FamilyLife Today® Podcast

“I Have a Chemical Imbalance.”

with David Powlison, Ed Welch | June 27, 2011
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Is there a link between chemical imbalances and the way we behave? Biblical counselors Ed Welch and David Powlison explain the theories behind brain chemistry and tell what imbalances are and aren’t responsible for.

  • Show Notes

  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • Is there a link between chemical imbalances and the way we behave? Biblical counselors Ed Welch and David Powlison explain the theories behind brain chemistry and tell what imbalances are and aren’t responsible for.

  • Dave and Ann Wilson

    Dave and Ann Wilson are hosts of FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s nationally-syndicated radio program. Dave and Ann have been married for more than 38 years and have spent the last 33 teaching and mentoring couples and parents across the country. They have been featured speakers at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway since 1993 and have also hosted their own marriage conferences across the country. Cofounders of Kensington Church—a national, multicampus church that hosts more than 14,000 visitors every weekend—the Wilsons are the creative force behind DVD teaching series Rock Your Marriage and The Survival Guide To Parenting, as well as authors of the recently released book Vertical Marriage (Zondervan, 2019). Dave is a graduate of the International School of Theology, where he received a Master of Divinity degree. A Ball State University Hall of Fame quarterback, Dave served the Detroit Lions as chaplain for 33 years. Ann attended the University of Kentucky. She has been active alongside Dave in ministry as a speaker, writer, small-group leader, and mentor to countless wives of professional athletes. The Wilsons live in the Detroit area. They have three grown sons, CJ, Austin, and Cody, three daughters-in-law, and a growing number of grandchildren.

Is there a link between chemical imbalances and the way we behave?

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“I Have a Chemical Imbalance.”

With David Powlison, Ed Welch
June 27, 2011
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Bob:  What's the relationship between brain chemistry, your behavior, and sin?  Here's Dr. David Powlison.

David:  I get seasonal allergies at the end of August -- ragweed.  During that time I am more prone to be more moody, be a little bit down, be a little grouchy.  If I got irritated at my family and barked at them, could I say the allergy made me do it?  I'd want to say no, the allergy doesn't make me do it.  I do it.  You might say there's temptation in my bloodstream, as it were, but I do it.

Bob:  This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, June 27th.  Our host is the President of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine.  Today we’ll take a provocative look at the relationship between medication and sanctification.

And welcome to FamilyLife Today.  Thanks for joining us on the Monday edition.  When I was a senior in high school, my dad, who worked for a big company in St. Louis, got called in to see the company psychologist. 

I remember this was a profound meeting for my dad because -- and I didn't know it at the time -- but the issue was my dad was either going to get some help for a problem that he had, or he was going to find a new job.  Now, I didn't know that was all the drama that was going on, but I knew from my mom that dad had a big meeting at work.

We got a call at about 10:00 that night -- Dad was still meeting with the company psychologist, and I'll never forget this, Dennis – my dad was on the other end of the phone, and he said, "Well, I'm here with the company psychologist," and he said, "He thinks I need to go into the hospital, and I'm calling to say do you think so, too?" 

And my mom said, "Yes, I do," and he said, "Okay.  I'll be home to get my stuff."  He was angry, I could tell, but he was trapped, really.

Dennis:  You overheard the conversation?

Bob:  I was on the phone -- he wanted me on the phone to hear all of this.  And that night my dad packed his belongings in a suitcase, and we took him down, and he checked into the psych ward of a local hospital and was later diagnosed with a phrase I'd never heard before, it was a phrase, "manic depression." 

And the next three or four weeks of my life, my dad was in the hospital in the psych ward.  In fact, I remember, as a senior in high school thinking, "If there is a God, what's going on?  Why is my dad in the hospital?  What's happening here?"

Well, today, that diagnosis of manic depression, which was -- you know, this was in the early '70s.  There weren't a whole lot of people talking about manic depression or bipolar disorder.  Today we hear that more and more regularly, more commonly. 

