What Causes Disease?
One of the most unsettling things about disease—apart from the thing itself—is the lack of any clear answer about where it came from and why we got it. We want to know what causes disease, especially the one that just jumped on us! Of course with infectious diseases we know that it’s germs, even if we can’t identify the moment of contact. But it would help to know wouldn’t it? Because then we would have a fighting chance to avoid it the next time. Nevertheless, it’s a relief to know that the problem didn’t begin with us, even if we were careless. We caught something due to a viral or bacterial attack from the outside.
Such understanding is almost never the case with the worst diseases of all: heart disease, cancers, diabetes, asthma, migraines, stomach disorders and a host of others. They seem to drop in on us “out of the blue”—we are stunned, shocked and utterly in the dark, wondering “Why me?” and finding scant answers. What’s worse, this whole class of illness is something that is really giving our medical system a run for the money, because they can usually only treat the symptoms, not cure the disease.
Just Like Job
One can’t help but remember poor old Job. All the way back then (over 3000 years ago), this thorny question—what causes disease—was raised to his extreme discomfort. As you recall, Job held out bravely against his outrageous misfortune, but he was feeling mighty bad about the boils, not to mention his personal losses. Then, adding insult to injury, his insensitive friends began hammering him with accusations that it was his own sins which brought him so low, so confess up! Job exploded, protesting his innocence and railing against his friends and his fate. Who can blame him?
Well… actually, the Lord showed up with a few words of correction. He rebuked the friends for condemning Job, but Job was also rebuked for not trusting God. Let’s take that into our situation. Like Job we really don’t know what it is that we MAY have done wrong, so the idea that we brought it on ourselves truly stings. On the other hand, can we honestly say that our trust in God is perfect? This gives us two clues. To follow the trail of truth, we are going to need to steer clear of self-condemnation AND steer towards that distant goal of gaining a greater trust in God.
Along the way towards understanding what causes disease, we will go over three main areas:
1) The mind-body connection
2) The role of negative emotions
3) The Lord’s antidote to disease
Ever since Pavlov got his dogs (they were “labs”—old joke) to salivate at the sound of a bell, scientists have been digging into the mind-body connection from every possible angle. That breakthrough was just over 100 years ago. In our day there is a positive landslide of evidence linking the two together. This is not speculative science, but fully mainstream. It is now beyond question that our soul (our conscious and unconscious being) is intimately involved with every system of our body. Just as our body impinges on our consciousness, so our soul—our inner life—affects our bodies.
Consider that we are 100% chemical in our biological make-up; 100% electrical in our neurological system; and 100% filled with thoughts, beliefs and emotions in our soul. This is going on all the time. It is sheer fantasy to believe that there is no connection between our minds and bodies, yet people believed it nevertheless.
Five hundred years ago, Enlightenment thinker Rene Descartes proposed that our minds and all matter were radically disconnected. For centuries his reasoning held sway over many, which left a cultural legacy in the West against inter connectivity. Now we know better. Every thought (conscious or unconscious) translates into a chemical reaction in the body—all the way down to the cellular level—and a corresponding electrical impulse in the neurological system.
A Doctor’s Diagnosis
In his bestselling book, Deadly Emotions, Dr. Don Colbert describes the mind-body connection in this way:
No person experiences an emotion just in his “heart” or in his “mind.” Rather, a person experiences an emotion in the form of chemical reactions in the body and the brain. These chemical reactions occur at both the organ level—stomach, heart, large muscles, and so forth—and at the cellular level.
He continued by noting that due to the “impressive” amount of research on how our inner life affects our health, “what we feel as emotions results in how we feel physically.” Just to cite one of his many examples, he stated that a Mayo Clinic study “found that stress was the strongest predictor of future cardiac events, including cardiac death, cardiac arrest, and heart attack.” Wait a minute, what happened to diet and exercise? Has it been stress all along?
