(The Neuroscience of Faith and Sanctification Series)
When I think of that hymn:
I surrender all
All to Jesus
My precious savior
I surrender all
I also think of the verse that talks about the peace that passes all understanding. I used to pray for that peace as if God would magically grant it. But a while back I remember reflecting upon it and thinking about a peace that works independent of our understanding. When I work with people that suffer from anxiety, in a way I am trying to teach them that very concept- that they can rest even though their minds are creating all kinds of scenarios that say they are in danger or at risk.
The reason I think of that verse and this hymn, is because I think about the freedom that comes from surrender. Most of my Christian life I viewed these things as sacrifice, for which I would be rewarded by God in this life or the next. In some of my darker Christian experiences I viewed surrender as an arm twist from God- if I didn’t follow through I would be punished. But what I realize today is that surrender is a gift. Wanting justice, being angry, listing out my rights and others wrongs does not bring me peace. Letting go does.
Ortberg talks about spiritual disciplines as exercise. I’ve found this metaphor to be the most complete and usable of any I’ve encountered over the years. I know to some I’m not saying anything obvious, but I’m really writing to those who have been frustrated by their spiritual life, judged themselves for it, or are waiting for some magical intervention to bring about change.
Ortberg’s metaphor works for me because it encompasses the idea behind neuroplasticity and everything that I have been writing about regarding rewiring the brain. Neuroplasticity is just a big word for brain change, it means that our neural networks can change with the right activities and the right degree of intentionality.
I know that this doesn’t sound very spiritual, but our definition is often rigid and our church culture creates expectations and understandings that are familiar and “feel” right. One writer stated that therapy is about making the strange familiar and the familiar strange. You would be surprised by the things we take for granted and the things that we do not see simply because are particular experiences are the only ones we’ve known. For example, in order to study the bible we would need to be able to read. We take that for granted in our culture, but a precursor to devotions would be learning all of the skills and knowledge that go into reading. Memorizing a verse requires memory, and each of us has varying degrees of ability in this area. I point this out because we ordinarily would not consider ways to increase memory and learning to read as spiritual or as precursors to spiritual exercises but they are. What I am suggesting is there are a host of “brain functions” that are really needed to maximize our spiritual life. Our current culture has many strengths, but our lifestyles often cause “atrophy” or never work the areas of the brain that we need to slow down, focus on what is important, and grow our hearts.
When I’m struggling with something and I think about casting my cares upon Jesus many things get in the way- I’m pulled to ruminate over my concern or try and debate with myself as to why I don’t need to worry, but both feed the beast. Our ability to follow what the bible says is linked to our ability to be mindful.
It is the peace that surpasses understanding because it doesn’t involve understanding. We don’t debate our fears or doubt away. We don’t debate our pain away. We surrender it and turn our eyes elsewhere.
We can lay everything at the foot of the cross and let go- our fears, our anger, our doubts, our depression, etc… This is not meant as a cure all or a replacement for therapy. In fact, it is not meant as an answer to our problems, more as an exercise in building our hearts and minds to be more ready to step into peace.
I have had varying degrees of success at letting go. Many times, when I’m driving or doing something “mindless” the thing I’m trying to let go returns. Sometimes I’m caught up replaying a scene or replaying how I wished it would go. I’m a minute in before I realize its occurring, part of me doesn’t want to let go and part of me believes its helpful to continue….but it isn’t. I force myself to let go and refocus on the present. If I try and debate it or argue the merits of letting go I will remain anchored in it, the only answer is to turn my attention to what I’m doing in the present and let go. If we view these events as one time acts, we either win or lose. If we think of this “exercise” as simply a way to find relief or a measure of our spirituality or emotional health than we either succeed or fail. But if you understand that with each attempt you are strengthening your ability to do- you win every time. You are building the part of the brain that you need to CHOOSE what to focus on. You are slowly building something.