Caution: I’m riled up again. But I do have a happy point at the end of this.
There are a lot of loud voices out there that say God is angry and God is punitive and God hates this and that and you. I don’t want any part of that God, and I don’t know why anyone would…except out of fear. Fear of doing the wrong thing or believing the wrong thing or living the wrong way or just taking one wrong step. Fear fear fear. And I’m not a fan of fear; I live by words of life that speak of love displacing fear (1 John 4:18), and the words that came from Jesus that say love is the new rule that overrides all the others (John 13:34-35, Mark 12:30-31). If someone chooses to have faith, why wouldn’t they also choose a grace-filled view of God, rather than defaulting to, “But people must pay! God wants justice!”? As if justice must always be retributive instead of restorative. The God I spend time with – with whom I *want* to spend time – prefers a restorative kind of justice. You know, because of love.
When I became a mom, I was even more convinced of God’s affection for creation, with all the verses describing God as a Parent (e.g., Isaiah 66:13, Psalm 131:2, Matthew 23:37). I personally know the power of showing my kids consequences couched in unconditional love, and how creating an atmosphere of safety causes them to want to make things right on their own out of the desire to keep that love intact. (In fact, they act up a lot more when I’m scolding them or withdraw myself than when I sit with them and talk things through.)
So, again, why isn’t the prevailing view of God one of love and grace, instead of rules and vengeance?
Then I came across research from a branch of neuroscience referred to as “neurotheology”. These scientific findings demonstrated that those who hold the view of a wrathful, authoritarian God (31% of Americans, according to a 2005 survey) show increased activity in their amygdala, the part of the brain that regulates fear, stress, and anger. And this thinking is a habit that impacts brain structures, so it is very difficult to break. No wonder fear is so resilient: If the person dismisses it, the overactive amygdala tells them to be afraid they’re doing something wrong by dismissing it, and it becomes self-perpetuating.
The brain scans of people who view God as loving and benevolent, on the other hand, show a different picture: Activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, which suppresses angry and fearful impulses, and produces feelings of empathy. The result is that these people see God as forgiving, others as worthy of respect, and then live in this way. They, too, have an amygdala, but it functions at a normal level to help them to process feelings and live with guidelines, resulting in lower anxiety and less suspicion of others.
Here’s the great news: You can change your brain and, thus, your outlook. Studies demonstrate that meditating/praying for 12 minutes a day for one month (30 days) using the concept of a loving God may decrease activity in the amygdala and lead to less stress, greater ability to forgive, and more openness [read: love] toward others.
It seems to me many of us could stand to invest 12 minutes daily to lower our stress, making this world a little less noisy and a lot more kind. #PracticeLoveOverFear
Andrew Newberg: ‘How God Changes Your Brain’ (2009)
Paul Froese & Christopher Bader: ‘America’s Four Gods’ (2010)
Informal review of research:
Mike McHargue: ‘Finding God in the Waves’ (2016)
Popular press articles about research (only a very small sample):