The Amygdala Gospel: Rewiring How We Grow Closer to Jesus

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When Jesus said we must deny ourselves, I think He meant the amygdala.

The cry of my heart is to grow closer to Jesus in all three dimensions:

  • Love with Him (relationship)
  • Likeness to Him (character)
  • Living out His Kingdom (works)

Most Christian experiences focus on the right-brain and left-brain (e.g., worship and sermons), which helps with “relationship” and “works.” However, to really impact “character” I am convinced we need to focus on the hind-brain, i.e., the amygdala.

The amygdala is often considered the seat of emotion, including the well-known fight-or-flight response. In particular, it both defines and defends what I call “ego-integrity” — those things we consider part of our identity. This is why mama bears react to threats to their young, scholars react when you disparage their discipline — and why people say you should never discuss politics and religion!

When we feel psychologically safe, we are willing to explore uncomfortable ideas in our “fore-brain.” But when we get into dangerous territory, our amygdala “hijacks” the rest of the brain, putting it on full-blown defensive (or offensive!) alert. We are no longer able to hear, much less process, what other people are saying. And may not even remember what we ourselves said and did!

In my experience, this is actually the hardest part of cultivating Christ-like character. I may have great beliefs and intentions, but under stress I end up doing the exact opposite. And it is precisely those moments of failure that erode trust and destroy relationships.

Worse, the rest of the brain seemingly conspires to keep us from facing these issues. Not only do we ignore or rationalize individual failures, we often erect complicated ideologies (or even, gulp, theologies) to justify behavior that is clearly the opposite of Christ-likeness.

It is easy to think of people on the “other” side who do this. Ironically, this judging of others is actually the best clue to what triggers my amygdala. The amygdala sees the world in black and white, good vs evil, us vs them. Whenever I find myself saying, “Well, they are just wrong!” I am learning (painfully) to recognize that this is my amygdala speaking — not the Holy Spirit!

Of course there are things in the world that are genuinely wrong. And frankly there are times we should listen to our amygdala, like yanking a child out of onrushing traffic.

The problem is that the amygdala can only makes a snap decision that something is wrong. All too often, the rest of the brain fills into simplistic stories about what caused that wrong. Worse, the amygdala relies on the Law to oppose evil; it knows nothing of the power of Grace to redeem evil.

Fortunately, there is now a growing body of brain science and spiritual disciplines that we can use to understand and tame
the amygdala. The challenge is that a lot of our Christian culture and traditions are actually designed to work around the amygdala, rather than challenge it. And direct confrontation usually backfires anyway!

The solution is to create “safe spaces” where we can become aware of and reflect on our emotions, then see how Christ might want us to respond differently. In effect, we need to create a new culture, language, and rituals designed to help us identify — and then deny! — our amygdala-protected self, so that we can take up our cross and follow Jesus.

This is hard enough to do one-on-one with a trusted mentor or counselor. Yet even that is not enough, as it tends to reinforce the leader’s amygdala. To truly transform the church (and our selves), we need peer-based practices to do this at scale, as a central part of our worshipping communities.

That is my quest for 2022. I call it Fruit of the Cross, a 12-week course I hope to launch this Lent.

Your prayers and suggestions are welcome!

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