The Sanctified Brain
As a pastor I have often urged people to "get closer to Christ," but I'm not so sure I've helped them know when they have. How can we help people know when they've gotten closer to Christ? Do external changes confirm that growth? What internal ones occur, and how can we recognize them?
To ask the question in theological terms: If glorification is the goal of God's work in our lives (Rom. 8:30) and grace is the means (Eph. 2:8) and sanctification is the process (1 Thess. 4:3) then what results are observable? How does intimacy with Christ change us? What impact does conformity to Christ have on our behavior and … our brains?
I've had long conversations with other pastors and leaders over the years about spiritual transformation. Who else would you talk with about such a subject?
Well, how about a couple of neuroscientists?
That's exactly what I did. The results were surprising and enlightening.
The brain guys
Dr. Andrew Newberg of Thomas Jefferson University is considered the world's foremost authority on the science of spirituality and the brain. He's researched it for some twenty years. Although our discussion dealt with a bit of science and empirical research, it tapped a deep sense of wonder in me over just how limited my view of spiritual growth and sanctification may have been. (The interview "Faith and the Brain" is in this issue.)
Later I spoke with another "brain guy," Dr. Daniel Amen, coauthor with Rick Warren of The Daniel Plan, the bestselling book on faith-based healthy living. Amen is perhaps best-known as a favorite TED talk presenter on the subject of brain functioning. His clinic in California has carried out some 90,000 brain scans, including some on his own children, and he has discovered much on brain function and human behavior. His team also did the much-reported and discussed research not long ago on the National Football League and brain damage issues with its players.
Most of what I've learned (and included in this article) comes from these two researchers.
Loving God with your brain
The brain is involved in the pursuit of God. Newberg says, "Whatever happens to you as a person spiritually or soulfully still ultimately has to be comprehended emotionally and understood by your brain. If your soul has changed, it has to percolate up into your brain."
If sanctification is not an event but rather a journey, then one aspect of that journey is certainly the development of spiritual intimacy, of coming closer to Jesus. While that increasing "closeness" may be practiced in our spiritual disciplines, it is, of course, also perceived in our brain. "Come near to God, and he will come near to you" (James 4:8).
Amen, a professing Christian, correlates the health of the brain and the health of the soul. He views service to God and even sin through a biological lens: "A healthy brain increases the chances of having a healthy spiritual life," he says. "But if your spiritual life is not developed, it can have a negative impact on the spiritual functioning of the brain. For example, if you engage repeatedly in pornography, it has a negative effect on how your brain functions. If you repeatedly give in to temptation, it makes you more likely to give in to it in the future. Conversely, prayer and meditation on the Bible have a positive effect, and more of it makes you more likely to practice it in the future."