What Unforgiveness Does to Your Brain

We’ve all been deeply hurt in some way…a betrayal by a spouse, a behind-your-back criticism from a friend, hateful judgment from someone at church, a false accusation by a co-worker, unfair treatment by a boss or a parent. And the deeper the hurt, the harder it is and the longer it takes us to forgive. But sometimes we simply don’t forgive. We harbor a grudge. Resentment builds in our hearts. We nurse the offense. As a result, we remain prisoner to our pain and we harm our brain.

broken brain

When someone hurts us, it’s natural and normal to feel pain. God created our brains to help us survive when we feel threatened. It’s called the fight-flight-freeze response generated in our emotional centers, primarily mediated by two almond shaped clusters of brain cells called the amygdalae.

When the amygdalae are activated, a series of bio-chemical processes begin. The adrenal glands that lie on top of our kidneys release the stress hormone cortisol into our bodies and the brain releases neurotransmitters into the brain. Those in turn activate part of our nervous system called the sympathetic nervous system. When this system is activated, among other things, our attention gets highly focused on survival, our digestive system stops, our pupils dilate, our saliva glands slow, our blood pressure and heart rate increases, and our muscles are readied for action. Our body prepares itself to fight, flee, or freeze.

This process can happen whether or not we are in real danger or whether or not someone really hurts us or we simply perceive that they did.

Unforgiveness can keep our bodies and brains in this state of high alertness and leads to these unhealthy results.

  • Rumination: we nurse and rehearse the hurt which reinforces our negative emotions and burns the event and pain even deeper into our neuropathways. When we’re not focused on a task, our inner self-talk will often default to rehearsing the painful situation.
  • Diminished memory: when we remain stressed for longs periods of time (i.e., we refuse to forgive), cortisol actually causes our brain to atrophy, especially our memory center called the hippocampus.
  • Amplified negative emotions: prolonged stress also amplifies our amygdalae’s sensitivity making us even more susceptible to further hurt and pain.
  • Schadenfreude: this concept describes the secret pleasure we feel when we see those who have hurt us experience misfortune themselves. It actually causes our brain to produce the pleasure neurotransmitter dopamine. It actually feels good to see bad things happen to those we don’t forgive. It’s the opposite of praying for your enemies which Jesus commanded us to do.

So, unforgiveness not only keeps us chained to our offender but it profoundly affects our bodies and brains.

So what can we do? Consider these insights to forgive those who have hurt you.

  1. First, admit the pain. When we name a painful emotion (not stuffing or rehearsing it) we actually decrease that negative emotion’s intensity.
  2. Journal. Processing our pain through writing it down can lessen the pain and help us gain better perspective. However, don’t let journaling become another way to rehearse and reinforce your pain. Through journaling seek to gain God’s perspective and healing.
  3. Begin to choose to forgive the person. Notice that I used the word ‘begin.’ Some offences can be quickly forgiven. Some may take a long time to fully forgive. Forgiveness is a process. The deeper the pain, the longer it takes. It’s not so much forgive and forget. Rather, true forgiveness is more like remembering it less and less.
  4. Draw deeply from God’s grace. At the root of the Christian faith lies grace, receiving God’s grace and extending it to others who have hurt us.

The Apostle Paul reminded us in Colossians 3.13 to forgive others as Jesus has forgiven us.

Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.

What insights have you learned about forgiving others?

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The Leadership Paradox: Trusting God or Trusting Others?

Every church leader (or Christian for that matter) faces a common paradox. We’re expected to trust God for our personal and ministry needs. Yet, we need the help of others. Leading is not a solo effort. So, ho do we strike the balance between trusting God and trusting others?

paradox - isolated word in vintage wood letterpress printing blocks

Recently I noticed that same paradox reflected in the choices made by two famous Biblical characters, Ezra and Nehemiah. In the Message paraphrase below each one took a different route. One just trusted God and didn’t approach the king for help. The other sought help from the king and God worked through that choice.

Ezra 8.21 I proclaimed a fast there beside the Ahava Canal, a fast to humble ourselves before our God and pray for wise guidance for our journey—all our people and possessions.  22 I was embarrassed to ask the king for a cavalry bodyguard to protect us from bandits on the road. We had just told the king, “Our God lovingly looks after all those who seek him, but turns away in disgust from those who leave him.” 23 So we fasted and prayed about these concerns. And he listened.

Neh. 2.7 Then I said, “If it please the king, provide me with letters to the governors across the Euphrates that authorize my travel through to Judah;  8 and also an order to Asaph, keeper of the king’s forest, to supply me with timber for the beams of The Temple fortress, the wall of the city, and the house where I’ll be living.” The generous hand of my God was with me in this and the king gave them to me.  9 When I met the governors across The River (the Euphrates) I showed them the king’s letters. The king even sent along a cavalry escort.

See the difference? As contrasting as were their decisions, they both made God-honoring ones.

So, what insight can we draw from their experiences when we face a similar situation?

Here’s a thought. The next time you face a ministry choice that requires resources or help, lean in the opposite direction you usually go. If you usually just ‘pray’ and ask God to meet the need, perhaps you should ask others to help meet the need as well. If you tend to go to others first, maybe your first step should be to seek God’s provision before you ask others for their help or insight.

