After having our lives so disrupted with the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us are experiencing a sense of relief and joyful exhilaration in returning to a more normal life. It is great to be gathering with friends again, worshiping in person with our church family and enjoying fun vacation traveling. But should we return to pre-pandemic normalcy? While not minimizing the great pain, loss and lingering negative impacts of the pandemic, by simply returning to pre-pandemic normalcy we may miss a golden opportunity. Could the rugged pandemic terrain of testing, trials, disruption and difficulties actually be an unusual grace gift to us?
As the Apostle James opens his inspired epistle, he frames the trials and difficulties that come into our lives as a gift. In The Message, Eugene Peterson beautifully paraphrases James’ words.
“Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well developed, not deficient in any way.” (James 1:2-4)
Reflecting on the Apostle James’ words, I would like to suggest the COVID-19 pandemic has given each of us at least three amazing gifts.
First, we have been given a grace gift of needed insight into the true state of our spiritual formation. Eugene Peterson describes our faith life being forced into the open and showing its true colors. I have often said that many people (including me) have not been their best selves during the pandemic. While I believe that is a true observation, I also believe there is more we must honestly say. The pandemic crucible has not only amplified our weaknesses, it has, like a mirror, also revealed the true colors of our lack of spiritual and virtue formation. A pastor friend of mine made the comment that the pandemic had uncomfortably revealed to him his heart idols as well as his glaring lack of Christ-like character. The pandemic pried open a revealing window into our inner worlds. What grace gift of needed insight into your life have you been given? What needs greater attention in your inner world?
Secondly, we have been given a grace gift prodding us to make needed changes in our daily lives. Eugene Peterson reminds us not to prematurely jump back into well-worn ruts of the status quo. For many of us, the pre-pandemic frenzied pace of our overly scheduled, distracted lives was detrimental to our spiritual growth, our relationships, our workplaces, our faith community and our Sabbath rest. Rather than jump immediately back into the unhealthy lifestyles many of us were living before the pandemic, how might we rearrange our priorities and carve out new rhythms that are more God-honoring, spiritually formative, relationally deepening and integrally whole? For many of us our work dynamics have significantly changed and this gives us a unique opportunity to evaluate our workplace patterns, sustainability and effectiveness. A member of our church family whose work had led him to do too much traveling said to me, “Tom, I am reevaluating the whole business travel thing. I am going to use video technology more and travel less.” What grace gift for needed change have you been given? What lifestyle changes do you need to make?
Third, we have been given a grace gift catalyzing needed growth in our lives. In his paraphrase Eugene Peterson encourages each one of us to let the trials, testing difficulties, and disruptions of a pandemic lead us down the path of increasing growth and maturity. The pandemic has been a time of pruning and while pruning is often painful, it is purposeful. Pruning offers new growth, renewed hope and greater flourishing. Eugene Peterson paraphrases the Apostle Paul’s wise and hopeful words.
“There is more to come. We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next.” (Romans 5:3-4)
What pruning needs to take place for new growth in your life?
In many ways, the pandemic has been a gift; a gift that brings needed insight, needed change and needed growth. Instead of returning to normalcy, let’s embrace lifestyles that lead to greater relational intimacy, deeper spiritual formation, wiser work patterns and greater human flourishing. A pandemic is a terrible thing to waste.
A few years ago, Dr. Peter Berger, the preeminent sociologist of our time, came to Christ Community for a conversation about religious faith. After eloquently expressing the formidable plausibility challenges of faith in our late modern western world, Dr. Berger was asked if he considered himself a Christian and if so why? This more personal question seemed to take the towering intellect and prestigious academic by surprise. Dr. Berger paused for a moment, then pensively looked up and said, “I do consider myself a Christian.” Another thoughtful question emerged. “Dr. Berger, Why are you a Christian?” Dr. Berger then pointed out his belief that something occurred over 2000 years ago on Easter morning that cannot be explained away, something that had spoken hope into his life and to the world. For Dr. Berger, an empty tomb is what made all the difference.
As a faith community on Easter morning we once again peer into the empty tomb and hear the Gospel writers hope-filled words, “He is not here, He is risen!”
