For those just joining, this is part of a series of letters on spiritual growth and maturity. For the last letter, click this link.
My wife and I were great friends before we started dating. We spent a year developing a deep friendship before we became romantically involved. It took all of a week for the openness we had cultivated as friends to be challenged by pre-conditioned responses ingrained from past pain.
When we moved from “just friends” to “boyfriend/girlfriend,” we both noticed the subversive tug to withdraw emotionally. Where one week prior we would have talked about nearly anything as friends, suddenly certain subjects became taboo. Vulnerability would cost our tendency towards self-preservation. Suddenly, such insecurities as “What if I say something wrong?” or “What if I open myself up to hurt again?” and “Can this really be a good thing?” swam about on the peripheral of our conscious thought. Absent recognizing the hidden motives, we would have easily responded to the previous rhythms of our hearts.
One day, while driving in the car, I just brought it up. I told her that it seemed like in the couple of days since we had started dating I could feel the desire to withdraw emotionally. My pain/avoidance response had kicked in. She agreed immediately that she had felt the same way. Why was this? Why would two close friends all of sudden change how they interacted with each other?
The answer is simplex and complex. Our past experiences were defining our present habits. As Curt Thompson says, “Your memory creates your future.” When the pain of past experiences lays dormant in the heart, the least little trigger will evoke an emotional response to the present stimuli. For my wife and I, it was the newness of the dating relationship. Past experiences that have not been brought to rest keep the pain of the past present in the moment. The pain of the past has dissociated from the memory of the past and has anchored itself around whatever arbitrary thing happens to be the trigger. Your brain has physiologically formed around how you have been hurt.
When you see the sirens of a police car flash in the rear view mirror, or a bee aiming to sting you, or perhaps a large animal bearing down on you, your flight or fight response kicks in and floods your brain with specific chemicals designed to heighten your awareness and help you to respond. Your automatic nervous system kicks in and your heart rate increases, your palms become sweaty, your muscles tense, etc… These are normal and good body responses to potentially dangerous situations. However, when pain and trauma have been left unresolved, any stimuli that triggers the past memory has the potential to let this same response run amok with your emotional response. Your brain responds to fear in the way it is designed to. The problem is what you have learned to fear. For me, it was vulnerability with one who could hurt me. But it can be a mother, father, lover, or friend that has hurt you in the past. Any one of those relationships could have taught you to fear something that was not meant to induce fear. But when we have learned fear, we respond. My wife (girlfriend at the present time) had never hurt me, or even came close to hurting me, but I prepared a response that expected to be hurt and to retaliate because of past pain lingering in the present.
In the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30), Jesus illustrates how our thought patterns dictate our approach to God. A certain master has given three men some money to invest. To the first five talents (a unit of money in the Roman empire), the second two, and the third one. The man who he had given one buried the money in the ground, the other two made wise investments and reaped the reward of those investments. When the master came back he asked to see what each servant had done with the resources he gave. The first two gave positive reports and were invited to enter into “the joy of their master.” The third man said, “Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.”
The third man has his thinking preconditioned by his fear of failure and it dictated his actions. His inner belief structure determined how he would respond to God. The two other servants saw the master as good and rewarding, and their actions were driven by a far different core belief than the third man. The way we think about the relationships around us will dictate how we respond to the people around us. And our personal history will form the way we think about our present relationships.
As with the illustration of the young boy who plays with fire in the beginning of these writings on spiritual formation, we respond to the people in our life largely based upon how we view those kinds of relationships in our life. We respond based upon how our neural networks have been formed through childhood and into adulthood. Each time we experience rejection from a peer, it reinforces the system of neurons that make up our pattern of response to our peers. Each time we heard a harsh word from a father, the neural network responsible for the memory and response to fathers is formed. The path through the forest of our mind becomes wider. Each reinforced experience cuts a new path for the water to run deeper through the channels in our brain.
Why is it important that our thinking changes? Because our thinking dictates how we approach God and how he respond to us. Why would he allow our thinking to dictate how he responds? God will allow the fruit of your thinking to become manifest in order to show you the need for change. If you reap what you sow (consistent broken relationships, loss of jobs, decreased intimacy, lack of peace, etc…), God remains just and he can begin to show you the flaw in your thinking. If you keep running around the same mountain over and over again, the point is to show you the mountain and how to uproot it. Each trip around the proverbial mountain of your consequences has the potential to awaken you to a system of broken beliefs your hold deep in your heart.
The bible even states that God will engage individuals in the way those individuals approach life:
“With the merciful you show yourself merciful; with the blameless man you show yourself blameless; with the pure you show yourself pure; and with the devious you show yourself shrewd.” Psalm 18:25-26
We will see God based upon the disposition we hold, and the way in which we are formed is the way we will see God. And God is perfectly happy to engage with us in this way. If we are merciful we see his mercy, but if devious we see his shrewdness. What we see about God has far more to do with who we are then who He is. Essentially, we perceive God the way in which we perceive ourselves. This has everything to do with the physiological makeup of your brain.
Since this is the case, it is imperative that God orchestrates events in our lives to change the way we perceive him and others. If God is to interact with us as a loving father, yet our perception of a father is not loving something needs to change. How we hear and perceive others will in part dictate how we hear and perceive God. Something has to change.