Recently, I read an article about the intersection of brain science and human conflict that I found most fascinating. I before you read on, I recommend you first be familiar with Derek Flood’s “Neuroscience and the Mind of Christ“ at the Huffington Post.
A Little About Flood’s Perspective
Derek Flood represents an element in Protestant/evangelical circles that leaves me conflicted. I don’t want to make this article about him (or even me), but I do need to say a little about where he’s coming from because it impacts my observations about the content of his essay.
Flood and his perspectives have emerged from a broad-based movement generally called “post-conservative evangelicalism.” Grappling with the particulars of this kind of movement would go way beyond our purposes here, but I want to mention that because when I read Flood’s writings, I get the feeling he has a different theological agenda than mine. A little reading about his “theological sandbox” makes that even more clear.
So, what does all this have to do with the topic at hand: anger, emotion and the brain? Let’s see.
The Big Question: Why is it so hard to forgive?
I agree with Flood’s opening premise that peace and forgiveness are not natural dispositions of the human heart. Thus, he says,
When I feel wronged it’s like a dark cloud comes over me and all my compassion vanishes. In the middle of that, all I can see is my perspective, all I can think about is defending my rights.
The way of enemy love is not intuitive. The very idea of loving the person you would normally hate is an intentionally provocative idea.
I like his phrase “enemy love.” That’s really what we’re talking about. And often our enemies are very close at hand.
As a licensed counselor I do my fair share of marriage and couples counseling. Though most of my clients wouldn’t want to admit it, their spouse is often their “enemy.” They resist that concept because it sounds so harsh. But the “proof is in the pudding,” as we say. For all intents and purposes, they are treating each other like enemies. And when all the various tangled yarns of the relationship are unraveled there is a significant amount of pain, disappointment, and misunderstanding at the root of it. They weren’t always enemies. In fact, they probably used to think they were best friends. But, as Flood says, “a dark cloud” comes over them and their compassion vanishes away.
Meanwhile, as Flood reminds us, God calls us to “radical grace”—another good term. How did Jesus command us to treat our enemies? How are we supposed to relate to that marriage partner who has wounded us so deeply, or the parent or child who has trespassed our boundaries way too many times? Jesus said, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). That is not natural!
Flood rightly reminds us that, because of the natural inclination of our hearts toward mistrust and suspicion of our “enemies” Christians trying to live in obedience to Jesus’ commands must learn to take “baby steps” in their obedience; learning what it means to forgive.
I start out with baby steps. Practicing forgiveness with little things—a fight with my wife for example, where we’ve both, in our anger and frustration, said things that hurt the other. If we’re supposed to love our enemies, if Jesus forgave his executioners, can’t I at least get over some petty slight? After all, my wife is hardly my “enemy,” she’s my best friend! So what’s going on? Why is it so hard to forgive?
What does the brain have to do with it?
We’ve all been there. Maybe it was your spouse. A best friend or coworker. It could be anyone. But Flood’s question is one we’ve all shared: why is it so hard to forgive them? And his next task in the article is to introduce some concepts from scientific research that help explain it.
When we are triggered in an argument, feeling flooded and emotionally threatened, this activates the amygdala, which is the part of the brain involved in the processing of raw emotions such as anger and fear. The amygdala is essentially the brain’s watchtower, and when it is fired up in alarm mode, it sends out neurochemicals which effectively shut down the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain associated with things like relational connection, empathy, impulse control, self-reflection, moral judgement and conscience—in short, the part of your brain in charge of what we might call the social-self.
Derek Flood is not claiming to be a neurologist, so he simplifies an extremely complex dynamic, but I essentially agree with his characterization of the process. When we’re in the midst of a conflict—say, with our spouse—there are neural processes going on beneath the surface of conscious awareness. The prefrontal cortex, located directly behind your forehead, is an extremely important part of this. Some experts call it the “Executive Management System” of the brain. Humans alone have such a highly sophisticated and developed “PFC.”
The brain’s “shut-down” function has a practical survival function: It means that when we are in danger our brain kicks into alarm mode which can save our life. But it also means that when we get triggered in a argument with a loved one, the smart and compassionate part of our brain is temporarily turned off, which can make us do thoughtless and hurtful things.
