Sunday September 14, 2003 | Greg Boyd
3 Above all else, guard your heart,
for everything you do flows from it.
For some reason, even though we have accepted Christ in our lives, certain things about us are very difficult to change. Is changing these bad behaviors a lost cause? No. God is working with us for change, and we must take proactive responsibility for what is going on in our brains.
Greg titled this sermon: “Becoming a Detective of the Brain.” He opened with a confession that he still struggles with swearing under certain circumstances. The problem that emerged is that for some reason, even though we have accepted Christ in our lives, certain things about us are very difficult to change. Greg’s struggle is with swearing, but many Christians continue to struggle with other things as well, like a hot temper, jealousy, shame, pornography, lust, drinking, a lack of love for others, a weak or absent prayer life and so forth. Three common approaches to change were offered:
1. God will change me! This approach says things like: “Let go and let God!” or “Believe and receive!” and if taken too far, it begins to look like all change in our lives is dependant on a specific miraculous act of God. Sometimes this does happen! And it is certainly true that God is involved in change for the good whenever that takes place, but it usually takes more than simply waiting on God to do it all for you.
2. The devil made me do it! This approach understands that the world is profoundly affected by “the god of this age”. The assumption is that if it doesn’t look like the work of our loving and gracious God, it must be the work of the enemy. Our lives are more complicated than this because we, human beings, also contribute to both the good and the evil that exits. In some cases it may be true that a demon is largely to blame for ungodly circumstances, but when it comes to sin, we alone are responsible to God for our participation in it. As with the first explanation, this one can lead us to be passive and wait for the demon to be cast out rather than begin working on a more holistic strategy that can lead to success. (Of course, a holistic strategy should include prayer against spiritual forces that oppose us!) Both of these explanations so far can have the result of setting people up for disappointment when the expected miracles (that change our behavior!) do not occur as hoped for and in the time frame we are comfortable with. Of course, ultimately, all that is not consistent with God will be washed away and we will be fully redeemed, but until then, substantial struggles will remain.
3. Knock it off! This approach would have us try harder until we succeed at changing the behavior that is troubling us. We are led to believe that we can simply stop these behaviors, and perhaps we can. The problem is, even if we succeed in changing the behavior, the underlying problems that cause this behavior are probably still there and will cause some other sort of trouble for us eventually. Often the plea to stop destructive behavior comes with shame, threats and overconfidence in personal will power. While it is true that you will need to work hard at change, trying alone will not provide the change. For instance, when the problem is failing to feel love for someone or not experiencing peace, trying harder is not going to help. We might be able to produce behavior that looks like things are better, but what we need is to be transformed by the truth of God.
So, if it’s not simply up to God, and we can’t simply blame the devil, and we can’t simply try harder, then what? Is our changing these behaviors really a lost cause? No. God is working with us for change, we do have to resist the enemy, and we certainly will have to exert some effort, but we need to be sure we are getting at the real issue. We can’t simply deal with the tip of the iceberg, the whole thing is an obstacle to us and we’ll have to dive in to see it.
We’ll use Greg’s experience to clarify the structure he is trying to show us. The Set-up for Greg’s problem with swearing is that he holds (unconsciously, most of the time) two beliefs about himself: “I need to be a hero” and “I’ll probably screw it up.” When something happens that triggers these beliefs, in this case, a problem with the fuse box, these two beliefs have prepared Greg to be frustrated. From observing his father, Greg learned that swearing helps release frustration. The physical response that Greg displays, then, becomes predictable.
First comes the trigger? then a chain of Neuron Reactions that connects various beliefs to this event? and finally the physical behavior that corresponds to those beliefs.
The chain of reactions in your brain happens so fast that the only way to deal with it is proactively. If you wait until the next time the trigger causes the chain of events that result in a certain type of behavior, then it is too late. Instead, we must take proactive responsibility for what is going on in our brains. Greg used many passages to support the fact that God designed us as spiritual beings who have authority over our own minds and bodies. (Prov. 4:23, 23:19; Rom. 12:2; 2 Cor. 10:5; Eph. 4:23; Phil. 4:8, etc.) Our feelings are not simply responses to what is going on in the world, but actually our feelings are our responses to representations in our brains. The representations are our way of interpreting what we experience, but are often false or skewed. The fact is, our brains are sometimes working against us, but they are OUR brains! We are responsible to reprogram them to work correctly. That is, we need to become a detective in our brain and seek out the lies we believe and replace them with the truth of God. Greg’s job will be to confront the lies in his mind about himself, that “he needs to be a hero” and that “he always fails to fix things” and that “swearing helps.” When he has “reprogrammed” these things with the truth of God the problem of swearing can be addressed without waiting until frustration puts him in a position to react to previously unaddressed beliefs.