Counseling theory matters. This is comically illustrated in the 90s sitcom Frasier. The Cheers spinoff features Kelsey Grammer playing the role of Dr. Frasier Crane, a psychologist by training and host of a radio talk show where listeners are invited to call in and receive counsel over the air. In one episode, Frasier falls ill and is unable to fulfill his on-air obligations. Thankfully, his brother Niles is also a trained psychologist and is willing to guest host the show. He opens the broadcast this way: “This is Dr. Niles Crane, filling in for my ailing brother, Dr. Frasier Crane. Although I feel perfectly qualified to fill Frasier’s radio shoes, I should warn you that while Frasier is a Freudian, I am a Jungian. So, there’ll be no blaming mother today.”
One might have assumed that psychology is a unified field where everyone agrees on best practices and counseling theory. However, as Niles points out, his brother holds to Sigmund Freud’s teaching, which traces a person’s behavior to unconscious memories—so maybe mommy is to blame. Niles bought into the teaching of Freud’s protege turned rival, Carl Jung. As a result, they have completely opposing views on how to help people. Perhaps Niles would advise callers to get in touch with their feminine side instead of blaming mother.
These types of theories diverge because embedded in each one is assumptions about human behavior, thinking, purpose, and motivation. These assumptions lead to radically different ideas about the sort of counsel people need. That is one reason I was concerned when my son’s school sent home a letter announcing a new series of classes designed around Polyvagal Theory (PVT) to help students combat anxiety, depression, and learning loss. While I am thankful for the attention given to these important issues, I had questions about the theory underlying the help being proposed.
I am grateful for the school’s communication with parents including their explanation of what will be taught and providing the option for parents to opt their child(ren) out of the program. Further, I don’t desire to impugn anyone’s character or motives. I’m sure that everyone involved desires to help young people respond to the pressures of life in helpful ways.
Good motives are commendable. They matter. But, as Dr. Niles Crane pointed out, theories matter too. Specifically, psychological theories matter because they implicitly seek to answer some of the most fundamental questions that we can ask about ourselves: Who are we? What is our greatest problem? How do we change?1Polyvagal theory might more accurately be called a physiological psychological theory or biopsychiatrical theory as it primarily seeks to understand how the body drives behavior rather than the mind.
So, what is PVT, and how does it address some of life’s most pressing questions?
Defining Polyvagal Theory
The prefix “poly” means “many” while the root “vagus” means “wandering” and is a reference to the human vagus nerve which runs from the lower brain stem and branches into, or wanders about, various parts of the body. Polyvagal theory seeks to understand and apply how the autonomic nervous system regulates social connection and responds to stress. The term autonomic means unconscious or involuntary. According to PVT, part of your nervous system is unconsciously evaluating your level of safety and causing various parts of your body to respond based on these evaluations.
Depending on the level of safety determined involuntarily by your nervous system, your body exists in one of three states. The first of these is Ventral Vagal Social Engagement. This is the optimal state according to adherents of PVT. This is often spoken of as being in a regulated state. In this state you feel safe and are able to engage others socially without fear. This is where you will be open to relationships, be willing to share with others and be able to give and receive communication.
If your nervous system senses danger, your body moves into the second state described by PVT called Sympathetic Nervous Activation. This is sometimes referred to as an elevated state of mobilization—you are on high alert, ready to fight the danger or use your energy to flee from it. This is often referred to as a state of dysregulation. This may manifest itself in an elevated heart rate, loss of appetite, anxiety, or shortness of breath. According to PVT, those in this state are more likely to act out, yell at others, or run away.
Third, your body will not allow you to remain on high alert forever. Eventually, your body will compensate by shutting down. This is referred to as Dorsal Vagal Shutdown. If the perceived threat is too great to fight or flee, or if your sympathetic nervous system is on high alert for too long, your body will eventually compensate by shutting down. This is the highest state of dysregulation. This is often referred to as the fainting or freezing response and is characterized by immobilizing fear, sluggishness, social isolation, lethargy, depression, or an unwillingness to act on responsibilities.2The Ventral Vagal Social Engagement state is the unique contribution of polyvagal theory to the broader field of psychological theory. Before polyvagal theory, the latter two states were already being taught and well accepted in the field of biopsychiatry.
