Painting, Path Leading through Tall Grass by Renoir 1877

Well-worn paths

Every preacher has a favourite verse or theme that they slip into every message. Mine is probably Romans 12:2, “Don’t copy the behaviour and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect” (NLT).

Time and time again, I come back to the idea that a large part of the process of transformation of discipleship lies in changing the way we think. We need to move away from broken systems of thinking and behaving and allow the Spirit to transform us inwardly by a total reformation of how we think. The NIV calls these broken systems “the pattern of this world”, and I think that captures something of the neurobiological reality of who we are as persons: a lot of our being in the world is shaped by patterns of thinking. These are habitual thought processes, ingrained stories that we tell ourselves, ones we picked up from our family of origin, formed as a result of experience, and repeated again, and again, and again.

This isn’t just an abstract idea, it’s grounded in the way your brain works. The more you repeat a pattern, the stronger it becomes, as the neurons involved build stronger and stronger connections. This is what’s known as Hebb’s axiom: “neurons that fire together wire together”. So the more that we activate certain neural networks (think certain thoughts) the easier they are to activate, and the more permanent they become.

I’ve explained this idea to my children by talking about the paths that we make in our (currently overgrown) meadow as we walk through the long grass. A path that has been walked many times is well-worn, so it’s easy to follow. If we want to make a new path we have to flatten the grass, and that’s not easy, but it’s possible. And the more you take that new path, the easier it becomes.

That’s why we so easily fall into the same patterns of thinking, the same habits of relating, the same ways of interpreting events in line with the story that dominates our self-conception—whatever the reality actually is. So much of this goes on beneath the surface of our conscious awareness. It’s not just ingrained in our psychology, it’s ingrained in our brains. Curt Thompson explains how this means that,

“Renewal of the mind, therefore, is not just an abstraction. It means real change in our bodies.”

Thompson, The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves, 2015, IVP, 6.

Psychologically, we are both freer than, and not as free as we might think. Nancey Murphy and Warren Brown end their book, Did My Neurons Make Me Do It? (2007, OUP) with an excellent postscript on the practical implications of their work, which strikes a balance between neurobiological determinism and complete personal freedom. They write, “In legal and moral matters, remember that there is no such thing as total freedom; all human action is conditioned to a greater or lesser degree by both biology and environment. At the same time, for complex self‐determining systems such as human beings, there is no such thing as total biological determination. Neurons do not do things; you do whatever you do. Juries of our peers are pretty good at sorting out degrees of responsibility. One question to insert into the usual mix is to ask about the extent to which the person under consideration has the capacity for self‐transcendence.”

They encourage us to “go meta” (and even “meta-meta”) regularly via self-reflection. Which is, basically,

thinking about our thinking.

A step beyond this, I suggest, is to not just think about our thinking, but to invite the Spirit to examine, test, and reveal our thinking to us. This is the “taking captive” of every thought to “make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5), where “making it obedient to Christ” means getting it to align with the truth. Reshaping, reforming, sometimes chucking it out all together.

This is what David was getting at in Psalm 139,

God, I invite your searching gaze into my heart. Examine me through and through; find out everything that may be hidden within me. Put me to the test and sift through all my anxious cares. See if there is any path of pain I’m walking on, and lead me back to your glorious, everlasting ways—the path that brings me back to you.

 Psalm 139:23-24, The Passion

Some of those familiar, ingrained patterns of thinking are “paths of pain” that you walk daily.

Problem is, it’s just not that easy to change how you think. The first step is recognising that we’re heading down a path that we don’t really want to take—this isn’t easy, but it isn’t as hard as forming new paths. That is where the hard work of change and personal formation has to be done. The longer that path has been worn, the harder it is to change. It’s not enough to just think about your thinking, you need to involve the Spirit, you need to change your practices, and you need to involve some trustworthy people.

For example, for the longest time I have been trying to be a more patient person. Naturally, I just am not; I came out of the womb stubborn and angry. I’m pretty good at keeping it smooth on the surface, but underneath, and at home, it is often not pretty. And then, there’s those four kids: that’s plenty to try your patience. Simply trying harder to be more patient just doesn’t work that well—trust me, I’ve tried hard plenty of times, and I’ve failed plenty of times.

There are, however, a set of practices that you can work at which will produce, seemingly indirectly, the desired result. These are the spiritual disciplines: prayer, silence, solitude, meditating on Scripture etc. While I can’t just try hard at being patient, I can try hard at setting aside time every day to seek God in silence. And when I do that consistently, I am, voilà, a more patient person. It’s just how Paul describes the fruit of the Spirit: “He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard” (Galatians 5:22, The Message). Do the things you know you need to do (see this post), let the Spirit work on your thinking, and fruit of love, joy, peace (etc etc) just appear!

You don’t want to just work at the spiritual disciplines alone though—no hermits here please. We need to be embedded in a loving community that will call us out on our negative patterns of thinking and habits of relating, and will support us to change.

People who will speak truth to you, when you’re talking trash to yourself.

The process of taking our thoughts captive and making them obedient to Christ is not an individual pursuit, you have to work it out in community. Friends who will go on a journey of ruthless self-discovery with you are a rare and precious gift; I’m grateful for mine. These kind of relationships require vulnerability, time, real-life interaction, and sometimes hard work.

So how’s your meadow? Are there some well-worn paths that are really paths of pain? How about inviting the Spirit’s searching gaze into your thinking, and letting God change you into a new person by changing the way you think?

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