The Stress Effect
The role of stress in tearing down the body’s intricate systems of health is all-pervasive. Let’s look at just two ways: its effect upon hormones and upon the immune system.
We all have something that the medical world calls the General Adaptation Syndrome (G.A.S.). This gives us the extra “gas” we need for flight or fight responses to the perceived danger which triggers it. Certain hormones, most notably adrenaline and cortisone, increase dramatically. These supply instant strength for running from a bear, or rushing to save a child from a speeding automobile, while other (equally important) systems dial down. That’s just what we need in the moment of threat, provided we use it as intended.
The problem comes in when we perceive danger when there is no way to work off the chemical surge. Most of the “dangers” that cause stress cannot be resolved by fighting or running away! Think of the stress from co-workers, or of in-laws coming for the weekend, or of getting through traffic in time for the next meeting.
Modern life is characterized by a mounting sea of stressful events and daily pressures coming at people from every conceivable direction. And yet the real culprit isn’t the situations which surround us—it is the emotional reactions going off inside of us. These create a witch’s brew of powerful, unneeded chemicals that have nothing better to do than contaminate other systems of our body. Dr. Colbert writes that “chronic stress is always negative in the long run.”
The Immune System
Another way to examine the negative effect of stress is upon our immune systems. As a barrier to illness, our immune system is an absolute marvel. If fully operational and thriving, our immune system can fend off or throw off any disease that tries to cross the boundaries. If the immune system is up to strength, germs cannot cross over to infect us. We wouldn’t have to worry so much about being around them. But it goes further.
Those pesky “incurable diseases” I mentioned earlier (that our doctors rarely cure), can be thrown off by an immune system operating in full health. However, there is something that can bring this strong man down—emotional stress! One study found that just six minutes of a negative emotion can suppress the immune system for more than 21 hours. A little stress can block a lot of health, but not just any emotions. Certain negative emotions are more damaging than others. Dr. Colbert writes:
We have something of a stress gauge in our bodies. The emotions that are most damaging are rage, unforgiveness, depression, anger, worry, frustration, fear, grief and guilt.
These negative emotions which place so much stress upon our bodies come in two forms: those that arise out of present situations and those that are “embedded” in our deepest memories. Doctors Alexander Loyd and Ben Johnson in their book, The Healing Code, state that embedded negative emotions are the most damaging kind, producing “physiological stress” (at a subconscious level), as opposed to “situational stress” (at the conscious level).
These unhealed memories are actually stored as false beliefs and negative images which form “destructive cellular memories” in the cells of our bodies! In terms of the mind-body connection they list three “one things” which we need to know: There is one thing that can heal anything—our immune system; there is one thing that turns off the immune system—stress; there is one thing that will turn the immune system back on—healing “the issues of the heart.” It is to those issues that we now turn.
What causes disease? It appears that we do! Not intentionally of course. Like Job, we are innocent of doing anything consciously or intentionally wrong. Who would want to sabotage their own health? The Lord certainly isn’t condemning us, but He may be using science in an effort to open our eyes to something we have been overlooking. For instance, have we really stopped to connect the dots concerning the mind-body connection? Our inner state affects our physical well-being! We can’t allow emotional stress to pound away on us and not experience damaging consequences down the road. But how do we get free of stress?
Typically, stress takes the form of emotions we call negative. These are emotions that we don’t want to have in the first place. Things like fear, anxiety, bitterness, shame, despair and jealousy (remember Dr. Colbert’s “deadly” emotions?) aren’t emotions that we desire or enjoy.
Like pain negative emotions may perform at times a necessary function of alerting us to things that need our attention, but as with pain we want the alert to end quickly. So, we’d love it, if something could help us get rid of those pesky varmints AND free our bodies from the disease-inducing stress they generate. That’s coming up in section three. First, let’s take a closer look at the negative emotions.