The goal of implementing PVT is to help people understand how their nervous system controls their behavior and thinking and then seek to regulate the state of their body to achieve the sorts of behaviors that are most socially advantageous. The letter that came home to us as parents read: “The students will be learning about how their nervous systems function to keep them safe and how our nervous systems influence or control our thoughts and our behavior.” The goal becomes to notice what state you are in and learn to regulate these constantly shifting states through various techniques so as to have better thoughts and behavior.
Much more could be said about the origins, developments, studies, and critiques associated with polyvagal theory, but this overview will allow us to answer briefly the fundamental questions we proposed earlier.
Who are we?
Foundational to PVT is the assumption that these responses/states were developed over hundreds of millions of years of evolutionary development. Dr. Stephen Porges, the theoriest behind Polyvagal Theory wrote the following for the National Institute of Health:
“The human nervous system, similar to that of other mammals, evolved not solely to survive in safe environments but also to promote survival in dangerous and life-threatening contexts. To accomplish this adaptive flexibility, the human nervous system retained two more primitive neural circuits to regulate defensive strategies (i.e., fight–flight and death-feigning behaviors). It is important to note that social behavior, social communication, and visceral homeostasis are incompatible with the neurophysiological states and behaviors promoted by the two neural circuits that support defense strategies. Thus, via evolution, the human nervous system retains three neural circuits, which are in a phylogenetically organized hierarchy. In this hierarchy of adaptive responses, the newest circuit is used first; if that circuit fails to provide safety, the older circuits are recruited sequentially.“3Porges, Stephen W. “The Polyvagal Theory: New Insights into Adaptive Reactions of the Autonomic Nervous System.” Cleveland Clinic journal of medicine. U.S. National Library of Medicine, April 2009. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3108032/.
Essentially, the earliest mammals needed a body capable of surviving in dangerous environments, thus the adaptation of defensive strategies like fight or flight or playing dead became evolutionary advantages. However, as mammals continued to evolve, there was an additional advantage passed down through random mutation and survival of the fittest; that is, a nervous system capable of responding to social environments. Therefore, a third state eventually came into being as the nervous system evolved and allowed for the development of social interaction, trust, and relationships. The “fight or flight” response or “faint or freeze” response was not advantageous when it would be beneficial for a group of mammals to team up against dangerous enemies (or procreate for that matter). Since the social interaction adaptations came later on the evolutionary timeline, you will often hear adherents of PVT refer to the two states of dysregulation as a person’s more primal states, whereas the regulated state is the most advanced evolutionary adaptation.
It is important to note that PVT rests entirely on an evolutionary view of mankind. The operative assumption behind PVT is that all people are the product of chance mutations and survival of the fittest.
What Is Our Greatest Problem?
According to Dr. Porges, our responses to life’s pressures are simply a series of circuits firing sequentially as a result of evolutionary adaptation. Problematic thoughts and behaviors are explained by the body firing the wrong circuits at the wrong times. Man’s greatest problem is a lack of safety or feelings of being unsafe causing the body to respond to the perceived threat of danger. The use of the word “feelings” is not incidental. A Psychology Today article states that it is our “bodily felt sense of safety” that determines our state of stress, and therefore, our thinking and behavior.4Springer, Shauna H. “Polyvagal Theory: How Your Nervous System Works.” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, March 4, 2022. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/free-range-psychology/202203/polyvagal-theory-how-your-nervous-system-works. So, you not only need to be safe, but you need to feel safe. If the recent emphasis on safe spaces, trigger warnings, and the over-application of the word trauma to normal suffering has perplexed you, this view of man is part of the reason for this recent emphasis. Certainly, many have suffered significant traumatic experiences and I don’t want to unnecessarily cause them distress by reminding them of their suffering unnecessarily. My goal is not to minimize suffering or to mock real sufferers. However, when the discussion moves from “being safe” to “feeling safe,” then any circumstance can be labeled traumatic and/or triggering.
