The call of Romans 12:2 to be transformed by the renewing of the mind has always posed a question in my own mind. What is this process like? What part does the brain play in this transformation process? Is it similar to what some positive thinking gurus propose—that we can actually control our own thoughts and generate positive energy that will drive us toward success in accomplishing whatever we desire, spiritual success included? Is mind renewal something within human reach by consciously working on our thought patterns?
A closer look at Romans 12:2 brings to light that the verb “be transformed” is a passive verb. We can’t change ourselves. Jesus Himself clearly reminds us that evil thoughts and all kinds of sinful tendencies proceed out of the human heart (Mark 7:15, 20-23). Ellen White reminds us that we “cannot change our hearts, we cannot control our thoughts, our impulses, our affections.”1
Hence, while thought management proponents propose that the power to change lies within the individual, the Christian understands that the natural mind is so corrupt and evil that it will never be able to turn things around. Our only hope is in the Spirit of the Lord who can transform us into the image that we can see as in a mirror, the glory of the Lord (2 Cor. 3:18).
Axons, Dendrites—and Change
What actually happens in the brain as the process of transformation takes place? Each cell or neuron “transmits nerve signals to and from the brain at up to 200 mph. The neuron consists of a cell body (or soma) with branching dendrites (signal receivers) and a projection called an axon, which conduct the nerve signal. At the other end of the axon, the axon terminals transmit the electrochemical signal across a synapse (the gap between the axon terminal and the receiving cell).”2
Thoughts or actions (stimuli) activate the transmission of electrochemical substances along these axons and dendrites and where they connect at the neural junctions or synapses, electrochemical charges are exchanged. As these axons and dendrites connect, they form neural pathways. When these connections are repeated over time as illustrated in the training a musician goes through, these neural pathways become permanent, forming, what we term, “habits.”
From birth these neural pathways establish our behavior and while habits may be formed, they can also be “unformed” when we consciously choose to behave in a different manner, thus tracing a new neural path. Over time, as this new neural pathway is traveled, it becomes a new habit. In other words, the brain is capable of rewiring itself throughout life, “depending on the nature of its thoughts. Certain sustained thoughts produced measurable physical differences and changed its structure.”3
This concept of “neuroplasticity”—the ability to adapt and change our neural networks that continue to change the structure of the brain—fully supports the biblical concept of spiritual transformation. Yes, we can be changed!
How Does It Work?
So, how does thought management work for a Christian in their desire to move away from self-centeredness toward a God-centered lifestyle that puts Christ and His will as top priority?
First of all, when God takes the initiative to plant the thought in our minds, inviting us to give our lives to Him, we respond with a conscious choice to surrender ourselves and our selfish motives to Him. The ideas and images that run through our minds constantly need to be purged of self, and this is a long process—work of a lifetime.
Ellen White comments that when God invites us to change “then He will work in us to will and to do according to His good pleasure. Thus our whole nature will be brought under the ?control of Christ.”4
So God is the initiator and agent of change—not us. On our part, we need to “apply our thinking to the Word of God. We must thoughtfully take that Word in, dwell upon it, ponder its meaning, explore its implications—especially as it relates to our own lives. We must thoughtfully set it into practice. In doing so, we will be assisted by God’s grace in ways far beyond anything we can understand on our own; and the ideas and images that governed the life of Christ through His thought life will possess us.”5
Therefore, worship of God with His Word, reflection, meditation, and prayer has the profound effect of changing us gradually as we spend time dwelling intelligently upon God as He is presented in the Bible. Reflective study, not just racing through the Bible to complete the read-through in one year, is crucial in this transformational process. One noted theologian says that “worship is the single most powerful force in completing and sustaining the spiritual formation of the whole person.”6
Transformed by God’s Spirit
As we worship in a slow, unhurried, and meaningful manner, God rearranges our thoughts; He changes our worldview, our paradigms, to see things from a God-given angle as opposed to our self-centered perspective. When such insights happen in the brain as we contemplate on Scripture, we need to submit our thoughts to the authority of Jesus so that He can change us to be like Him and have His mind.7
The stimuli sent to the brain cells during worship will be God’s promises, His instruction, His correction, and His commands. Instead of going down those old familiar neural paths of comparing myself with others, seeing how I can get the best for me or how I can get ahead of the pack, those neurons begin to develop fresh associations. New neural pathways emerge that seek to glorify God and build up His kingdom; fresh initiatives of how to serve another better, creative insights into how to mend that broken relationship, cause our neurons, axons, and dendrites to create brand-new connections.