We hear about other disorders and other brain chemistry issues and I think, as Christians, we wonder not only what is God up to, but can we tell the difference between what appears to be a behavioral disorder and something that has some kind of a biochemical root to it, and that's what we're going to talk about this week.  It's a challenging subject, but one that affects tens of thousands of our listeners.

Dennis:  It does, and it affects them around all kinds of issues, too, Bob.  Around children, there are all types of behavior that's been labeled ADHD.  Of course, there is depression, there is homosexuality – all of these issues take us back to the brain as to what's taking place chemically in the brain and, for a believer, we do ask the question, as you stated -- how much of this can we blame on the brain and how much of it is a spiritual issue that people need to take responsibility for?

We have a couple of counselors in the studio with us today -- David Powlison and Ed Welch -- who are going to help us sort this all out.  Ed, David, I'm glad you guys are here, because I'm counting on you.


Ed:  It's a pleasure to be here.

David:  It is a pleasure.

Dennis:  Ed Welch is on the faculty, a counselor at the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation.  He also is on the faculty at Westminster Theological Seminary.  David Powlison also teaches there -- is an author as well, and you guys both reside in the Philadelphia area. 

Ed has written a book called Blame it on the Brain.  So he has all the answers to these questions, Bob, that we have here.  You begin your book with a story that I think is probably one of the most absurd stories yet of a politician blaming his behavior on his brain.

Ed:  Yes, I will leave him unmentioned, but here is a politician who blatantly lied about many things, especially his own addictions and how much he was doing and how much he was not doing, and when it was finally found out, his explanation was, "Well, that was the addiction."  Essentially, "that was my brain that made me do it.  I didn't do that, I wanted to do something else, but that was my brain that made me do it."

Now, that sounds like a fairly severe way to put it, but that was my depression that made me do it; that was my anxiety that made me do it; that was Jimmy's ADD that made him do it; and that was his mania that made him do it.             

Bob:  But we're in a culture today where people would say there are behaviors or moods or activities that I just don't feel like I can control.  I get up in the morning, and I'm depressed, and I don't know why.  My kids are hyper, and I can't seem to settle them down.  All of these kinds of things -- parents struggle with them, adults struggle with them, and we go, "It's not that I want to be depressed, I just am and, in a way, it does feel like it's not me."

Ed:  Critical issues, critical issues -- let me see if I can lay out just a few of the biblical contours for this.  It's a little bit unusual in some sense -- you have counselor types who are talking about the brain.  We're people who study the Scriptures and want to apply the Scripture to life. 

Well, what does the Scripture have to say about neurophysiology and chemical imbalances?  At first glance, you don't see it, so we seem to be odd folks to talk about this, but …

Dennis:  … Now, wait a second here.  I'm looking at your credentials, and you actually did a great deal of research into the whole subject of brain diseases and then electrophysiology in the '70s, is that right?

Ed:  Found me out.  Yes, I did do that.

Dennis:  So don’t just –

David:  His PhD is in neurophysiology.

Dennis:    Neurophysiology.  So we do have a theologian who also has a great deal of research that has been done around this subject.

Ed:  Found me out.  But at the same time I believe that the Scripture really gives us a way of seeing the nature of the human dilemma without having to be brain specialists.

For example, here is a classic passage: 2 Corinthians 4:16 -- "The inner person is renewed day by day while the outer person is wasting away."  What the Scripture is saying is we are embodied souls.  We are spiritual substance and we are physical substance.  We are heart and we are brain -- the stuff that you can touch and the stuff that's immaterial.

So the scripture begins with that very, very basic view of the person, which says that, indeed, we can have physical and brain problems that certainly affect us.

Dennis:  Yes, and you believe the brain is getting too much credit today for people's choices and behaviors?

Ed:  Well, let's consider more what the Scripture has to say.  The Scripture would suggest to us that the brain can have all kinds of effects on our lives.  The brain can make it so we don't remember our children's names from Alzheimer's disease.  The brain can influence us in such a way that some people can be less attentive than others. 

