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Rule-keeping, faith & our brains!


Posted 19 Mar 2015

Word for Today (W4T) had a great article today (19/March/2015) that really got me thinking… & typing, obviously! I’m comparing the left & right hemispheres of our brains, & relating them to a metaphor of a big, older brother, compared to a smaller, younger brother.

But here’s the W4T article in full first:

God’s Will for You (4) – 19/03/2015
‘…Rule-keeping does not naturally evolve into living by faith…’
Galatians 3:12 [The Message *3]

“To fulfil God’s will for your life and become the person He wants you to be, you must deal with the ‘me’ you’re afraid God wants you to be. Most people equate spiritual maturity with trying hard to follow the rules of the Bible. But as long as you think God’s aim is to produce rule-followers, spiritual growth will feel like an obligation rather than a desire of your heart. Paul writes, ‘Rule-keeping does not naturally evolve into living by faith, but only perpetuates itself in more and more rule-keeping.’ Rigid adherence to rules and regulations produces a desire-smothering, emotion-controlling, self-righteous person. The Bible says, ‘…The written law brings death, but the Spirit gives life’ (2 Corinthians 3:6 NCV). There’s a big difference between following rules and following Jesus, because you can’t follow Jesus without cultivating the right heart. Jesus didn’t say, ‘I have come that you might follow the rules.’ He said, ‘…I have come that [you] may have life, and…have it more abundantly’ (John 10:10 NKJV). Until you understand that spiritual growth is moving toward God’s best version of yourself, the question, ‘How’s your spiritual life going?’ will intimidate you. A nagging sense of guilt and deceit will prompt you to say, ‘Not too well. Not as good as it should be.’ People are apt to use external behaviours and devotional practices to gauge their spiritual health. For example, they measure by how early they get up to read and pray, how long their quiet times are, or how often they attend church. That’s not what spiritual formation is about. It’s about your relationship with Christ, not rule-keeping!”
[Source: http://www.ucb.co.uk/word-for-today-26920.html]


Now here is the above W4T broken down into sentences, with my comments & observations – should you wish to read them! I’ve added bold emphasis & CAPITAL LETTERS to highlight the bits that struck me most forcefully.


“To fulfil God’s will for your life and become the person He wants you to be, you must deal with the ‘me’ you’re afraid God wants you to be.

Most people equate spiritual maturity with trying hard to follow the rules of the Bible. But as long as you think God’s aim is to produce rule-followers, spiritual growth will feel like an obligation rather than a desire of your heart.”

This is profoundly true… of me (how about you?) I equate spiritual maturity with rule-following, perhaps not consciously, but I can detect that kind of thinking inside of myself. It’s not that I want to follow rules as an end in itself, just that I invariable create for myself “rules” of behaviour which are designed to “get me to the goal as fast as possible” And that isn’t the right way to “get there”!

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I am not sure what the alternative (real spiritual maturity) actually “looks like”. Perhaps it looks like Katherine Ruonala’s walk with God (or your favourite preacher!). Certainly it “looks like” Jesus’ own walk with the Father. Yes, Jesus is always the best example of anything God is directing us/me towards. So look at Jesus & see what he did; there’s our best model of spiritual maturity.

In the (even most recent!) past, the only way I have approached the subject of spiritual maturity has been with that mental attitude of “I must try harder”, which is the rule-following protocol. I find it very easy to equate God’s desire for my growth & progress in terms of me having to “try harder”. But this (W4T) suggests that this is not God’s aim. How about you? Do you find yourself approaching the issue of spiritual maturity from a “doing” rather than a “being” perspective? I outline a reason for that below.


