We can actually rewire our perceptions of God to better line up with the truth of who he is.
Excerpted from I Love Jesus, But I Want to Die: Finding Hope in the Darkness of Depression. Copyright © 2021 by Sarah J. Robinson. Used by permission of WaterBrook, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
Before I relearned to pray, I thought I was doing everything right to connect with God. But as Dr. Curt Thompson wrote, sometimes we “believe that [we’ve] been working hard to change, but in fact are quite mistaken. [We] may have been working hard but, unbeknownst to [us], working in ways that reinforce” the patterns that have been keeping us bound.4 This can absolutely be the case with prayer. My old prayer habits—transactional instead of relational, focused on a God who doesn’t really love me—were actually plunging me deeper into the darkness.
But our brains have this incredible trait called neuroplasticity; in the simplest terms, it’s an ability to change. Scientists talk about neurons and synapses, but laypeople might say we can rewire our brains. While scientists used to believe that the brain couldn’t change much after childhood, recent research has demonstrated that even adults can change the structures and connections in their brains. And those changes can significantly impact mental health.5 This is huge news for those of us who struggle with the darkness. While we may not be able to completely erase old, ingrained pathways, we can develop new thought patterns and practices that grow stronger over time.
And we can actually rewire our perceptions of God to better line up with the truth of who he is. Dr. Andrew Newberg, a neuroscience researcher and author of How God Changes Your Brain, discovered that the things we focus on become more real to us as they are written into the connections in our brains.6 Our minds often can’t tell the difference between reality and the perceptions that have been wired into our brains through experiences. That’s why when two people read the same Bible passage, one reader interprets it through the lens of a loving, compassionate God while the other interprets it through the lens of a harsh, wrathful God. And our interpretation deeply impacts our mental health.
Dr. Newberg advocates for meditation on the loving, compassionate traits of God for a few reasons. We can change our relationship with and understanding of God by the things we focus on. It turns out that most Americans—72 percent, according to a study by Baylor University—see God as critical, authoritarian, or distant. Those perceptions of God are associated with parts of the brain associated with anger and fear. I know well how severe depression reinforced a perception of God that left me feeling anxious, guilty, and shameful.
Only 23 percent of Americans see God as kind, gentle, and forgiving. What’s wild is that perceiving God this way activates a different part of the brain—one linked to empathy, love, and compassion. That part of the brain—known as the anterior cingulate—calms us, reducing feelings of anger, guilt, anxiety, and fear.7 When we pray and meditate on the truly kind, truly loving character of God, we can strengthen the anterior cingulate. Plus, there’s evidence that meditation increases neurotransmitters (chemicals in the brain) that can be deficient in people with mental illnesses, so it’s been found to be especially helpful in serious depression.8
Researchers are finding that simply focusing or meditating on a loving, gracious God consistently can change our brains and make us actually feel closer to him. As we contemplate the vast love of a God who would leave heaven to be with us, we also begin to see ourselves in a different light: as God’s precious, deeply beloved children and friends.
(Re)Learning to Pray
This may sound like a lot to take in, but it’s super simple to practice. It literally takes just minutes a day. It can be done in bed on the days when you don’t think you can get up, when racing thoughts keep you from falling asleep, on your commute, or even at your desk at work. Those are just some of the places I’ve practiced it.
Over the years, I have used different methods to practice contemplative prayer. All that matters is that you find one that works for you. One important thing to recognize: your mind will wander.
That’s normal and okay—you’re not trying to stop thinking other thoughts. There’s no reason to beat yourself up over it.
Instead, each time you notice your thoughts wandering, just gently turn your focus back to God. It helps me to picture distracting thoughts like a rock thrown into a still lake. It makes a splash and a ripple, but the ripple soon fades and the water becomes smooth as glass again. Some days, the distracting thoughts will float by occasionally, while others, they’ll fill your mind and you’ll be turning your attention back over and over. It’s absolutely normal.
We call meditation and contemplation a practice because it’s something best done over and over, every day. There is no “perfect” prayer, so instead we practice. Take a few minutes—even just five to start. I love to find spare moments throughout my day to close my eyes, breathe deep, and turn my attention to the love of God.
Here Are a Few Options to Try
When you feel alone or rejected, try Brennan Manning’s simple prayer practice:
Sit in a quiet place, with your hands palms up on your lap in a receiving position.
Either out loud or in your head, repeat, “Abba, I belong to you.”
“Abba” is a biblical term of endearment for a father, like Papa or Daddy. If it’s tough to connect with God as a father, you can substitute “Jesus” or “God” or whatever you like for “Abba.”
When words fail you, try breath prayer.
Pick a word or short phrase that represents how you want to connect with God, like “God is love,” “Thank you for your grace,” or “You are my peace.” (My favorite is “You are with me.”)
Close your eyes and sit quietly.
When you inhale, say the first part of the phrase to yourself.
When you exhale, say the rest of the phrase.
Inhale: You are . . .
Exhale: with me.
Repeat this as you breath naturally and calmly, focusing on the love of God and using the phrase to help keep your thoughts from wandering.
Sarah J. Robinson once believed her lifelong battle with depression made her a bad Christian. Now she’s an author of I love Jesus, But I Want to Die: Finding Hope in the Darkness of Depression, and speaker who helps others discover that mental illness doesn’t disqualify them from living rich, beautiful lives in Christ. Drawing from a decade of ministry experience and the mental health field, Sarah helps readers fight for wholeness and cultivate joy.
[4. Curt Thompson, Anatomy of the Soul: Surprising Connections Between Neuroscience and Spiritual Practices That Can Transform Your Life and Relationships (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale 2010), 253/5. Paul R. Albert, “Adult Neuroplasticity: A New ‘Cure’ for Major Depression?” Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience 44, no. 3 (2019): 147-50, https://doi.org/10.1503/jpn.190072./6. Barara Bradely Hagerty, “Prayer May Reshape Your Brain…and Your Reality,” All Things Considered, NPR, May 20, 2009, www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=104310443/7. Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Walkman, How God Changes your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist (New York: Ballantine, 2009), 110-11/8. Bewberg and Waldman, How God Changes your Brain, 56.]