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THE CAUSES OF TENSION
As we consider the causes of tension we must first question whether the causes are inside the person concerned or outside. That is, is mental tension due to the strains and stresses of modern life, or is it due to something within the personality of the one who is suffering from tension? The answer to that question is that mental tension is caused by some sort of conflict within the personality of the one concerned. Outside circumstances may precipitate symptoms of mental tension and expose it, but they are not the primary cause.
We realize the truth of this as we consider the lives of people we know or read about. We must all have seen people go through fiery trials and yet remain in peace and mental equilibrium. We know of those who have been in solitary confinement and yet have not suffered from mental tension, of course, they have suffered mentally as well as physically.
Paul, when going through experiences of great strain, wrote, ‘We are handicapped on all sides, but we are never frustrated; we are puzzled, but never in despair,’ 2 Corinthians 4 v8 (Phillips’ translation) and writing from prison, chained to his guard, he bore witness that he had learned in whatever state he was, to be content. He also spoke of ‘fightings without and fears within’ 2 Corinthians 7 v5. He certainly knew ‘a mind at ease’ in spite of his distressing circumstances.
On the other hand we must all have seen people who show signs of suffering from mental tension when their circumstances are far less trying than those mentioned above.
The following are quotations from medical experts on this subject: ‘It isn’t what happens to a person that matters, so much as how he REACTS to what happens to him, and how he reacts will be determined by his inner resources of heart and mind – his fundamental philosophy, his innermost religion and what he really believes.’(1)
‘Stress is popularly referred to as if it were exogenous (from without) as, for example, in the phrase ‘the pressures of modern life’. This is a mistake. It is largely endogenous (from within). It is not so much the fierce situation, but the individual’s reaction to it, which determines the effects of stress…Often the stressed person is found to be agitated about no real cause. He has made his ‘stress’ for himself.’(2) ‘Conflict is now generally recognized as the main basis of neurosis.’(3)
We need to be very clear on this point, for it is one which we often instinctively resist, and it is very important when we come to consider the prevention or cure of tension. Many people who are suffering from tension like to feel that it is due to the very difficult circumstances in which they have been placed, and think that if only they could change their circumstances they would recover. They are very reluctant to admit that the primary cause is within their own personalities. Yet in this very fact lies their greatest hope. We who are Christians have not been promised easy circumstances. The Lord Jesus said, ‘In the world ye shall have tribulation’ (John l6 v33). Peter spoke of the fiery trial which was to try those to whom he wrote (l Peter 4 vl2). Paul, writing to Timothy, told him that in the last days there will come times of stress (2 Timothy 3 v1, R.S.V.). If a mind at ease depends on our circumstances, then we must all face the fact that we may be plunged into circumstances too difficult for us to bear, and if we seek peace of mind by trying to run away from those circumstances, we are quite likely to run into some even more difficult. To a large extent we are unable to control the circumstances and pressures which come into our lives.
While we have not been promised easy circumstances, we have been given a mighty Saviour Who knows us completely and Who is able to save to the uttermost those that come to God by Him (Hebrews 7 v25). He said, ‘Learn of Me and ye shall find rest unto your souls’ (Matthew 11 v29). When he spoke of tribulation He also said, ‘These things have I spoken unto you, that in Me ye might have peace’ (John 16 v33). If we admit that the cause of our tension is within ourselves, we can at the same time place ourselves into the hands of the Great Physician, Who can search into the very depths of our beings and straighten out the underlying conflicts, and speak His peace to our souls. The Lord Jesus Himself said that a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand; we all know that a kingdom in which there is conflict will not be able to stand up against an enemy, and on the contrary we know the truth of the saying ‘unity is strength’. This is true of our personalities. The personality in which there is conflict is much more likely to give way under the pressure of difficult circumstances, than the one which is integrated and truly made whole by the Lord Jesus Christ.
If the cause of tension is some sort of conflict within the one concerned, we must go on to consider the causes of conflict within a personality. I think we can divide these into two groups, namely, causes which are created in childhood, and those which arise in adult life.