Since feelings are the main focus, it appears that there is no limiting principle that could specify the parameters of what constitutes a safe environment. For instance, would a teenager who is not affirmed by her parents in her gender dysphoria feel unsafe and therefore be in an environment where she could not thrive in? Would she need to be removed from her home and placed somewhere where she feels affirmed and safe? Unfortunately, this is not some ridiculous scenario but a reality some parents are currently facing. Recently, a judge in Canada ruled that a father will be guilty of “family violence” if he refers to his biological daughter using female pronouns or if he seeks to dissuade her from seeking gender affirming care.5Smith, Wesley J. “Canadian Judge Strips Transgender Child’s Parents of Rights.” National Review. National Review, March 6, 2019. https://www.nationalreview.com/corner/canadian-judge-strips-transgender-childs-parents-of-rights/. Accusing a father of harm for not affirming his daughter is a result of elevating feelings above reality.
If your nervous system is determinative in your thinking and behavior, then your greatest problem lies outside of you. It is dangerous people (or, in the case cited above, parents who don’t affirm you) and stressful circumstances that are the primary issue. Since the nervous system is continually and unconsciously evaluating your safety and directing your thoughts and behavior accordingly, the greatest need you have is to feel safe. Again, the letter that came home: “When our nervous systems feel unsafe, we act out or shut down… We pull away from each other or run away.”
How Do We Change?
The goal of implementing PVT is not necessarily to change your character or thinking. Instead, it is to learn to recognize which neuropsychological state you are in so that you might seek to regulate it. Recognizing the state of your nervous system is sometimes referred to as nervous system mapping. This is the attempt to evaluate your feelings, thoughts, breathing, and heart rate to determine which neuropsychological state you are currently experiencing. If you discover that you are dysregulated, meaning your sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) is activated or you are experiencing dorsal vagal shutdown (faint or flee), then you can engage in various activities to seek to regulate yourself and return to the state of ventral vagal social engagement (social safety).
A physiological problem requires a physiological answer and that is by and large what is provided by counselors directed by this theory. Deep breathing and various stretches are often recommended to move you from one state to another. One counselor suggested that the fight or flight energy must be expended by running in place or punching a pillow.6Wagner, Dee. “Polyvagal Theory in Practice.” Counseling Today, August 9, 2022. https://ct.counseling.org/2016/06/polyvagal-theory-practice/. Other techniques include listening to upbeat music or calming music depending on whether you need to calm down or get moving. Spending time in nature, meditation, yoga, tapping various parts of your body for stimulation, and drinking caffeine are sometimes recommended as well. These are all attempts to move into the ventral vagal state where you can be happy and calm.
Simply stated, the goal of PVT is regulation of the nervous system. If you can learn to regulate your nervous system, then you will be controlled by feelings of safety and be able to engage in beneficial social activity. Technically, according to PVT you aren’t growing or regressing, you are simply responding to your environment out of evolutionary instinct.
