My sweet grandmother, whom I dubbed “Nanny” in my first year of life, has suffered from two strokes in the last ten years. Though, now that I think about it, what she experienced may have been more like TIAs, Transient Ischemic Attacks. (I’m just a grandchild; I’m 32, but my elders still don’t tell me everything.)
Due to the loss of oxygen to certain parts of Nanny’s brain, she lost functionality of different parts of her body. Her speech and motor skills were affected. Part of Nanny’s recovery from the TIAs included several months of occupational therapy and speech therapy. The purpose of all the therapy was to help her relearn how to do simple tasks, like make the /sh/ sound and grasp objects with her hand. Physically, it looks like she’s just practicing reaching for a ball and squeezing it, but what we don’t see is that she is forcing her brain to build new pathways of information.
When the brain is damaged due to lack of oxygen, the healthy parts can create new neurological pathways that work-around the injured parts and restore lost functions. Amazing! It’s called neuroplasiticity, and it can be defined simply as the brain’s ability to form new connections in order to compensate for injury or change in environment.
We don’t have to have a TIA and months of therapy in order to take advantage of our brain’s ability to form new connections. What many may not realize is that our brains are malleable all of our lives. Our brains change every time we learn something new, take up a new hobby or skill, or form new habits. This has huge implications when considering all that scripture teaches us about putting on the new self and renewing our minds.
Romans 12:1-2 I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Ephesians 4:17-24 Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!— assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
God’s truth transforms our minds. Not just our minds, but our hearts as well because there is a spiritual connection between our hearts and our minds.
But as you know, God does not magically transform us overnight. He wills us to hold up our end of responsibility and work hard to see this transformation of our hearts and minds to its completion (Philippians 1:6 and 2:13). We memorize scripture. We make spiritual disciplines our habits. Exercising in this way affects our minds so that our responses to our circumstances change and the Holy Spirit’s fruit begins to manifest in our lives more and more. God’s word combined with the spiritual disciplines can alter the very makeup of our brains. Change may be slow and difficult, but all things are possible with God (Matthew 19:26).
Nanny often said how tired her therapy sessions made her. It was hard work. Not only that, she would get frustrated with her body because it would not do what she wanted it to do. But she couldn’t give up because her independence and survival depended on the work she was doing to retrain her mind.
Likewise, the energy we expend to kill sin and grow in godliness is great (or it should be). And we will be frustrated with our progress from time to time. But we can’t give up because our spiritual survival depends on it. The one who is born again will do these things and enjoy victory over sin and intimacy with Christ that the lazy Christian will not. God has given us all things pertaining to life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). And I’m beginning to see that a malleable brain is one of those things.