Maybe it will help clarify this by explaining that we are more consciously aware of the activity in the “higher” parts of the brain (PFC) and less aware of the activity in the lower (such as the amygdala). Each parts are just as real and have just as much impact on us. But lower brain activities go on beneath the surface. That’s why experts often call it “subconscious.”
In my counseling work with people, especially those sexually addicted, I often emphasize the “automatic” nature of these hidden, subconscious dynamics. For example, most men who are trapped in a life of pornography are more vulnerable at specific times to their temptations. Why is this? In part, it’s because of the secret life of the subconscious mind. There are things going on “beneath the surface” they are often oblivious to. What should they do? I emphasize the importance of growing self-awareness, particularly the need to be aware of “triggers” that activate certain behaviors, emotions and thoughts—stress and anxiety are common ones; paying attention to the subtle cues that something serious is going on, even if we don’t immediately know what it is.
Appreciating and understanding the neurological processes going on in our brains can be a useful and helpful approach, especially for those who feel trapped in lives of destructive behaviors. When I study these things, from the standpoint of being a Christian, I am overwhelmed by the complexity and mystery of our brains and often end up falling on my knees in praise of the God who designed us. With the psalmist I find myself saying, “such knowledge is too wonderful for me to understand it” (Psalm 139).
Of course, all of this brain science can be misused. Whether the discussion is destructive lust or hateful anger, we have to be careful what we make of the brain science. So does Flood. And I’ll address that next.
My brain made me do it
So far, I have agreed with how Flood has developed his premise about the interaction of the brain and stubborn emotions like anger and lust. However, he next takes a turn that I consider the wrong road.
So there’s a very real reason neurologically that we become so self-focused in a fight. It’s not a reflection of our character, so much as it is a kind of brain reflex based on a perceived threat. When we are unaware of this, we can get swept up in those feelings. But once we recognize what is happening, we can address what’s going on in our bodies.
Oh, Derek. Why did you have to say that? “It’s not a reflection of our character, so much as it is a kind of brain reflex…” What do you even mean by the phrase, “not a reflection of our character?”
How could decisions and judgments made not be a reflection of our character? Isn’t that what character is? I think I know why Flood says this. He’s trying to bolster our confidence and give us hope. He’s fighting the tendency we all have, that tendency to get defeated and discouraged in the presence of a stubborn and persistent behavioral pattern.
The problem is, that’s the wrong way to go about bolstering hope, particularly as Christians. I even agree with him that “once we recognize what is happening we can address what is going on in our bodies.” However, his next statements betray an erroneous understanding of humanity and what humanity really needs based on what God says about us.
I can’t help but believe his errors emerge from his affection for “post-conservative evangelicalism.” I’m going to resist the urge to launch into a discussion of that theological movement. This isn’t the place for it. But I will suggest that the great weakness of this movement is its adoption of “post-modern” views of humanity.
As a 60s-generation guy, I can appreciate a lot of things about post-modernism. In my view, post-conservative and post-modern conversations—whether about theology or culture—have their greatest value in terms of the language and vocabulary they provide. This is why, as traditionally orthodox and conservative as I am, I don’t mind using post-conservative, post-modern terms talking to people who live in that world. This is why in my counseling practice I have latched on to brain research and neurological terms to discuss all kinds of problems. I view it as a language, a vocabulary. It’s a way to bridge the gap with people who have little grasp of more traditional orthodox language.
But I don’t think Flood is content to use neurology this way. It’s not just a vocabulary to build bridges of understanding. For him and many in the post-conservative movement, it not only reflects the “form” but also the “content” of their beliefs. And at the heart of that distinction is a rejection of a traditional, orthodox (I would argue, biblical) understanding of humanity and the greatest problems of life.
What is our greatest problem? When a husband and wife are locked in mortal combat, arguing and alienated, what do they need most of all? When an adolescent boy is hiding a secret obsession with porn from his parents, what does he need more than anything?
Like Flood, I agree that brain research can help us understand the process and development of those problems. But rather than seeing these processes as excuses to “go easy” on ourselves (after all, as Flood says, it’s not a “reflection of our character…”) I believe these neurological processes are further confirmation of our utter helplessness and need for a Savior.
Romans 7 and the Flesh
I find it most ironic that, in his article, Flood quotes Paul in Romans 7 on the power of the “flesh.”
