Brain Anatomy and Grace

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” 1 John 4:18

[Many of you have asked if GraceWaves will continue in light of my starting Chrysalis Interventions. Thank you for your interest, and the answer is yes!]

I may be biting off more than I can chew with this topic, or more than will be remotely interesting to many of you, but it is my website, so I can do what I want.

Let me start with a conversation I had a few weeks ago with a young woman I'll call Susan. She had been raised in a similar religious environment to mine, but now had a very uneven relationship with her parents. Grace was not the theme in her family, and now judgmental attitudes and a very conditional love dominate.

After she spoke for a while I simply said, “none of that comes from a good and loving God.” This seemed to be very reassuring to her.

I have had countless conversations like this over the years, and frankly I’m always left a little puzzled. How do people miss the theme of deep grace in the Bible, and especially in the life and teachings of Jesus? God is love, according to John, who added that perfect love casts out all fear. So why is there so much fear and so little trust? Why is there so much tendency to control and so little willingness to accept? In short, why is there so much legalism and so little grace?

Part of the answer lies in the very structures of the brain, the marvelous intersection of heaven and earth. At its best, this wondrous collection of interrelated structures and regions literally helps us to “see” a God of peace and grace. At its worst, it sentences us to a life that cringes from a god of thunder and lightning, and is likely to lead us to sling a few bolts of condemnation ourselves.

Very simply, the brain is actually three brains. To illustrate, hold up your fist. From mid-fist down your wrist is the brain stem. It communicates to the rest of the body all of the decisions, conscious and unconscious, that originate in the brain. It is unconscious and reflexive.

The fist itself is the midbrain that contains the limbic system. Here we have the  capacity to form and store memories and to feel some very raw emotions including fear, anxiety, anger, etc. The sex drive is here, as is the autonomic response to fight, flight, or freeze when threatened. The amygdala, a small structure in the limbic system, is particularly central to the formation and expression of anger and fear. When you see an angry person, especially one in the mirror, you’re seeing someone whose amygdala is fired up and taking over. Much of what takes place here is also unconscious and reflexive.

The third part of the brain is represented by your other hand, which you take and cover your fist. This is the neo-cortex, the familiar looking part of your brain with all the folds. This is the most recent evolutionary development (thus neo). Especially in the frontal lobe of the neo-cortex, we find wisdom and love and most clearly perceive and interact with God.

Without the neo-cortex we are little more than bratty, self-centered, angry adolescents. When the brain is fully engaged the neo-cortex has an executive function that keeps us from embracing out-of-control emotions and an out-of-control sex drive. The neo-cortex makes us human in the highest sense.

What I suggest, is that many times we struggle to move beyond a god of fear and anger because these emotions are so deeply rooted in our brains. They are almost default responses. It is far easier, for example, to condemn your enemy than to love and pray for your enemy. The former is driven by the lower brain’s fear and desire to protect. The latter requires conscious reasoning and commitment.

Legalism is grounded in the limbic system. Grace comes from the neo-cortex. Theologically, we are in a constant struggle to embrace grace over legalism, because neurologically we are in a constant struggle of the neo-cortex over the limbic system.

Susan suffered from a theological limbic hangover, that came from the people who gave her her first image of God, her parents. Like all of us, she needs to listen to the higher call of a whispered grace that is ultimately reasonable and freeing. But it takes effort and will.

I’m not saying smart people embrace grace. I’m saying that perfect love is grace, and perfect love casts out fear. We have to think our way beyond anger and fear, and God has given us all the capacity to do so. Living with an angry god stirs up angry emotions. This is bad neural hygiene, or stinkin’ thinkin’.

I suggest, as a way forward, that you focus your prayer life on a God who wants to cast out all fear from your life. Closing your eyes, taking some time to center down, and then quietly saying a few times “perfect love casts out fear” will literally quiet the angry and fearful parts of your brain, and begin to engage the regions where God speaks most clearly. Try it.

It's time to turn away from the limbic god.

And remember that Jesus never once acted like an angry fundamentalist. He was gentle and gracious with sinners who came to Him with their brokenness. In fact, He consistently reserved His harshest rebukes for the most religious and narrow-minded people of His day.

Fear is corrosive on others but mainly on ourselves. Think your way to a God of grace. It’s the way He made us.


Dr. Terry Ellis
November 15, 2015