“Paul writes, ‘Rule-keeping does not naturally evolve into living by faith, but only perpetuates itself in more and more rule-keeping.’ “

So the very “trying” of “trying to keep the rules” & approaching spiritual maturity with a rule-following & “I must try harder” mentality is doomed to failure before I/we even start, since that approach “only perpetuates itself in more and more rule-keeping.’” That is EXACTLY what Jesus’ frequent comments & criticisms about the Pharisees, Sadducees & teachers of the law was about: that they were “trying hard” but that this “trying hard to follow the rules” was not producing a life lived by faith.
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Christians down through the ages & today are just as susceptible to “trying hard to follow the rules” as the Pharisees, Sadducees & teachers of the law in the time of Jesus. And the same results occur; perpetuation of more and more rules & therefore rule-keeping AND NOT a life lived by faith.

So how do we live a life governed & directed by faith, rather than this incessant rule-keeping? Why do we SO easily turn the law (of the Old Testament) & Jesus’ observations & commands (in the New Testament) into so many rules for ourselves? I speculate about possible answers to these questions further down this article.


“Rigid adherence to rules and regulations produces a desire-smothering, emotion-controlling, self-righteous person.

That’s an apt description of the Pharisees, Sadducees & teachers of the law in Jesus’ time, & also of Christians who try to “live by the rules” today. Any kind of rule-keeping will always tend to produce self-righteousness, rather than a dynamic relationship with Jesus.


“The Bible says, ‘…The written law brings death, but the Spirit gives life’ (2 Corinthians 3:6 NCV).

There’s a big difference between following rules and following Jesus, because you can’t follow Jesus without cultivating the right heart.
Jesus didn’t say, ‘I have come that you might follow the rules.
He said, ‘…I have come that [you] may have life, and…have it more abundantly’ (John 10:10 NKJV). “

So abundant life is what Jesus intends for us, & that is what spiritual maturity “looks like” too. It isn’t about following rules.

Following Jesus requires a different heart than one dedicated to following rules in order to gain spiritual maturity.


“Until you understand that spiritual growth is moving toward God’s best version of yourself, the question, ‘How’s your spiritual life going?’ will intimidate you.
A nagging sense of guilt and deceit will prompt you to say, ‘Not too well. Not as good as it should be.’ “

Spiritual growth is moving toward God’s best version of yourself. What could that “look like”? What is God’s intention, when it comes to finding out what “God’s best version of ourselves” ACTUALLY IS? How will He inform us of what we should do, or not do, be or not be?

The Bible will probably be Father God’s primary means of informing us of His plans, IF He informs us of His plans for us at all!
Jesus is the example we should follow, & is the best model of what Father God would like us to be. So we can always “look towards Jesus” as the goal of where God is taking us, & what we can & should “look like” in the future. Our spiritual maturity will have us “looking like” Jesus.


“People are apt to use external behaviours and devotional practices to gauge their spiritual health. For example, they measure by how early they get up to read and pray, how long their quiet times are, or how often they attend church. That’s not what spiritual formation is about.

It’s about your relationship with Christ, not rule-keeping!”

Here is the solution to the question “how do we live a life governed & directed by faith, rather than rule-keeping?” The answer to that question is “relationship with Christ”. Rule-keepig will tend to create self-righteousness in us, whereas following Jesus will allow His righteousness to inform & transform us.

W4T says “you can’t follow Jesus without cultivating the right heart.” So the right heart is a KEY to progress. Heart is about attitude, desire & choice. But as soon as we define that, we tend to think, “OK, I’ve got that, let’s define a set of rules for our behaviour so we can get to that goal as quickly as possible”! That’s our performance-driven mentality. The danger in pursuing that mentality is turning a living relationship with Jesus into a dead rule-following one, once again! The mind that wants to define the parameters & get the behaviours done; to understand the requirements, in order to keep them; to “do” as quickly as possible, in order that we can feel secure in knowing that we have “done” things – that is itself MISSING THE POINT & PURPOSE of a faith-filled relationship with Jesus. That in-built desire to assess what needs to be done, & then to do it as fast as possible so I/we “know” we’ve done it, is actually the problem, not the solution! As Capt. Jack Sparrow pointed out in one of the Pirates of the Caribbean films, “The problem is not the problem. The problem is your attitude about the problem. Do you understand?”