In the first group are all the conflicts which arise from insecurity in early childhood. This is a very important group, in fact it has been said that ‘it must be realized that most mental illness (major and minor) is the direct outcome of unresolved conflict in early childhood.’(4). One of the difficulties which arise from this cause is that the conflict is deep-seated and has often been driven down below the conscious levels of the mind, into what is called the subconscious, so that it cannot easily be remembered.
Every child needs security and love, and in many cases, where these are lacking, conflict is produced which sows the seeds of future mental and emotional tension.
Secondly, what are the causes which arise in adult life? In some ways these are simpler and easier to discover than those which have been created in childhood. Anything which produces conflict in a person may lead on to tension. Bishop Stephen Neill enumerates Fear Frustration and Resentment as the three great enemies of man,(5) and it seems possible that all the causes of conflict could be included under one or other of these headings.
It would be impossible to enumerate all the causes and types of fear which assail the human personality. In Genesis 3 v10 we read the first recorded words of fallen man, and in the centre of those words is the statement ‘I was afraid’. Ever since then fear has dogged the human race, and there is no living human being who does not know fear in many varieties and forms. Fear may vary greatly in degree, it may be simply a protective instinct which is good and useful, or it may become terror and grip a person in such a way that he is quite paralysed. It may become like an obsession which is always present, eating away at the personality of the one concerned, and even if forced into the background, is always ready to spring out and take possession of the mind. It is these last two which cause mental tension. I think it must be recognized that there are some people who are more liable to fear than others, certain temperaments are more given to be fearful, and people in whom imagination is highly developed are more subject to fear. Christians who know themselves to be more subject temperamentally and mentally to fear than some others will learn to ignore and even laugh at some of their fears, but they will, with the Lord’s help, not allow their fears to get a grip of them or become an obsession.
There are fears for which we know a reason, such as the fear of what people think and say, fear of failure, fear of sickness, particularly cancer, fear of old age and death, and innumerable others. There is fear which projects itself into the future in the form of anxiety and worry, fear which cannot get rid of the past and takes the form of feelings of guilt. There are fears which are based on untruths, as in the case of a young woman who, because she had had a major operation, was obsessed with the fear of early death, and she needed to understand that she was no more likely to die young than any other woman.
Then there are a host of fears which appear quite unreasonable. Sudden fear grips the personality without there being any known cause for fear. In these cases the cause is very commonly one which goes right back into childhood and has been pushed out of mind so that it is not remembered.
Frustration may focus upon oneself, upon others, or upon circumstances. Frustration with oneself may take the form of an inferiority complex, or of expecting far too much of oneself, or of trying to do things for which one is quite unfitted, and then getting disappointed and depressed when one fails.
Frustration with others includes all the conflicts which are produced through difficulties in relationships with others. It may arise from an inability to accept others as they are. A wife may have a mental picture of what she would like her husband to be, often based upon an exaggerated idea of her own father, and because he does not fit in with that picture she is disappointed and frustrated. A father may have a deep desire for a son to follow in his profession, may not be able to accept that the boy has none of the qualities to fit him for that particular profession, and his frustration and disappointment may make him quite unable to accept other good qualities in his son.
Some sort of frustration because of circumstances is so common that most people accept it as inevitable and do not realize the harm it can do to the personality, if it becomes a part of the mental outlook. Frustration with circumstances can be so great that the one concerned becomes quite unwilling to face the ordinary circumstances of everyday life, and it may then reveal itself in some illness which is just a form of escapism.
Resentment is perhaps the bitterest enemy of the personality and is well described in Hebrews 12 v15 as a root of bitterness which troubles the person who has it and defiles many others. There are those who are suffering from mental tension because some resentment has been clung to for years. Perhaps it is resentment against parents or resentment against some friend, or even resentment against God for allowing some sorrow to come into the life. I have known a woman’s whole life embittered and strained because she lost a child, and years afterwards she had not got rid of her resentment towards God. We who are Christians also need to remember that not only resentment but any hidden, unconfessed sin may be the cause of conflict leading on to mental tension.