The brain can influence us in such a way that some people can have, it seems like, their physiological motor running all the time.  They're always moving around, they're always tapping their feet, whatever it might be.  The brain can make it so we can have hallucinations at times. 

The principle from Scripture would be this -- there are all kinds of things that come at us -- the effects of bad parents, genetic problems, brain differences -- all kinds of things that can come at us that affect our behavior. 

However, there is nothing that comes at us that can make us sin, nor is there anything that can come at us that can make us more righteous to grow in the knowledge of Christ.  These are issues of the human heart; these are spiritual issues. 

So in other words, the brain cannot make us sin.  The brain can do all kinds of other things to our lives, but it cannot make us sin.

Bob:  So the brain can function or misfunction and can mess up the rest of our motor skills or the way that we process information, but ultimately, when it comes down to soul issues, you’re saying that the brain is a tool there, but it’s not an inhibitor or a regulator of our behavior.

Ed:  One of the examples would be a very, very retarded child.  I imagine most of us have known or met a child like this at some point.  One of the things that we might often respond to is how, here’s a child that is intellectually less than a four-year-old and they are going to be able to do nothing in the school environment. 

However, many times we see this bright responsiveness to the Lord, this very overt love for Jesus Christ, and a conscience that knows the difference between right and wrong.  There would be an example of a brain that’s not working very well at all, but the spirit, but the heart is still responsive to the most high God.

Dennis:  David, let's tackle one of the thornier issues that is confronting our culture.  We are being told, it seems, almost weekly, through news magazines, newspaper articles, that homosexuality is a genetic problem -- that some people are just hardwired in their brain and because of the homes they come from to practice homosexuality. 

If you take what Ed is saying here, and you translate it to this issue, what Ed is saying is no one is born a homosexual.  Would you agree with that?

David:  Yes.  But I would want to put in a nuance, and let me broaden it beyond homosexuality, and say what will be going on when Time magazine broadcasts that we have discovered the homosexual gene, or we have discovered the depression gene or the anxiety gene or the alcoholism gene. 

When you look at those studies, the ones that have happened, what those studies will capture is that there may be people who come wired by creation with a different set of typical temptations.

You know, I tend to try to take an exotic, hot, politicized issue like that and just try to start by thinking common sense.  I've got three kids, and they were hatched differently.  One of them was born very self-contained.  His typical sins have to do with autonomy, and he can too successfully live his life on his own.

One of them was born highly emotive, highly relational, and within the first 10 minutes of life, she was -- her heart's on her sleeve.  "Where's Mom," you know, grab hold of the breast.  Her typical sins can be in the area of fear of man and people pleasing.

The other child was born—Nan and I used to kid—somebody else has aspirations of world dominion.  You know, she was born willful.

Dennis:  A world ruler, huh? 

David:  That's right.  Now does wanting to run the world or wanting to be self-centered, self-reliant, or wanting people to like you -- is that a genetically determined factor?  The way I would tend to look at it is to say, you know, those are typical patterns that every one of us has in some manner or other, and it's no real big surprise that one person has more of a struggle one way than the other. 

Well, is it a real threat to the Christian worldview if, let's say, some people, like Native Americans, have a greater disposition where if they drink it has more profound effects on them?  It's not really any kind of threat at all to the biblical worldview.  It still calls people to responsibility.  It merely says that within our very body, there is a different degree of temptation for certain people.

Another common-sense example I like to use is allergies.  I get seasonal allergies at the end of August -- ragweed.  During that time, I am more prone to be more moody, be a little grouchy, be a little bit down, a little bit less attentive. 

If I got irritated at my family and barked at them, could I say the allergy made me do it?  I'd want to say no, the allergy doesn't make me do it.  I do it.  Now, my body feels lousy, and so you might say there's temptation in my bloodstream, as it were, but I'm not made to sin.  I'm tempted.