The Good Negative Emotions
Ironically, not all the negative emotions are negative. From the Bible’s perspective there are a few “good” emotions that we might perceive as negative ones due to the way that they feel: godly fear (awe and respect for God as both holy and all-powerful); “danger fear” (in life-threatening moments); righteous anger (hating the sin, yet still loving the person); and pure grief (mourning uncontaminated by anger, fear, doubt or guilt). These emotions are actually very good to have, even if they don’t feel like it at the time. My hunch is that none of them are damaging to our health, precisely because they are wholly good.
The problem with this group of good negative emotions is that it is so easily contaminated by the truly bad ones. Many mistake being afraid of God or being fearful of what God might allow for godly fear when it is nothing of the sort. Those kinds of fear come from spiritual darkness, not from God. Danger fear, on the other hand, only applies in threatening situations where immediate action is required—not when you see your mother-in-law’s car pull into the drive! What I have heard many call their righteous indignation has all-too-often been their wounded pride and self-righteous anger. Pure grief is what God feels so it cannot be anything but good. Yet, our grieving is easily stained by our self-centered or unfaithful reactions. You see the problem.
The Bad Negative Emotions
The far greater problem comes from the thoroughly negative emotions themselves. From a medical point of view the truly bad emotions are stressors to the body. Scientific studies prove conclusively how damaging they are to our physical health. However, from a Christian point of view they represent something that is also damaging to our spiritual health—they are sins! Now this may seem like adding to the bad news: The negative emotions we don’t like feeling in the first place are not only causing disease, they are also sins, separating us from God. Isn’t this very bad news indeed? No, not at all: It is wonderful news! It shows us there is a way out, both from disease and from the entrapment of negative emotions.
If the negative emotions, causing us so much loss of peace and joy as well as health, are actually things in our personality that God has given us and wants us to have, then we are stuck with them—and the diseases they induce. However, if they are sins, then He has provided a way of freedom. Let us remember that Jesus died to free us from sin’s power as well as from its penalty. He died to bring us into a whole new way of living—the “glorious liberty” of the children of God. That way of freedom will be the subject of future articles. For now, let us consider the negative emotions with their polar opposite—the peace of Christ.
The Lord never created us to live with these negative emotions. Just as the body was designed for health, not disease, the soul was created for peace, not dis-ease. Emotional stress feels bad because it is bad: It is the absence of the peace of Christ. Jesus made His peace always available to us. It is what our souls crave. It is what are bodies require. What keeps happening to it? We often act as if it’s the fault of our situation or of someone causing us problems—that’s why we have no peace. But the truth is that His peace is under our control.
The Power of Choice
We always have a choice how we will respond to life: Will we give in to stress, take on the negative emotions so close at hand, or will we choose to find the path of peace that comes from trusting and obeying God? Even under the terms of the Hebrew covenant, it was possible to live with perfect peace, but there was a condition: Keeping one’s mind fixed or stayed on the Lord. How does one do that? In a word—trust. Trusting God is how we “live by faith”.
You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you. Isaiah 26:3
Peace comes to us on the basis of our actual “heart trust” in God, not the doctrinal rightness of our beliefs. Our minds judge right and wrong, but it is with our hearts that we judge who to trust. Whenever we actually release our hearts to trust God, our minds naturally become rested or stayed upon Him, until something else disturbs our rest. In the New Covenant Jesus also promises us peace and His peace goes far beyond any of the outward things that disturb us.
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” John 14:27
The “World’s Peace”
How does the world give us peace? Anyone can get it this way: “I see the problem; I go to work on it; I begin to see the thing get better; I get peace back.” You don’t have to believe in anything but yourself to get peace in this way. This is the way of enthroning Self as your savior. Nevertheless, getting peace this way is riddled with frustrations. Our experience might go like this:
I can’t always make things better so I lose even more peace in the attempt. I have to wait until things look like they are getting better before peace begins to return to me. And as soon as one trouble is fixed, I may lose peace over two more things that just flared up. Round and round and round I spin.
This way guarantees to produce many seasons of significant stress over the course of a lifetime. We know it all too well—it is trying to live in our own strength.
