it is not able to. Now those in the flesh are not able to please God.
As I am in a point of transition in my life where I am discerning whether I am going to return to the academic study of the New Testament or go down the line of pursuing medical school to become a psychiatrist, I have been doing some study in preparation for the MCAT and mastering the knowledge necessary to become a physician. One area of physiology and the behavioral sciences that has drawn my interest is the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and the relationship between the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PaNS). For those unaware, the SNS is the part of the nervous system that controls our responses to stress and the fight-or-flight responses to stress, whereas the PaNS is the “foil” of the SNS that draws us towards rest and controls the digestion of food.1
What draws my interest is how what Paul observes about human thinking in Romans 8.5-8 can be fruitfully compared to the functions of the two portions of the ANS. Now, Paul and the ancient world did not have knowledge of the nervous system, but they certainly were adept enough observers of human nature to be able to notice that there is a qualitative difference in the way people thought and behaved, where some were more predisposed to concerns about death, indicative of stress, whereas others would be more focused upon the pursuit of what is good in terms of peace and the flourishing of life, indicative of the minimization of stress.
The comparison between Romans 8.5-8 and the ANS isn’t direct, though, as if the way of thinking of the flesh is simply the activation of the SNS and the way of thinking of the Spirit is associated with the PaNS. For instance, the flesh for Paul is implicated in some behaviors that are connected with the PaNS, such as the desire for sexual activity. Nevertheless, as the two systems of are implicated in largely unconscious physiological processes that modify and regulate our conscious thinking, that Paul describes two different modes of thinking that come from the flesh and Spirit certainly are consistent with the general effects that the SNS and PaNS can have, particularly in terms of human desire. Those who live under high physiological stress, conscious or unconscious, are influenced primarily by the SNS, as the experience of stress is largely the result of the shutdown of the PaNS antagonistic effects of the always operating SNS. In the midst of this stress, the pursuit of their desires to address the feelings of stress will take on a much more primal, less thoughtful, often aggressive response and be motivated by the relieving of the threat potential stressors provide. By contrast, the focus on life and peace is much more characteristic of a human being whose PaNS has mitigated the physiological effects of the SNS. They are not motivated by a persistent, high degree of stress, but they can face life circumstances and seek after their desires in a way that is much more peaceable, less aggressive, and more concerned about bringing life rather than simply staving off death.
In other words, we may consider the relationship between Paul’s anthropology that is centered around the role of desires of the flesh and of the Spirit (cf. Galatians 5.16-25) correlates with the way the SNS and PaNS system are functioning together. In order to draw a link between Paul’s anthropology and the ANS that isn’t simply a haphazard connection of the two, it necessitates us considering how human life is transformed in Paul’s mind. In brief, Paul does not believe that Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit do something that circumvents human agency and affects only the soul/”spirit” of the person, but that the transformation of human life occurs by learning from Christ and the way the Spirit guides humans to resist the flesh and its activities. In other words, the transformation of human life from the way of thinking of the flesh to the way of thinking of the Spirit occurs through synergetic action where we as humans obey and imitate what God is teaching and showing in Christ and through that obedience and living imitation we experience a newness of life.
This then suggests a mechanism that connects the life lead by the Spirit and the functioning of the parasympathetic nervous system: the Spirit leads us to the type of behaviors that redirect the way we respond to stresses that threaten us such that we live as living sacrifices, not trying to relentlessly avoid everything that stresses us. When done in trust in God who raised Jesus from the dead and who will also give us life in the midst of our own crosses, we resist the impulses that the SNS moves us towards preserving ourselves from stress and instead we are physiologically open to the work of the Spirit to lead us towards a more peaceful, life-giving orientation and purpose. In short, God’s teaching of us requires our physiological system to be conducive to the way of life that God calls us towards in the Spirit.