I think you could say the same thing about PMS, you can say the same thing about drug side effects; you can say the same thing about all kinds of issues.  I actually think it’s very helpful for us in thinking clearly to start from the simple cases, because you just nod your head, and you say, "That's common sense.  Kids are born different." 

They're still sinners, and you sin within the terms of the equipment that we're born with, and then you move on from there to the sort of harder, more politically- loaded cases like homosexuality or alcoholism and mental illnesses and such, and you're able to keep your sanity, you're able to keep your bearings in talking about some of those more loaded things.

Bob:  So a woman who is listening who says, "You mentioned PMS.  Every month I go through a season of my cycle, where I am just low.  I'm not happy, and I don't feel like I'm in control of that.  It's not that I wake up and determinatively say, ‘I'm not going to be happy today.’  I try to make myself happy, and I can't get there," and you're saying that's still a sin issue somehow?

David:  Well, let me put it a different way -- it is not a sin to feel down, right? 

Bob:   Right.

David:  If your body is down, it's not a sin to feel down.  It's a sin to say, "God's not there."  It's a sin to say, you know, "I hate my husband."  But to feel down may be the entirely appropriate thing to feel.

Ed:  There seems to be an expectation in the Christian community that we must be on mild uppers all the time -- that the normative Christian experience is an elevated Christian experience.  When we go through the Scripture, the Scripture talks about suffering as more or less being the normative Christian experience.  So being down is not something that we would be surprised by.

Dennis:   I want to make two points here.  First, by way of confession – number one, I am amazed by how closely tied my faith is to my feelings.  When I feel good, my faith has a greater chance of flourishing.

Bob:   "Bless the Lord, O my soul"…

Dennis:  Yeah!  "All that is within me bless His Holy Name."  I mean, when I feel good it’s easier to respond to circumstances in faith, trusting God.  I don’t say that piously. 

The second thing that is abundantly clear from Scripture – in fact it’s stated in Hebrews chapter 11, verse 6 – “Without faith, it is impossible to please him, for he who comes to God must believe that he is, and that he is the rewarder of those who seek him.”  It’s clear that God calls us to walk by faith, not by feelings.

The older I get, Bob, the more I find my faith and my feelings at odds with one another, and how God is calling me not to prop my life up against my feelings, but instead believe God’s Word, believe the truth about who God is, and to deny -- many times -- to deny what I'm feeling and step forward in faith and obedience to God's Word.

Bob:  We’re going to have a whole lot of people who hear this discussion today and hear us talk throughout the week about anxiety disorder and depression and ADHD, and these are people who have found help and a solution in medication for these issues.

They’re going to hear us saying there’s more to the issue than just the medication; that there are other issues that need to be investigated, and they’re going to feel like we’re picking on them.  We’re going to get the letters and the emails and they’re going to say . . .

Dennis:   “You don’t understand.”

Bob:  Yeah.  “It’s easy for you guys to talk about because you’ve never been in this kind of “– or “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”  When folks come to you, Ed, and they’ve read your book and they say, “You don’t understand.”  You’ve got too simplistic a view of this,” what do you say?

Ed:  I say, “Well, help me to understand, then, because your problem – you are right.  I have not experienced this in my own life.  Help me to understand what it’s like to go through these things.  I want to understand.”  So that’s certainly the first thing.

The second thing would be, “Okay, I think I understand.  Is this what it’s like for you?  Now given that, I believe that there are some riches available to us in the Scripture that we can mine, that will be a thing of joy for you.”

“Will they take away all the difficulties, the symptoms that you’re struggling with?  Will they make you so you’re immediately no longer depressed?  Not necessarily, but they will go deeper than that, and that’s where we want to spend most of our time.”

Dennis:  I have never experienced pain that has caused me to be depressed until about two-and-a-half years ago when Barbara had me in the yard digging holes.


Bob:  You were depressed just for that reason.  She had you digging holes.

Dennis:  I dug ten holes, and my martyr meter was going off after I dug those holes.

Ed:  I heard “Barbara” emphasized quite a bit – I did hear that.

