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My Brain Made Me Do It: The Biology of Sin

I've just discovered that I’ve been operating on the belief that my goodness was something of my own choosing. I’ve chosen not to kill anyone and not to cheat on my husband. I don't do drugs or chain smoke, nor am I involved in homosexual behavior or theft or lying. And if my neighbor had an ox, I wouldn’t want it. 

I have, in fact, been measuring myself much like the rich young ruler did in Luke 18. “All these things I have kept from my youth” (Luke 18:21). And yet how much of my goodness has been a result of positive social pressure or a stable upbringing or fear of prison or a healthy body? 

I believe C.S. Lewis says it well.

“If you have sound nerves and intelligence and health and popularity and a good upbringing, you are likely to be quite satisfied with your character as it is. . . A certain level of good conduct comes fairly easily to you. You are not one of those wretched creatures who are always being tripped up by sex, or dipsomania, or nervousness, or bad temper. Everyone says you are a nice chap and (between ourselves) you agree with them. You are quite likely to believe that all this niceness is your own doing: and you may easily not feel the need for any better kind of goodness. Often people who have all these natural kinds of goodness cannot be brought to recognize their need for Christ at all until, one day, the natural goodness lets them down and their self-satisfaction is shattered. In other words, it is hard for those who are ‘rich’ in this sense to enter the Kingdom.” (Lewis, 214)

At times, I've indeed had my self-satisfaction shattered. I usually fall into bouts of shame and disappointment. My perfect crystal image of myself has got cracked and ruined! But I find ways of mending that. The most delicious way is to search out other’s flaws and hold those up next to mine. This can be done through prying questions or simple gossip. When I hear an ugly bit about my neighbor’s marriage, I use this to feel that I have a superior marriage. Or I can watch the bad behavior in other’s children to make me feel that my children have been brought up rather well. It is a pathetic bandaid to cover feelings of inferiority. In fact, it does not heal at all. Rather, it upholds the illusion that I am better than others, and that if I were in their shoes, I wouldn’t make those poor choices.

However, reading The Biology of Sin by Matthew S. Stanford, PhD has altered my thoughts a bit. Stanford argues that the biology of our brain can make certain people more prone to certain kinds of sin. I found this quite believable when speaking of men and women. Certainly our sexes' unique strengths suggest that we also must have unique weaknesses.

“A recent Catholic survey supports this idea that men and women sin differently. The study was based on the confessions heard by ninety-five-year-old Jesuit priest Roberto Busa after a lifetime in the priesthood and was focused on the traditional seven deadly sins: pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed, and sloth. The most common sins reported by men were lust and gluttony (sins related to immediate pleasure and gratification), while women were more likely to struggle with pride and envy (sins related to relational status and privilege).” (Two Sexes ‘Sin in Different Ways’ as cited in Stanford, 12)

I also don’t find it hard to believe that people of different personality types sin differently. I suppose someone who flies by the seat of his or her pants may be more likely to procrastinate than someone who plans ahead. And someone who is artistic may be less likely to keep commitments than a task-orientated person. I’m speaking in gross generalities here, but I think you get the point. 

Stanford takes this idea one step further in his book The Biology of Sin. I didn’t entirely understand all the technical brain jargon, but I did understand him to mean that our brain’s biology, which is formed by genetics and our upbringing, causes some people to be more susceptible to certain kinds of sins than others.

Here are a few examples of what he means:

“In the case of rage, disturbances in the neurotransmitters serotonin have been suggested to play a role . . . Several studies have shown abnormal variations in the genes that code for the production of serotonin in individuals who display impulsive aggressive outbursts” (Stanford, 35).

“Studies have shown that men with high baseline levels of testosterone are more likely to leave the home because of troubled marital relations, extramarital sex, or spousal abuse” (Stanford, 55).

“Janice Crouse, senior fellow at Concerned Women for America, has reported on research that found ‘the production of oxytocin varied among women according to the level of distress and anxiety or the degree of security in their relationships. The women who had fewer negative emotional relationships in their lifetime experienced greater oxytocin production.’ These results suggest that women with a significant history of relational issues are less able to form significant emotional bonds with subsequent partners because of low oxytocin production” (Crouse, Janice Shaw as cited in Stanford, 55).

“Low serotonin functioning has been demonstrated in numerous studies of antisocial and criminal populations” (Stanford, 72).

