Have you ever walked into a room when the power was out and flipped the light switch? It’s that awkward moment when your habit of turning on the light is more ingrained than the knowledge you have of the power being out. Weird. It’s also an example of neural pathways that have formed in your brain. Scientists have discovered that within the billions of interconnected nerve cells in the brain that new pathways form as we have new experiences. These experiences become literally hardwired into our brain the more we repeat the behavior.
What about behaviors that we want to change? What if we have learned and practiced habits that we want to break? Is there hope? Is there a way to change the brain’s neural pathways?
Just as bad habits are written into our mind, new life-giving habits can be written! The answer lies not just in new adapting new behavior patterns, but in a fundamental change in our identity – in a rewriting of how we see ourselves, God, and others.
Many Christian counselor and pastors advocate a common approach to breaking habits. Sadly, it is an approach that only perpetuates the same addictive behavior. That approach usually involves:
- guilt and shame for what the person has done or is doing
- a command to not commit the sin or behavior again
- a high standard and listing of what their behavior ought to be
- a system of accountability to make sure they never do the behavior again
And while these may seem like effective measure, they only reinforce the same neural pathways that led the person to the behavior in the first place. They attempt to bring about new behaviors, but they keep the old neural pathways related to our identity. Those pathways send messages that say:
- you can’t do anything right
- you’re such a disappointment
- you’re only as good as your ability to do right things
- you need to start doing right things in order to gain the favor of God
If you’ve ever tried this approach, you know the result. The only way old habits can be broken and new neural pathways formed is for us to have rewrite of our identity that is not focused on the old behavior. There would have to be a set of experiences that changes not just what we do, but who we are. Identity before behavior. This is the only way new neural pathways can be written.
Enter the message of grace.
The grace of God shown to us in Jesus Christ is far more than just a religious message. It has the power to alter not just our behavior but our identity. Any kind of religious message that only demands behavior change is weak and ineffective. Commands, rules and accountability are powerless.
What is powerful is personal and intimate experience with Jesus Christ. Through what He accomplished on the cross, He makes it possible for us to experience that kind of identity change: forgiveness from our failures and the reality of knowing we are made clean and righteous. These two truths end the war of guilt, shame, performance, disappointment, fear, and feeling unloved new neural pathways begin to form in my mind that free me from the old voices and pathways that enslaved me. New experiences write a new heart and mind in me:
- you are loved by God
- you are accepted and forgiven
- you are set free from having to be perfect
- you are made pleasing by Christ
These are completely different neural pathways! As we follow the pathway of these truths we experience greater life and freedom! We find not just the change in our behavior, but a change in our identity. We experience new relationship with God. We experience new view of ourselves. We experience exactly what Scripture says:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 2 Corinthians 5:17
For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. Romans 8:5
This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws into their hearts, and in their minds I will write them Hebrews 10:16
Then we are able to do what we could never do with the old neural pathways. We can walk by faith, love others, serve others, humble ourselves, forgive, give, be patient, develop new habits, and overcome sin. We can do new things because at the core of our being our neural pathways have been changed by our experience with Jesus Christ!