It has been weeks since our family room overhead light went out and yet hardly a day that goes by that I don’t reach for that switch only to be taken aback when nothing happens. This demonstrates a reality about the brain, which is that upwards of 95 percent of what we do is actually managed by the unconscious or lower part of the brain, rather than the prefrontal cortex, which controls our conscious thoughts.
Did you get that? Most of your behavior is not consciously under your control, but is directed instead by well-established neural pathways in your brain that you don’t even realize are there. I’m not saying we aren’t responsible, but the reality is that we operate on autopilot most of the time, which explains why I keep reaching for that light switch.
What does this say about our desire to change, to become more like Christ? Are those neural pathways in our brains more powerful than the Holy Spirit who dwells within our souls?
Of course we know that nothing is more powerful than the Almighty God who chooses to live within us by His Spirit. But what we may not understand is that God doesn’t bypass these bodies of ours to change us, but instead works through them. This means that when He calls us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2), He is telling us to get rid of those faulty neural pathways that hum happily along in our unconscious minds, making us do all those things we don’t want to, and to establish new ones in their place that will foster our spiritual growth.
How do we do this? The answer is surprisingly simple, and one on which science and Scripture agree. We alter neural pathways by replacing old habits with new ones. For example, all of my adult life I have struggled with bingeing on sugar-laden foods, a behavior rooted in neural pathways formed in early childhood. I can tell you that no amount of meditation on Scripture, no amount of earnest desire, no degree of self-flagellation or confession or even accountability has produced lasting change. The only thing that works is taking specific steps to change my habits. In other words, my brain responds to what I actually do—day in and day out—from using a phone app to chart my food intake, to keeping those irresistible cookies and candies out of reach, to planning ahead of time for healthy snacks. As I incorporate new habits, the neural pathways are being re-formed and I am finally able to experience the change I’ve wanted.
What role does the Holy Spirit have in this? Every moment along the way, God works within us, both giving us the desire to change and empowering us to do the things He wants us to do (Philippians 2:13). But if we don’t do our part in practicing new habits over time, those old neural pathways will soon reassert themselves, dragging us back into destructive patterns.
We might call this the “divine-human cooperative.” The most helpful New Testament writer I’ve found on this is the Apostle James, who reminds us that “faith without works is useless.” Faith for Abraham, he tells us, was not only active alongside of his works, but was completed—brought to completion—by his works, or by what he actually did. In James’ most powerful explanation of why doing matters so much, he writes:
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. (James 1:22-25)
James used a perfect metaphor to describe our unconscious brain –like looking in a mirror and then forgetting what we saw. Simply put, when we hear truth or know truth or even meditate on truth, but don’t actually do something with it, we will not change, because that unconscious part of our brain takes over the moment we are no longer thinking about the truth. In order for what we know to become a part of who we are, it has to move from the conscious brain to the unconscious brain—and that means we have to be doers who act. The beauty of this is that not only will the doing bring transformation, but in the process we find our joy—as James says, we are blessed—made happy—in the doing.
Can you think of one area in which you have really wanted to see change? Maybe you’ve tried here and there, but never could understand why it was so hard, or change so short-lived. I encourage you to start afresh, asking prayerfully: What must I do on a consistent basis to see this change?
If you want to be more generous, then start doing generous things every day. If you want to be more compassionate, start practicing compassionate behavior. If you want to spend time with God, make a plan and determine to stick with it until the neural pathways are well-established. If you want to stop watching so much TV, set a time limit and abide by it!
And as you go about establishing this new habit, thank God that He is changing your desires, and ask Him for strength to follow through day by day. Then get ready to watch the Spirit work powerfully over time to produce in you that change you’ve always wanted. You will discover along the way that, as James so beautifully promises, happiness is in the doing.