“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” ~ Romans 12:2
It weighs about three pounds (though the one Albert Einstein had weighed less than average.) The one a dog has is twice as big as the one a cat has, but that means little, since the one an elephant has is bigger than the one a human has (so we can deduce that cats are still smarter.)
Ours is roughly six inches by four inches. It contains 100 billion cells which are called neurons. Three full soda cans of blood flow through it every minute. Stop the flow of blood to it, and in ten seconds you pass out. In four to six minutes its cells start to die, and soon after, you will. In a single day, it generates more electrical impulses than all the telephones put together in the world. Each day, it produces on average 70,000 thoughts. We’re talking of course about the human brain – arguably the most remarkable thing which God has created in this vast and wonderful universe.
As we noted earlier, not a few scientists deny the human soul and attribute all the activity of the heart, emotions and will to the brain alone. In a junior high biology class I once learned that a ‘kiss’ is nothing but “the anatomical juxtaposition of two orbicularis muscles in a state of contraction.” But then one day in the seventh grade I kissed Beverly Christiansen and experienced the power that launched a thousand ships. Orbicularis muscles, my eye.
We’re told that damage to the brain will alter the person’s behavior and personality, and this is proof of the reductionist view of humans. Big whup. A stubbed toe or stomach ache will affect my mood as well.
It moves in both directions. Being attentive to the care of my soul, or failing to do so, will have profound physiological effects. “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones,” says Proverbs 17:22. Clearly, God has woven body and spirit together in an intricate, symbiotic fashion. However, there’s no denying that the brain is a massive player in shaping and directing who I am and how I behave. And the more research that is done on the brain, the more awestruck we should become at this marvelous supercomputer inside our skulls.
Especially exciting in light of our discussion is what researchers are learning about the capacity of the brain to change. When the Bible asserts that our minds can be renewed, that we can be transformed in our thinking, and that we can direct our minds to turn away from evil and toward the good, we now have tangible, visible evidence of how this works.
It used to be believed that the brain was more or less hardwired, fixed and unchanging. But now we realize that’s all wrong – that indeed the brain is changing all the time in response to the things that we say, think and do. Our minds can be trained. Rewired, as it were.
Scientists have coined several phrases for this phenomenon: neuroplasticity, or the elasticity of the mind. A Harvard Medical School study looked at the brains of a group of students who practiced a simple five finger piano exercise for two hours a day for a week, and they discovered that the neurons in the motor cortex (the part of the brain devoted to finger movements) grew stronger and more numerous, ‘like dandelions in a suburban lawn’ according to one of the researchers.
But that was just the first half of the experiment. Next, the scientists took a second group, which simply sat in a chair and just visualized doing that five finger piano exercise for the same length of time. Guess what happened? The neurons in the motor cortex grew stronger and more numerous, just as with the students who actually played the piano. Through repetition of mere thought, the physiological nature of the brain was altered.
Through scanning technology, we can now see why this occurs. Writer Nicholas Carr describes what happens to our brains at the cellular level in his fascinating book, The Shallows.
“Every time we perform a task or experience a sensation, whether physical or mental, a set of neurons in our brains is activated. If they’re in proximity, these neurons join together through the exchange of synaptic neurotransmitters…As the same experience is repeated, the synaptic links between the neurons grow stronger and more plentiful through both physiological changes, such as the release of higher concentrations of neurotransmitters, and anatomical ones, such as the generation of new neurons.”
Just as your physical muscles respond to the repetition of lifting weights by growing in size, so the cells of your brain grow larger and stronger when we repeat a behavior or a thought over and over again. ‘Cells that fire together wire together,’ has become a proverb in the neuroscience community. Mental railroad tracks are literally laid down in your brain on which your behavior can run. This is why as we repeat a behavior, we get better at it.
Oh, you like that? the brain says. Here, let me help you do it easier next time. That’s great if we’re talking about learning a language or playing an instrument. But what if we’re talking about a sinful behavior? Oh, you like that? the brain says. You like losing your temper? You like looking at those pictures? You like hating that person? You like thinking you’re a loser? Here, let me help you do it easier next time.
As you might imagine, the process works in reverse. Carr writes, “Experiments show that just as the brain can build new or stronger circuits through physical or mental practice, those circuits can weaken or dissolve with neglect.” That’s bad news, if you’re a couch potato whose deepest thought is, “Where’s the remote?” But for a person stuck in a bad habit, that’s music to your ears. Because it points to an exit ramp off the highway to hell.
The training of our minds comes down then to two strategies, which at first glance may seem trite and simplistic. But I can testify from experience that applied with consistency, and in conjunction with the other strategies we’re presenting this week, these steps can lead to real and substantial change.
The two strategies are suggested by our theme verse with today’s reading. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” (Romans 12:2).
Strategy one – Do not conform any longer to this world.
The word “world” here refers to the thoughts, values and customs of the culture of unbelievers. Stop thinking like those who don’t live for Christ, is another way to put it. So to train the mind we first must put a stop to the flow of the unbiblical, sinful thoughts that wash into our brains.
Strategy two: Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.