Evaluating Polyvagal Theory
Polyvagal theory has grown in popularity since it was first proposed in 1994. Besides professional practitioners implementing PVT, it is becoming quite popular among life coaches and social media influencers.7Ley writes, “This is especially apparent on social media platforms like TikTok, where the #polyvagal hashtag is extremely popular, with dancing, music, and body movements all recommended as interventions for everything from depression to trauma.” Ley, David J. “Polyvagal Theory: Useful Narrative but Still Just a Theory.” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, September 30, 2022. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/women-who-stray/202209/polyvagal-theory-useful-narrative-still-just-theory. Despite its popularity, many within the fields of psychology and neuroscience are critical of PVT. Dr. David Ley, a clinical psychologist and critic of the full-fledged acceptance of PVT writes, “Polyvagal Theory is one of these latest psychological fads, with lots of buzz and attention from therapists and [life] coaches.”8Ibid. Dr. Ley’s use of the word “fad” is significant. It is the lack of scientific data supporting PVT that leads him to that label. He argues, “Psychology fads often have little objective scientific research supporting them. PVT has very few empirical studies examining whether applications of polyvagal theory generate measurable positive clinical outcomes.”9Ibid. One neuroscientist summarized succinctly, “Scientifically, the Polyvagal Theory isn’t experimentally verified.”10Pearl, Max. “The Problem with the Polyvagal Theory.” Medium. October 10, 2021. https://medium.com/@maxwellbpearl/the-problem-with-the-polyvagal-theory-c70f55ca6b2e. Due to the lack of empirical data supporting PVT, Dr. Ley concludes that the use of it in counseling is highly experimental and should be communicated as so to patients.11Ley, David J. “Polyvagal Theory: Useful Narrative but Still Just a Theory.” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, September 30, 2022. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/women-who-stray/202209/polyvagal-theory-useful-narrative-still-just-theory.
Though it is commonplace to accept the latest fads as trustworthy scientific findings, it is dangerous to confuse theories with empirical data. Dr. Charles Hodges, a physician and biblical counselor, warns, “Not every study will have a good design or be well conducted, and the researcher’s biases can sometimes influence the interpretation of data.”12Hodges, Charles. “The Importance of Science in Biblical Counseling.” Biblical Counseling Coalition, April 2, 2021. https://www.biblicalcounselingcoalition.org/2021/04/02/biblical-counseling-and-science/. The weakness of PVT is not in the study of the vagus nerve and seeking to understand the connection between the nervous system and bodily responses to stress. It is in the interpretation of data leading to the logical leap that the nervous system is the primary driver of human thoughts and behavior. One way that interpretation of scientific data can go awry is by assuming that correlation necessarily implies causation. For example, proponents of PVT will point out that there is a correlation between those who have a high heart rate variability (the variation in time between heartbeats which is regulated by the autonomic nervous system) and those who are better able to handle stressful circumstances. However, this does not prove that a high heart rate variability causes the acceptable behavior. Therefore, the conclusion that thoughts and actions are driven by the nervous system is not dictated by data alone but by the assumption that man is the result of evolutionary processes such that his behavior must be understood only in relation to his material nature.
Though often confused, there is a significant difference between the hard science of observable, repeatable data and the soft science of behavioral theory. The existence of hundreds of different and contradicting psychological theories points to the shaky scientific ground of theories like PVT. Certainly, verifiable science is a gift from God and is profitable for humanity and our world. We should thank God for those advancements in medicine and technology that have saved lives and improved living conditions. However, that does not mean that we should uncritically accept any theory simply on the grounds that it purports to be science. Christians have always held that there is only one fully reliable source of absolute truth, the Word of God. As you search its pages, you will find a much different set of answers to the most fundamental questions of life.
Who Are We? The Bible Provides a Better Understanding of Man
Joined at the hip to evolutionary thought, PVT relies on the assumption that the driving force behind a person’s behavior is his or her nervous system. Quoting again from the letter that came home to parents: “Our thoughts and behaviors come from the changing states of our nervous system.” Notice the logic: Your nervous system is unconsciously evaluating your safety and it is this involuntary evaluation that determines your thoughts and behaviors. There is little to no room for conscious, thoughtful, and responsible decision-making. This is not surprising given the fact that PVT rests on a biological reductionistic view of man. As a result, PVT defines man and his problems apart from a biblically informed view of the body and soul or the inner man and the outer man.
Alternatively, God’s Word presents humanity as those who are distinguished from the rest of the animal world in that every person is created in the image of God. We get a clue as to what this means in Genesis 1:26, “And God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.’” Adam and Eve and subsequently, every person is a morally responsible person designed to use their God-given capacities of thinking, feeling, choosing, creating, loving, communicating, and acting to reflect God’s character (his likeness).