The desire to know that we/I are being successful, is once again, in danger of rule-following, rather than relationship building. The mentality of mankind is all about “what do I have to DO in order to succeed?” & then doing that. But that very mental attitude “kills” the relationship. So that approach is a cul-de-sac; a dead end. That way forwards… will always actually take us backwards!

So an ENTIRELY DIFFERENT mental attitude is required. “Our way” (logic, reason, trying) will never get the results we are looking for; & for which God is calling us.

Time for a metaphor: Left & right hemispheres of the brain
It’s like the difference between the way our left & right brain hemispheres operate. Apparently the left hemisphere tends to use logic, language, analysis & operates in a sequential (cause & effect) linear, time-aware way. Whereas the right hemisphere tends to operate in intuition, it is non-linguistic, non-linear, non-temporal; it is where sudden insight & leaps of understanding can come from. Dr. Betty Edwards proposes this idea in her book “Drawing on the right side of the brain”. I’m sure there is plenty of refutation of the theory of hemisphere brain dominance, but even so, the idea/metaphor is useful in trying to figure out what we currently (unsuccessfully) do, & how we might change our behaviours & actually improve our chances of spiritual maturity. For that reason I’ll stick with the metaphor, for now!

We frequently rely on what the left hemisphere is “telling us”, & tend to ignore the right hemisphere. I suppose this is because our education systems favour the left, logical side of our brains. I suppose that in much of our day-to-day life we are repeatedly told (by parents, teachers, co-workers, the media, society, etc) to value logic, reason & analysis, & to (therefore) distrust or ignore the intuitive, non-linguistic, non-linear, non-temporal side of our brains.

When you stop & think about your own thinking, you’ll start to realise that we all have an enforced habit of regarding the logical left brain thinking as “the correct way to think” & to disregard the right hemisphere’s input; calling it “childish thinking” or “day dreaming”, or “just not helpful”. Valid inference (logic) was developed in some ancient civilizations (China, India, and Greece) & was particularly favoured by the Greeks Plato & Aristotle. Our modern cultures also tend to favour logic & reason over & above intuition & feelings.

Is left-brain thinking really the best way to deepen our relationship with Jesus?!
Perhaps in regard to the way our world works, we are right to rely on the left hemisphere of logic & reason, organisation & analysis – it works pretty well, after all! Perhaps our world is dominated by left hemisphere organisation: banks, supermarkets, laws, science, societies cohesion, it’s all logical & rational. So, of course, we see & experience the super abundance & dominance of the products of the left hemisphere in all aspects of our lives. And, if that is so, we will naturally conclude that our world reflects the dominance of the left hemisphere’s abilities: logic, reason, analysis, etc. There is clearly no problem in terms of running a society on logic, reason, common good, etc. “Rule-following” is a natural outgrowth of the left hemisphere’s logic.

But when it comes to our approach to “living a relationship of faith in Jesus” it seems to me that our reliance on the left hemisphere probably won’t “get the job done”! The left hemisphere simply doesn’t have the abilities to facilitate “a life of relationship of faith in Jesus”, no matter how hard we keep trying to use that left hemisphere ability of logic, reason, goal-seeking, rule-following. When we rely on the facilities of the left hemisphere (logic, language, analysis, linear, time-awareness) we immediately begin to approach the “living a relationship of faith in Jesus” in terms of logic, reason, goal-setting & rule-keeping; but that is NOT what is required!

Faith is required to relate to God. The Bible tells us that. In fact, it says that it is impossible to please God WITHOUT faith! Hebrews 11:1-2 defines faith for us, & verse 6 is that famous quote “And without faith it is impossible to please God…” *2
I don’t want to get into questions of Faith & logic. Maybe Faith is not logical. Perhaps we require a “leap of faith”. Ephesians 6 states that even the faith we have is a gift from God *3. According to that scripture the faith of every Christian to believe in Jesus, itself comes from God.

