Can Wrong Behavior Be Attributed to Organic Causes?
Robert D. Smith, M.D.

The above question was asked by a reader of The Biblical Counselor. Before it can be adequately answered, it is necessary to define wrong behavior. God’s Word is the standard that must be used to determine right and wrong. Any action that violates His standard is wrong behavior. In addition, the motive for the behavior may be a part of the behavior. Disobedience of God’s commands is always wrong. It is never right to steal, commit adultery, lie, etc. However for a person to fail to go to work may or may not be wrong. If he does not go to work because he is angry about something at work or because he does not like his boss or because he simply does not want to go to work, that is wrong and sinful. But if the person is in the hospital because of surgery or because of an injury and does not go to work, that is not wrong and thus not a sin. In this latter case the organic problem justifies the person’s failure to go to work. We are commanded to work, but the command is such that missing a few days for surgery, etc., does not constitute sin. The same cannot be said for stealing, adultery, lying, etc. There is no proven organic problem that will justify committing any of those sins. Those are wrong behaviors that cannot, under any condition, be attributed to organic causes.

There are many diseases that do affect the person’s behavior. For example, when the thyroid gland quits functioning the person appears to be depressed. The diagnosis is not depression but hypothyroidism (low thyroid disease). A very important principle is that whenever an organic cause for behavior is found in a person’s body, the label changes. Before the diagnosis, the label described the thinking, feeling or behavior, or some combination of those three, i.e., depression. After finding the physical problem the label described the physical abnormality, i.e., hypothyroidism.

Whenever the phrase “organic cause” is used, there must be proof that the body is not functioning properly in some way. Many people incorrectly believe that because they feel bad there is some sickness or some malfunction in the body. The body is sin cursed and does not always function or feel well. When a physical examination and laboratory testing is done, there are times when nothing can be discovered to be wrong in the body. The problem comes when those feelings become the basis for the person not functioning normally. Even though no organic cause is found, the label “organic cause” is used. This unproved label becomes the excuse for the failure to function responsibly. This is a theory that originated in the non-Christian community and has been widely accepted by much of Christianity. It is hard for the biblical counselor to know how to respond when a Christian physician has given the counselee this kind of information. The counselor’s main recourse is to ask for the counselee to obtain clear evidence through various objective tests that the problem is truly organic.

You may ask, “What about such conditions as the flu where the person is very ill but there is no test to prove it?” That is a good question but it contains some incorrect statements. There are many objective physical evidences of illness in the body: fever, vomiting, diarrhea, cough, etc. These can be observed by someone other than the sick person as evidence of some organic problem. In addition, there are tests to prove the existence of the flu virus producing the illness. Finding and determining the virus does not influence the treatment, and performing these tests is quite expensive, so they are not a part of the usual routines in evaluating illness. They are mainly used in research centers as a part of research studies. If there is no objective evidence of illness the counselor should use biblical principles. Another question from a reader is “How do you deal with what some call a ´┐Żgenerational curse’ (i.e., being born gay or alcoholic etc., because a parent or other relative had the same pattern)? If people have been born with these strong tendencies, are they capable of confronting them thus avoiding a long life of crisis and heartache for themselves and others?”

There is nothing in the Bible that teaches a person is born with tendencies toward certain sins. A person may have learned habits in his home that are difficult to break, but this is not hereditary or genetic. Medical science attempts to make us believe it is due to heredity but without any proof. Just because certain things happen in families does not make the problem inherited. The Bible talks about the sins of the father being visited on the children to the third and fourth generations. This has no connection with genetics but is referring to the way the children learn to live. The Scripture is full of teaching about how the example and indirect teaching of the parent strongly influences the way a child learns to look at life.

Genetics do not cause behavioral change. Genetics produce demonstrable physical variations in the body. If there are damages to the body as a result of genetic problems, the physical body is the issue not the actions of the body. If genetics have produced a damaged brain, the problem is the actual brain tissue not the behavior. In addition a specific cause for the behavior can be found in that person’s damaged brain. If a part of the body will not function properly as a result of some genetic change, the malfunction of that part is the problem´┐Żnot the genes. Although the genes were the cause the problem is physically proven by examination of the person. Genes contain information about the physical body, but they do not have any influence on behavior. Although this is claimed by many people, the direct relationship of genes to behavior with a physical change has not be demonstrated. Unless an actual physical change in the body is found that is the result of genetics, the behavior has nothing to do with genetics.

There is no such thing as a “generational curse” that means the child of a person who is addicted to alcohol will have a natural problem with alcohol. The child has seen how the parent uses alcohol to deal with life and if there is no real alternative to this for the child, that child may follow the parent’s example. Such actions do not make it genetic. For something to be scientifically genetic, there must be a specific identifiable problem found in the genes and chromosomes of the individual. Medical science has not found such change but many still insist on labeling certain problems as genetic. Therefore people are not “born with these strong tendencies.” By using the Word of God, they are not only very “capable of confronting” strong family influences, but they can “overwhelmingly conquer” (Rom. 8:37 NASB) them and definitely avoid “a long life of crisis and heartache for themselves and others.”

In both of these questions the standard and help is the Word of God. No one can use organic problems, genetics, or a “generational curse” as an excuse for wrong behavior. Even though life may be full of problems, God’s Word is all that is needed to live in a way that pleases God (2 Pet. 1:3 NASB) and is thus satisfying.

Reprinted by permission from The Biblical Counselor, National Association of Nouthetic Counselors, 3600 W. 96th St., Indianapolis, IN 46268-2905