Why Church and Devotions Aren’t Working for You

Young man in distress, devotions aren't working

Is what you’re doing as a Christian bringing the results you need, want, or expect? And while we’re talking about it, what were you looking for when you said Yes to Jesus? A social club? Forgiveness of past sins? A way to be happy? Freedom from addiction or healing from trauma? If you’re like many, things like church and devotions aren’t working.

Perhaps you’ve gone to church for years, but things don’t seem all that different in your soul. You read your Bible regularly and pray, or at least you try. But you still struggle with the same negative reactions to people and circumstances. Your addictions regularly rear their ugly heads. You feel just as broken and messed up as ever. Is this all there is?

When I started my medical practice I quickly learned that I could do surgery and write prescriptions, but I couldn’t heal anyone. I often feel a similar angst in looking at what our Christian institutions are doing. There’s a multitude of wonderful Bible studies, preaching, and similar resources, but what’s the result? Are people who take advantage of these things truly better for it?

And perhaps most important, is what we’re doing helping people become more like Jesus?

That’s the point of the Christian life, after all, isn’t it? “… to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29).

It’s awesome that Christians are less likely to smoke, get in trouble with the law, or engage in high-risk sexual behaviors. But what about the divorce rate in church? Or the division, anger, greed, and narcissism, not to mention toxic religion and harming others in the name of God.

To apply what James said to this context, “these things ought not to be so” (James 3:10).

How People Change

If shoving more knowledge into people’s brains, as good as that knowledge may be, doesn’t lead to the desired results, what’s missing?

We have a clue in Acts 4:13: “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus.”

Did you catch that? It doesn’t say the rulers recognized that Peter and John knew a lot about God, or had believed all of Jesus’ teachings. It says they recognized they had been with Jesus. With Jesus.

Being with Jesus does something to a person. We know from contemporary research that you become like the person(s) you worship and admire, who you spend the most time with. That’s part of why our celebrity culture presents such a challenge to young people’s maturity; is that popular music star, Instagram influencer, or legendary athlete really worth emulating? You tend to develop the wealth habits, health habits, relationship habits, mindset, and more of those you hang out with and pay attention to.

Knowing a whole lot about someone is not the same as being with them. The disciples had been hanging out with Jesus. And others could tell.

We’ve actually known that all along. And now modern science helps us understand why that is.

Brain Science and the Gospel

In the last few decades a significant volume of research has emerged around brain science that’s directly related to the gospel and how people change. Some who have applied this science to Christian discipleship and spiritual formation include Peter Scazzero, Dr. Curt Thompson, Dr. James Wilder, and others.

Interpersonal neurobiology, neurotheology, emotionally healthy spirituality–those big-sounding phrases come down to one thing; God created your brain in a certain way. Sin and evil have messed with your brain. It’s not just that you’ve done sinful acts, though you have. Much more, your brain pathways are messed up. You can’t become like Jesus without retraining your brain.

And information and willpower are woefully inadequate in retraining your brain.

One part of this is the left brain/right brain difference. It’s an oversimplification, but you’ve heard this before. Your left brain is largely logical, linear, focused, and verbal. Your right brain is much more sensory, nonlinear, non-verbal, and emotional.

Remember that God made both sides of your brain. Jesus, a fully human person, lived as a man using both sides of His brain. God communicates through both sides of your brain.

And becoming like Jesus means, like Him, all parts of your brain need to become integrated. You can’t develop new loving natural responses without that. It won’t work to only embrace the left side of your brain that processes information. You’ll have to also embrace the right side of your brain. That includes things like emotions, physical wellbeing, and connecting with healthy people.

And most of all, it means a healthy loving attachment, person-to-person, heart-to-heart, with God Himself.

That’s part of why your internal experience of and mental picture of God is so important. (If “God” is a less-than-good word for you, you may even need a “new God.”)

Where Do I Start? 

This may sound good, but a bit mysterious. Let me suggest a few questions to help you start thinking about this.

  1. Am I More Like Jesus Now? God has certainly done good things for you. You can celebrate the changes you have experienced. But consider where you were a year ago, or when you first said Yes to Jesus. Are you happy with the level of your transformation? What areas in your life remain less than whole?
  2. Have I Focused Most on Knowledge? Knowing about God is super important. Without knowing what’s right about Him you’re sunk. But that’s only left-brain stuff. Have you incorporated any right-brain stuff into your spiritual life?
  3. Do I Feel God is For Me? Intellectually you may believe He is. But what is your internal experience of Him? Is your attachment to God secure or insecure? An insecure attachment to God is not something to condemn yourself for, but something to notice and contend with. You can grow from here.
  4. How Can I Be With God? Have there been times in the past when you’ve sensed God’s presence? What factors such as environment, location, or mindset helped you do that? How can you do that now?

I’ll be talking more about these ideas in coming weeks. Next time we’ll look at what Jesus was most concerned about when He was here on earth, and it wasn’t with people “being good.” And I’d love to hear from you with comments or questions.

Your Turn: How do you feel about the degree to which you are becoming like Jesus? Has it been a left-brain thing only? What does it mean to you to be with Jesus? Leave a comment below.

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  • Does it seem like your church attendance and devotions aren’t working? Are you truly becoming more like Jesus? If not, it might be because you’re only using your left brain. Tweet that.

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