Biblical Truth and Behavioral Science

By Gwen Sellers

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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.

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Image Credit: TED Conference; "
Untitled"; Creative Commons

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Published on 12-17-14