“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” Romans 12:2
What are you thinking about right now? I’m flattered if you say you’ve devoted your full concentration to this devotional, but I want you to consider what your mind drifts to when in neutral. In other words, when you’re engaged in a task that requires no mental effort, like mowing the grass or dusting furniture, what do you think about?
Honestly, my mind often gravitates to negative experiences, perhaps a personal conflict or disappointment. Without realizing it, or without consciously choosing the topic, I can find myself in a mental court of appeals thinking about what I should have said or should have done in a particular event. My hurt, anger, resentment, disappointment, fear often bubbles to the surface, and I suddenly realize that for perhaps the last fifteen minutes I have been mentally wrestling with something or someone. I’m not alone in this kind of experience.
Psychologists call it “rumination,” the obsession and over-thinking of a life event. It magnifies or perhaps is even a chief cause of a host of psychological problems (e.g. anxiety, depression, and ptsd) and negative behaviors (e.g. binge drinking or eating). Brain scans reveal that consistent negative thoughts and emotions have a tremendous effect on the brain and the neural circuitry that shapes our perception of ourselves and the world. What you think about matters enormously.
The mind, it seems, is a battlefield, where we must fight to think of things spiritual. This fact is constantly recognized throughout the scripture. Meditation is well-represented in the psalms. Psalm 1 sets the tone for the entire psalter, and its opening exhortation is to meditate on the law of the Lord. Psalm 119, the lengthiest chapter in the Bible, is essentially an encouragement to think about the goodness of God’s laws.
The Bible in many ways charts the movement from an early emphasis on external behaviors (Leviticus) to the inner life of meditation and motive. The highpoint of Jeremiah’s prophecy is God’s promise to not only put His law in the hearts of His people but to be known by them, from the least to the greatest. God desires not a second-hand acquaintance, but a deeply personal relationship.
In the New Testament, with its intermingling of Greek concepts, we see not only the fulfillment of this prophecy but an intensified focus on the mind. Perhaps most significantly is Jesus’ version of the ancient Shema and His addition of loving God “with all your mind.” That’s not in Deuteronomy, but it is on the lips of Jesus in all three of the synoptic gospels.
Paul, with his deep Greek roots, had a great deal to say about the mind. When we add his references to “the heart” and “the psuche” (soul or life) as the origin of our thinking the evidence mounts. The Romans 12 passage above is perhaps his clearest reference to the Christian mandate to have a transformed and renewed mind in order to experience God.
Notice the passive voice of “be transformed.” Paul did not say “transform yourself.” He recognized that this renewal is a work of God, far beyond our strength and ability. My thinking that often gets me in trouble, is not sufficient to get me out of trouble. I need help, and God genuinely delights in stepping in and making this transformation.
But of course, God, in my understanding, doesn’t do much of anything to us without our consent and cooperation. Prayer and meditation have a vital role in clearing up and strengthening my mind. I must practice good neural hygiene, and I can do that by consciously challenging my old mind’s tendency to ruminate when I’m mowing the grass! Better still to develop some good practices before I fire up the mower.
What the Bible has given us poetically or intuitively, science confirms prosaically. Modern brain scans (over the last 20 years or so) have led to a whole new area of study called neuro-theology. That’s just one of the coolest terms I’ve run across lately. It’s the idea that we strengthen areas of our brain based on our prayers and meditations. Certain areas of our brains (areas associated with higher functions) “light up” in scans of praying and meditating priests and nuns. Coincidentally, the areas associated with fear and anger cool down.
Very practically, this all means that you can change your brain by careful attention to spiritual practices. What you focus on makes a difference in the way you think and consequently how you feel and live.
In his book, Spiritual Evolution, Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant writes of the importance of positive emotions such as love, joy, faith, awe, gratitude, and others. These emotions are part of our genetic wiring. These are also a common denominator of all major faiths. Any Christian is bound to recognize in Vaillant’s list the echoes of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23).
God has put within my grasp the means to having a more pleasant grass-mowing experience. Whenever I’m assailed (or assail myself) by the negative emotions of fear, anger, resentment, etc. I can make a conscious commitment to focusing on love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I must also intentionally set aside times to pray and meditate in the quiet watches of the night or early morning.
An analogy: if you were concerned about the weakness of your biceps muscle, a physical therapist might tell you that if you did curls with a small dumbbell in three sets of 10, both sides, once a day, you will have a stronger arm. It’s a physiological certainty.
I can assure you, based not only on scripture but also on the latest developments of neuroscience, that a consistent life of prayer and meditation, perhaps 12 minutes a day, will inevitably strengthen the “spiritual” areas of your brain. It will change your mind, and give you an entirely different outlook on life, your joys, your problems, your highs, your lows. You will have stronger spirit. It’s a theological certainty.
Find or write prayers (it’s not that hard) that highlight gratitude, trust, joy, compassion, and forgiveness. The Prayer of St. Francis is a wonderful example. Pray them. Say uplifting passages of scripture repeatedly. These practices tune your mind to God.
With all the negative emotions flooding us regularly, we desperately need a spiritual revival to turn the tide. Begin with you. Think about, meditate on, and pray to the God of grace, peace, and love. Your will life will be transformed.
Dr. Terry Ellis
July 24, 2016