Psychological states and attitudes influence our body. Already our grandparents knew that embarrassment causes blushing, and anxiety pushes up our blood pressure. A wide range of psychosomatic effects are now taken for granted by medical science. If we believe in a placebo, it is likely to work like a medicine.
But the influence of mental states on health was already recognized three thousand years ago. Here is a list of ten kinds of heart condition that are very bad for health. They are taken from the Old Testament book of Proverbs where the heart is not the physical organ that pumps blood but the complex of deep concerns and longings that motivate us. In common language we also think of people with no heart, deep heart concern, heart-felt gratitude, etc. And a red heart is the symbol for being in love.
An anxious heart - "Anxiety weighs down the human heart, but a good word cheers it up" (Proverbs 12:25). A certain amount of pressure is good for us, but a mounting pile of unresolved problems and fears eats into our well-being. But the ancient proverb also recognizes that we can heal anxiety by the right use of words.
A hope-less heart - "Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life" (Proverbs 13:12, see Genesis 2:9). As a result of being disappointed again and again we give up hope and settle down to a state of permanent hopelessness. We may smile and put on a brave face, but others can tell we are just existing instead of being alive and well.
A bitter heart - "The heart knows its own bitterness, and no stranger shares its joy" (Proverbs 14:10). The bitter person feels resentful. Life has given a bad deal. And even when there are moments of joy the person makes sure no one else can discern it. A characteristic seems to be the unwillingness to let anyone into the fortress of bitterness. The condition is serious because there is no desire for healing.
An angry heart - "A tranquil mind gives life to the flesh, but passion makes the bones rot" (Proverbs 14:30). Here 'passion' is not a love passion, but a fierce passionate anger that erupts at the least provocation. The opposite is beautifully described as 'a tranquil mind.' The only cure is a model shift, a change of mind-set. As Paul recommended, "Be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern the will of God - what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Romans 12:2).
A sad heart - "A glad heart makes a cheerful countenance, but by sorrow of heart the spirit is broken" (Proverbs 15:13). In our day the condition is described as chronic depression. Others may not be able to see what is going wrong except by noting the lack of joy Joy has a psychosomatic effect on a person's face, but chronic sadness breaks a person's spirit and will eventually damage the person's physical health.
A downcast heart - "A cheerful heart is a good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones" (Proverbs 17:22). Here the contrast might be between an optimistic attitude of hope for the future and a pessimistic assumption that life has passed us by and there is nothing better to look forward to. The psychosomatic effects are described as 'good medicine' as opposed to a drying up of the bones. It would be cruel and totally wrong to assume that arthritis and other bone conditions are a sign of chronic pessimism. As in every situation there are always a multiplicity of possible causes. But hope for the future is certainly a healing factor in all cases.
A haughty heart - "Before destruction one's heart is haughty, but humility goes before honor" (Proverbs 18:12). The haughty person despises and looks down on others. And we all know that pride comes before a fall. But here 'destruction' may also suggest damage to one's bodily health. The safe stance is honoring and appreciating others who live and work with us.
A vengeful heart - "Do not say, 'I will repay evil'; wait for the Lord, and he will help you" (Proverbs 20:22). This is not to suggest that we become doormats. We may have to seek redress in a court of law in the case of property damage, or a failure to pay alimony, rent, or other dues. But there are some people who feel they have to get even, or at least extract an apology for every slight and hurt and wrong. The result is that revenge is constantly eating away at their heart and damages their health. The cure is to believe that God has his own way of assigning consequences, and there is no need for us to do his work.
Paul states this principle theologically. "Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.' No, 'if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals of fire on their heads'" (Romans 12:19-20, the quote is from Proverbs 25:22). Obviously these are not literal coals of fire, but the best way of defusing an enmity is by being gracious.
A stubborn heart - "One who is often reproved, yet remains stubborn, will suddenly be broken beyond healing" (Proverbs 29:1). Evidently wilful stubbornness and a failure to listen to advice can result in being "broken beyond healing." The opposite is listening and weighing the suggestions of others. They are much more likely to know what is bad for us, than the pig-headed decisions we adopt for ourselves.
Having noted the wisdom of these ancient proverbs, we should not assume that all sickness and disease is psychosomatic. Every day there are hundreds of good and bad influences that impinge on us without us even knowing where they come from. A bullet can hit us, a car can crash into us, people can destroy us, viruses can invade us, pollution affects out environment. When mothers took thalidomide and their children grew flippers instead of normal arms, assigning blame would have been monstrous. We live in a flawed world, and the flaws can hit any of us unexpectedly.
But having said that, we note that God's wisdom (the Greek word is Sophia) is available for the asking. "Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. It will be healing for your flesh and a refreshment for your body" (Proverbs 3:7-8). Rather than major on bad psychosomatic effects, better look to God for healing and bodily refreshment.
There are also healing resources in the Word of God. "My child, be attentive to my words; incline your ear to my sayings . . . for they are life to those who find them, and healing to all their flesh. Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life" (Proverbs 4:20-23).
And God makes the astonishing claim : "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight. For by me your days will be multiplied, and years added to your life" (Proverbs 9:10-11). That should not be as astonishing as it seems if God invented us and designed us for health and wholeness.
(This was part of a Bible Study at St. John's Church, Portsmouth, Ontario
on May 24, 2000)