THE BLOG
12/03/2012 09:07 am ET | Updated Feb 02, 2013

Neuroscience and the Mind of Christ

I believe in radical grace. I believe in the power of forgiveness and enemy love. But not because I am a naturally peaceful person. I believe it because I have seen the power it has to heal broken lives-- including mine!

But peace and forgiveness are not my natural inclination. When I feel wronged it's like a dark cloud comes over me and all my compassion vanishes. In the middle of that, all I can see is my perspective, all I can think about is defending my rights.

The way of enemy love is not intuitive. The very idea of loving the person you would normally hate is an intentionally provocative idea. But I've seen the profound healing that can come from enemy love, and so I want to follow in that way. I want, as Gandhi said, to "experiment with truth" and put the way of Jesus into practice in my life.

So I start out with baby steps. Practicing forgiveness with little things -- a fight with my wife for example, where we've both, in our anger and frustration, said things that hurt the other. If we're supposed to love our enemies, if Jesus forgave his executioners, can't I at least get over some petty slight? After all, my wife is hardly my "enemy," she's my best friend! So what's going on? Why is it so hard to forgive?

The Apostle Paul speaks of that same struggle. He laments that although he knows the good he should do, he finds that he still does not do it,

"We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature ... For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me." (Romans 7:14-23)

The Greek word sarx which is translated above as "sinful nature" in the NIV is more literally rendered as "the flesh." Paul contrast the "flesh" or "carnal nature" (which is characterized by lust, anger, etc.) with "the way of the Spirit" which, in contrast, is characterized by love,

"So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other ... The acts of the flesh are obvious... But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires." (Galatians 5:16-23)

So if I desire to walk by the Spirit, why is it that when I'm in the middle of conflict I so quickly revert to that self-focused carnal mind? Questions like these have lead many Christians into a pit of self-doubt and condemnation. What's going on?

I'd like to suggest that new research in neuroscience can give us some really important insights into these questions.

When we are triggered in an argument, feeling flooded and emotionally threatened, this activates the amygdala, which is the part of the brain involved in the processing of raw emotions such as anger and fear. The amygdala is essentially the brain's watchtower, and when it is fired up in alarm mode, it sends out neurochemicals which effectively shut down the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain associated with things like relational connection, empathy, impulse control, self-reflection, moral judgement and conscience -- in short, the part of your brain in charge of what we might call the social-self.

The brain's "shut-down" function has a practical survival function: It means that when we are in danger our brain kicks into alarm mode which can save our life. But it also means that when we get triggered in a argument with a loved one, the smart and compassionate part of our brain is temporarily turned off, which can make us do thoughtless and hurtful things.

So there's a very real reason neurologically that we become so self-focused in a fight. It's not a reflection of our character, so much as it is a kind of brain reflex based on a perceived threat. When we are unaware of this, we can get swept up in those feelings. But once we recognize what is happening, we can address what's going on in our bodies. This involves a two-step process:

The first step is to recognize what is going on in us. The part of our brain in charge of making good judgments has been temporarily shut down by our amygdala. So when Paul writes, "It is no longer I myself who do it" we can now answer: That's exactly right, it's your amygdala. Where we can perhaps nuance Paul's perspective a bit is recognizing that this is not something "evil," rather it's a protective reflex of the brain. This can be life-saving when we are in actual danger, but becomes dysfunctional when emotional reactivity makes us see an "enemy" in a loved one. It's a good thing that is out of balance.

This brings us to the second step: We need to have the maturity and humility to recognize that because we are emotionally triggered, we need time. We might compare this to having the maturity to recognize when you've had too much to drink, and handing over your keys. Similarly, when we're "under the influence" of the amygdala, we need to recognize that the smart and social part of our brain is impaired, and consequently have the maturity so let it wait, to cool down first. After all, as Paul says, forbearance and self-control are part of the fruits of the spirit too!

There's a temptation here to simplify the above equation, focusing on only one of the above two points: Some may want to stress the fact that the "flesh" of emotional reactivity is an involuntary bodily reaction which is not our conscious choice, and therefore argue that it is "not our fault." Others will stress the opposite point, arguing that we need to take charge of our ingrained behavioral patterns and feelings. The reality is that both are true at the same time. We therefore need to have a complex and integrated understanding of how these two seemingly opposed factors work in tandem.

On the one hand, understanding what is going on in our brains means we do not need to beat ourselves up about it. This is our body's unconscious involuntary reaction to feeling emotionally threatened, separated, insecure. Understanding what is going on in us can be comforting and normalizing. These are not bad choices we are making. In fact, they are not choices at all; they are involuntary reactions to a perceived threat. The thinking and social part of our brain has been shut down by our brain's panic center.

We can't help how we feel, but we can learn to mange what we do with those feelings, so we are not driven by emotional reactivity. Simply recognizing that our thinking and social-self is impaired is not enough however. Instead, we need to learn to recognize when we are flooded with reactive emotion, and exercise the maturity, humility and responsibility to wait until we can cool off and think socially again.

Paul tells us that as we walk in this way of the Spirit, that we will be "transformed by the renewing of our minds." Neuroscience confirms that again Paul was on to something big: It's a concept known as neuroplasticity, which refers the brain's ability to change itself based on our experiences. Amazingly, our brain actually structurally changes, based on the input it receives, creating new synaptic linkages and even growing new neurons. This means that, as we learn to engage our thinking and social prefrontal cortex in times of stress, our brain re-wires itself over time to be more naturally compassionate and social, and less driven by our "carnal" reactive emotions.

It's exciting to see new research on the brain verifying what the Apostle Paul saw so long ago. Of course It's never easy to change old patterns, and involves hard work. But hopefully, understanding how our minds work can help us get a little closer to having the "mind of Christ" as we learn to follow in that way.

Derek Flood is the author of Healing the Gospel: A Radical Vision for Grace, Justice and the Cross. Follow Derek on Twitter @theRebelGod.