Monday, July 20, 2015


Once you learn a habit, good or bad, it becomes a part of your muscle memory.  It’s at the level of your neural pathways.  When sin gets into our habits it gets into our neurons.  And our way of thinking is altered.  Our neurons need redemption.

Kent Dunnington in his book, Addiction and Virtue: Beyond the Models of Disease and Choice, writes that many federal health institutes and professional organizations assume addiction is a "brain disease" purely "because the abuse of drugs leads to changes in the structure and function of the brain." However, playing the cello and studying for a taxi license and memorizing the Old Testament also lead to changes in the structure and function of the brain.  Shall we call them diseases, too?

Dunnington says that addiction is neither simply a physical disease nor a weakness of the will; that to understand it correctly, we need to resurrect an old spiritual category: habit. We have habits because we are embodied creatures; most of our behaviors are not under our conscious control. That's a great gift from God—if we had to concentrate on tying our shoes every time we did that, life would be impossible.

But sin has gotten into our habits, into our bodies, including our neurons.  Partly, we may be predisposed to this.  For example, people with a version of the Monoamine oxidase A (MOA) gene that creates less of the enzyme tend to have more trouble with anger and impulse control. This means that when Paul says "In your anger, do not sin," some people are predisposed to struggle with this more than others.

That doesn't mean that such people are robots or victims or not responsible for their behavior.  It does explain part of why Jesus tells us to "Judge not"; none of us knows the genetic material that any other person is blessed with or battling in any given moment.

This is why God’s truth from the Scriptures has to be embodied.  It has to become habituated into attitudes, patterns of response, and reflexive action.  Call it the practice of spiritual disciplines or holy habits.   

The reason that spiritual disciplines are an important part of change is that they honor the physical nature of human life.  Information alone doesn't override bad habits.  God uses relationships, experiences, and practices to shape and re-shape the character of our lives that gets embedded at the most physical level.

John Ortberg tells of how a few decades ago scientists did a series of experiments where monkeys were taught how to pinch food pellets in deep trays. As the monkeys got faster at this practice, the parts of the brain controlling the index finger and thumb actually grew bigger. This and other experiments showed that the brain is not static as had often been thought, but is dynamic, able to change from one shape to another. This is true for human beings as well. The part of violinists' brains that controls their left hand (used for precise fingering movements) will be bigger than the part that controls their right hand.

In another study, people were put into one of three groups; one group did nothing; one exercised their pinky finger, a third group spent 15 minutes a day merely thinking about exercising their pinky finger. As expected the exercisers got stronger pinkies. But amazingly—so did the people who merely thought about exercising. Changes in the brain can actually increase physical strength.

Every thought we entertain is, in a real sense, doing a tiny bit of brain surgery on us.

The Apostle Paul says, “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.  Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you” (Phil. 4:8-9).

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