This image-bearing extends to the entire person, material and immaterial. In the opening pages of the Bible, God creates man from the dust of the ground (material) and breathes into him the breath of life (immaterial). So, we aren’t surprised that the Bible treats both the body and soul—the material and immaterial—with importance. Therefore, biblical counselors affirm the dignity and role of the body. Though we would deny the unconscious evaluation and response to various dangers, we can praise God that he has given us bodies that can so quickly evaluate danger and respond in helpful ways. The increased adrenaline needed to outrun a criminal or the quick reaction to avoid a catastrophic collision while driving serves as a testimony to God’s good design of the human body, including the interaction between our brains, our nervous systems and the rest of our bodies. As we think about the way we have been designed we can join King David in saying, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well” (Psalm 139:14). Part of this praise is recognizing that we are embodied persons and that our bodies are suited for our world.
Biblical counselors have long affirmed that the inner man and outer man influence one another. A family physician recently shared the story of a patient who had broken out in sores covering her entire body. After many tests and ruling out any physiological explanation, it was determined that the most likely cause was the woman’s overly demanding and stressful employment. The sores cleared up upon her quitting that job. Her body was affected by intense pressure on her inner person. The same is true in the other direction; the body can influence the immaterial aspect of man. When the prophet Elijah was on the run for his life, he became so discouraged that he wanted to die. Certainly, he was lacking trust in God and needed to renew his mind. However, God’s first provision for Elijah was rest and food (1 Kings 19). God addressed the outer man first because it was affecting his inner man. We can sympathize with Elijah, we too know from experience that it is more difficult to please God when we are tired or hungry.
Contrary to a purely materialistic understanding of man, the Bible teaches that the inner man and outer man exist in a constantly interacting duality, and therefore, greatly affect one another. Biblical counselors do not deny the interplay between body and soul and freely admit that it can be difficult in some cases to distinguish inner man and outer man problems. It is, therefore, common practice for biblical counselors to encourage counselees to set up an appointment with a physician to rule out any physiological problems. One biblical counselor shared the following:
“I remember one woman we counseled that presented increasingly depressed. And after several sessions, no obvious reason for her depression surfaced. We sent her to another doctor for a second opinion, and Dr. #2 found a small tumor on her thyroid that he removed. In just a few weeks she bounced back into the office to report how good she felt again. Depression all gone! Her issue was not spiritual, and all the Bible studies in the world would not make her feel upbeat until the physical problem was corrected.”13Allchin, Sherry. “Depression: Is It All in Your Mind?” May, 19th, 2015.
Though there are difficult cases to discern if the inner man or the outer man are the primary issue, nowhere does the Bible leave room for blaming the body as that which irrepressibly determines sinful thoughts, feelings, or behavior. When it comes to the source of our thoughts and actions, the Bible emphasizes that immaterial part of us. Consider Jesus’ words in Matthew 15:18-19, “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.” Our thoughts and behaviors do not flow from the nervous system but from our hearts. This is not from our physical hearts, instead, the Bible uses the word “heart” as a comprehensive term for everything in us that is immaterial. The heart is the center of who we are. It is our control center. The heart consists of what we know, what we love, and what we choose. In other words, the heart involves the mind, desires, affections, and will. The heart is the source of “motives; the seat of passions; the center of the thought processes; the spring of conscience,” wrote the Puritan John Owen.14Owen, John. The Nature, Power, Deceit, and Prevalency of the Remainders of Indwelling Sin in Believers, in Temptation and Sin. Vol. 6 of The Works of John Owen. ed. William H. Goold. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1967. 170. Craig Troxel points out the centrality of the heart: “as goes the heart, so goes the man.”15Troxel, A. Craig. With All Your Heart: Orienting Your Mind, Desires, and Will toward Christ. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020. 20. The teaching of Jesus is fundamentally at odds with “as goes the nervous system, so goes the man.”