Do we grasp with heart and mind the massive significance of those words? As we prepare to celebrate Easter, let us be reminded that we are Christians because we truly believe there was an empty tomb. The Apostle Paul banked his entire life on the bedrock truth of Jesus‘ bodily resurrection. For Paul, the very crescendo of the Gospel was “the fact Christ has been raised from the dead….” (1 Corinthians 15:20) Peering into the empty tomb of our Lord and Savior who conquered death makes all the difference in our lives and our world. Not only does the empty tomb point to our own resurrection from the dead and a joy-filled eternity with our risen Lord, it also speaks loudly to the importance and meaning of the vocations of our present daily lives.
Writing to the local church at Corinth, Paul concludes his masterpiece chapter on the bodily resurrection with an exhortation of living the resurrection life in our daily work. Paul concludes, “Therefore, my beloved brothers and sisters, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:58) As we prepare to celebrate the glorious good news of Easter, may our hearts be filled with a renewed hope that there is life beyond the grave, that as image bearers of the one true God, we are never ceasing spiritual beings with a grand eternal destiny in the New Heavens and New Earth. Let us also be reminded that our lives here and now in this small moment we call time, really matter. Peering into the empty tomb, may we hear and heed the words of the Apostle Paul encouraging us to live resurrection lives each and every day wherever God has called us to serve. Paul writes to the local church at Colossae, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.” (Colossians 3:23-24) Resurrection hope not only greets us at the grave, but also on Monday when we enter our paid and non-paid workplaces.
Driving is one of those things that can bring out the worst in me. Recently, I arrived at an intersection ahead of the car to my left. Instead of yielding, the driver floored it and sped right in front of me! I was ticked off. I felt my heart beating in my chest, my blood pressure rising. How dare he do that to me? Who does he think he is? When I paused long enough to calm my heart down, and reflected on my overreaction, it painfully reminded me how lacking in a Christlike way my response had been to a discourteous driver. When I least expected it, my inner world was on display before me—and it wasn’t pretty.
One of my struggles in life is how often I am confronted by the inconvenient truth that my spiritual growth and character transformation has such a long way to go. My trek to greater Christlikeness and spiritual maturity often feels like one step forward and two steps backward. A steep climb for sure, often insufferably slow, and at times outright discouraging.
No matter where we are in our spiritual journey, the true character change we long for can seem elusive and feel discouraging. Why is this the case? There are certainly several contributing factors to our lack of spiritual formation and transformation, but I believe a major culprit making change so elusive in our experience is a cultural distortion. For centuries as a Western culture, we have overemphasized certain parts of our brains and underemphasized others. This has led to an impoverished “change framework” emphasizing the brain’s rational world and deemphasizing the brain’s relational world. Many of us have been taught that if we individually just think right cognitively, if we possess the right biblical information, agree to the most sound doctrinal formulations, then we as individuals will experience transformation, take on the character of Christ, and grow to spiritual maturity. While having sound doctrine is essential, more is needed in our ongoing spiritual formation and transformation.
Our greater understanding of neuroscience is providing additional insight as to how God designed our brains. This makes us more aware of and attuned to how our Western cultural distortion is hindering change in our lives. In 2009, Oxford Professor and Psychiatrist, Iain McGilchrist, wrote a watershed book entitled The Master & His Emissary: The Divided Brain and The Making Of The Western World. It is a brilliant book exposing our Western culture distortion with great implications for how we change. McGilchrist points out that the left and right hemispheres of our brains have differing insights, values, and priorities. Each has a distinct ‘take’ on the world—most strikingly, the right hemisphere sees itself as connected to the world, whereas the left hemisphere stands aloof from it.
This left brain dominance of our Western culture has impoverished us in many ways. It affects our understanding not just of language and reason, music, and time, but also of all living things: our bodies, ourselves, and the world in which we live. McGilchrist helps us see that for centuries in our Western culture the left hemispheres of our brains have been overemphasized and the right hemispheres have been underutilized with far reaching consequences. McGilchrist writes, “We need both (brain) hemispheres, but the left hemisphere has become so far dominant that we’re in danger of forgetting everything that makes us human.”