The Peace of Christ
Jesus gives believing, trusting hearts peace at the first sign of trouble. The peace immediately shows up when we cast our cares on Him as our one and only Savior (Psalm 55:22; Matthew 11:28-30; 1 Peter 5:7). All of us get a daily report card on how well we are doing at trusting and obeying the Lord.
Our “score” is personally delivered moment by moment as the Holy Spirit reveals our actual peace levels to us. In any moment the peace of Christ is either going up, holding steady, or going down—all according to our ability to trust and follow Jesus throughout the day (Colossians 3:15).
When our hearts and minds fully trust Him with the whole of our life and that of our loved ones, we are at peace. Our bodies can then experience peace (homeostasis or physiological equilibrium) and all systems work in balance to maintain health. As Dr. Art Mathias of Wellsprings Ministries in Alaska likes to say, our bodies are barometers of our spiritual health. Seen in this light the diseases and disorders we can’t ignore are “warning bells” alerting us of our need to return to living in the peace of Christ.
Having looked at the mind-body connection, negative emotions and the peace of Christ, we now can put together a pathway of disease. Pay close attention to this pathway for it is also the way by which mental illness, addictions and all sinful behaviors become entrenched:
1) Loss of health comes from loss of peace in the mind or heart. This is the overwhelming evidence of mainstream science. If peace is what produces health, loss of peace is what causes disease. The dis-ease of our soul, contributes to the diseases of our body.
2) Loss of peace comes through the entry of negative emotions. This is simple displacement. After an internal “tug-of-war,” either the peace of Christ or stress will always win out. As my daughter once said when she was a child, “Daddy, the devil came in and pushed Jesus right out of my heart!”
3) Negative emotions draw power from unresolved issues carried from the past. These are the root causes, the hidden well-springs of our unwanted emotional reactions. If we don’t deal with these roots, we will have lots of bad fruit showing up as negative emotions that continually need pruning. See Mastering Your Emotions: Roots and Fruit.
4) Unresolved issues always reveal that we have broken relationships of trust and love with God, self or others coming out of our past. The two Great Commandments were breached (Matthew 22:37-39). Into these wounded areas, the Lord of the Flies (Beelzebub) sowed his lies in the form of false beliefs. These issues are crying out to be healed, not buried. See How to Forgive the Unforgivable.
5) Loss of peace indicates a sin issue to deal with. We have turned from God, not towards Him. This is why His peace was lifted. Each of the negative emotions represents a sinful attitude or disposition of the heart. The Holy Spirit lifts the peace so that we will stop and deal with the problem by carrying that emotion as a captive to Christ, praying for His help and following His guidance to get free of it. See The ABCs of Emotional Intelligence.
6) Loss of peace warns that the other kingdom is manifesting through us. We have turned to the enemy, which is why un-Christlike thoughts and feelings are beginning to grip us. Just as peace, love, and joy manifest the life of Christ and the working of God’s Kingdom through us, negative emotions actually manifest the “emotional life” of the enemy, coming out of our carnal or fallen nature, and advance his dark kingdom through us.
We are paying a terrible price for not living in the peace of Christ.
The Lord says that His people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. Not knowing the stress connection, not seeing our negative emotions in the right light, has kept us battling disease in the usual ways with the standard results. Knowing what causes disease gives us new things we can do, things we may never have considered about the intersection of our health and our emotional life. This understanding opens a whole new avenue for healing to reach us.
In our deep heart we hold the key to our own health. With God’s help we can find the issues that need attention and deal with them. As we do, His peace will come flooding back into us. That’s a tremendous blessing in itself! Wouldn’t it be great to live each day in the River of Peace?
Beyond that, His peace just may provide the tipping point for our bodies to return to peace and proper functioning. Nothing is guaranteed for we are marvelously complex in our inner life and in our bodies. But this gives us a fighting chance to set things right. With His help, we might not only get free of disease, we could walk in divine health and wholeness!