(The neuroscience of sanctification and faith series)
When I was a kid I hated wearing socks because of the line across the feet. It drove me crazy! I also hated the neck tags in shirts. Now that we have seamless socks and tagless shirts, I realize that I couldn’t have been the only that was uncomfortable. Otherwise, why produce alternatives. But it also tells me that we have slowly over time created a world that has minimized discomfort on all levels.
I like the phrase “spiritual discipline” for a variety of reasons. First, I think that we “sinify” or use shame/guilt motivation way too much. This term has an air of growth rather than judgment. I think that we have taken sin out of context far too long and made it something that it is not. I do not believe there is anything arbitrary about serving God or what He calls sin. There have been many religions throughout time that have involved rituals with arbitrary aspects like dancing naked around a fire or wearing a headdress. And there have been many systems of belief that involve arbitrary dos and don’ts.
I’m reminded of the story of the Christmas ham. One day a young child is helping his mother with Christmas dinner preparations. He notices that his mother cuts the end off the ham before putting it in the oven. He asks his mom why she does it and the mother responds, “I’m not sure. That is the way my mom taught me.” So he goes and asks his grandmother why and she gives the same response as his mother. So he goes to his great grandmother and asks her. His great grandmother responds, “ Well, the pan that we had couldn’t fit the whole ham.” Tradition and Ritual are only valuable if we understand why. Some traditions lose power because of a change in time or culture, whereas others loose power because we have lost the actual meaning or benefit behind them.
I do not believe that God asks us to jump through hoops simply to see us hop. I think there is a meaning behind it all. When it comes to sin, I believe God labels sin those things that are not beneficial to us or harmful to others. Ritual can be powerful, I will be talking about it in future blogs, but it cannot be mindless and thoughtless if it is to be powerful.
The term spiritual discipline implies intentionality and purpose rather than simply divine fiat. I do not think there is anything inherently valuable about mindless uncomfortablility. Simply putting on a scratchy shirt as the monks of old did does not make a person more holy or closer to God. But I would argue that there actually could be some deeper spiritual value to it, if we throw out our magical thinking, legalism, and simplistic service.
Spirituality in my mind refers to relationship with God, in psychology it is the mind that engages and is transformed by relationship with others. It is intangible, not the brain itself but what the brain produces in relationship—thoughts, feelings, emotions, perceptions, all of which are intangible. So when I think of spiritual, I think of the intangible parts of ourselves that touch God. Any spiritual discipline would be an intentional conscious exercise that develops our relationship with God or our capacity to engage with God and others.
Why would discomfort be a sprititual discipline? Because it engages and strengthens a part of our brain that is integral to our spirituality. It is essential to our relationship with ourselves, others, and God. Tolerating, ignoring, overcoming discomfort is a litmus test to some of our most basic emotional and spiritual health. It is the essence of patience, delayed gratification, boredom tolerance, addiction/compulsion resistance, listening, loving, etc…
So I would challenge you to incorporate the spiritual discipline of discomfort in your life. If you want to distract yourself with the television or food, stop, take a pause, feel the discomfort, locate it in your body, label it, understand that just because you feel something doesn’t mean you have to obey it, and then go ahead and do what you want to do. Intentionally ignore an itch or avoid crossing your legs. I know these sound trivial but when you do this as I have described, you are strengthened the area of your brain that is necessary for so much of what I mentioned above. Being able to sit in slience, to be still before God and others requires this “discipline,” it requires a strengthening of this part of the brain. It is only beneficial if it is done intentionally and with understanding. Identifying the uncomfortable feeling, focusing on it, and sitting in it for a bit.
These small activities can be integrated regularly into your daily life, but of course larger discomforts like fasting can be very beneficial as well. Resisting urges and impulses always provides us and opportunity to grow.