There is another group of causes of some of the SYMPTOMS of mental and emotional tension which need to be considered, namely those which come from physical conditions. Insomnia may be a symptom of mental tension or it may be an accompaniment of some purely physical condition of ill-health. Depression may follow such illnesses as influenza or may accompany other chronic illnesses. In the tropics amoebic dysentery is almost always accompanied by depression, sometimes of a severe nature. Emotional instability frequently accompanies certain conditions in women, such as pregnancy and the ‘change of life’. I have found that people suffering in these ways often think they are suffering from real mental tension when they are not. They say they are ‘neurotic’ or ‘going mental’, and just to explain to them that their symptoms have a definite physical basis is a help and comfort.
Added to these causes of tension some people have inherited tendencies and inherent weaknesses over which they have no natural control. Again, the important thing for a Christian is to come to an understanding of himself so that he is not condemning himself for something in which he is not to blame. I have met tender hearted, sensitive Christians who would be brought into a place of great liberty if they would stop condemning themselves for certain things for which they are not responsible; I have also met Christians of many years standing whose lives would be transformed if they would start to condemn, amongst other things, bitterness, resentment, outbursts of temper, frustrations such as are inexcusable, even if understandable, to one who is seeking to obey New Testament teaching. We need, on this point, the illumination of the Holy Spirit and sometimes the help of others to enable us to understand the truth about ourselves.
In thinking of the causes of tension, I would like to add a few thoughts concerning the part played by our great enemy Satan, in these conditions. Many Christians tend to go to one of two extremes; either they ignore altogether the fact that Satan’s chief battleground is the mind, and that he is intensely interested in provoking and using conditions of mental tension, or else they make so much of Satan and evil spirits that they fail to recognise that there may be natural causes which need to be brought to the light and understood if the sufferer is to be healed. Both these extremes are wrong and we need the discernment of the Holy Spirit that we may neither ignore Satan nor overestimate or wrongly estimate his activities.
Of course Satan is behind all the sin and sorrow and conflict in human life, but we need to remember that he would have no power over man had man not given him a door of entry by disobedience to God. I think his part is pre-eminently one of taking advantage of the weaknesses of our natures and using them as a vantage ground from which he can work.
Satan is the father of lies (John 8 v44), and probably the biggest contribution he makes towards the causation of mental tension is by presenting lies to the minds of God’s children; lies about themselves, lies about other people, lies about God Himself. Not only does he lie but he seeks always to cover the truth and keep hidden the real source of a person’s trouble.
Satan is also the accuser of the brethren (Revelation 12 v10) and almost invariably Christian people, who are suffering from any sort of mental tension or even the nervous symptoms caused by physical illness, have their sufferings increased by the accusations of Satan. Frequently I have talked with those who are suffering from depression and found that their depression is being increased by Satan telling them that the cause of their trouble is spiritual, when in fact it is not, and so they go down from depression to self-condemnation, and often despair. Satan sometimes finds allies in well-meaning Christian friends, who take this same line and so increase the condemnation of the sufferer. On the other hand Satan sometimes hides up the fact that a person’s primary trouble is spiritual, and then the one concerned starts on an endless round of consultations with doctors and even psychiatrists, not realizing a straight talk with a discerning friend could show him the way out of his difficulties.
I believe, too, that Satan has a great deal to do with the fear that is based on vague feelings of guilt.
(1. ‘In the Service of Medicine’ IVF Jan. ‘59 Religion and Nervous Breakdown by A. Pool, MB) (2. ‘In the Service of Medicine’ IVF July ’59 What do we mean medically by Stress? By D. Jackson, MD) (3 ‘A Christian Approach to Psychological Medicine. IVF p16) (4. A Christian Approach to Psychological Medicine. IVF p23) (5. A Genuinely Human Existence. S Neill p190)