Back to left hemisphere thinking!
So it requires faith to believe in God, & therefore to relate to Jesus. The problem is, ALL that the left hemisphere can offer is logic, language, rational thought, analysis, etc. Those are the ONLY tools in the left hemisphere’s toolbox! Thinking about, & approaching the “relationship of faith in Jesus” using the left hemisphere seems doomed to failure, since the only results it can produce are more rules for ourselves & therefore more rule-keeping, which we have seen will NOT get the results we are after. The logic & reason of the left hemisphere will always convert the intended dynamic, exciting, intuitive, evolving personal relationship with Jesus into a “dead” thing of rule-keeping. The left hemisphere approach simply doesn’t have what it takes to deliver me/us into a dynamic relationship of faith in Jesus. My own many, MANY attempts at using logic & reason to facilitate spiritual growth in that relationship with Jesus, has proven to me time & time again, that this approach WILL NOT WORK. The very nature of the left hemisphere’s logic, reason & analysis (automatically leading to an approach defined & killed by rule-keeping) is NOT what is required to “solve this problem”, ie to relate to Jesus!

There are definite advantages in using language, logic, reason, etc (left brain functions & strengths) in certain aspects of our faith walk with Jesus. The problem seems to come when we rely ENTIRELY on the left hemispheres key skill set of logic, rather than using right hemisphere intuition, creativity, feelings, etc IN PARTNERSHIP with the left hemisphere.


A helpful metaphor (?): Big, older brother v’s small, younger brother.
W4T stated “People are apt to use external behaviours and devotional practices to gauge their spiritual health. For example, they measure by how early they get up to read and pray, how long their quiet times are, or how often they attend church. That’s not what spiritual formation is about.”

I think this is a good example of what happens to us when we hear “spiritual growth” but apply dominantly left-hemisphere thinking to the “problem”. The logical left side of our brains immediately take charge of our goal & try to apply what it is “comfortable with”, ie logic, rationalism, goal-setting, rules & rule-keeping. It’s like a big, elder brother (the left hemisphere) trying to help a smaller, younger brother (right hemisphere) to achieve something. The elder brother no doubt means well (trying to help) but he automatically brings all his ideas, values & approaches to the “problem” the younger brother has. The younger brother doesn’t have the words in his vocabulary to try to explain to his elder brother what he wants to achieve. Nor does he have a clear idea of any approach to the “problem”; which may be more of an opportunity than a problem in any case! The left hemisphere always wants to dominate the whole brains’ thinking, & it always disregards the right hemisphere’s way of doing things; like the older brother would disregard the younger brother’s (seemingly incoherent, ill-conceived, idealistic, yet fully creative!) ideas on the subject of how to approach & solve his “problem” or opportunity.


“How early they get up to read and pray, how long their quiet times are, or how often they attend church.” When you think about it, these are all MEASUREMENTS of “spiritual growth” which Christians can (& do!) use. The left hemisphere is “happy” with measurements, concrete evidence, things that are sure, certain & obvious. Unfortunately “sure, certain & obvious” have nothing to do with the ACTUAL goal of living a life of faith in Jesus Christ! We can’t use measurements based on how long we pray for, or how early we get up to read the Bible, to measure our progress in spiritual maturity. But (like the elder brother in my metaphor) even though this is true, our left hemisphere thinking STILL tries to direct us towards the things which it is “happy” & confident to use: measurements, concrete evidence, the “sure, certain & obvious” things.

What we ACTUALLY need, in order to approach the subject of spiritual growth (as defined in terms of “living a life of relationship (ie in faith) with Jesus”) is the right hemisphere’s natural abilities: insight, intuition, leaps of creativity, etc.

A relationship SHOULD be spontaneous, exciting, growing, unpredictable. A relationship which is the opposite of these things (ie planned & stale, dull, static, predictable) is not something anyone really wants; certainly not a relationship that most people would really VALUE! AND YET, our reliance on, & constant defaulting to, the left hemisphere’s thinking patterns will always create relationships of this very nature. So often my own Christian experience has been a relationship based on planned, stale, dull, static, predictable rule-keeping… no wonder it hasn’t been very fulfilling in parts!