It’s not enough to stop the flow of negative thinking. Now good and pure thoughts have to be poured into our minds to take their place.
Let’s talk about step one, and then tomorrow we’ll consider step two. If you’re cleaning up your basement from a septic system overflow, it goes without saying that you need to make sure the sewage has stopped coming in before you proceed. This circles back to what we said yesterday about saying ‘no’. If you wish for the temptation to diminish, then sooner or later you must dig in your heels and face down the temptation at the height of its power. There’s nothing pleasant or easy about this. You will have to practice the right behavior without any sense of desire or conviction backing it up. It will be a raw leap of faith.
With chemical addiction, the detox phase is physiologically dangerous and should be professionally monitored. As powerful as porn addiction is, it does not reach this level. You will not die if you fail to have an orgasm. It just feels like you will die. You’ll be agitated, angry and restless. But you must push through.
The brain science now shows us why this is important. Because temptation at the height of its power is short-lived. You must punch through it, the way Tom Hanks in “Castaway” had to punch through the coral reef that encircled his island, and kept throwing him back. But once he broke through, the relentless bashing of the waves calmed.
The intensity of the resistance that you feel on day one will be less on day two. Perhaps undetectably so, but it will be less. And day three, even more so. “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you,” the Bible insists (James 4:7).
Let me be frank. Masturbation is the engine that drives the porn addiction. It’s why we play the game, for that heroin-like payoff at the end. The chemical rush that accompanies an orgasm is what paves the neural pathway in our brains, all but guaranteeing we’ll be down that road again.
If you have a porn addiction, then you also have a PhD in self-stimulation. I want you to step back from this miserable little habit of yours and study it. Show some self-awareness. Observe! Is it ever sated? No. Does it ever claim to have a headache? No. Every time it’s said to you, Just this one time more, is that how it played out? No. It’s the greediest little varmint I can think of. It will not stop making demands of you until you stop it. And its tug on you will diminish over time as you stop yielding to it. But once you give in, you feed the beast all over again.
Janis and I were eating at an Indian restaurant one night, and I ate something called chicken vindaloo. I pride myself on being able to eat spicy foods, but this dish kicked my butt. I thought once I had taken a few bites and it had seared off the top layer of my tongue, that it would get easier. But it didn’t. Each bite was like the flame of a short match nicking my thumb. Each time I chugged back a gulp of water, I could hear the steam rise in my throat. But it tasted so good, that I just kept going back for more.
Finally I came a point in the meal where I grew tired of stabbing my mouth. “There’s gotta be a way to stop this torture!” I said out loud.
“Well, you can put down the fork,” Janis said, unsympathetically. But she was right. I just had to put down the fork, stop the flow of food going into my mouth, and the pain would go away.
That’s the insanity of sin. Part of it tastes so good, and yet each and every bite of it stabs us. We try to make it fit. We try to rationalize it. But it just will never work. If we’re ever to stop the pain, then we must stop the behavior. Because every time we do it, the brain says, Oh, you like it and chemicals flow between the synapses of those neurons, making that bridge a little stronger. At some point we must put down the fork.
C.S. Lewis said, “”Virtue – even attempted virtue – brings light. Indulgence brings fog.” (If you haven’t guessed by now, you and C.S. Lewis need to get better acquainted.) Look at that quote again. Underline it. Circle it. Do you see what he’s saying? Take the naked step of faith (no pun intended, but no doubt it will send you of you reeling) and refuse today/tonight to give in. Get a small win under your belts.
Early on in my recovery, I couldn’t go three days without feeding the beast. Then a week became doable. As a married man, God was trying to bring me to a place where I “drank water from my own cistern” (Proverbs 5:15 – i.e. found sexual satisfaction only with my wife.) There were plenty of failures, but like Augustine, when I slipped back, I didn’t find myself right back at square one. In addition to the spiritual healing taking place in my heart, emotions, and will, a brain scan would have shown that those parts of my brain where the ruts of my sin had been carved out were filling back in. New and better mental pathways were being formed.
Johny Sain, who was a great pitcher in the 1940s and 50s, and later a successful pitching coach, knew nothing about brain chemistry. But he once observed, “The body wants to do today what it did in the last few days. If you’ve run a lot in recent weeks, it wants to run today. If you’ve been throwing hard, it wants to throw hard. If you’ve been sitting down and doing nothing, it wants to sit down and do nothing.”
Let Johny’s wisdom inspire you to make good choices today.
What ideas in this reading did you find helpful or challenging?
‘Cells that fire together, wire together.’ What does this mean, and how can knowing this principle help you control your thoughtlife?
What does resisting temptation and saying ‘no’ do inside of you? Have you ever experienced how temptations weaken over time with resistance?
Have you experienced what Johny Sain was talking about? Describe it.
Prayer and Worship
“Father, I thank you for…”
“Father, please help me with…”
“Father, please be with…”
“In the name of Jesus, who died for my sins, who rose from the dead and who is with me now through the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
Today’s Worship Suggestion: “May The Mind Of Christ My Savior” (Kate B. Wilkinson)
This Week’s Memory Verses
“Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” ~ Philippians 4:8
“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” ~ Psalm 42:11