24 Feb 2022
In a recent post, I briefly mentioned the physiological power that sexual experiences have on the brain. This idea then raised a question: “If porn use or other sexual sin ‘wires’ our brains to that experience, is it possible to ‘re-wire’ our brains—and if so, how?” This is an incredibly practical and important question. If we know that our history of sin has left a biological imprint on our brains, should that fact encourage or discourage us?
Let me start by saying that I am not a neuroscientist. I am a theologian and a pastor. But the principles involved here are virtually mainstream. They have been a common pop-science topic for at least the last decade. Searching for any terms related to addiction, habit formation, or habit change produces dozens of posts, videos, TED Talks, etc., that describe the neuroscience in terms that ordinary people can understand. Why is this the case? People have always been interested in self-help. People are desperate to change. They want to believe that destructive habits are defeatable, and they want to know how to do it.
What is the consistent message you will find if you browse these pop science articles and videos? The message is this: “Change is not easy but is definitely possible.” One of my favorite words that comes up in this regard is neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity refers to the fact that the brain is not “hard-wired” and static but really does change, even in the matter of habit and addiction. In fact, things like habit and addiction exist because of neuroplasticity. Many describe the “habit cycle”—a loop of trigger, behavior, reward, and repetition, which results in the brain constructing a strong set of neural connections that makes it easy, “natural,” and even compulsive for us to go back to a certain behavior. A common image is of a very well-worn path in our brains that therefore is the regular and easiest way to deal with the challenges, disappointment, stress, weariness, or boredom of daily life. Neuroplasticity describes the fact that your brain develops such a well-worn path, but it also describes the possibility of changing that path, of developing new and better paths and abandoning the old path until it is grown over and obscure again.
So, what do I make of this as a theologian? Let me give a few short ideas.
- We should be more encouraged. Every site, video, or article I have read on change and neuroplasticity is presented from a materialistic, evolutionary worldview. There is ultimately no concept of moral right and wrong and no influence or reality other than the “scientific,” “biological,” or “psychological.” There is no God and no gospel; it is purely self-help. But the biology they describe is real. So, if the non-believing world sees hope for change, we who know God and the gospel should even more. Our fight against the physiological momentum of our sin is empowered by the Spirit of God himself and anchored in an eternal hope and identity in Christ.
- Many of the applications, tips, and suggestions you will find in posts about neuroplasticity and changing bad habits look a lot like aspects of healthy, biblical, gospel life. For instance, here are a few…
- Awareness. Most writers assume, but some explicitly mention, that the first step to “rewire” a habit is to consciously identify it.1 So, too, we begin by honest confession of sin. The difference, of course, is that we don’t believe we are dealing simply with an unwanted habit, but a violation of the will of our Creator and Lord. So our identification of our “habits” is not merely an internal exercise of self-awareness; it is a humbling of ourselves before our holy and merciful God.
- A big goal. Amber Murphy says, “Find Purpose.”2 Emily Blatchford says, “Be Mindful of the Goal.”3 The idea is that a clear vision and goal is essential to motivating and guiding your efforts to change. Again, consider what we have in the gospel. Rather than a self-chosen goal, limited by our sense of personal ability and always uncertain because of the contingencies of life, we have the firm assurance that we are united to Christ, secure in his righteousness and destined for resurrection and glory. This is our current and future identity. Throughout the New Testament, this certain goal motivates and shapes our change efforts as we “set our minds on things above” (Colossians 3).
- Attention to deeper motivations. One writer gives an example I think many of us can relate to: “For instance, in college, biking past a Krispy Kreme was one trigger in a chain of triggers that led me to buy a bunch of donuts and eat them all. Yes, seeing the Krispy Kreme was a physical trigger. But, when I dig deeper and trace it back further, I recognize that I felt triggered going past the Krispy Kreme because of a deeper, unmet emotional need. I was particularly depressed in college, with no coping mechanisms or support.”4 We could put this in the category of the Bible’s teaching about the heart as the inner source of our patterns of thought and behavior. Much of the Tree Model that we use at Harvest USA is aimed at helping us uncover and apply the gospel to those deeper levels of our sin. (For a description of our Tree Model, click here.)
- Examine rewards. The idea here is to “disillusion the brain”5 by honestly facing the negative consequences of the behavior. The Bible repeatedly warns us that we reap what we sow. This principle is true even after we are united to Christ by faith. The book of Proverbs is full of helpful applications of this principle.