“. . . homosexual orientation in men may be a result of an undermasculinized (more feminized) anterior hypothalamus” (Stanford, 107-108). And “females prenatally exposed to high levels of androgens are masculinized and report differences in sexual orientation” (Stanford, 108-109).

Stanford also discusses the brain chemistry of people who are violent and habitually dishonest. He argues that since Adam and Eve first sinned, we have been "struggling to try to meet unfulfilled needs and uncontrollable wants" (Stanford, 20). This results in “immoral desires, distorted drives, corrupt thought patterns, and sinful habits” (Stanford, 23). Simply stated: without God everyone is born into a broken machine. Some of us inherit a machine in worse condition than others.  

This doesn’t mean that alcoholics and perpetual liars and murderers can't be expected to obey the law. Given enough motivation, fear of punishment, or social rejection most people can be coerced into proper moral behavior. And certainly that is what a country's government was formed to do: maintain social order and protect the helpless.

What this does mean, however, is that, given different circumstances, I too could've quite easily have been that murderer or adulterer or homosexual. Yes, even a Hitler if I'd been born into a different time and a different family. 

I can give myself no credit for the good I do quite naturally. I have been raised in a loving home where good moral values were modeled. I was born with a good constitution and a strong body. These were gifts to me from God. And much of my good behavior is due to them. 

Thus, when I see other believers struggling with what comes easily to me, I can't look at them as lesser Christians or tell them to muscle through it. “Abnormal biological predispositions, corrupt thought patterns, and sinful desires do not simply go away by themselves once we come to faith, no matter how much we want them to” (Sanford, 26).

Transformation for them and for me only comes through a supernatural power overpowering our faulty brain chemistry. Within us, Christ can overcome all the imbalanced serotonin and oxytocin levels. He teaches us how to be stronger than our impulses. He teach us how to not just act like we care about our neighbors but actually love our neighbors too. I mean really love them, not just some fake thing that we do to look nice. 

I find this rather comforting when I am disgusted with that broken crystal image of myself or when I am overwhelmed with my apparent tendencies to compare and strut and prickle at others. Perhaps, I am not as rich in spirit as I had formerly thought.

" . . . if you are a poor creature—poisoned by a wretched upbringing in some house full of vulgar jealousies and senseless quarrels—saddled, by no choice of your own, with some loathsome sexual perversion—nagged day in and day out by an inferiority complex that makes you snap at your best friends—do not despair. He knows all about it. You are one of the poor whom He blessed. He knows what a wretched machine you are trying to drive. Keep on. Do what you can. One day (perhaps in another world, but perhaps far sooner than that) He will fling it on the scrap-heap and give you a new one. And then you may astonish us all—not least yourself: for you have learned your driving in a hard school. (Some of the last will be first and some of the first will be last)." (Lewis 215)

"Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greed to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:17-24)

Work Cited

Crouse, Janice Shaw. “Love Potion Number ‘O’”. As quoted in Stanford, Matthew S. PhD. The Biology of Sin: Grace, Hope, and Healing for Those Who Feel Trapped. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010.

Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001.

Stanford, Matthew S. PhD. The Biology of Sin: Grace, Hope, and Healing for Those Who Feel Trapped. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010.

“Two Sexes ‘Sin in Different Ways.’” BBC News. As quoted in Matthew S. Stanford’s The Biology of Sin: Grace, Hope, and Healing for Those Who Feel Trapped. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010.

All scripture is quoted in the English Standard Version.


Unknown said…
Once someone I love did something I considered unthinkable, which caused me to ponder. I listed all the things in my life and history that have taught me and supported me. All these things were placed in my life by God. My ultimate conclusion: every last stitch of righteousness I have is a gift from God!

I have also come to realize how certain things in my life that I once considered a deficit (an alcoholic father, terminal singleness, my tendency to overeat, anxiety) have actually been an asset. Fathers and husbands are only temporary stand-ins for Jesus any way, and my weaknesses make me more dependent upon His strength. God foreknew and foreordained the path my life would take because He knew what it would take to draw me to Him!
Excellent post. Thank you!
Unknown said…
That second C.S. Lewis quote just brings tears to my eyes. What a relief that "He knows all about it...He knows what a wretched machine you are trying to drive. Keep on. Do what you can. One day (perhaps in another world, but perhaps far sooner than that) He will fling it on the scrap-heap and give you a new one."

Thanks for writing and sharing your writing with the world!! :)

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