Neural Consequences of Religious Belief on Self-Referential Processing

The title is not a mistake.  Actually it is the title of an article that John Ortberg references in his marvelous book Soul Keeping: Caring for the Most Important Part of You.  Amazingly enough Ortberg is referencing a study done in China which gives “real neurological evidence for the power of spiritual reflection to make us aware of our sin.”  He continues, “Christians actually use a different part of their brain to self-evaluate than non-Christians” (Taken from Soul Keeping by John Ortberg, p. 72).  He goes on to note that “prayer, meditation, and confession actually have the power to rewire the brain in a way that can make us less self-referential and more aware of how God sees us” (p. 73).

All that is a fancy way of saying that confession is really good for the soul; it is good for us in the fullness of our personhood!  As a leader, one of the refrains I go by is that “the first task of a leader is to define reality and the last task of a leader is to say thank you.”  (I think the quote is original to Peter Drucker but am not sure.  This may be a partially correct paraphrase but it is none-the-less profoundly good advice.)  Confession calls me to face the reality of who and whose I am.  It also lifts me to be a newer, better, holier way of being.  Something like this only more was behind the original Methodist emphasis of moving on to perfection.  Ortberg reminds me of an old prayer that goes:  “God, help me to be the man my dog thinks I am” (p. 78).

In a memorable sermon at the Council of Bishops meeting recently held in Oklahoma City, Bishop Young Jin Cho (Virginia Conference) quoted a Methodist preacher from the Civil War.  In the midst of that great conflagration, E. M. Bounds wrote: “We are continually striving to create new methods, plans, and organizations to advance the church.  We are ever working to provide and stimulate growth and efficiency for the gospel…  The church is looking for better methods; God is looking for better men and women…  What the church needs today is not more or better machinery, not new organizations or more novel methods.  The church needs men and women whom the Holy Spirit can use – persons of prayer, persons mighty in prayer.  The Holy Spirit does not flow through methods, but through persons.  The Spirit does not come on machinery, but on persons.  The Spirit does not anoint plans, but persons – persons of prayer”  (Quotation from E. M. Bounds’ book, The Power through Prayer).

I want to quibble, seriously quibble, with Bounds.  I think the Holy Spirit can and does flow through methods, plans and systems as well as persons.  Nonetheless, the point is well taken.  God is looking for transformed persons.  Holy transformation begins with each of us individually tending to our spiritual health in a way that is biblically faithful and leads us out beyond ourselves into the will and way of God.  (I think it was the great Baptist leader George Truitt who said that “success was knowing the will of God for your life and being at the center of it.”)

The secularist in me goes back again and again to Robert Quinn’s book on business leadership – Deep Change.  Quinn insists that we must begin by changing ourselves.  My Christian twist on Quinn’s writing is that we must begin by opening ourselves to the changing power and presence of the Sovereign Lord who encounters us through the Holy Spirit.  The Apostle Paul put it this way: “So, brothers and sisters, because of God’s mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service.  Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature” (Romans 12:1-2).

This crucial meeting with the Holy Spirit begins in quiet, in praise and confession.  There really are “neural consequences of religious beliefs in self-referential processing!”  This is truly one of the great functions of worship and yet simultaneously is not limited to a church worship service.

Augustine put it well when he said, “Our hearts are restless, O Lord, until they find there rest in thee.”

“Take time to be holy, speak oft with thy Lord;
abide in him always, and feed on his word.
Make friends of God’s children, help those who are weak,
forgetting in nothing his blessing to seek.”

(“Take Time to Be Holy,” Hymn No. 395, verse 1, The United Methodist Hymnal)

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