- Don’t do it alone. Amber Murphy’s final point is, “Be with the right people.”6 We are not islands; we are social beings. The encouragement and accountability of friends is built into the way we are created; it is also part of our redemption. When we are united to Christ, we are united to the church community, which the Bible calls Christ’s Body. God’s intent is that we would serve each other, enabling each of us to make progress against sin—even the sins that we find so difficult because of physiological momentum. This is why we encourage groups in local churches for mutual encouragement and targeting of certain sins. (For suggested group curricula, go here.)
These are just a few of the ways that popular advice on “rewiring” the brain recognizes truths that we have even more powerfully in the gospel. This should encourage us all the more to pursue the means of grace given to us. God has created us as a body-soul unit. It should not surprise us that the corruption of sin affects our bodies. Neither should it surprise us that the spiritual transformation of the gospel can reach even our bodies. This is not to say that we can expect to be completely rid of all of the corruption of our nature in this life. We will continue to be tempted both from outside influences and from our own hearts. At the least, we will always know by experience the “taste” of sin as a memory that the tempter can seize upon. But there is great hope that through the means given us in the gospel, we can “rewire” our brains from destructive and enslaving habits.
1 Blatchford, Emily. “Identifying them and labelling them is the first step.” https://www.huffpost.com/archive/au/entry/how-neuroplasticity-can-help-you-get-rid-of-your-bad-habits_a_23283591
4 Sheikh, Alyssia. https://mindovermunch.com/food-freedom/habit-loop-neuroplasticity/
21 Feb 2011
Why didn’t God bring up masturbation in the Bible?
I came to Christ in 1971. I came to Christ as a teen as I was struggling with a constant habit of masturbating. Nobody knew that, because nobody would talk about it in those days, so I kept it to myself.
But as a young Christian I was told there was such a thing as a “concordance,” and you could look up all the words that were in the Bible! I got all excited and when no one was around, I looked under the letter “M.” As I found not a single reference to the act, I thought, “Looks like God’s not going to talk about it, either!”
That experience left a big question mark in my heart. Is masturbation right or wrong? All I knew was that I couldn’t stop. I tell people that before I came to Christ, I thought a man ought to be able to go to bed and go to sleep without having to masturbate first. The first time I acted out after I became a Christian, I thought, “It’s back! It didn’t go away like you were hoping.” That reality was devastating. But God’s silence on the subject made it more of an inward battle than it really had to be. Even if it was only a habit I couldn’t stop doing, I needed to be able with talk to people about it.
Around fifteen years ago, I went to a “Promise Keepers” meeting where the theme was worship. God spoke to my heart that weekend and said, “Bob, you are not worshiping me, and you know it.” Worship had become a mere formality in my life. I had a checklist in my mind and as long as we read the Scriptures, prayed, sang good old hymns, and had a theologically sound sermon, I assumed worship happened. But I was just going through the motions. It was far from what God had in mind about worshipping him.
A few months after the conference, I started dealing seriously with my sexual struggle. It was then that God reminded me about what true worship really was. Worship is about giving all of you, all of your heart, to something. Worship has to do with what you are living for. It was then that I realized that even though I was not truly worshipping God, I was worshipping something. I learned that my continual movement toward masturbation and pornography was an act of idolatry (false worship).
This discovery helped crystallize what repentance should be about. Now I knew what I had to turn from—and where I had to turn to. I had to be honest with what was going on in my heart. When life became confusing or boring or scary or whatever, masturbation and pornography was a place of escape, adventure, pleasure, and, in a word, life for me. I needed it, like an addict needs his addiction. I had to be honest about my fantasies and my preference for these things, rather than waiting on God.
It hit me: I didn’t have to know whether masturbation was right or wrong. All I had to know was that this activity was shutting God out of my thoughts and inviting in a substitute which seemed to calm me down and give me a break in life that I desperately needed.
God didn’t bring up masturbation in the Scriptures, but he did say we were supposed to bring every thought captive to Christ Jesus. And bringing my thoughts captive to the idea that my heart truly is an idol factory helps me be honest with the thoughts that go through my head. There is still a desperation in my heart to try and make things work out my way and I do need to repent from that.
Where are your inner thoughts leading you? Do you find that in times of stress, confusion, boredom, loneliness, or fear that you turn to find relief in pornography, masturbation, or other sexual temptations? If so, see your behavior as flowing from your heart, a heart that is living for and consumed by a need for comfort and relief, and not a life that is growing in dependence upon God and the things in which he delights. Repentance is very practical and relevant when we see it from this angle.