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How the Way You Think about God Can Change Your Brain

  • Whitney Hopler Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
  • Updated Jul 16, 2013
How the Way You Think about God Can Change Your Brain

Editor's Note: The following is a report on the practical applications of Timothy R. Jennings's new book, The God-Shaped Brain (IVP, 2013).

Your beliefs about God affect not just your spiritual health, but your mental, emotional, and physical health as well. How? The way you think about God impacts your brain, which directs all of your decisions in life.

Jesus said that a person’s thoughts will determine who that person is – and brain research now shows how that happens. When you change your view of God for the better, you can transform your life for the better. Here’s how:

Understand how your brain adapts to your thoughts. The thoughts you choose to think are constantly changing your brain’s physical structure. Thinking new thoughts causes new neurons to develop and new electrical circuits to be wired to form new patterns of connections. Letting go of old thoughts causes unused neurons to disappear and rewires the electrical circuits within your brain.

Pray regularly for the Holy Spirit to renew your mind. Make a habit of asking the Holy Spirit often to renew your mind. When you do, the Spirit will bring new thoughts into your mind, reflecting what’s true and healthy. Choosing to meditate on those thoughts will make your brain’s internal structure healthier.

Recognize God’s law of love. God has designed all of creation based on the law of love, which expresses His love through a never-ending circle of giving. The sun gives energy to the Earth, where energy is converted and metabolized throughout nature in cycles where plants, animals, and people constantly give energy to each other and our planet. Thanks to God’s law of love, everything God creates gives freely in other-centric circles. When you recognize that God is the source of all of this love, you can focus on love as the most important concept to consider in every situation – and your brain will grow healthier in the process.

Recognize how sin breaks the law of love. Sin breaks God’s law of love by shifting the focus away from giving and toward selfishness, disrupting God’s design for creation and causing fear to manifest in people’s lives. People who are struggling with fear worship God out of fear of punishment rather than out of love, and lose the abilities to reason well and to make decisions out of a place of freedom and confidence.

Understand how a loving view of God affects your brain. Love, which is the essence of God, strengthens your prefrontal cortex. This is the part of your brain that processes compassion; altruism; empathy; reasoning capacity; judgment; the ability to worship; consciousness; morality; and the ability to plan, organize, and solve problems. The more you choose to think about God as He really is – a loving Father – the more you’ll be able to do everything that the prefrontal cortex of your brain supports, leading to the healthy life that God intends for you to enjoy.

Understand how a fearful view of God affects your brain. The more you experience fear by imagining God to be a cruel or distant being who will punish you for your sin, the more you’ll stimulate your brain’s limbic system, which God has designed to be stimulated only every once in a while to help you deal with occasional crises. Chronically stimulating the limbic system in your brain will lead to inflammation in your body and trigger changes in your brain that lead to more fear, insecurity, selfishness, anger, rage, lust, jealousy, envy, and aggression.

Discover and meditate on the truth about God. Ask God to reveal the truth about Himself to you so you can think about Him accurately. Every day, read the Bible, asking the Holy Spirit to speak to you through its words. Meditate on what you learn about God daily, and as you do, your brain will become healthier and more able to receive new insights from God.

Pray often. Brain research shows that people who engage in at least 15 minutes of prayer or meditation daily strengthen their anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a part of the prefrontal cortex where they experience love, compassion, and empathy. The healthier your ACC is, the more calm your brain’s amygdala (the alarm center in your limbic system) will be, decreasing the amount of fear and anxiety you’ll experience.

Pursue healing. Confess your sins and unhealthy thought patterns to God, and intentionally turn away from them and toward healthy attitudes and behaviors that promote love (such as trust, mercy, and forgiveness). The more you use your brain’s prefrontal cortex to govern your limbic system and make healthy choices – despite how you happen to feel – the easier it will become for you to keep making healthy decisions, because you’ll strengthen your prefrontal cortex in the process. The more you invite the Holy Spirit into your life, the more God will bring your thoughts into harmony with His, strengthening your character and purifying your motives as your brain grows healthier. Then God’s perfect love will drive fear out of your life as distorted ideas disappear from your brain and your limbic system calms down. As a result, you’ll experience genuine peace and joy.

Live in harmony with God’s design for life. Take good care of each aspect of your health (physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual) because God has designed them to be connected. Get enough sleep and exercise, eat a nutritious diet, and build close relationships with God and other people. Keep God’s basic law of love in mind and let it motivate you to give to the world whenever God gives you opportunities to do so. The more you love, the more your brain will grow to support your efforts to love – and in the process, love will come back to you.

Adapted from The God-Shaped Brain: How Changing Your View of God Transforms Your Life, copyright 2013 by Timothy R. Jennings, M.D. Published by IVP Books, an imprint of InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Ill., www.ivpress.com.

Timothy R. Jennings, M.D. is a board-certified Christian psychiatrist, master psycho-pharmacologist, lecturer, international speaker, and author. Dr. Jennings was voted one of America’s top psychiatrists by the Consumers’ Research Council of America in 2008, 2010, and 2011. He is a fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and president-elect of the Tennessee Psychiatric Association. He also serves on the board of the Southern Psychiatric Association and is in private practice in Tennessee.

Whitney Hopler, who has served as a Crosswalk.com contributing writer for many years, is author of the new novel Dream Factory, which is available in both paperback and ebook formats. Visit her website at: whitneyhopler.naiwe.com.

Publication date: June 18, 2013