Yet, in the midst of living under high levels of stress, it can often be hard to imagine precisely what a life of shalom would look and feel like. Under high stress, one is persistently trying to overcome the threats people feel to their well-being. Living in shalom is hard, if not impossible to imagine on our own. To that end, it becomes impossible for people to please God when their life is dominated by stress but they are not familiar in their heart with the way of God. The way of shalom that God had presented through the Torah is something that people will not abide by; it will, to appropriate Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians for a different purpose, seem like foolishness to them. When people are living under the persistent feeling of threats, the life of shalom often will feel like foolishness to them. Hence, people are not able to come to a way of life that pleases God on their own. The way their life has become structured leaves them darkened from being able to perceive a different, better way of living.
Hence, to make the transition from this way of living as a human under high stress and the ultimately death-dealing manners it leads us to fulfill our desires towards God’s righteous vision for life and shalom, it requires someone we do trust to show us the way out from the darkness and into the light. As humanity is lost in a world marred by the traumatic fears of death and the sin such traumatic memories can compel us towards without assistance to lead us differently, it requires God to act powerfully and decisively to break us from our blindness and show us His truth. Revelation from God is necessary to show us a different way to live as a human, particularly in a world that we ultimately now avoid the basic fear of death and suffering that shuts down the PaNS and leads us to live primarily from the physiological power of the SNS. Hence, Paul’s anthropology is necessarily apocalyptic, in which God dramatically demonstrates Himself and His righteous vision for bringing about a qualitatively different, human thriving through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the leading and empowerment of the Holy Spirit.
Yet, it is not enough simply enough that God reveals Himself and His will in the person of Jesus Christ. Many people can look at Jesus Christ from the point of view of stress and push away from the cross. For instance, I remember one conversation with a fellow Christian who straight forward said he was reticent to follow Jesus because he didn’t want to have the type of end that Jesus had. While this may in part be due to misunderstanding what it means to bear our own cross and the role this has in transforming our lives so that we can realize the life of shalom God would have for us and for us to bring to others, I would suggest from my own experience something more is also happening. When we look at Jesus’ death according to the ‘normal’ experience of the flesh, it can often look like an accursed thing that happened to Jesus. For instance, when I am dealing with the swelling of stress that comes with my PTSD, which fortunately is becoming much less frequent, the idea of following Jesus to the cross oftentimes is interpreted to me as simply accepting my lot in life and never having something better for myself than the pain and suffering I have experienced. The stress from my PTSD makes me at times look at Jesus’ crucifixion and the call to imitate it as simply a fatalistic acceptance of the pains of life as ultimate. In this way, understanding Jesus’ death can at times mirror what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12.1-3 about spiritual teachings about the significance of the Lord’s Supper2, that from the perspective of the flesh the cross can feel like a curse.
So, God must also make Himself known through the Holy Spirit in our lives so that we can rightly recognize that Jesus’ cross was the event that leads to His glorification as Lord (cf. Phil. 2.6-11). Through our crosses, resurrection and glorification occurs, not a fatalistic curse to suffering and pain. Only when we trust that the God who raised Jesus from the dead will also raise us from our own cross through the Spirit to new life and glory are we capable of receiving and learning this new way to living as humans in life and shalom. As the Spirit leads us to follow Christ in our lives, we discover that His leading is ultimately towards shalom, towards human well-being, even if on the surface it may look like it is leading us towards our death from the perspective of the flesh. Hence, God’s dramatic revelatory actions to us, for us, and even in us lead us to a new way of living as humans that, ultimately trains our brains and bodies to be able to live in peace and shalom in the midst of stressor. In other words, the leading of the Spirit is a retraining of the body to live in God’s vision for human well-being and flourishing.
