Editor’s note: This essay started out as an article idea, grew into multiple potential articles, and then just became too long for regular postings. While an abbreviated version is being published as articles, here’s a full version.
There is a lot of conflict going on today, and I’m not referring to conflict between countries, people, or even political parties. While the news and the Internet may be saturated with the more visible forms of conflict, I believe that there is an even greater battle that goes on unseen, waged internally within each of us as human beings. Do you ever feel that the conflict(s) within you are even greater than those that you have with others? When we disagree with other people, we can often separate ourselves from them (whether that means going to the next room, or unfollowing them online), but when we are in conflict with ourselves, we are stuck living in the middle of that battle, day after day.
Now, in order for a conflict to exist, there must be two parties. We might think that we are each just one uniform individual, but a closer look suggests that we have specific “components” of our selves. For instance, when asked what the most important commandment was, Jesus answered as follows:
Jesus replied, “The most important commandment is this: ‘Listen, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord . And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.”
Mark 12:29-31 NLT
Since God created us in His own image, and He is a complex God in three Persons (Father, Son, and Spirit), then it makes sense that we could have different aspects of ourselves, too. Now, there are different ways to separate out the various attributes that make up a human being (and so I’m not trying to be dogmatic, here), but I propose the following for the sake of this discussion:
- Heart: I would equate this with our feelings, the emotions that fill our hearts. Some of them are happy and positive. Others are painful and unpleasant. This doesn’t meant that the first category is always good and the latter is always bad, since misplaced feelings of either kind can lead us astray.
- Mind: Let’s relate this to our intellect. This is our conscious thought and ability to rationally evaluate the world around us. We learn things, consider options, and make decisions with our mind.
- Soul: This is our eternal “core”. As I see it, our soul is what will persist for eternity (in a new body, thankfully). It transcends the rest of our selves. This is unique to human beings, over and above other forms of life.
- Strength: This sounds like our physical body. Certain things about it (including our genetically-determined traits, along with problems like susceptibility to various infirmities or diseases) are built in: the combination of God’s perfect initial design, along with years of human sin that have led to decay in our genomes (a “genetic load”, if you will). Other things are somewhat under our control, based on what we do with our bodies (i.e., choices whether or not to exercise, eat well, etc.).
I understand that the Eastern world (Asia, et. al.) considers the multiple aspects of the human condition a lot more freely than the Western world (Europe, the Americas, etc.), but I think that it is healthy to understand our entire selves. Consider some of these hypothetical alternatives:
- For the strict naturalist, our bodies are all that matter, and our minds (thoughts) are just the result of electrical processes, resulting from eons of evolution.
- For the person too focused on emotions, feelings are all that matter (often the relentless pursuit of feeling good), to the exclusion of rational consideration and physical realities.
- For the extreme academic, the mind may be all that matters, to the point where transferring one’s thoughts to a computer (without the rest of one’s self) would be considered immortality.
- For adherents to certain beliefs, the soul is the only thing that matters, to the exclusion of consideration given to a rational universe (mind), caring for themselves and others (body), and how to cope with feelings (heart).
So, I would like us to pause and consider our whole selves. Perhaps you choose to divide up the various components (of what it means to be a human being) differently from me, and that’s perfectly OK. Regardless, it is important to correctly understand what we are made up of. It is even more important to recognize that conflict exists within ourselves.. When different elements of our selves are not in alignment (i.e., having full “integrity”), we suffer. That is, conflict occurs within ourselves when these aspects of our selves are not in agreement. (Some may call this desired alignment “integrity”, “balance”, or “harmony”, which aren’t inherently incorrect terms, but each may come with some extra implications or baggage.)
If we can agree that this conflict and suffering exist, let’s take a look at some options for what to do about it. In my opinion, we are seeing a lot of this conflict spilling out when it comes to identity and sexuality today. While these may be sensitive topics, let’s we consider the root cause of the challenges that people in these situations face.
When someone is attracted to a person of the opposite sex, but both parties have already promised to be faithful for life (i.e., married) to someone else, there can be a conflict between their heart and their mind. Likewise, a person whose feelings are not the same as their physical self is experiencing conflict between heart and body, and this tension can become painful.
