Open Your Window — Episode 3: The Way We Think

by Greg Wiens

In these few posts, we are looking at three influences that seem to be narrowing the window of faith of Christians these past few decades. Last week I wrote how the epidemic of fear which has shown itself in the Covid-19 pandemic, simply allowed the anxiety of Christians to be manifested in some not so Christlike ways. Followers of Christ have become more identified with the anxiety of our culture than the peace of Christ, as shown through the various ways Christians responded (or did not respond) during these last several years. This was not a recent development, however, but is simply the continuation of decades of narrowing our windows of faith through fixating our perspectives. But this is only the first of three ways one’s windows of faith are being narrowed. 

The second window narrowing factor comes from what we have learned about the brain-mind-body these last 10-15 years. Summarizing thousands of pages of research1, we find a growing consensus that shows how our brains literally rewired themselves, how our DNA is modified, and how hormonal balances change dramatically from chronic stress or trauma. These changes cause long-term dysregulated behavior in people, some of which is sin. It is no longer appropriate to study the brain, mind, or physical body as separate entities. The body is impacted directly by the traumas, chronic stress of emotional episodes that the mind experiences. Often, we find evidence of previous traumas in a person’s life, which now produce symptoms in their body. 

The way we think or the way our mind works clearly impacts the way the brain structures itself. The way we experience, process, and recover from chronic stress or trauma will either hinder or help the body even develop immunities. A person’s ability to handle mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional challenges is directly related to their ability to regulate and restore themselves in the face of chronic stress or trauma. Research tells us that the habits one establishes in maintaining intimate relationships, meditating on Scripture, and taking care of oneself physically through appropriate diet, sleep, and exercise straightforwardly increase one’s health and ability to serve others. Even twenty years ago, this would have been thought of as highly improbable.

Researchers have found that living with chronic stress can be as detrimental to one’s emotional, physical, or spiritual health as a significant traumatic episode. In other words, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) not only results from enduring a traumatic event in your life but the same physiological or neurological damage can result from living in a chronically stressful situation for a period of time. For instance, you don’t only have to fight in a war, experience a horrible automobile accident, suffer from a sexual abuse encounter, or similar event to experience PTSD. Growing up in a home with parents who were unable to engage with you emotionally will likely result in feelings of abandonment as a young child that produce PTSD-like symptoms.

Agency and Recovery

What determines whether chronic stress or trauma is detrimental to you is often a result of agency and recovery. If you have little agency while you experience chronic stress, you will most likely become traumatized. And at some point, act out in unhealthy ways. Agency is your ability to act or behave in such a way to change the situation. If you have no agency, the chances of this experience being traumatic are greatly increased. The more freedom one has to act to impact an outcome, the less likely they are to experience long-term detrimental symptoms.  

This is critical as we deal with followers of Christ today. With the breakdown of the family, more individuals are experiencing trauma or chronic stress in their formative family years where they had no agency or recovery

Agency is critical in dealing with chronic stress and trauma, and so is recovery.

As we experience stress and trauma, we must build into our lives the intentional time and ability to recover, or we will experience negative long-term effects. Recovery takes many forms and is beyond the scope of this blog. However, as one experiences chronic stress and/or trauma, recovery means they process the resulting dysregulation (ways one does not handle it well) so that they are able to regain a healthy mental, emotional, hormonal, and physiological equilibrium state. 

You are peace! 

Deep abiding and spiritual peace.

As stated above, studies show taking intentional time to develop habits of 1) engaging in close and intimate relationships, 2) meditating on Scripture and dwelling in prayer, and taking care of oneself physically through appropriate 3) diet, 4) sleep, and 5) exercise allow individuals to recover deeply.

If individuals inside or outside the church encounter chronic stress or trauma while lacking agency and/or recovery, they will likely carry deep dysfunctional wounds. These wounds then produce much of the unhealthy behavior we see in churches today. In hindsight, it is easy to see how it happens. What I’m trying to help us develop is our foresight, the ability to change our ways before an unwanted outcome occurs!

As these people come to know Christ and begin growing in Him, their emotional, neurological, hormonal, addictive, or reactive issues are not immediately resolved. Most often, they go “underground.” When these Christians attempt to grow in Christ by primarily cognitive means, such as sermons or bible studies, they may learn to express their walk with Christ well, but the hidden dysfunctions lurk deep within. Our churches become filled with people who are experiencing unhealthy behaviors, attitudes, and emotions that they are trying to keep hidden.

In many of our churches, we pray for people with addictions, narcissistic traits, raging, anger, or other such obvious dysregulated behaviors, which often result from what I discussed above. The same can be said of the “quiet” ones, or the not so obvious dysregulated behaviors where individuals repress or deny their emotions, are inhibited by anxieties, discouraged by their depression, or struggle with abandonment issues. More people today coming to Christ are dysregulated deep in their soul. Here, we must be careful not just to treat the symptom. 

Through Christ, we begin to have access to all that junk, but too often, it just gets buried under a burden of guilt, shame, and Christian verbiage. We will deal with this next week in our last episode of Open the Window, Episode 4.

So what does this all have to do with how Christians are losing their ability to function as the children of the light? 

I have watched a number of Christians grow up in congregations that now serve as leaders/pastors but have not processed the trauma within their lives. They did not experience agency or recovery during their times of chronic stress or trauma. Their windows of faith have been narrowed because they have not processed the now deeply buried traumas. 

Understanding how these factors have caused well-meaning Christians to harbor unresolved emotions deep within their souls has helped explain to me why I see so many Christians (and those who have no faith) acting out in sinful and unbecoming ways. Their windows have been narrowed dramatically. 

Next week we will finish this series as we deal with how the church is or can respond to this situation.

1 A few of these books are:

  • The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk
  • Widen the Window by Elizabeth Elliot
  • Scattered by Gabor Maté
  • The Brain that Changes itself by Norman Doidge
  • Lost Art of Listening by Michael Nichols
  • Think Again by Adam Grant
  • How to Make the World Add Up by Tim Harford

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