We’re all smitten with self-improvement, particularly as we head into a new year. As we wrap up the holiday season, many of us are contemplating not just how to drop those few extra pounds we gained, but perhaps make even more substantial changes.
And that goes for churches too, though we use quite different language—words like sanctification, holiness, discipleship, and the imitation of Christ. Our hope for such changes comes through the babe we just celebrated—and what He did for us on the cross and through the empty tomb.
What we often overlook is how that same Christ, while knitting us in our mothers’ wombs, literally wired us for change.
Wired for Change
Our faith can give us the power for change, but so does our God-given neurobiology. Scientists call it neuroplasticity. Our brains are malleable, and as our neurons and synapses rewire, we change. New neurons can even form. This happens throughout our lives, though at a slower rate as adults. Any repeated brain activity rewires us, and once rewired, our mental and physical experience of the world can be transformed.
This transformation can be for good or for ill. It can lead to addiction . . . or recovery. It can make us quick to anger . . . or spill over with gratitude. We can become more empathetic . . . or more susceptible to temptation. The changes can make us more—or less—like Christ.
What activity can rewire us? Pretty much anything, as long as it is repeated over time: regular exercise or inactivity, disciplines like prayer, meditation, or gratitude journaling. We can also rewire badly—through bursts of anger, fits of frustration, or holding grudges. Even our patterns of thought and belief impact specific pathways of our neurons. Yes, beliefs can change our biology.
Neuroplasticity is not the only force at work in our brains. Genetic traits or deeply rooted experiences can make change hard. Psychiatric conditions and neurochemical imbalances can fight against our most earnest efforts. And certain pathways—like those tied to addiction—can seem impossible to overcome.
Still, neuroplasticity gives us biological hope that change is possible. It’s no guarantee we will keep all our resolutions. But in Christ and through neuroplasticity, we have reason to hope.
- For a quick primer on neuroplasticity, start here.
- Want to reshape your brain? Watch this TEDx talk. Or drive a cab in London.
- Here’s some history behind neuroplasticity—its potential and its limitations.
- Keeping New Year’s resolutions is more than a matter of self-control.
- Caution: There’s still much to learn about the science of neuroplasticity.
- Columbia Seminary tells us why ministries should pay attention to neuroscience.
- This infographic is helpful for ministering to those struggling with addiction.
- Sanctification is a churchy word. It is also the subject of a current psychological study.
- Pray without ceasing: Just three months of meditation can alter your brain for good.
- Since 2018, we’ve taken a look at how neuroscience can benefit the church a number of times. We’ve examined memory, facial feedback hypothesis, the neuroscience of Christian formation, and how God has wired us for love, among others.
Renewing Our Minds
Many ministries begin the New Year with a message of hope. By the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, 2019 can be better than 2018. The church can be an agent of change. Minds can be renewed.
Many of you have messages and lessons mapped out for the next several weeks. You might have made resolutions for your ministry. You will again preach Christ as our source of hope. I encourage you to add to your messages this finding of neuroscience.
Let’s give Paul the last word. He knew nothing of this science, but if he did, I wonder if Romans 12:2 might read: Let us not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the rewiring of our brains, so we might discern what is the will of God. May it be so for 2019! Happy New Year!