The Bible, Brain Science and Marital Conflict
Reading about brian science over the past twenty years has been a fascinating parallel track to the Biblical Counseling and theological literature usually found on my coffee table. Some of the reading has been the professional journal level, but admittedly the larger portion has been at the sophisticated popular level. By sophisticated popular level I have in mind books and articles written by medically credentialed people with an educated, popular audience in view.
I have found this material of particular value in working with the frequent male counselee who is struggling with pornography. Being able to explain the plasticity of the brain has helped men understand their extreme entrapment with the pornography. This information does not provide an excuse for the sin, nor does it in any way dispense with the biblical category of the works of the flesh or James’ observation that each one is tempted by his own desires which brings forth sin (James 1:14-15). It has brought hope to them when they understand that God has created the brain with both the capacity for habituation and de-habituation. They gain a fresh perspective on Ephesians 4:22-24 and realize that when God gave this truth he was doing so in light of the way he created the brain. The concept of having the mind renewed through focus on the Word of God brings new determination to implement God’s way of dealing with the sin and the importance of engaging with the Holy Spirit in the process of de-habituation and re-habituation. In addition, deeply hurt, often hopeless, wives are encouraged when they recognize that God can and will enable their husbands to be transformed.
In a representative marriage counseling case I observed another twist on this Ephesians four passage that could be possibly understood in light of this same concept of brain plasticity. In about the sixth session of counseling a pattern in the communication between the husband and wife became evident. The husband, for a number of years, had been a fairly angry man who was also very intense and loud. Over the months of counseling, I observed the same pattern in both of them. Each had developed a mechanism of self-defense. When he would become intense, she would immediately begin to talk over him while laying out her very logical defense to whatever he was saying. On another occasion she would be calmly, but intensely, explaining the rationale for an action and he would immediately rise to the occasion, talking over her. Yes, not uncommon behavior.
As I listened to them it occurred to me that this sin pattern of communication had become habituated; brain plasticity had become a factor. They were now not only immediately responding with sinful behavior but with a brain they had programmed with this default behavior. With this observation in view we went to work on three levels. First, I challenged their selfish idolatry–motivation. Each had to be right! Second, I began to address the behavior. Their own desire to be right (and perhaps to control) led to the sin to which Paul pointed in Ephesians 4:29. They were attacking one another rather than seeking to build up one another. Third, I laid out a plan to begin to address the habituation and thereby the brain physiology (Ephesians 4:22-24).
It is not particularly difficult to design homework to attack the reprograming of the brain, but it is difficult to carry out the assignment. Satan has successfully capitalized the God-given capacity of habituation. Therefore, when my couple triggered their pattern, they tended to “be off and running” with emotions, stifling any desire to attempt to practice the exercises provided. Hence, when the pattern kicked in while counseling, I would simply hold up my hands and say, “Woe!” Initially, they would stop, look at me and return to their engagement. But, over several weeks, the exercises started to take a hold. Whenever I stopped them in session, I would walk them through the Scripture as the basis for change. After one such incident the husband gave a wry smile and said, “You got me!”
They were each instructed to write out their personal prayer by which they were to seek God’s power through the Holy Spirit to desire to change and to implement the tool I had given to them. They were to pray that the Lord would create a clean heart in them. After about six weeks they were interdicting the pattern and beginning to establish a new pattern. Both the heart and the habit were being changed.
The same homework assignments were effective long before we knew anything about brain science. I was drawing upon these same Scriptures and giving similar assignments in the late 1960’s. However, what God has allowed science to understand about the physiology of the brain has provided us a tool to further our understanding of the mechanics of God’s creation—not essential for change, but encouraging.