Archives for the month of: July, 2014

As I grapple with my questions about God, people have often said “just believe” to me in one form or another… “Just believe and then your heart will eventually line up with your mind.” There is this school of thought that you can somehow trump your emotions with your mind. I’m not sure what kind of evidence really backs this up; did some left-brained modernistic evangelical make this up? Perhaps you can temporarily overpower your emotions with your mind, but I believe over the long run, this is not a good remedy and your emotions will prevail. They’ve done studies (who “they” are, I cannot recall, so just Google it) that we make our decisions based on our emotions. We are not the highly logical beings that we pride ourselves on being. This is why people say one thing, but when push comes to shove, they behave according to what they feel in their hearts, which can be quite opposite to what they say.

Here’s why mind will not triumph over heart over the long haul:
Our subconscious carries all of our experiences and emotions attached to those experiences. As those emotions remain unresolved (especially in terms of past traumas), we simply cannot move on because our subconscious remembers them even if our conscious minds repress them. Neural pathways (thought patterns) in our brains have been created around these traumas almost as protective mechanisms — e.g., when you experience some kind of fall, your body remembers, and if a similar fall happens again, your body will reflexively act to prevent you from being injured in the same way. The reflex is a result of the neural pathway that has been formed — and this is only after ONE fall, not repeated falls. I’d venture to say something similar almost happens when you experience emotional trauma as well — think of victims of PTSD. So one very traumatic experience could cause your brain to form a very strong neural pathway around it.

So even if our intellect and logic, which is conveyed through our conscious minds, tries to control our behavior, it is trumped by the subconscious because the subconscious is actually in control of us about 94-96% of the time. That is to say, our conscious minds are only in control of us 4-6% of the time. The rest of the time we’re sort of on autopilot. That’s why addicts can’t just tell themselves to stop their addictions — their subconscious minds / neural pathways take over and the addictions are too strong to be controlled consciously. So often, no amount of reading or Bible study, which engages the conscious mind, will resolve the trauma in the underlying subconscious because reading / Bible study tends to engage at the intellectual level and not the emotional level. (Why am I picking on reading books and Bible study? It seems like many people seem to think this is often the cure to problems, just they way they think a college degree or more academic study will fix things.)

So what can be done? Ultimately the more of our subconscious that is brought to light (in other words, the more of what is subconscious that becomes conscious), the better off we are. Unresolved traumas buried in our subconscious need to be healed so that the neural pathways attached to them are weakened. Emotions need to be healed so that they can be brought in line with intellect. There needs to be integration between the mind, body, soul and heart. There is no quick fix — it’s a long journey of awareness and then having experiences which heal the past traumas and retraining our brains away from these thought patterns, which can finally bring emotions and intellect into alignment.

So after listening to Brene Brown’s TED talks, I’m really big on authenticity and vulnerability. Sadly, I don’t believe that we get that much of it from the pulpit. Sure, pastors often use stories from their own lives to illustrate the points they are trying to make — but they often choose very “light” stories, extremely G-rated, that frankly leave absolutely no impression. (I can’t even think of an example to write about here. It would be along the vein of, “My kid said the funniest thing the other day about … and then I saw God’s sense of humor in that.”) (Please note that I don’t mean this as a pointed commentary about my church in particular; just observations from all the church services I have attended over the years, and reacting to one recent sermon at another church I visited recently that exemplifies my point.)
And usually the congregation will laugh politely. Because that’s what church is about — just light laughter, mild entertainment, and some uplifting talk about how Jesus is the answer to everything.

It just feels like many sermons stay at an intellectual level and shy away from emotions perhaps because pastors are hesitant to be vulnerable from the pulpit. Or maybe because this is how they are trained to give sermons in seminary — they think they need to sound academic. This is unfortunate because, according to a Christian psychiatrist I know, most people remember what evokes an emotion within them — I think that when a deep, visceral emotion is evoked within us (say, from a story), it gets embedded in our brains and bodies, so we will more strongly recall that story and the lesson attached to it. So, without emotional cues in sermons, usually people are hard pressed to remember a sermon from the previous month — they can usually not even remember what verses of the Bible were the topic. Sure, there are some people who have incredible memories and can remember every little detail whether there was emotion evoked or not, but that’s not very common. The reason why Brene Brown’s TED talk on the power of vulnerability is the 4th most popular — it struck a deep emotional chord with over 10 million people. She did not give an academic lecture as a faculty member of her social work department, but she shared her story as a human being, about how she had a breakdown in the middle of her research on shame and vulnerability.

It’s a missed opportunity. I think pastors have a lot to share from their own life experience. I’d like to hear about personal struggles and how they have seen God redeem these situations and answer their prayers. Or even if they are currently struggling and haven’t yet seen God’s redemption. Sometimes I think that pastors feel like they can’t share their current struggles because it’s too raw and unfinished, and would discourage people, but I think it’s real and realistic… and also ironically encouraging because it makes me feel more patient about my struggles and not feel like I have to have everything neatly put together with a bow wrapped around it. Part of following God is having patience and living with longsuffering, so why are we so afraid of talking about that?