As people created in the image of God, we are responsible for our words and actions because they flow from within us. Our circumstances and our bodies play an important role in influencing us, but they are not determinative or uncontrollable powers over us.
What Is My Greatest Problem? The Bible Provides a Better Understanding of What Ails Us
Is man fundamentally deprived or depraved? If we are deprived, say, of safety then our greatest need is to fill that felt need. However, if we are fundamentally depraved, then our greatest need must lie outside of ourselves. We are not able to accomplish the sort of rescue that we need.
Depravity sounds like such an ugly word, but if we are to find help for our greatest problem then we must begin by being honest about ourselves. If our behavior flows from our hearts, and our behavior is oftentimes selfish and unloving, then we are forced to conclude that selfishness and unloving attitudes are bound up in our hearts. The Bible refers to this as our sin, transgression, or lawlessness (1 John 3:4). It is tempting to want to place the blame elsewhere for our behavior. In one sense, being responsible for our thoughts and actions is a hard pill to swallow. However, when we are willing to admit that sin is our biggest problem (we have repeatedly failed to exercise our God-given capacities to serve him), we are in a position to look to Jesus who can save us from both the judicial consequences of sin and the powerful influence it exercises over us.
Jesus said that the reason he came was to serve others by giving his life as a ransom. Our selfish and unloving thoughts, words, and actions are such a grave offense against God that it cost Jesus his very life to purchase our salvation. The gospel is that Jesus paid the debt we owed so that we might be treated as if we’d never sinned. In light of the work of Jesus, “He does not deal with us according to our sin, nor repay us according to our iniquities” (Psalm 103:10; cf. Romans 3:21-26). At the cross, we see that God the Father dealt with God the Son “according to our iniquities,” so that he might deal with us like sons and daughters. Jesus got what was coming to us so that we might get the rich reward that was coming to him.
For those who rely on Jesus’ death and resurrection, there is a second benefit of his work—We are freed from sin’s domination. Sin is not only described in the Bible as actions and thoughts but is spoken of as a power from which we need to be rescued. The Apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:15, “…and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.” One of the purposes of Christ’s death was to set us free from living for self and empower us to grow in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).
How we define our problem determines where we look for our solution. If the fundamental problem is that we unconsciously feel safe or not then we will be forced to look for changes in our bodies, circumstances, or relationships. If these cannot be changed, then we are stuck. There is a better way. If we admit that sin is our biggest problem, then we will look to Jesus, the one who exemplified perfect love in willingly laying down his life for us.
How Do I Change? The Bible Provides Real Hope for Change
PVT diverges from a biblical understanding of man in its emphasis on unconscious evaluation leading to feelings that drive behavior. To misunderstand man and to misidentify his greatest problem will inevitably lead to misapplying counsel. So, how does a biblical view of man shape the way we think about change?
Renewing of the Mind
The Bible calls for the renewal of the mind, not the regulation of bodily states as the means by which behavior is assessed and changed. Romans 12:2 says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” According to Scripture, the mind is active instead of a passive responder to bodily stimuli. As people made in the image of God, we are constantly evaluating and interpreting our world. Our thoughts are not helplessly driven by our nervous system. The Bible puts our thinking on the frontside of our feelings and behavior. As we have seen, PVT argues that our neurological state drives our thoughts and behaviors. However, the Bible, in its affirmation of both the inner man and outer man and its emphasis on our hearts/minds, teaches us that our thinking comes first and then drives our feelings, actions, and even physical states. Change starts in our thinking. Our minds must be renewed according to the Word of God if we are to put off sinful thoughts and behavior and replace them with godly ones. A technique like vagal breathing might calm a person down temporarily, but cannot deal with the heart of the problem.
