Daring Brain Change
"Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will." (Romans 12:1-2)
It's just the way I am!
Ever said or thought that? I certainly have. The truth in this statement is that some behaviors come really naturally to us in a good way whilst others are troubling habits that seem ingrained into our very souls. The former aspects of us, as long as they are healthy and God-honoring, are gifts given by God to us for His glory. The latter are seeming ingrained patterns within us, and require change but can be quite hard/resistant. I am interested in exploring this latter challenge, and how truly ingrained our habits are in actuality. Is it all "just the way I am"?
ICT & Neuroplasticity
Intentional Change Theory (ICT), which is a researched theory of how we intentionally grow and change, suggests that the key way we grow and develop is through writing a personal learning agenda for change which, through experimentation, develops us in new patterns of thinking and behavior. The confidence the model has in this change being possible arises out of the neuroscientific research into neuroplasticity. This short YouTube explains what neuroscience is currently pretty confident about, when it comes the human brain and learning / growth. Check it out:
Your brain can change! Which means, so too can you!
The question I've got to ask us, and myself, is this: what implications does this have for our "it's just the way I am" statements? The answer is not straightforward. We have tendencies, from birth, usually called personality or temperament, that are pretty hardwired in us. But these don't tend to be moral in and of themselves, so much. I have in mind, for example, our level of introversion or extroversion. Some of us are more "wired" to be energized by and pretty constantly around people. Some of us are more "wired" to be energized by and pretty constantly by ourselves with measured doses of other people. One is not better than the other, or more moral. However, what about our tendencies to: lie, gossip, get out of control in anger, indulge ourselves too much, or get caught up in addictions of all sorts. The sorts of tendencies, nay habits, that we truly would like to change, if we can. If it's not "just the way I am!" And further, how does the challenge of our tendency towards sin play into all of this neuroplasticity?
Nehemiah was convinced human change was possible
He was not aware of modern science, but he nonetheless dared believe that the people around him could and indeed had a responsibility under God to change. In effect, he was acting with conviction in the power of God to work in and through people to change, in the ways that modern science seems to tell us we can. But he knew something that modern science doesn't tend to focus on - that certain kinds of change, especially within our brains, are only possible by God's mercy and empowering help. This is why we see:
Him often going to prayer - a chief way he sought God's mercy and help (see Nehemiah 1:4-11; 2:4; 4:4-5; 4:9; 5:19; 6:9; 6:14; 9:5-37; 13:14; 13:22).
Him often testifying to God's help and reminding the people God was watching over their efforts and lives (see Nehemiah 1:4-11; 2:8; 2:18; 4:15; 4:20; 5:9-11; 6:16; 13:17-18).
Him confronting more than just the "surface level" habits of rebuilding a wall, but the deeper "habits of heart" in the people where sin and sins consequences needed to be identified and overcome (See especially; Nehemiah 1; 5; 9; and 13).
In short, for Nehemiah, his calling was to more than a wall-rebuilding effort. This was a moral work within the people, as well as practical work around the people (in the rebuilding of the Jerusalem walls). It was a work of heart-change more than it was a change in their physical circumstances.
Sin, neuroplasticity and daring personal change
It's interesting (and not so surprising) to me that allot of the research that we see put out from the scientific community, especially surrounding brain change, focuses on describing problematic changes in the brain (like addiction and it's negative effects) or relatively amoral habit builds (new skill development) or rebuilds (like building physical fitness, recovering from injury developing passions like reading and craft, as examples). How to become better, more moral humans is simply less present in the research.
I found interesting research that points out that we have been fascinated for thousands of years by the tension between our drives and our will - which is the tension sin introduces into our discussion of behavior change (check it out here if you're interested). Nehemiah, under God's merciful guidance and help, was leading the people of Israel in a conviction that the Apostle Paul would later describe and declare as hope for all humanity through Jesus Christ:
"Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will."
In other words, you can change. Your mind can be transformed, as you offer your bodies as living sacrifices to God and experiencing renewing. The narrative of Nehemiah helps us see how this happens with the active mercy of God on display in Nehemiah and the Israelite community he leads during this time. It is a combination of learning, flexible planning and action, and overcoming more than just superficial habit challenges. Nehemiah leads the people of Israel around him in a moral renewal. A renewing of the mind. Through a renewed dedication to God - an offering of their bodies in "living sacrifice" towards God.
The vision of God for humanity, as revealed fully through Jesus Christ, is not just that we'd become healthier and happier versions of our selves. The vision of God for humanity is to dare to become new humanity - new creation humanity in fact (see 2 Corinthians 5:17). What neuroscience confirms is that the brain can change and renew. What neuroscience can't confirm is if the brain can fundamentally change in a moral direction in response to a new moral vision.
Nehemiah and the New Testament respond to this open question with an emphatic "yes"! The brain can and does change in a moral direction in response to the work, power, and grace available to us in Christ.
So yes, your brain can change. Which means, so can you. You're called to become a new human. But the key is - the deepest change that the heart truly desires, and needs, is available to us (and our brains) only through the grace and power of Christ.
Review your change and growth goals. Are they "in Christ." In other words:
Are they moral change/growth goals? Habits of the deeper recesses of your heart you seek to change and transform, by Christ's grace and leading?
Do they aim in a direction of becoming more like Christ in the specific practice or habit or skill that you are growing in?
Do you seek more than just the power of your own will to grow and become in the area of growth your focused on?
If you've never thought about these in relation to your growth goals, may this weeks blog be your inspiration.
Praise God that we can change, especially at the deepest and most needed levels, through the grace and power of Christ.
Written by Ps. Rob.