Yet, it is important to note that there is a really important difference between the shalom of the cross and the peace of the world. While they both may look equivalent emotionally on the surface, they are motivated very differently. The image of peace that the world portrays is ultimately obtainable through the power to control those things that stress us or the ability to escape them. That is, to arrive at a worldly peace, it would require us to either have all the sources of power and control that can lead us to confidently fight off any threat that we fear is coming our way or to be able to successfully flee and avoid them; only if worldly status and possession give us the ability to successfully accomplish the fight-or-flight dictates of the SNS, then we can be at peace. The peace of the world, however, does not really operate with people who are having to face the threats of the world without the power to control and flee. Think of Abrahan’s words to the rich man who died who had good things while the poor Lazarus experience evil things (Luke 16.19-31). This leads to a ‘fragile’ peace that is based upon endlessly hiding beyond an ambition of ever-accumulating authority, status, knowledge, power, and wealth to help one to survive. The shalom of the cross, on the other hand, neutralizes the power that the threats of this world have over us so that we can go beyond surviving to truly thriving. We are more able and willing to face the challenges of life without having to resort to a fight-or-flight mentality of the SNS, with the confidence that it is God who raises, it is God who comforts, it is God who heals. This leads us to be much more at peace and willing to live peaceably in life, as the various things of life that might unconsciously signal a need to protect ourselves otherwise are experience as something we do not feel an unrelenting compulsion to have to find a way to address ourselves. The Spirit shows us through the cross a way that we can put our trust in God, rather than in the idols and sources of power that the world encourages us to trust in to bring peace.
To this end, Paul’s apocalyptic anthropology in Christ presents the way to learn how to live as humans through the Spirit within our own embodied realities in such a way that brings therapeutic healing to the stresses and traumas of life. God is turning us into new creation, not through doing something outside of our body, but rather transforming us and our bodies more towards their original, image-of-God-bearing purposes within the world. God is teaching us in a way that when obeyed retrained our bodies, and thus also directing our minds to discern the good and righteous will of God in a way we could not have achieved ourselves.
So, in conclusion, perhaps Romans 8.5-8 can be a source of intersection between Pauline theology and modern ideas of therapeutic healing. Paul’s apocalyptic anthropology does present something of a challenge to some of the way therapy is understood in the modern world, but it may also be instrumental in helping us to understand the pathways for people to discover God’s healing as something we are ignorant of until someone we trust comes along and shows us the way to experience such freedom and healing. Like God’s Spirit working through the Diamond to begin to show me the way of healing through the loving power of the Triune God, God’s demonstration of Himself in Christ and the Holy Spirit is the divine therapy the world needs to heal us from the ultimate trauma that besets us all: the power of death that gives power to the further traumatizing power of sin.
To add one addendum: This line of thinking does not lead to the equation high stress = living in the flesh and sin, nor that a person should be blamed for struggling with such a high degree of stress. There are various reasons people live under a high degree of stress that was not the result of their choices. Being born with a temperament that makes one more susceptible to stress and felt need to protect oneself, the infliction of trauma on people who had no control from natural events or other people’s malice or negligence, the perpetual exposure to signals that reinforce the need to try to protect oneself (such as many commercial advertisements that make us feel vulnerable to get us to buy a product), being swarmed with conflictual behaviors from others that one does not contribute to, etc. may all increase a person’s susceptibility to stress, but this does not mean the person is to blame or is responsible for their struggles. And even if people’s own actions are to some degree to blame for the circumstances they are in, God’s grace that is the theological heart of Paul’s apocalyptic anthropology means that God is trying to help move us away from this painful and potentially destructive way of life, regardless of whether our own sin implicates us in our struggles or not. God being a God of grace and mercy means that God’s redemption is not concerned with keeping score when it comes to transforming us and bringing us into a way of life and shalom; Jesus died for the sinner alongside the righteous (Rom. 5.6-11).
- Although, if the Polyvagal Theory as proposed by Stephen W. Porges is correct, the PaNS may also be implicated in shutting down the body in response to a threat that a person can neither fight or flee from. In other words, it leads to the freezing response that can occur in the face of threats that can be implicated in the experience and persistence of trauma.
- While many translations will take τῶν πνευματικῶν in 1 Cor 12.1 to refer to spiritual gifts that are discussed in chapters 12 and 14, I think it is better to interpret it as the spiritual utterances in a way similar to 1 Corinthians 2.13. As 1 Cor. 12.1-3 falls right after Paul’s discussion of the Lord’s Supper, it is perhaps referring to the way specific may have taught about the significance of Jesus’ death as symbolized in the sharing of the Lord’s Supper together. Hence, what is said about “Jesus is Lord” and “Jesus is accursed” falls more appropriately as describing how people teach the meaning of Jesus’ cross