When I went through medical school back in the “dark ages” we were told that 50% of what we learned would become wrong or irrelevant in coming years. But they didn’t know which 50% that was. It turns out that 50% was a very low estimate. I was taught, for example, that by about age 25 a person’s brain is “done” and can’t change much more. But we now know your brain can change!
The science around neuroplasticity has grown exponentially in recent years. It’s both sobering and thrilling. Perhaps we shouldn’t have been as surprised by this as many people have been. This has been the message of the gospel all along.
Perhaps you expected that when you became a Christian your brain would be different. You hoped your addictions, your anxiety and fear, your sinful tendencies, your default ways of relating in hurtful ways, would all go away. In some ways that’s true. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Hallelujah!
But like Paul, you too often find yourself doing what you hate and not doing what you truly want to do. (See Romans 7:15-25) Are you really a Christian? Many find themselves disappointed and disillusioned when stress, anxiety, fear, or other issues once again overwhelm them.
But Paul also says we can and must “be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2). And “we have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16). Would a transformed mind, one like Christ, be stuck swirling in fear, anxiety, or similar torment? Of course not.
So what does it mean that your brain can change? How can you get there?
A Heart (Bone Marrow) Transplant
One of the most encouraging word pictures of the gospel is a heart transplant. “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26). Oh, wouldn’t you love to feel that new heart beating in your chest?
Let’s change up the analogy just a little. In today’s medical language a bone marrow transplant would get more to the heart of the matter (pun intended).
With certain life-threatening illnesses (such as leukemia and others) modern medicine now has the capability of changing out your bone marrow that produces the blood cells that circulate throughout your whole body. Using strong chemotherapy a person’s bone marrow is wiped clean of the old cells (good and bad), and new cells are then infused to take over.
Those new cells, with brand new DNA, enter a person’s body with one treatment. But that person is not immediately discharged from the hospital able to go about their usual activities. It takes a significant period of time for those new cells to find their new home, take up residence, start multiplying, and move throughout the body.
That’s not unlike how God works in us. When you say Yes to Jesus you get the heart (bone marrow!) transplant. Your very DNA is altered. You are now a citizen of heaven, a new kind of human being. But it takes quite some time for those “cells” to move throughout your system and change, in particular, your brain pathways.
Retraining Your Brain as a Christian
A big difference between a bone marrow transplant in modern medicine and retraining your brain as a Christian is that you and I are active in the process. You are not the source of the new “mind of Christ,” but what you do in your daily lifestyle can either help or hinder the process.
I learned this powerfully as God was bringing me out of years of serious distress some time ago. I learned things that were important to incorporate into my daily lifestyle in order to grow the new brain pathways necessary to live a life of wholeness, resilience, peace, and joy. My brain has truly become permanently different. I no longer default to the old ways.
But that process takes time. Scientific discoveries in recent years show many of the ways our brain works in building new pathways. And it’s amazing how these discoveries line up with what we know from Scripture already.
Here are just three small examples:
- Gratitude. A regular practice of gratitude lessens anxiety, improves your mood, and leads to better physical and emotional wellbeing. Not a surprise: we are told to “be thankful” (Colossians 3:15).
- Choose your thoughts. People who learn to focus on the things they can do and the choices they do have experience much fewer symptoms of stress, anxiety, and overwhelm, regardless of the circumstances. Yup; “think on these things” (Philippians 4:8).
- Nurture healthy connections. Feeling seen and known by other people and by God changes the neural networks in your brain, your default ways of responding. Hanging around healthy people and in God’s presence changes you (see Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, 2 Corinthians 3:18).
Those are some of the ways your brain can change.
A New Lifestyle
There will always be circumstances that could lead you to be upset, stressed out, anxious, or fearful. Your old ways of responding to difficult circumstances don’t go away in a moment. One of the things science has taught us is that brain pathways change slowly. Neurobiologically, nerve cells grow at about 2mm a day. That’s slow!
But another thing science has taught us is that 30 days of consistently doing something new can make real and lasting changes in your brain. You don’t have to stay stuck!
Let me show you how to retrain your brain. I’ve brought Biblical teaching, scientific research, and what I’ve learned from my own life and in working with many individuals, all together in our new online course Defeat Your Fear and Anxiety. I’ll help you learn how to build new brain pathways so you can overcome stress, leave worry behind, and experience real and lasting emotional wellbeing.
And I’d love to see you in the course! Get it today.
Questions? Contact me here, and I’ll respond personally.
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- When you become a follower of Jesus you become a different kind of human. The pathways in your brain can change too, but it takes time for your new “DNA” to develop those new pathways. Tweet that.