The Apostle Paul speaks of that same struggle. He laments that although he knows the good he should do, he finds that he still does not do it,
“We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature … For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.” (Romans 7:14-23)
The Greek word sarx which is translated above as “sinful nature” in the NIV is more literally rendered as “the flesh.” Paul contrast the “flesh” or “carnal nature” (which is characterized by lust, anger, etc.) with “the way of the Spirit” which, in contrast, is characterized by love…
So far, so good for Flood. Based on my own theology and scientific understanding of human nature, I would go even further and suggest that sarx—flesh—is our very DNA. And so the “sin that dwells in us” is not just some “ghost in the machine” but is hardwired into our very genetic structure. No wonder the “carnal nature” that takes over when we’re in the midst of conflict is so powerful! And no wonder Paul goes on to say later in the passage,
I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? (Romans 7:23, 24).
I wish Flood and his post-conservative buddies would chew on this part of the passage a lot more. Do they realize how helpless and hopeless our sinful condition truly is? The more I understand those subconscious neurological dynamics described earlier the more I appreciate Paul’s point. Paul didn’t know about the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex but he did know his helpless condition in the presence of sin: “What a wretched man I am!”
Do we get any sense here that Paul is trying to go easy on us? Can you even imagine him inserting after that statement Flood’s affirmation that our destructive behaviors, emotions and thoughts are not “reflections of our character?” Definitely not! They absolutely are reflections of our character and reminders of our need for a Savior. That’s why Paul answered his own question, “who can rescue me…” with the concluding verse:
Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:23-25).
What is our deepest need?
Flood attempts to develop some practical strategies as the article proceeds. In giving hope and comfort to those beset by controlling emotions he says,
We need to have the maturity and humility to recognize that because we are emotionally triggered, we need time. We might compare this to having the maturity to recognize when you’ve had too much to drink, and handing over your keys. Similarly, when we’re “under the influence” of the amygdala, we need to recognize that the smart and social part of our brain is impaired, and consequently have the maturity so let it wait, to cool down first. After all, as Paul says, forbearance and self-control are part of the fruits of the spirit too!
I don’t essentially disagree with what Flood says. But I think he misses something in his emphasis. In my personal as well as professional life I know we need the “maturity and humility to recognize that because we are emotionally triggered we need time.” But that isn’t all we need. In fact, that’s not the most important things we need. And that’s Flood’s great omission.
We don’t just need time to “cool down first.” We don’t just need more patience with ourselves. What we need most is “more Jesus.” When we assume we just need to take some time and cool off, giving ourselves a break, we ostensibly assume that we can save ourselves—if we just have enough time. That flies directly in the face of Paul’s entire point. We can’t! No amount of patience with ourselves is sufficient. The forebearance and self-control he describes are not just the product of “maturity.”
Flood himself says they are fruits of the spirit—but I believe that “s” should have been capitalized! They are not fruits of our own human spirit but of the Holy Spirit of God who indwells us equipping and enabling us to do things we could never do in our own strength (that’s where Paul’s argument goes next, in Romans 8).
Sadly, one of the things Flood has championed in his other writings is a weak view of the significance of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection. I can’t take time to review it here, but in his most famous book, The Gospel: A Radical Vision for Grace, Justice and the Cross, he presents a theory of the atonement that rejects what theologians call “penal substitution.” My cursory reading of some of Flood’s other views (such as his political pacifism) suggests that he has been driven to this position by intellectual necessity: if you’re going to be a pacifist politically you can’t very well believe in a God who punishes sin. So, Flood doesn’t believe Jesus came to pay for and punish sin—“propitiation,” to “die in our place”—but to overcome it (“expiation”).
Yet both are true: Jesus did come to overcome sin (so called, “Christus Victor”) but that doesn’t exclude the need for penal substitution. There are all kinds of historic debates behind this conflict I can’t go into now. But I want to suggest that this is another example of the link between theology and practice. Theology matters. A weak view of the atonement like Flood’s results in a weak view of sin. Consequently, when we maintain a weak view of sin it results in an insipid and ultimately impotent strategy for dealing with its effects in our lives.
In practice, efforts like Flood’s to restore hope and give confidence in the face of stubborn problems are well-intentioned but misguided. Perhaps even dangerous. The only way to truly give hope to the hopeless and help to the helpless is to deliver a clear and accurate message of where hope and help can really be found.
It’s not inside ourselves. It’s in the One who made us.