As many of my readers know I’m a professor of psychology for Regent University as well as a priest in the Continuing Evangelical Episcopal Church. One of the courses I sometimes teach is Abnormal Psychology. Abnormal Psychology focuses on behaviors, cognitions, and emotions considered disordered. One area psychologists explore in regards to abnormal behavior is why particular abnormalities emerge in the first place. In other words, psychologists ask the question, “Why are some people clinically depressed, suffering from clinical anxiety, have schizophrenia, etc., while others seem to go through life without any problem?” A popular model used today to describe the source of abnormal behavior is called the “diathesis stress model.” While the name sounds very technical, it really isn’t that difficult to understand.
The diathesis stress model simply states everyone has within them the potential to experience a psychological disorder of some sort. We’re all vulnerable to particular disorders. We may not know what they are, but given our genetic make-up, life choices, and the circumstances in which we live any one of us could have a psychological disorder just waiting to emerge. This risk factor is called a “diathesis.” What causes the disorder to emerge is the fact environmental stressors impress themselves on the individual and trigger the start of the problem. This model is no different than how we explain certain physical disorders. We may have the genetic predisposition for diabetes, but because we exercise, eat right, and maintain a healthy lifestyle our body never experiences the stress of unhealthy living which causes diabetes to emerge. The key is to mitigate the disposition toward the disorder by keeping our environmental stressors low and practice healthy living. We may have a disposition for depression but if we make sure we have down time, coping mechanisms in place, and a support system available we may never experience depression at a clinical level. The key to maintaining physical as well as mental health is to be sure we understand our vulnerabilities and maintain a healthy set of coping mechanisms to keep us from experiencing problems at a high level
This model is very helpful for understanding how we develop physical ailments and psychological ailments. It also translates nicely for understanding our spiritual ailments. First, we must all recognize because we’re born into a fallen world we have a fallen nature. This fallen nature creates in us a proclivity toward sin. All of us have a sin nature, not a nature of virtue and holiness. While I recognize there are a number of theological positions regarding the state of the soul, I think most Christian can agree the natural state of the human spirit when born into this world is broken and fallen. Additionally, each of us carries within us a proclivity toward a certain sin, or pattern of sins, something called “Signature sins.” Michael Mangis wrote a book called, “Signature Sins, Taming Our Wayward Hearts” in which he explains what these particular proclivities toward abnormal spiritual behaviors are. He writes the following:
“My life, like my home, carries unique markers of my own experiences, relationships, likes, dislikes, gifts and vices. My life displays patterns, consistencies and habits. Even spontaneity occurs within boundaries. My sin is similarly patterned. I can predict my temptations by the choices that have enticed me before. Other temptations may afflict my neighbor but cause me no struggle at all. My patterns of sin are unique to me.”
Like having the risk factors that could lead to a psychological disorder, we all have risk factors that can lead us to display spiritual abnormalities. All it takes is the appropriate environmental stressor to have them kick in. A man may be susceptible to lust and all it takes is watching a sexually explicit movie and he finds himself lusting after women and thinking about them as if they are mere objects of his desire. Having a particular proclivity toward a configuration of sins and living in a world that provides a number of opportunities to experience those sins can lead us to be spiritually disordered. In the end, we’re people struggling with the potential breakdown of not just our bodies, minds, emotions, and relationships, but our spirits as well.
If we truly want to grow spiritually we need to make ourselves aware of our signature sins. These risk factors have the potential to lead us down a path of destruction. They need to be identified as well as the environmental factors causing us stress and in the end, activating our sin pattern. Working with a good spiritual director, practicing spiritual disciplines, and being connected to a great community support system is the first step for growing in the life of grace. In the end, our natural proclivity toward sin can only be transformed by the supernatural life of grace coming from a relationship with Christ. Begin your new life in him by finding ways to destroy the old life in you.