Our minds are to be shaped by what is true. If a person is perceiving dangers and threats where there are none, they are living according to falsehood. What good is it to regulate your felt sense of safety while continuing to believe a lie? For believers, this means that we must recognize that it is the Word of God that leads us into all truth and teaches us to think correctly about life and circumstances. In fact, we are often in positions where we must choose to believe the truth despite the way we may be feeling in any particular moment. Through the sanctifying Word of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, a Christian can learn to trust God in times of danger, difficulty, and stress. This promise is the only way to make sense of passages in the Bible that command us to rejoice in fiery trials (1 Peter 4:12); or, to count it all joy in various trials (James 1:2-3). There is real hope for Christians in the midst of suffering because we can trust that God is near to the broken-hearted and is using these trials to make us like Christ.
The Fear of the Lord
Whereas PVT pushes for the regulation of bodily states, the Bible provides hope for transformation into the image of Christ even in circumstances that are fear-inducing. For Christians, those feelings of fear produced by real or perceived danger are not managed as much as they are enveloped by a superior fear—the fear of the Lord. Jesus said in Luke 12:4-5 not to fear those who can only kill the body, but to fear him who has authority to cast into hell. If we do not operate with a worldview that goes beyond this life, then the words of Jesus make no sense. The authority to cause death seems like the ultimate authority. However, God is bigger than this life. He not only has power over life and death, but also over eternal life and eternal death. He is the judge of every man. However, this judge is not just authoritative, he is kind and cares for his people. So, Jesus amazingly follows up his warning in verses 4-5 by saying, “fear not” in v. 7. If God cares for the sparrow, he will certainly care for his own.
Proper fear of the Lord takes into account both his incredible power and his unceasing care and love for his people demonstrated most clearly in the gospel of Jesus Christ. When we truly see God for who he is, in all his grace and glory, we move towards him not away from him. We find ourselves not terrified by him but rejoicing in him. This fear, or deep reverence for God, develops when we properly understand God as he has revealed himself in Scripture. For instance, in Ecclesiastes 3:14 fearing God is directly linked to his sovereign power, “I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him.”
What a difference it makes when you are able to look at those people or circumstances that you are tempted to fear and think to yourself: “All you can do is kill me.” Or, “all you can do is throw me in prison.” Or, “all you can do is make fun of me.” “I serve the sovereign God of the universe and he personally takes care of me. You can’t do anything to me apart from his good plan for me.” When we tremble and rejoice before Christ, the strongest people, the most fearful voices, the most hurtful mockery, and the most dangerous circumstances are put in their proper place.
This is not to say that people must deliberately put themselves in dangerous situations. Certainly, we want every person to be in a truly safe environment. The hope for Christians, however, as we’ve evaluated the assumptions behind PVT, is that our feelings of safety do not determine our thoughts or behavior. Instead, our actions spring forth from within us. At first, this feels like a weight we can’t bear, but ultimately, there is hope in taking responsibility. We don’t cling to the regulation of bodily states, but to the transformation of our hearts through the renewing of our minds and growth in the fear of the Lord, all of which are empowered by the Holy Spirit through the Word of God.
Although PVT presents itself as a new scientific theory, it is actually an unproven, humanistic attempt to pin human behavior directly on the unconscious evaluations of the nervous system. Like any other psychological theory, PVT cannot fully explain human behavior nor provide adequate solutions as it misses the fundamental truth about man. David Powlison sums up the problem of tying our thoughts and behavior to our physiology. He writes,
“What the Bible says about people will never be destroyed by any neurological or genetic finding. The Bible is the anvil that has worn out a thousand hammers. Neurology and genetics are finding lots of interesting facts. New findings will cure a few diseases, which is a genuine good. But biopsychiatry cannot explain, nor will it ever explain, what we actually are. All people are in the image of God and depend on God, body and soul.”16Powlison, David. “Biological Psychiatry.” Journal of Biblical Counseling 17, no. 3 (1999). 4.
Some will choose to root their lives in the shifting sands of psychological theories. I will choose to root myself and my family in the Word of God, the anvil that has worn out a thousand hammers, because building our house on the foundation of God’s wisdom is the only solid foundation (Matthew 7:24-27). For all flesh is like grass, and all its glory is like the flower of grass. The grass withers and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever (1 Peter 1:24-25).