When you fall in love, you do the craziest things.
Years ago, my brother Bob was attending a Christian college near Boston, Massachusetts, and he fell head-over-heels in love with a church school teacher who worked in Elmira, New York. Every so often, after finishing classes in the mid-afternoon, he’d drive more than six hours to spend a few moments that evening with his sweetheart. Then he’d hop back in his aging automobile and head east, driving through the night to arrive on campus in time for his early morning classes. Twelve-plus hours of driving for two hours of walking hand-in-hand with his beloved. Absolutely crazy! But that’s what love does. For those who aren’t in it, it doesn’t make sense at all.
The reason for this transformation from ordinary person to crazy person is simple. Love changes the brain. It actually burrows in and chemically rearranges neural pathways, creating new ones and completely bypassing old ones. To a brain in love, spending half a day fighting traffic and snowstorms in order to enjoy two hours with a special someone makes total sense.
What About Jesus?
Standing in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and looking down at the stone manger that tradition says served as Jesus’ first earthly bed, I couldn’t help but think, “He left heaven for this?” That same question echoed in my mind while gazing up at the scarred face of Golgotha just outside the walls of the old city of Jerusalem. “How could He do it?” I thought. “How could He give up everything for a world filled with self-centered sinners who couldn’t care less about what He had to offer? What type of divine insanity could drive the Son of God to such a painful death?”
Again, the answer is simple. Jesus experienced a powerful transformation the moment He looked down at the newly created being He’d just formed from the dust. He fell in love. And, according to the Bible, that same transformation is possible for each one of us to experience. The result of that mental makeover changes everything.
So how can you and I experience that same love? The first requirement is what Jesus described as a “new birth,” sometimes called “conversion.” Speaking to a secretive nighttime visitor named Nicodemus, Jesus stated, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3).
Nicodemus was an upstanding member of the Jewish ruling council. He came from a background that believed that his nation was comprised of God’s chosen people, and that the only way to be a true Jew was be born a Jew. So Nicodemus pressed Jesus for an explanation. “How can a man be born when he is old?” he asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!” (verse 4).
Playing right into his companion’s mind-set, Jesus set the record straight: “No one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit” (verse 5). With these few words, Jesus revealed that the door to salvation was wide open to anyone, anywhere, regardless of genetics. He also pointed directly to the source of this transformation: the Holy Spirit. Being born of Jewish parents made you a Jew. Being born of the Spirit made you a child of God!
So how does the Holy Spirit bring about this amazing change of heritage—this conversion? He does a little brain surgery.
This is highlighted by a series of brain experiments conducted by Dr. Andrew Newberg, an American neuroscientist. Dr. Newberg has conducted extensive research on the physiology of worship. Using a single-photon emission computed tomography scanner, he studied the brains of people who took time to commune with their God. The results were stunning. Those who began worshiping a mere 12 minutes a day changed the circuitry of their brain in just a few months. Not only did the neurons and connections rearrange themselves, but their stress chemistry decreased while chemicals such as dopamine and GABA—both very helpful and healing—were on the rise! Dr. Newberg found that, when before and after scans were compared, even physical changes to the brain itself had occurred!
One additional noteworthy discovery was included in his findings. Those positive changes only happened in individuals who worshiped what they considered to be a loving, benevolent God. Dr. Newberg’s book How God Changes Your Brain offers abundant detail, but the bottom line is clear: worshiping a loving God for a mere 12 minutes a day for two months changes the brain inside and out. It makes me wonder what worship can do if it’s enjoyed for a lifetime!
THe Dark Side
But we humans have a dark side when it comes to our brains. The Holy Spirit isn’t the only force in the universe seeking access to our thoughts and emotions. If the Holy Spirit can make changes to the human brain, and if we choose to let Him, so can the devil.
And the devil is a master at brain surgery. He convinced Adam and Eve that God wasn’t fair and couldn’t be trusted. He impressed all but a handful of people that an ark wasn’t necessary to be saved from a global flood. And, on one horrifying Friday afternoon, he convinced a group of pious spiritual leaders that this man Jesus was nothing more than a blasphemous wannabe and deserved to die as a common criminal.
