Biblical Truth and Behavioral Science

By Gwen Sellers

A friend of mine passed along a TEDGlobal 2013 talk by health psychologist Kelly McGonigal on stress. Having enjoyed what she had to say, I followed the YouTube links to another of her talks on willpower. The behavioral science and research on both topics was fascinating, but what struck me most was the way the science affirms biblical truth.

A Few Truths of Note

The main thrust of Dr. McGonigal's talk on stress was perception. Research indicates that it is how we view stress — not stress itself — that can be damaging to our health. When we believe stress is harmful, it will be. This calls to mind James 1:2-4: "Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing." When we accept life's challenges as opportunities for growth, and recognize the body's stress response as a mechanism God has given us to help us meet those challenges, we can actually engage in the process and allow the trials to do their work. Rather than view stress as the enemy, we come to God in faith and accept that "trials of various kinds" can serve a positive purpose.

At the conclusion of the video, Dr. McGonigal responds to a question with this: "Chasing meaning is better for your health than trying to avoid discomfort." God did not call us to a life of comfort or safety. He called us to a full life. When we chase after Him, we find true meaning. Ecclesiastes comes to mind.

Speaking on willpower, Dr. McGonigal mentions that "neuroscientists are famous for saying that even though we have one brain, we actually have two minds. And we are completely different people depending on which mind is active or which systems of the brain are more active." She goes on to describe a gap between what people want and what people think they want. They more easily identify with the person who wants to give in rather than the person who wants to do the healthy things. People go about life feeling as if they must resist a core self that always wants immediate gratification or never to do anything difficult. Wow, does this describe the battle between the sin nature and our newness in Christ or what?

Dr. McGonigal provides several practical suggestions for helping our willpower. Physiological support includes better sleep, controlled blood sugar, regular exercise, and meditation. I doubt it will ever cease to amaze me just how intertwined the human being is. Our bodies are a real part of our being, not an unimportant shell.

Forgiveness is important. The people who are most self-critical following a lapse in willpower are more likely to have a similar willpower failure, and to fail worse. She suggests having ready messages of "self-compassion" for willpower failures. The message includes: awareness and acknowledgement of thoughts and emotions (guilt, feeling like a failure, etc.), recognition of common humanity (this struggle is not unique to me), and encouragement over criticism (saying to yourself what you would say to a friend in a similar situation). Romans 7–8 comes to mind here.

Also important is "getting to know" one's future self, or having a concept that there is a real you in the future. This primes people to be more willing to make sacrifices today for long term goals.

Interestingly, predicting one's failures is also important. This can be helpful in noticing and avoiding triggers, but more important is the mindset behind it. Rather than expect ourselves to be perfect or be willing to only achieve the ideal, we view ourselves realistically. This means failure does not come as such a shock and we are able to deal with it and continue the process of growth. We also recognize that growth is a process, and we become willing to take small steps toward the larger goal. Another interesting thing is that "Optimism about future behavior licenses self-indulgence today." We put off for tomorrow what should be done today and end up not doing as well in the long run. Two verses come immediately to mind for me. "For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned" (Romans 12:3). "Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall" (1 Corinthians 10:12).

Lastly, she talks about "surfing the urge," or being willing to endure the craving or temptation without giving in. Rather than deny its existence or distract ourselves, we acknowledge that it's there but also recognize that we don't have to give in and it will pass. Second Corinthians 10:13 tells us, "No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it."

Some Thoughts

Admittedly, the idea of willpower can make me a little uneasy. I am not a self-improvement project. I am not in charge of my own sanctification. The battle against my sinful nature is not one I am going to win on my own. Yet, Paul told the Philippians, "Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Philippians 2:12-13). There is a real need for me to work out the process of sanctification. In that I can certainly use the tips about changing my mindset on stress, eating and sleeping better, envisioning my future self, recognizing my humanity and making gracious allowance for it. But more than that, I can rely on the power of the Holy Spirit. I don't have to wait for behavioral science research to help me live better because God has given us the truth of Scripture and the power of His Spirit. Even so, He has also given us inquiring minds that can do research and make practical suggestions for living.

One of those practical suggestions that I think will help in all of life is recognizing the importance of beliefs. When I truly rely on God's Word and believe His truth, it is good for my health. Romans 8:6 says, "For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace." This verse is not talking about physical health, but it absolutely highlights the importance of mindset, as does Romans 12:2. His truth is that trials (stress) can produce good things in me. His truth is that I am forgiven and am a new creation in Him. I need not live as if I am a slave to sin because I am not (2 Corinthians 5:17; Romans 6). I can live out of the mindset that wants those long term goals. I can use self-compassion, recognizing that I am forgiven in Christ and acknowledging that His grace is sufficient for me. Guilt, shame, and increasing law will only lead to failure, as Paul expounds on to the Romans. But knowing there is no condemnation in Christ and I cannot be separated from Him, I can allow for the process of change.

A final point: God's truth is truth. What the Bible says really works. How cool is that?

Published 12-17-14