The year was 1971. I was a freshman in college, trying to put my life back together after my high school sweetheart had broken our engagement. Normally pretty social, I’d stayed in on weekends far too long and it was time for me to venture out sans the guy to whom I’d been glued at the hip to for years.
Sporting my first pair of bell-bottom jeans, my hair coiffed and makeup meticulously applied, I headed to the gym with a couple of friends to watch a basketball game. They chattered away while my heart pounded in my head, and I felt like I could barely breathe. But as I walked through the door where those teams were running up and down, the ball pummeling the floor and fans screaming from the bleachers, I felt hopeful for the first time that I could be normal again.
That is, until two things happened. First, I saw him across the way laughing with a friend, and second, I ran into an old roommate who naively asked, “Where’s Barry?” I have no idea what I managed to say, but before I knew it, I was running across the lawn in tears, back to the security of my dorm room.
I sat down on the floor by my bed, having something akin to a panic attack, although we’d never heard of them back then. After a bit, I noticed the newly released Living Bible that my parents had sent along with the bell-bottom jeans to cheer me up. I opened that thick olive-green hardback and began scanning various pages until I landed on these verses in Philippians 4.
Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything; tell God your needs, and don’t forget to thank him for his answers. If you do this, you will experience God’s peace, which is far more wonderful than the human mind can understand. His peace will keep your thoughts and your hearts quiet and at rest as you trust in Christ Jesus.
Those words in such beautifully common language cracked open a door of hope in my heart. I sat there reading them again and again until I knew every word by heart. For weeks I recited them often, whispering them to myself as I walked to class, singing them in the shower and reviewing them as I laid my head on the pillow at night. Whenever I felt that stirring of anxiety, I’d work through the simple steps: connect with God, tell him what I need, thank him, trust him and let his peace and rest wash over me.
Through that simple process, I was tasting a new way of being in this world, one in which my heart could be quiet and at rest, whether facing run-of-the-mill everyday stresses or the painful upending of my hopes and dreams. God’s rest became a healing balm I couldn’t get enough of.
That was a quarter of a century ago, and while my experience of rest has deepened and grown, the simple process has remained the same. What I didn’t know then, however, was how the Spirit was working through that process to rewire the neural pathways in my brain. I understand now that this is critical for any kind of transformation. Let me explain.
I have spent my life helping others develop intimacy with Jesus. A few years ago, I began to realize that it had become almost impossible for many, if not most, to engage consistently in spiritual disciplines we need so much like prayer, meditation, silence, or solitude. At the same time, the levels of cultural stress and anxiety were increasing exponentially as the demands of living in a digital world were taking their toll. Feeling short-circuited by the riotous rate of change we faced each day, most of us had no idea that technology had begun to rewire our brains, launching us into a new normal of perpetual motion and unmitigated distraction.
As I looked for answers, I discovered that our brains have a certain plasticity, meaning that no matter what our life experiences have been, or how locked into unhealthy patterns we are, change is within our reach. Simply put, neural scientists tell us that as human beings, we have the capacity to rewire our brains. How? By establishing habits and practices and engaging in them over time so that they create new neural pathways to overtake the old ones. Whether we’re trying to eat right, think right, or even love right, the process is the same. This, plus the reality that the Spirit of God is within us, empowering this miraculous renewing of our minds, make the possibilities for transformation endless and amazing.
In my dorm room that night as a freshman in college, riddled with anxiety and fearful about a future I couldn’t control, I stumbled onto a practice that included prayer, gratitude, honesty with God, and a choice to trust. I had no idea that walking through those steps over the next several months was creating new neural pathways in my brain, and in the process opening a space for God to come in and fill me with rest.
Cover photo by Annie Spratt.