In public, J.P. Moreland is best known for battling in the arena of Christian apologetics. But privately, he has waged a personal struggle against occasionally debilitating mental illness. The longtime Biola University philosophy professor opens up about this side of his life in Finding Quiet: My Story of Overcoming Anxiety and the Practices that Brought Peace. Eric L. Johnson, director of the Gideon Institute of Christian Psychology and Counseling at Houston Baptist University, spoke with Moreland about the spiritual and psychological lessons he’s learned.
Finding Quiet is centered on the story of your journey of recovery from anxiety and depression. Tell us some of that story.
I was born into a family with a genetic predisposition, on my mother’s side, toward an anxiety disorder. I went through life with periods of anxiety, but in 2004, following my most stressful year as a professor, I had a complete nervous breakdown, complete with daily panic attacks and irrational fears. I was afraid when the phone rang, afraid to check my email. This lasted seven months, before therapy, medication, and other measures helped me regain stability. Then, ten years later, the same thing happened. By fall I was unable to teach my classes because I was completely dysfunctional. I couldn’t even let my grandchildren visit because it was too much stimulation.
After recovering once more, I began reading everything I could about dealing with anxiety, along with many books about spiritual formation. From this, I learned that anxiety was largely a habit—though of course not entirely a habit. So I began practicing habit-forming disciplines to help reprogram my brain, heart, and nervous systems, as well as my soul. It changed me radically. Even after I was diagnosed with cancer, I was so peaceful and full of joy that my wife, daughters, and friends were asking what was different. I wrote this book because I wanted desperately to share what I had learned.
How do you define the heart, and why do you consider it such an important factor in the path to recovery from an anxiety or depressive disorder?
For me, the heart refers to all the faculties of the soul—the mind, the will, and the emotions—in their deepest parts and most hidden recesses. It is interesting, and in my opinion not accidental, that the Bible uses Hebrew and Greek words for heart instead of some other organ, because the heart muscle has a substantial role to play in our spiritual transformation.
In the book, I show that the body’s different organs and regions are extremely important in this regard. They are what contain the habituated “grooves” that trigger us to feeling and acting in certain ways, which produces habits. C.S. Lewis talked about individuals who had no chests. In the Middle Ages, the chest represented the area where an individual engaged in moral perception. The soul literally used the chest area as a vehicle for perceiving God’s reality.
Some Christian therapists practice just like secular therapists, whereas others are Bible-only and reject secular therapy entirely. Your book is unique, in that it appropriates a few secular therapy models but also relies strongly on Scripture, the Holy Spirit, and the practice of contemplative prayer. What about you and your story made possible this synthesis?
When I first became a Christian, I noticed that there was truth relevant to Christianity and morality outside the Bible. There was, for example, evidence for the Resurrection that came from fields like archeology. As long as something didn’t contradict Scripture, then I could accept it as true based on the evidence. When dealing with anxiety and depression, I want to use everything at my disposal, including all the tremendously helpful insights from psychology, medicine, spiritual formation literature, you name it.
What role do you think the body and brain play in disorders like anxiety and depression?
We have to begin with a biblical view of the body. In Romans 6, Paul says, “For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification” (v. 19, ESV). He doesn’t just mean this in a moral sense but in a more expansive sense of the “members” of our bodies functioning the way God meant them to function. How do you, say, present your stomach to God as an instrument of sanctification? You engage in certain practices, like fasting, over and over again, until you “re-groove” the muscle memory or the nervous system patterns in that organ, so that instead of automatically triggering sinful or self-destructive behavior, they orient you toward righteousness and flourishing.
With anxiety and depression, the brain and the heart muscle are the two most important organs to present to God. There are cells called neurons in the heart muscle and the brain, and they can fire as a group. When this happens, they wire together and form a network, or “groove,” which can become deeper and deeper. So negative thoughts literally reshape the brain structure to form negative neural patterns. The solution is to present my brain to God as an instrument of righteousness by recognizing negative self-talk and turning away from it, while moving toward something that takes my attention in a better direction. Analysts have done brain scans showing that, after time, this can shift your default condition back to joy and peace rather than negativity, anxiety, and depression.
How do you respond to Christians who criticize the use of psychotropic medication?
There is no cause for embarrassment if you need to take medication. It does not mean that you are not spiritually strong. Sometimes anxiety and depression get bad enough that it becomes a brain chemistry issue rather than a spiritual or psychological issue. At that point you need to address the biological side of it. You need to take medication.
These medications are essentially food for the brain. They restore serotonin and other chemicals you can’t produce for yourself. Now, there are side effects to discuss with your doctor. But the good news is that these medications can help you return to a point of being able to deal with your issues on a spiritual and a psychological level, because the pain isn’t making you dysfunctional. It is hard to work on joy in the Lord when your thumb is being hit with a hammer. You have to lower the pain level to a certain point and then you can go back and rejoice.
You focus primarily on anxiety and sadness. However, shame and guilt are also important emotions in the Christian scheme of things, and they are often correlated with anxiety and depression. Have you thought about how shame and guilt might also contribute to psychological problems and how the gospel especially helps Christians address these emotions?
Issues of guilt and shame are absolutely huge. Researchers have discovered that if you do not feel forgiven and shame-free and are unable to extend forgiveness to others, you are apt to die of heart disease more quickly, your blood pressure can increase, and there is greater risk of psychological damage. The problem is: Where will I find forgiveness, and how can I deal with the shame that I actually deserve? That is where the gospel comes in. I return often to Romans 8:1 and to Colossians 2:14, which speaks of our sins being nailed to the cross. Those ideas are so powerful to me, and they play an important role in our healing.
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