This change process of sanctification cannot be rushed, it takes time—daily devotional time alone with God. As we spend time in His presence, transformation of the thinking takes place one step at a time. Paul knew what he was talking about when he writes about the change that God can effect in us, “not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us so that we can take in the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love and experience its breadth, its length, its depths, and its heights.” Only then can we “live full lives, full in the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:18-20, Message).*
Spiritual transformation is a unique, individualized as well as corporate process by which we grow into the image of Jesus Christ and begin to think and act like Him even while we are on this earth. We cannot do this by proxy; the individual has to experience it firsthand. After experiencing it individually, the process compels us to reach out to others; hence it is a “corporate” process because spiritual formation is a process of being conformed to the image of Christ, for the sake of others.8
Consider the following story where Romans 12:2 works on reprogramming the neural pathways of a recent convert, a retired Asian man. Washing dishes is not in his repertoire of learned behaviors, but as husband A worships, God opens his eyes to see how hard his homemaker wife has been working, managing the home efficiently for many years so he can come home to a neat and attractive environment. The Holy Spirit whispers, “Isn’t it about time to show her your genuine appreciation?”
At every meal he is reminded of this nudging by the Spirit, and in response, his neurons begin to seek out a new path. Instead of getting up after a meal to walk over to his favorite chair, he now gets up, picks up all the dirty dishes, and walks over to the kitchen sink to wash them. His wife’s jaw drops in astonishment; she can’t understand what’s happening here.
From the moment the Holy Spirit speaks to him and husband A makes that conscious decision to the very instant that he picks up the dirty dishes, the neurons are busy making these fresh connections, abandoning their old circuits of walking over to the couch and enjoying a quiet read. Instead, the electrical impulses sent to the muscles via the new connections activate the man to walk over to the kitchen sink with the stack of dirty dishes. These new connections, if traveled again and again, begin to make a deeper and deeper impression and strengthen this new network to form a habit—the habit of lightening the burden of another.
This one little transformation made such an impression on the homemaker wife who was not an Adventist Christian that it stirred her interest in the new belief that her husband had embraced. As she witnessed the changes in her husband, she embraced the same faith within a short time.
Consider this thought, based on a decade of research into spiritual transformation: “Living deeply doesn’t require retreating to a mountaintop or embarking on a hero’s journey; rather, the convergence of life and practice is about the hero’s return—in which you bring the fruits of your journey of self-discovery back home, into your life, your family, and your community.”9 True spiritual transformation cannot be limited to the privacy of an individual’s journey; it must impact the lives of others in its natural developmental path and embrace Jesus’ command to “go” (Matt. 28:18, 19).
While we recognize that the transformation process is God’s doing, the Christian needs to do his (or her) part in investing time and effort to make a habit of seeking God and making the changes that are revealed by God. At the end of life’s journey, perhaps at best we can describe our feeble gains at managing our thoughts and our spiritual progress as an unfinished symphony that awaits completion when Jesus comes.
*Texts credited to Message are from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.
1Ellen G. White, Mind, Character, and Personality, vol. 2, p. 420.
3Lynne McTaggart, “Entering Hyperspace,” in Measuring the Immeasurable: The Scientific Case for Spirituality (Boulder, Colo.: Sounds True, 2008), p. 346.
4Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing, p. 176.
7See Max Lucado, Grace for the Moment (Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson, 2000), p. 297.
8M. Robert Mulholland, Jr., Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1993), p. 12.
9M. M. Schlitz, C. Vieten, and T. Amorok, “Living Deeply,” in Measuring the Immeasurable, p. 457.
Sally Lam-Phoon, PH.D., a native of Malaysia, is serving as the children’s/family/women’s ministries director of the Northern Asia-Pacific Division in Ilsan, South Korea. This article was published October 21, 2010.