And worse still: it can’t be very fulfilling for Jesus either!

Conclusions
So what is to be done? I think I have reached the conclusion that my own reliance on the logical, analytical, predictable “elder brother” left hemisphere approach to Christianity simply isn’t working. Nor will it EVER work that way. The “elder brother” left hemisphere approach to Christianity leaves me feeling rule-tied, unfulfilled, sapped of energy, “going through the motions”. It quickly turns the goal (a dynamic relationship (involving faith) with Jesus) into a “dead” set of rules, which neither of us wants.

So it seems to me that I need to disregard the nagging insistence of the “elder brother” left hemisphere of my brain, & go with the creative, spontaneous, unpredictable right side “younger brother”. That may sound easy to do, but we need to remember that the “elder brother” left hemisphere never gives up without saying “I know how you can do that!” & then proceeding to give its opinions, advice & trying to “muscle in” on the action! Bearing that in mind, I’ll need an approach that says “thank you very much “elder brother” left hemisphere, but this is something that I don’t want your skills to take part in right now.” That way I can “dismiss” the logic, reason, rule-following left hemisphere, & strive to use the skill set of the right hemisphere: creativity, non-linguistic, non-temporal, insight, emotions, feelings, etc.

Reality check: There are no real “goodies” & “baddies” in our minds!
I have very much presented the “elder brother” left hemisphere as the “baddie” in this discussion, which may not be true. I’m sure there is much which it can bring to the goal of establishing a growing faith relationship with Jesus. In reality I don’t tend to think of the “elder brother” left hemisphere as being “bad” & the “younger brother” right hemisphere as “good”, after all, they are both parts of the same brain. And both parts can have something useful & constructive to bring to the stated goal. It is simply that the “elder brother” left hemisphere has a habit of dominating the “mental landscape”, & as I’ve mentioned above, I don’t think it is the best choice when it comes to stepping into the waters of spiritual maturity & allowing Jesus to take us deeper into the realm of the supernatural relationship with Him.

Even thinking (& typing!) about this, it may sound like I’m saying that we are the ones who establish & deepen our relationship with Jesus. The opposite is ACTUALLY the case: our relationship with Jesus is instigated BY Him; our faith is a gift FROM Him; it is God’s goal that we grow to be more & more like Jesus (without losing any of our personality distinctiveness); in short, our “faith relationship with Jesus” is ALL about Him, & not about us.

It’s time we took a long, hard look at those left hemisphere anxieties & fears & to tell ourselves what we want. Faith in God is not just faith to believe IN His existence, it is also believing in His good nature, & that He really, REALLY does want to give us, which is the BEST “us” we can have!

I think I’ll try more spontaneous ways of relating to Jesus, as the Holy Spirit leads. That may be a way of responding to the non-verbal tugs of the “younger brother” right hemisphere, in terms of moving ever deeper in this mysterious thing called relationship with Jesus. Watch this space for updates!

How about you? Would you like a more fulfilling, dynamic, faith-filled adventure with Jesus?
By all means leave me a comment.


Bible References

*1
Galatians 3:11-12 – The Message (MSG)
11-12 The obvious impossibility of carrying out such a moral program should make it plain that no one can sustain a relationship with God that way. The person who lives in right relationship with God does it by embracing what God arranges for him. Doing things for God is the opposite of entering into what God does for you. Habakkuk had it right: “The person who believes God, is set right by God—and that’s the real life.” Rule-keeping does not naturally evolve into living by faith, but only perpetuates itself in more and more rule-keeping, a fact observed in Scripture: “The one who does these things [rule-keeping] continues to live by them.”

*2
Hebrews 11:1-2 – New International Version (NIV)
1 Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. 2 This is what the ancients were commended for.

Hebrews 11:6 – New International Version (NIV)
6 And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.

*3
Ephesians 2:1-10 – New International Version (NIV)

1 As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. 3 All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh[a] and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. 4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.



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