While meeting with clients at his counseling center, author Jim Wilder “observed a noticeable lack of peace, an absence of healing, and the production of distress in others.1” Who among us have not seen a rise of unrest, dis-ease, unhealed wounds, and the projection of distress upon others? Wilder presents an antidote, “three elements of the Christian life came into sharp focus: (1) dialogue with God about everything, (2) do nothing out of fear, and (3) love people deeply.2” In my two decades in ministry, I must admit that I haven’t always operated out of such a framework.
Jim’s work centers on the field of neurotheology, which explores the neurological aspects of forming loving and joyful relationships with God and others. Matthew 3 provides an example. During Jesus’ baptism as He came up out of the water, the voice of God sounds out, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:14b NIV). This moment of blessing and affirmation sustains Him as He heads into his desert testing and further ministry.
A neurotheologian asks, “What impact would such a blessing have on my relationship with God? When I become a Christ-follower, and the Father looks down on me and says, “You are my beloved” something happens internally. My very brain is rewired as I shift from being an unredeemed enemy of God to a beloved child of God. When a relationship shifts from actions rooted in obligation, shame, even fear, we see deeper and lasting change. What does it look like to practice a more “everyday” conversation with God, reject acting out of fear and shame, and demonstrate a deep love of others, even our enemies?
What might it look like for us to talk with God more regularly?
In his book “Praying Like Monks, Living Like Fools,” Tyler Staton tells a story about being frustrated with his mother for praying about a parking space as she swung through a crowded shopping center parking lot in a new SUV. In his mind, this was so trivial compared to world hunger. As she swung into a nearby parking spot and gave praise to God for the opening, he felt conviction. He admitted God is the God of mundane everyday moments, as well as dramatic provision. God desires conversation, regular engagement, the seeking of His face by an eager son or daughter. How might we continue to shift our view of prayer into a regular conversation with our Father?
What might it look like for us to not respond out of fear?
Our decisions rooted in fear and launched out via words and actions rarely bring healthy fruit. Do we respond by mirroring someone else’s anger, fear, shame, etc.? Are we reacting out a past trauma, out of a past failing, out of a tense situation created by someone’s pushing their distress on us? This is commonly described as a fight or flight response and is driven by our amygdala. The amygdala is tied into our limbic system and is sometimes called our “lizard brain.” Actions that well up from this section of the brain are informed from past experiences and independent from rational thought. Simply put, we can’t think our way out of fear and shame responses.
But there is hope! Research is revealing that our brains are rewired through experiences of love and joy. If we are in a loving relationship with our Father, that rewires our very being. If we live into our joyful experiences of baptism, worship, communion, and other shared communal faith experiences, our painful experiences become replaced with markers of deep joy and lasting love. And we’ll be able to respond out of our new identity in Christ. How might we pause and consider why we’ve become anxious in a situation? And how might we begin to embrace our more fully?
How might we love people more deeply?
This question is easy to answer intellectually, but what of the moments when our heart rate goes up, our body tenses, and we want to pivot away from someone or get up in their face? Each one of us have experienced the Psalmist’s cry of betrayal, “Even my close friend, whom I trusted, he who shared my bread, has lifted up his heel against me.” (Psalm 41:9 NIV). Perhaps we’ve discovered that loving our family and congregation members is harder than even loving our enemies, due to relationship breakdown. We live in an age where we experience people posting on social media or sending texts and emails that we’d likely tone down if we had to say it face to face. It’s as if Individuals have become their own radio stations, broadcasting whatever might come to their mind, regardless of what that might do to relationships. How might we love deeply in the face of such behavior.
As we labor in whatever capacity we’ve been called to serve the Lord, we are given lots of opportunities to practice. I offer this closing example of how I’ve been trying to live out the above points. Recently, someone sent an email questioning my integrity. My unredeemed side, my lizard brain, went down a bullet list of all the ways that person was wrong. But after a moment of reflection and conversation with God paired a conversation with a dear Christian mentor, I was able to respond reflectively and ask for clarity from the sender. And I saved the hard stuff to talk about face-to-face. The big shift came when I took a breath and said, “God, I know you love this person deeply. He is probably responding out of fear and anger. I also desire for this person to thrive. How might I love him more deeply?” We don’t have any control over the way someone else responds, and things may still go badly. But the Jesus-way is always life-giving in the long haul. May God provide the encouragement of Scripture, the presence of His Holy Spirit and the support of the faith community as we walk with others.