Neuroscience and interpersonal neurobiology is helping us understand how God designed us to flourish, providing insight into how we change and how our spiritual formation takes place.
We now more fully understand that character formation is primarily a function of the right brain hemisphere. We also now know that the right hemisphere is the main brain function that allows for whole person integration. Stop for a moment and think about this insight. No wonder in a left brain dominated culture our struggle to live integral lives and see character change is such a gargantuan challenge! Our distorted Western cultural framework, with its overemphasis on the left brain hemisphere, has led an increasing number of contemporary Christian thinkers such as Curt Thompson and Jim Wilder to address so much of the church’s deficient half-brain faith. By half-brain faith they mean one that overemphasizes the left brain hemisphere at the expense of the right brain hemisphere.
There is a great deal of complexity to how God designed the two hemispheres of our brains to work in harmony. We clearly have much more to learn about our brains. However, our greater understanding of our amazing brains points us to the Psalmist of old who declared in a microburst of praise to God that as his image bearers we are fearfully and wonderfully made. If you are newer to the neuroscience conversation, it may be helpful to distinguish the two brain hemispheres this way: left brain—think logic, right brain—think relational. Both brain hemispheres are vitally important and we must employ both in how God designed them to function. Because of our Western cultural distortion overemphasizing the left hemisphere at the expense of the right hemisphere, an important correction is greatly needed. As a local church committed to biblical truth, spiritual formation, and transformation, we are prayerfully and intentionally making this crucial correction.
This full-brain insight may be new to many of us, a shift in our perspective, but it has been right in front of our eyes all along. Because of a cultural blind spot we may have missed it. Yet when we carefully examine the Holy Scriptures, we see that from Genesis to Revelation, the biblical writers embraced a full-brain faith, not one reduced or distorted by left brain dominance.
The biblical writers understood that spiritual formation and transformation is both rational and relational. They understood that true knowing first knows someone, not just something.
They saw the deceptive peril of thinking about God rather than thinking with God, of knowing about God, rather than knowing God intimately. They grasped fully that true change involves all of us, including all of our brain.
In Paul’s inspired letter to the Romans, chapter 12 plays a pivotal role in declaring the gospel is not just a rational belief we acknowledge, or a set of doctrines we affirm, but also a new identity, a deeply lived relational reality we bodily experience within spiritual community. In Romans 12, the Apostle Paul urges us to embrace an embodied full-brained faith. He will advocate for our transformation by bringing our whole selves to God as we live out our new creation lives in Christ, our new group identity in the context of Spirit empowered community.
While wise individual rational choices are vitally important for our spiritual growth, they are not sufficient in themselves. Spiritual disciplines are also an essential part of our training in greater Christlikeness, but they are not only engaged in as isolated individuals. The spiritual disciplines find their greatest transforming power when we experience secure attachment love with God and others lived out relationally in the context of joy-filled spiritual community. Our loving relationship with God and others transform us.
When it comes to our spiritual formation, we are not all on our own. We not only have each other as members of a faith community, we are supernaturally empowered for change. We have been given the Holy Spirit who transforms us into the likeness of Christ. The Holy Spirit is not only at work within us as individuals, but also among us as a local church family. We are called to be a Spirit-filled community.
We can change, but a greater emphasis on our right brain hemisphere is needed. Our transformation takes place primarily in the context of safe, joy-filled attachment-loving relationships, which is a primary function of the right brain hemisphere. If we are going to truly change, continuing to grow in our spiritual formation, and increasing Christlike character, we need a full-brain faith.
Recommended Resources for Further Study
Anatomy of the Soul: Surprising Connections between Neuroscience and Spiritual Practices that
Can Transform your Life and Relationships by Curt Thompson M.D.
The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves By Curt Thompson, M.D.
Renovated: God, Dallas Willard, and the Church That Transforms by Jim Wilder
The Other Half of Church: Christian Community, Brain Science and Overcoming Spiritual Stagnation by Jim Wilder and Michel Hendricks