However, human beings that are wrestling with these topics – identity and sexuality – certainly aren’t the only members of the human race that are in conflict: Those who experience certain types mental illness suffer conflicts between their mind and their body (like OCD, which happens to be my personal battle), or between their mind and their heart (depression). We might even say that athletes experience conflict between their body and their heart when their feelings tell them to stop practicing and exercising. After all, good habits like physical activity are beneficial to their bodies, but may create a lot of pain along the way.
These are some of the more visible challenges that people around us are facing today (although I’m sure that many struggle alone and in silence), but there are countless more: Choosing whether to tell the truth or a lie is often a conflict between our mind and our feelings. Deciding whether or not to do the right thing when our body is worn out (and doesn’t want to) is a conflict between our mind and our body. Having faith in God when others produce strong-sounding arguments to the contrary may create a temporary conflict between our mind and our soul (although I believe that the truth can bear up under scrutiny, and God isn’t afraid to have us investigate arguments against His existence).
In reality, conflicts within our selves probably impact each of us. So, how do we deal with that situation? Let’s consider the case where our heart and body are in conflict. When this happens, either our emotions pull us away from what is good for our body (like a desire to indulge in harmful habits), or our feelings tell us that we need to temporary ignore what our body is telling us (like a hero overcoming pain to save someone else). In these cases, our mind must decide which one to support.
This can be a tough battle, though, as this verse suggests:
The sinful nature wants to do evil, which is just the opposite of what the Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are the opposite of what the sinful nature desires. These two forces are constantly fighting each other, so you are not free to carry out your good intentions.
Galatians 5:17 NLT
Did you see that? There are competing desires within us: one directed to evil, and the other one (given by God) focused on God. These are “constantly fighting each other”! Ouch.
As a result, when our mind is the referee – the decision-maker – between our heart and our body, it is important for our mind to make good decisions. The Bible gives us some good advice to help us out:
So letting your sinful nature control your mind leads to death. But letting the Spirit control your mind leads to life and peace.
Romans 8:6 NLT
On our own, we’ll probably make bad choices. Even trying to get good advice from other people (especially those who aren’t grounded in God’s Word and the Holy Spirit’s direction) can lead to problematic outcomes. When we listen to God’s direction, though, and follow His instruction, we can expect – as this verse says – “life and peace”. Having said that, when we make a choice between warring sides of our nature, it’s not going to be easy: Choosing to act contrary to our feelings is going to be uncomfortable. Working contrary to what our body finds comfortable is difficult. Changing our mind is tough.
Still, when we are aligned with God’s will for us, we can develop our faith in Him, and trust Him that the discomfort is only for a little while: the rewards are worth the investment in the long run. Giving into every one of our desires, feelings, or whims might feel like it will make things easier in the short-term, but it will continue to harm us – eating away at us over time – when those are outside of God’s will.
Once sin entered the world through Adam and Eve, it continues to assault us – the whole human race – as each of us chooses to sin sometimes (even those of us who strive to live like Jesus). Forms of this disease – when two of these aspects of our nature are not aligned, and a third part of our selves must become the tiebreaker or referee – apply to all of us, and what we identify as specific “conditions”, “struggles”, or “situations” are merely specific forms of this conflict. Others’ struggles are merely different forms of the same basic type of conflict common to the human condition.
So, how should we treat people – including ourselves – who are going through conflicts like this (i.e., for whom some combination of their heart, mind, body, and soul are battling against each other)?
For one thing, I believe that we should be compassionate. After all, Jesus said so:
You must be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate.
Luke 6:36 NLT
(See also passages like 1 John 3:17 and Psalm 145:8-13.)
For the person whose feelings are in conflict with their genes, the pain, struggle, and conflict are real and tangible. The person whose internal “discontinuities” are different from this doesn’t have the right to dismiss those difficulties as something that should just be ignored or easily addressed by the one who is fighting them. Conflicts within ourselves are brutal. Similarly, for those to whom healthy activity and eating comes naturally, they must not condemn others who struggle with making good choices (like me, if we’re being forthcoming).
As far as I know, none of the people who struggle with conflicts within themselves want this to be the case. If they did, why would they try to bring other parts of their whole being into alignment, sometimes with dramatic measures or self-“medication” to dull the pain? After all, we all struggle with conflicts within our nature. While we can – and should – use our strengths to help fellow human beings where they are weak, we can be strong only because others (including God) do the same to help us with our weak spots as well.
In addition, individuals fighting with visible challenges need to be protected from those who would harm them for following a different path. This should be true regardless of their decision as to which part of their selves they embrace. No matter how someone is handling their internal conflicts, even if they aren’t making the choices that we want them to, I don’t find any place for violence or other kinds of personal attacks on another human being, created in God’s image.
