WHEN NEURAL PATHWAYS MEET EPHESIANS 4
By James Cox
"Be transformed by the renewing of your mind” Romans 12:1
I’ve signed myself up to a number of ‘google alerts’ recently. It’s a service offered by Google, where they "alert” you via email of articles regarding your selected topic. Quite handy really. One such alert I’ve been digging into is about "neural pathways”. (Hopefully you’ll see why I subjected myself to this learning as you read on...) My understanding is still very basic, but from a layman’s point of view, I have found my understanding solidifying. Here’s the brief technical bit first, then we’ll see how it fits in with Biblical truth.
From Wikipedia, I found this definition: A neural pathway, or neural tract, connects one part of the nervous system with another and usually consists of bundles of elongated neurons, known collectively as white matter. Neural pathways serve to connect relatively distant areas of the brain or nervous system, compared to the local communication of grey matter” It seems that there are billions of interconnected nerve cells in the human brain, which allows nerve impulses "to follow any of a virtually unlimited number of pathways” (www.infoplease.com).
You might have heard the analogy of a neural pathway being like a highway - you get on it and drive without thinking! A friend of mine explained it like this: On a street map there are highways and there are suburban streets. Many connections in our brains are like suburban streets, but the more we do something, the more it become like a well-worn highway, and less like a slow-moving street. And so habits are formed, healthy and unhealthy.
How is this related to Ephesians 4? From my time with guys who are working through issues of sexual brokenness and sexual addiction, I have found a truth in Ephesians 4 to be key. This might seem strange, seeing as the verses I’m referring to make no mention of sex or sexuality. From verse 25 we read: Each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body. 26 "In your anger do not sin"[d]: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 and do not give the devil a foothold. 28 He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need. 29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
Here we see what I call the "instead” principle. God doesn’t just say "don’t steal, don’t be angry and don’t speak unwholesome things”. If He left us there, I think He knows we would be pretty lost. God goes well beyond "don’t” (and so should we, by the way). He gives us an alternative, an "instead”, a healthy way to express ourselves in the arena he’s talking about. It’s how we live out the preceding verses (vv.22-24): "put off the old...and put on the new”. For instance, in the arena of speech, He gives us a new goal, a POSITIVE goal: to speak "only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs” Or in the area of material possessions, He challenges the one who steals by giving him a higher vision: he is to "work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.” What a redemption for those hands that once stole to now be the hands that bless and give! Instead of malicious, our hearts are to be tender. Instead of lies, we speak truth. Instead of bitterness, we harbour forgiveness.
For those struggling in the sexual arena (or with any form of addiction – drinking, drugs, shopping etc), I say this: PLAN for an instead. Instead of being home alone with the internet on, phone a friend. Instead of staying up watching TV, read a book, listen to some music. Be aware of what is a dangerous situation for you, and think ahead. If you don’t plan SOMETHING, you are likely to revert to old patterns. And this is where the neural pathways information is helpful. My suggestions above are only a band-aid measure. They are some practical helps, but they don’t get to the heart of the matter.
Consider again the "highway-vs-suburban street” analogy. As we repeat a practice, a habit, a reaction to a certain situation, the groove gets deeper and more ingrained. We see that we are "wired” to certain directions of thought and practice, often because that’s what we’ve always done before. This is how we’ve reacted in the past, and so we are likely to start driving down that highway by default. But we are not helpless in this!! God wouldn’t give us the "insteads” unless they were possible to fulfil. He wouldn’t tell us to "be transformed by the renewing of our mind” if it couldn’t change. It can change, but it usually takes a lot of practice and persistence. (Even with His help and sovereignty, we still have to work hard at it.
I work in an office, and so spend much of my time at a computer. When I found myself with pain in my right wrist last year, I decided to try using my mouse with my left hand. Gosh was it hard! It was like learning all over again. I’d sometime move it in the reverse direction, I’d click on the wrong mouse button (until I realised you can switch primary and secondary buttons!), and it felt so unnatural! Some days I would just use my right hand out of frustration. Isn’t that how it feels when you are trying to reform a bad habit? Unnatural, forced, maybe even impossible.
This is the process of re-forging the pathways in your brain. I hope you can see the application for this goes far beyond sexual addiction, or indeed any addiction. For me, it’s a key to my life with God. Often it’s about remembering the good I am aiming for, and why it is worth it, otherwise it can become "all too hard”. So there you have it: When Neural Pathways meet Ephesians 4.
As a PS...The neural pathways "google alerts” were going off around the new year, due to more and more articles being churned out regarding new year’s resolutions. Here’s a link to one article I found OK. Bear in mind it’s totally missing God in the picture, but if you want some further reading (you must be keen!) written in a really practical way, check it out. http://www.tampabay.com/features/sticking-to-new-years-resolutions-take-planning-practice-and-patience/1065718