The disruptive nature of this past year has challenged so many areas in our lives, perhaps none any more so than our very state of mind.
Honest souls would admit their thoughts in the past several months have included fears about their financial future, anxieties over their children’s education, worries over their health and well-being, and uncertainty about the future in general. The many things pressing in on our lives are weighing heavily in our thoughts and minds. Our faith is also being tested.
Christ-followers are not immune to the mental disruptions; they face the same mental health challenges as anyone else. However, too many too often overlook God-given insights and principles found in Scripture related to finding rest and living free. Faith and our brains have more of a connection than we may recognize. A better understanding of this connection can assist us in stewarding the thoughts that so impact our life experience.
The Spirit of Your Mind
Every emotion we experience from euphoria to depression [and every feeling in between] is connected to activity in our brains. Similarly, the brain is actually involved in our pursuit of God. Our brains also play a part in our drifting away from him. Acclaimed neurologist, Dr. Andrew Newberg says, “Whatever happens to you as a person spiritually or soulfully still ultimately has to be comprehended emotionally and understood by your brain. If your soul has changed it has to percolate up into your brain.”
The association of the mind and our spiritual life is not a new idea, although it is a new field of study, one Newberg refers to as neurotheology. The Apostle Paul associated life “in the Spirit” with changes in the “mind” (cf., Rom. 8) and urged believers to be “transformed (Gk: metamorphoo)” by the renewing of their minds (Rom. 12:2). He also wove the role of the mind into his appeal for spiritual transformation to the Ephesian church:
… 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. … 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. (4:17-23; italics mine)
In this appeal, the word Paul uses repeatedly for “mind” is nous. The essence of this word is “the faculties of perceiving and understanding and those of feeling, judging, determining; …the intellectual faculty, the understanding (Strong’s Concordance; G3563).”
If transformation is not simply an event but rather a journey, then one aspect of that journey is certainly the development of spiritual intimacy, of coming closer to Jesus. While that increasing “closeness” may be practiced in our spiritual disciplines, it is, of course, also perceived in our brain. Paul wanted this principle to become a transforming thought in the minds of his readers. “Come closer to God, and he will come closer to you (James 4:8).” This verse implies a reciprocity of action and response, one that can be experienced, reflected on and even felt spiritually, physically and neurologically.
Feeding Your Brain Well
Dr. Daniel Amen, coauthor with Rick Warren of The Daniel Plan (Zondervan), the bestselling book on faith-based healthy living is perhaps best-known to many as a favorite TED talk presenter on the subject of brain functioning. His clinic in California has carried out some 150,000+ brain scans, including some on his own children, and he has discovered much on brain function and human behavior.
Amen views both our service to God and sin through a biological lens: “A healthy brain increases the chances of having a healthy spiritual life,” he says. “But, if your spiritual life is not developed, it can have a negative impact on the spiritual functioning of the brain. For example, if you engage repeatedly in pornography it has negative effect on how your brain functions. If you repeatedly give into temptation, it makes you more likely to give into it in the future. Conversely, prayer and meditation on the Bible have a positive effect and more of it makes you more likely to practice it in the future.”
Eugene Peterson’s translation of Roman 12 makes it clear that our mindset and maturity is inextricably linked:
So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. (Romans 12:1-2, MSG)
The Most Changeable Part
The brain is arguably the most resilient part of the body. Also, countless brain synapses are incredibly modifiable; they can change in a brief period of time. Brain plasticity is a rapidly emerging field and an interesting one in light of the process of sanctification. Amen says that “plasticity is such a great concept we are learning more about. It means your brain can respond to change. You’re not stuck with the brain you have. You can make it better; regardless of your age. I can prove it with the imaging work I have done.”
Nobel laureate Eric Kandel proved that neurons never stop learning demonstrating the important field of neuroplasticity. Kandel showed that when any alteration in your environment occurs your nerve cells will change in literally a matter of hours. When the stimulus around us is altered, the internal functioning of nerve cells changes, even growing new extensions called axons capable of communicating with other parts of the brain.
But, what does neuroplasticity have to do with God? According to Newberg, “Everything, for if you contemplate something as complex and mysterious as God, you’re going to have incredible bursts of neural activity firing in different parts of your brain; your brain is going to grow.” The Apostle Paul wrote that “letting your sinful nature control your mind leads to death. But letting the Spirit control your mind leads to life and peace (Rom. 8:6; NLT).” Newberg’s wonder-filled view of the brain’s response to God and our thoughts about him is stunning, reminiscent somewhat of David’s awe: “I am fearfully and wonderfully made… (Ps. 139:14).”
Jesus & The Brain
Christians often talk about salvation in terms of “asking Jesus to come into your heart.” This language has inspire many towards belief and conversion experience. Perhaps it may also do us well to also think in terms of “asking Jesus to come into our brains”, into our thoughts and our mindset. After all, Paul also affirmed that we can have the “mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16).
Biblically we recognize that the brain alone cannot save us (Eph. 2:8), but it is fascinating to consider how God has wired the brain to respond to the work of the Holy Spirit when our spirits are willing. Our hope is that sufferings Jesus endured in his earthly biological frame to purchase salvation and the power that raised him up will also “give life to your mortal bodies by this same Spirit living within you (Rom. 8:11 NLT).” Yet it appears that the process of transformation that Scripture presents is one that science also is coming to confirm. Through their research on brain function, neuroscientists such as Amen and Newberg are clearly enjoying frequent discoveries in this field and gaining momentum in passing on these ideas.
Paul also understood, however, that sanctification [or spiritual transformation] was not ultimately our work, but something the “God of peace” would accomplish and something with which we are called to cooperate. Sanctification is more than a creed we espouse; it is a transformation that remakes us spiritually in our practices and apparently even physiologically in our minds and thoughts. It reconciles and reshapes us on all fronts, even above the neck. Paul’s prayer for the Thessalonian Church broadened the dimensions of spiritual formation:
Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it. (1 Thess. 5:23-24; italics mine)
The apostle had no intention of settling for half-growth in the lives of those he led. Neither should we. Transformation was not just an event, but also a place, one of closer spiritual and mental proximity to Jesus. But it also came in the perceptions those intimacies affected. For the earliest followers of Jesus, holiness was all about wholeness – about “spirit … and body.” It was a process of grace that regenerated their souls and rewired their brains.