Dennis:  Yeah.  It was in her garden, in her yard I was digging these holes in clay.

Ed:  Were her kids in the house?


Dennis:  Her kids are grown up and don’t dig the holes any more.  But a couple of days later I had this pain in my right arm, running down my arm.  Within a couple of days it was worse, and I found myself at a doctor’s office and he was diagnosing that I had a bulging vertebrae, and I had slipped a disk, and that I was going to be in pain for some time.

Truthfully, I’ve never had a pain that you couldn’t get away from.  Now some of our listeners know exactly what I’m talking about.  They’ve had pain all their lives that you couldn’t get away from – a nagging, chronic pain – physical or emotional, that you can’t get out from under. 

As I would drive down the road, Bob, so I could be out of pain, I would lean to the left and my left shoulder would dip, and my right arm would kind of go limp so I could get away from the pain.

Well, you know what?  After about thirty days I was getting depressed.  The pain was wearing me down emotionally, and I could tell there was a difference in my demeanor.  

What I hear you saying is, even though this is caused by a physical mistake, a body that is growing older and can’t dig holes like it used to, I’m still responsible to respond according to the Scriptures. 

But I want you to know, I was doing everything I knew to find a way to get out from under that pain.  I went to the chiropractor, I went to the surgeon.  I even asked the surgeon to cut on me.  He said, “No.  That’s the worst thing we could do for you.” 

I think we have a natural desire to get away from pain and to seek comfort, not just in terms of physical pain, but also other pains as well.

Bob:  Yes, and I think the point we’re trying to make here is that, while medication may help manage a lot of the symptoms, and may in fact help somebody lead a more productive and a more balanced life, we still have to look at some of the underlying spiritual issues that go along with whatever else may be happening in our body.

And that’s the point:  we can’t ignore the spiritual aspects of these kinds of issues.  You guys make that abundantly clear in the book that you’ve written called Blame It on the Brain, which is a book that we’ve got in our FamilyLife Resource Center that addresses these subjects.

Again, the title of the book is Blame It on the Brain, and you can go to for more information about how to get a copy of the book. 

I also want to mention that the organization that the two of you are a part of, the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation, is going to be hosting its annual conference in October this year in Louisville, Kentucky, and you’re going to be looking at this subject of psychiatric disorders. 

If our listeners would like to attend the conference or find out more about this event, they can go to our website,, and we’ve got a link there that will take them to the CCEF website and they can find out more about the 2011 national conference.

Again, there is information about the book Blame It on the Brain online at There is also information about the upcoming CCEF conference. You can also contact us by phone at 800-FLTODAY, 1-800-358-6329.  That’s 1-800 “F” as in Family, “L” as in Life, and then the word “Today,” and ask about the book by Ed Welch called Blame It on the Brain, and we’ll make arrangements to get a copy of that book sent to you.

You know, I think sometimes when we’re struggling with an issue like we’ve talked about today we can pull back and wonder, “Where is God in the midst of all of this?  How can we think that God is a good God when I’m hurting the way I’m hurting?”

Our friend, Randy Alcorn, has written a very helpful booklet called If God is Good, Why Do We Hurt?  We want to make a copy of this booklet available to you this week at no cost.  If you’d like to request a copy of the booklet If God is Good, Why Do We Hurt? go online at or call 1-800-FLTODAY and simply request the booklet.  We’re happy to send it out to you and we want to say thanks for listening to FamilyLife Today. 

Especially if you’re a new listener, we’d love to hear from you.  Get in touch with us online at, or call 1-800-FLTODAY and simply ask for your free copy of the booklet If God is Good, Why Do We Hurt? Again, we’re happy to send it out to you this week, and we appreciate you listening to FamilyLife Today.

Now let me encourage you to join us back here tomorrow when we’re going to continue our conversation with Dr. Ed Welch and Dr. David Powlison.  We’re going to talk tomorrow about depression, and I hope you can join us for that.

I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team.  On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine.  We will see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today

FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas. 

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