In order to fix my problem it is usually very important to know what caused it. So, if my car is making a funny noise I want to find the cause of the noise so I can address the problem and resolve the issue. This works well in mechanical devices but human problems are often far more complicated. Most strategies for diagnosing problems settle for a singular cause theory, but this rob us of a robust exploration of the possible help. It’s best not to settle for simplistic explanations of our problems when seeking help. Simple explanations will rob us of the wealth of resources that can help us with our problems.
The singular cause approach is popular because it’s simple and because it usually fits within a specific framework or worldview. So, we have a tendency to reduce problems to the biological. Do you have a maladaptive behavior, it is probably stemming from issues in brain chemistry. The right combination of medication can resolve that, or at least make its symptoms more manageable. I am a great fan of medications, but to reduce all problems to biochemical pathology is to reduce people to their biochemical interactions. This is not a holistic picture of the human person.
At other times we reduce people to their thinking. We suggest that the problem can be reduced to making poor choices, dwelling on the wrong things, accepting the wrong beliefs, and therefore change is the process of choosing to focus on different thoughts. Our thoughts do play a major part in how we live, and they can dramatically influence our behavior. But people are more than simply thinking things. We think and we love and we relate, and we exist within bodies, etc. A reductionist cognitive approach will minimize and overlook key factors in the development of problems.
We also often reduce our problems to spiritual issues. So that every thing we experience is related to some form of sin. Are you experiencing sorrow? It’s probably because you refuse to submit to God’s control. Are you anxious? It’s because you’re not trusting God. Are you feeling shame? It’s because you don’t believe the gospel deeply enough. In some theological communities even physiological suffering is grounded in the lack of our faith. Deeper faith would mean no physical pain. Jesus disputes this very notion, however, when he speaks of the man born blind (John 9). His blindness, he tells the disciples, is not owing to his sin or his parents sin but to God’s glory.
It’s tempting to look for singular causation. It makes our problems seem more manageable, we think. Yet, such an approach to diagnosis does not actually conform to reality. People are whole being creatures, with a complex interplay of emotions, psychology, physiology, spirituality, relationships, and environments. To reduce our problems to a singular cause is to reduce the resources for help as well. In their new book Untangling Emotions, Alasdair Groves and Winston Smith apply this specifically to our emotions. They note that the dominant theories on the etiology of our emotions focus on either our body or our brain. Yet, experientially it is very difficult to distinguish between causation. They write:
Sometimes it seems impossible to tease apart what is happening int he body from what is happening in the mind or to understand which comes first: what I feel in my body or what I think with my mind…Making tidy distinctions between mind and body and assigning one as the source of emotions just doesn’t fit. In any given situation one can seem more powerful than the other, and in most cases we can see how both are at work forming a kind of feedback loop. (Untangling Emotions, 30-31)
A simple, singular cause explanation of our emotional problems is not realistic.
The Bible helps us here by actually acknowledging the possibility of multiple causes for our troubles. In 2 Corinthians 12 Paul writes about a mysterious painful experience he is having. He calls it his “thorn in the flesh.” After having this amazing experience of a vision of God he describes the need for him to remain humble, and at this point the “thorn in the flesh” comes into play. He writes:
So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor. 12:7-10)
Within this passage three potential causes are mentioned. The first is Paul’s own pride. He needs to be humbled and prevented from the sin of arrogance. His pride becomes the occasion for this thorn in the flesh being given. But, then, again he calls the thorn by a very significant name: a messenger of Satan. The cause of this “thorn” is Satan, then, who has sent this messenger to “harass” Paul. Yet, theologically, we know several other things that are relevant to understanding the cause of this thorn’s appearance. First, we know that ultimately God is in control, and second, that Satan has no interest in keeping us humble and dependent upon God. So, the third cause of this “thorn” is God himself, who gives it to Paul for his sanctification.
A simple explanation might point to just one of those causes, but the Bible embraces all three as reasonable explanations for Paul’s painful experience. We do not need to settle for simple, singular cause explanations of our troubles. Complexity is not bad, and avoiding the potential layers of causation in our problems will only limit the potential resources available to us. Ed Welch notes this limitation particularly as it relates to the problem of depression. He writes:
Here is a suggestion: don’t commit yourself too quickly to one explanation. Granted, it’s something that begs for an answer, and there are more than enough interpretations from which to choose. But there are many causes of depression. Each individual depressive experience can have more than one cause. If you commit to one interpretation too soon, you can blind yourself to other important perspectives…. (Depression, 27)
The problem with immediately opting for a medical explanation is that, once the decision is made, every other perspective seems superficial or irrelevant. Why, for example would you bother considering issues raised by personal suffering when a pill might provide relief? If depressed persons assume that their problem is fundamentally medical, asking them to look at their relationships or their basic beliefs about God will seem as useful as prescribing physical exercise for baldness. Exercise is always helpful, but it won’t grow hair. (ibid, 30-31)
Even when a primary cause can be determined we should still be willing to see what else may be contributing to our problems. Again, the value is that the more we can identify as a contributing factor the more resources we have at our disposal to help fight back against our problems.
Don’t settle for simple explanations of your problems. It’s tempting to do this, and our world regularly offers us even scientific explanations for singular causes. These approaches, however, reduce problems and ultimately people in profoundly unhelpful ways. Embrace the complexity and find that this opens up a wealth of help that you need to grow through and fight against your troubles.