I also believe that all those who fight with internal conflicts (i.e., all of us) should be offered help. For instance, those who struggle with internal conflict should be offered access professional help to work through their issues. Those whose conflict is with their heart need to be able to talk to a counselor. Those whose conflict is with their body need to be able to talk with a medical doctor. Those whose conflict is with their mind need to be able to talk with someone who understands and can teach. Some of us may need to talk with more than one of these professionals (or others with appropriate skills, like pastors and teachers). Hint: the Internet and uninformed friends are not suitable replacements for educated, professional advice in these struggles.
Now, the first reaction by some people is to say that a counselor should counsel someone like this – i.e., experiencing conflict – only a part of talking them into into making a specific choice. When someone is in the middle of this conflict, though, they may be more interested in making a different choice. My response to those who avoid counselors because of a fear that they will suggest a different decision is that either choice in conflicts like these is difficult. Just ask both the gay man who has embraced this lifestyle, and the gay man who has chosen to not act upon the same internal drives. From my observations, both of those situations are challenging. God will sometimes provide healing for conflicts like these to individuals, but that is by no means always the case (just ask Paul, see 2 Corinthians 12:7-10), and telling someone to “just change” rings hollow when we realize that we can’t “just fix” our own challenges.
Consider also the person whose feelings contradict their physiology: they may choose to embrace their feelings (and change their body through surgery), or they they may embrace their physical state (working – as best as they can and with help – to confirm their feelings to the way that their body is made). In either case, there will be challenges. Neither our bodies nor our feelings change without pain, and (barring some amateur attempts at self-sufficiency) neither one can be modified without some external, expert help. And, in today’s culture, regardless of one’s decision here, condemnation will come from one extreme or another. So, my recommendation of getting professional help isn’t about forcing someone into a particular decision that another person wants, but rather understanding that conflicts are real and serious, and regardless of a person’s decisions, finding a resolution is going to be much easier with some help.
However, let’s put this in context: Previously, I said that all of us experience internal conflicts. Does that mean we all need help? Absolutely! Most people that I know will seek out medical help when they need it. Similarly, most of us would be willing to ask for help (or look something up) if we couldn’t figure out the answer to an important question. So, why in the world would we not be equally accepting when those who struggle with their feelings get help, and why would we be afraid to get help ourselves when things are not right with our emotions? Would you try to set your own broken arm? If not, why would you try to fix your depression with a couple of articles you read on the Internet?
Now, there is a fine line here. When God has clearly defined the most healthy answer in a particular situation, it is more difficult for me to support someone who is choosing a different path. This is not a matter of judgment on my part, or somehow condemning another person. I believe that God’s plan is best for each person, and living in another way will result in its own challenges. As a result, I think that it is ideal when the various kinds of professional advisors mentioned above (medical, psychological, academic, and spiritual) are aligned with – and seeking – God’s direction, since God not only wants the best for each of us, but He also has the wisdom to know what that is.
When I am living out God’s love, though, and truly want the best for someone else, the pain that I feel in seeing them making decisions that are opposite of God’s guidance isn’t hate or judgement. Instead, it is the pain of knowing that they aren’t experiencing the best life that they can. In love, though, those of us who follow Jesus can still support others in getting help to deal with the conflict that inevitably remains in their lives (just like we have conflict in our own lives), and we can still love them as a human being – with a soul – that needs to eventually find integrity, harmony with their Creator, and the peace that only He can provide.
And, ultimately, as we work through our own conflicts and help others with conflicts between their hearts, their minds, and their physical selves, what is most important is our – and their – souls. Jesus doesn’t expect people to get all of their feelings in order, or to know all of the answers, or even to be physically healthy, before they come to Him. After all, He is a healer, and with the simple act of trusting Him with our lives (both here on earth, and for eternity), God can help us with the rest.
Some teachers will point out that our role (i.e., for those who follow Jesus) is to live like Jesus, teach people about Him so that their souls can be saved, and then let Him help them find the best decisions. We cannot heal people like Jesus can, but we can do our best to love them like He did, and point them to Jesus to receive the healing that only He can provide: first in their soul, and then spending the rest of their lives (like everyone else who accepts Jesus’ offer) to work on the rest of their selves, at the pace that God – not another person – decides.
Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ©1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries, Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.