Today, the devil’s neurological work is blaringly obvious. Acts of extreme violence are being committed continuously, and all in the name of God!
So what’s a person to do? Again, God’s Word offers the answer. The apostle Paul wrote, “We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths spiritual words” (1 Corinthians 2:12, 13).
When we invite the Holy Spirit into our lives, we’re basically changing brain surgeons. We’re asking God to physically alter our brains so that our minds can accept a new way of looking at things. And this is where the insanity sets in. Paul went on to say that the person “without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (verse 14).
But once we experience the Holy Spirit’s new birth, we begin to think along different pathways. Driven by an others-based divine force (love) instead of a self-based sinful force (selfishness), we start acting in totally abnormal ways. We begin to forgive instead of seeking vengeance. We turn the other cheek instead of fighting back when someone presses our buttons. We rush to the aid of people who need food and clothes. We leave the comfort of our homes and hearths to serve as missionaries in distant lands! We might even give up our lives in order that others may live.
Even the often-ignored Ten Commandments that God personally and physically handed down on Mount Sinai take on a new meaning in our minds and hearts. No longer do we consider them a harsh set of rules and regulations. They become ten descriptions of what a person fresh from the Holy Spirit’s brain surgery is like. These individuals don’t steal. They don’t lie. They don’t commit adultery. They worship God on His holy day, they uplift their parents, and they’re satisfied with their own possessions instead of envying others who have more. Even the words that spill from their lips can be trusted. All of these attributes seem ill conceived and very unhip by modern standards—kind of like seeing the insanity of the guy who drove 12 hours through a snowstorm to spend two hours with his girl.
How Can We Help?
I know what you’re thinking, and it’s OK if you admit it: You want that surgery. You need that surgery. You need the Holy Spirit to transform you from an earthbound sinner to a heaven-bound saint. Welcome to the club! Seems we’re in good company. Shepherd-boy-turned-king David made this request: “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10). We know that in Bible-talk our “heart” really means our mind and emotions. David wanted a new, pure mind, not the dirty, sin-filled gray matter with which he’d been born.
The apostle Paul raised the brain standard to an incredible height when he admonished early Christian church members: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5).
So how can you make this conversion happen in your life?
Steps in Conversion
The first thing you need to do is ask for it. Tell Jesus that you want Him to be a part of your life, forgive you of your sins, and lead you toward victory over them. Conversion happens the moment you do this. Immediately, the Holy Spirit will begin those changes in your mind that Dr. Newberg discovered. Second, a relationship with Jesus, like any other relationship, has to be cultivated or it won’t last. So set aside specific times for Bible study, prayer, and worship. As you do this, those neural changes that Dr. Newberg discovered will happen in your brain!
There’s one other lesson that Dr. Newberg’s research suggests. He discovered that spiritual activities changed the physical structure of the brains he examined and made them healthier. And there’s one other aspect to getting a healthy brain. Your brain is a physical part of your body, just like your heart and liver. You maintain a healthy heart and liver by adopting good health habits, and the same is true of your brain. Nutritional science has found that the very best food consists of fresh fruit, vegetables, cereals, and beans, so add these to your diet. Also, you can reduce—or better yet, eliminate—the unhealthy sugars and fats that are so much a part of the modern Western diet. Add to that exercise, which pumps up the heart and reduces your chronic load of stress. Then there’s taking the time to get a full night’s sleep instead of cutting those hours in bed in order to push yourself to be successful. When you do these things, you make it even easier for the Holy Spirit to bring about those vital changes in your brain that are a part of the new birth.
During my visit to the Holy Land, I had the privilege of spending some quiet time in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Christ made the awful decision to give His life for us. In my imagination, I could see Him there, His body bending under the weight of that choice. But His mind was ready to respond. “Not my will, but thine, be done,” He whispered to His Father. Only a brain connected to Heaven could make such an insane choice. Only a brain so in love with you and me could give Him the courage to face the flickering lights of the approaching soldiers and willingly submit to the cross.
That’s the mind the Holy Spirit wants to build in us today. He’s ready to begin that incredible conversion right now.
What the world calls insanity, God calls salvation.