(The Neuroscience of Faith & Sanctification Series)
This week I want to put a pause on going deeper into our heart and gut understanding to discuss some practical applications. I know I keep promising that I’ll provide ways to apply what I’m talking about in a practical way, but I realize that it may take me a little time to wade through the neurobiological and theological implications. So I thought I would give you an exercise that neatly combines what we’ve been talking about.
Remember that I mentioned in past posts that our ability to make decisions “with conviction” require a “visceral-emotional” response within us. These gut/heart feelings are stored bodily as a result of experiences. Gestalt therapy has long recognized the limits of insight and knowledge to change, relying on “experiments” to connect individuals with emotions and experiences to promote growth. This is why simply studying the bible often fails to bring change into areas that we most desperately need. The reason is that there is either a lack of gut/heart feelings in this area or there are visceral emotional experiences at odds with our goals.
These powerfully stored emotional experiences are the result almost entirely of relational encounters. We need healthy relational encounters to grow and change. God is the most powerful potential for change because he is relationally perfect, but He also provides a significant challenge because we often don’t really encounter him- no head/heart encounter or we encounter a harmful facsimile of God.
This week I’d like to give you just a sample of what I’m talking about with the delight exercise.
This exercise is a type of meditation. It’s important to practice certain “experiences” because it takes time to re-wire our brains. When we talk about the “renewing” of our minds, we are neurologically referring to creating new neural pathways.
When I was a kid I used to go hiking in the back of my house. There were several acres of woods back there. Because I would always start off at the same point and travel the same route at the beginning, there was a bit of a trail. If I deviated from the path I had to push my way through, weeds, bushes, and brambles, but if I continued on that path week after week, it would slowly get worn and be just as easy to travel as the original.
Our brains work the same way. For many, we have been conditioned to reject grace and beat ourselves up. It is the easiest and quickest path in your brain. Any attempt to think or feel grace and compassion for yourself will be very difficult. It will be hard to make that connection. There is a law in neuroscience called “Hebb’s law.” It states that neurons that fire together, wire together. As you consciously and intentionally reflect on grace filled thoughts and feelings you are beginning to make a new path, if you do it consistently enough the path becomes as easy to travel as the old one. Or more neurologically accurate, your neurons have formed a connection as strong as the old one. At that point your brain has been transformed.
To help you in that effort, I suggest an exercise that will help you connect with God’s grace. All you need to do is find a quiet place, close your eyes, and imagine that God is delighted in you.
Don’t scoff at the idea or think it’s too simple. What I’m suggesting is actually more difficult and nuanced than you might think. First, I’m not asking you to simply THINK about his delight, BUT to FEEL his delight. You need to imagine feeling how delighted he is with you. Imagine his broad smile and beaming pride in you.
Many people struggle with actually FEELING God’s delight, but this is actually the most important part. One of the main reasons that meditation on scripture does not transform or impact people is because they make it an entirely intellectual exercise which does not really engage all the necessary parts of us that are required for growth and transformation.
There are a few ways to begin to “trick” your brain to do this exercise. One way is to image a time that you felt proud of yourself. Recall that time, image the feeling of pride, locate that feeling in your body (usually your chest), hold on to that feeling—allow yourself to focus on nothing but that feeling. As you hold that feeling allow the memory to fade but continue to hold on to the feeling of pride. Then allow yourself to image that God is feeling that same pride for you.
Another “trick,” if you have children, is to remember a time when you child just started cracking up while interacting with you. Try to remember the laughter and the smile as vividly as possible. Now imagine that you are your child, see yourself through their eyes, try to feel their feelings as they stare at you. Experience their delight in you at that moment. Just like the previous trick, hold on to that feeling and imagine that God has the same delight for you.
This is a structured exercise, but in upcoming posts I will talk about ways in which we can more naturally improve our relationship with God, engaging our whole selves with Him.