I’ve discovered that God often works in counter-intuitive ways, through avenues outside those most familiar  and comfortable to us.

What do you think about these two options? Do you think leaders tend to show a bias one way or the other?

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What I Learned in an Audition for a Commercial

When most people think of improv, the TV show Who’s Line is it Anyway usually comes to mind. I’d seen the show a few times and never envisioned myself taking an improv class. But several years ago I took several classes and had a blast. It also gave me the chance to hang around some people who didn’t embrace Christ.

3D concept

One year my teacher got me an audition as a pastor in the re-make of Nightmare on Elm Street (which ended up being a very bad movie). I didn’t get the part, but after that I auditioned a few times for regional commercials. The roles I played in those auditions ranged from a looking like a medical doctor to pretending I was a 50 year old former professional football player…who danced (I am not lying).

I once even got a callback for a commercial.

That day the casting agency office was crammed with auditioners. I sat in the waiting room facing the entrance door so I was able to see every actor who came in. And I learned an important lesson.

Here’s what I noticed. Every person who walked through the door quickly scanned the faces of every other actor in the room (as did I). What were we doing?

Comparing.

We were subconsciously comparing ourselves with the others who were competing for the same spots.

Although I’m no mindreader, I imagine these questions surfaced.

  • Are these men more handsome than me?
  • Am I prettier than the rest of the women?
  • I wonder how much experience he (or she) has compared to me?
  • Am I dressed as well as the rest?
  • etc, etc.

My short stay in the waiting room of a casting agency reminded me that we naturally tend to compare ourselves with others in most areas of life.

When that happens, two things can occur.

We become proud of our accomplishments, looks, and experience because we think we are better than others.

Or, we berate ourselves for not measuring up to the rest of the crowd.

I went away from this audition with a fresh reminder and desire to follow God’s reminder to Samuel when he was looking for Israel’s new king.

1Sam. 16.7 (MESSAGE) …GOD judges persons differently than humans do. Men and women look at the face; GOD looks into the heart.

How have you combated the problem of comparing?

By the way, I didn’t get the commercial role. I guess my mind was distracted by comparing too much.

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What Mac & Cheese Taught me about the Needs of Others

A very successful businessman inadvertently taught me a lesson about paying attention to other people’s needs … with macaroni and cheese.

Macaroni and cheese in an individual casserole dish with bread crumbs

Several years ago I ate breakfast at my favorite diner with one of our church’s key leaders. He owned a flourishing business and gave quite generously to our church. As I enjoyed the blue plate special of eggs, pancakes, and Canadian bacon, I asked him how business was faring. He described one recent experience with a potential client that brought a smile to my face and a fresh reminder that I must pay closer attention to other people’s stories and needs.

He had scheduled a lunch with a local company CEO and remarked that she ordered only salad and mac & cheese. I thought that a bit odd as did he until he said, “She explained that her favorite food was mac & cheese.”

He then described a second luncheon with this same CEO at this office that he had scheduled for the next Monday. The menu that day? Mac & cheese from six different restaurants.

From a business perspective he ordered this novel lunch menu hoping to make a good impression on a client that might garner him more business. But I thought to myself, What a creative and thoughtful way to touch a person’s life.

His kind gesture may not have brought him new business, but I’m convinced that this CEO will never forget his thoughtfulness. My friend simply paid attention to someone else’s unique interests.

As I drove back to the office after that breakfast and mulled over this mac & cheese luncheon, God impressed these thoughts on me.

  • Do I pay close enough attention to the leaders, friends, and spiritual seekers in my life to discover their unique interests?
  • Do I consider those interests as invitations from God upon which I could capitalize to become a better tool in God’s hands to minister to them?

I don’t think I will ever see mac & cheese in the same way again.

How have you met other people’s practical needs after discovering something unique about him or her?

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Does the Bible have Refrigerator Rights in Your Life?

When I visit my parents in Georgia, within five minutes of my arrival I almost always open the refrigerator to see what’s in it. I’ve done this for years. And they don’t mind me doing so. However, I don’t have that freedom to do that in most everyone else’s home. If someone invited me over and I opened their refrigerator, they’d think I was either crazy or that I lacked key social skills. I liken refrigerator rights to how open we are to allowing God’s Word to shape our conduct and character. How do we know that God’s Word has refrigerator rights in our hearts? Consider five questions that might answer that question.

Man opening the refrigerator and looking inside

Before I suggest these questions, we can learn a key insight about ‘refrigerator rights’ from Jesus’ half-brother James who wrote the book named after him. In James 1.21 we find this insightful phrase, humbly accept the word planted in you.

The idea of accept denotes a welcoming reception you feel in a friend’s home, much like how my parents receive me when I visit them. Their welcoming atmosphere gives me the freedom to open up their refrigerator. Likewise, when we truly give God’s Word refrigerator rights to our souls, we welcome His Word to instruct, convict, and direct our lives.

Ask yourself these questions to discover the degree God’s Word has refrigerator rights to your heart.

  1. I read, meditate on, or study God’s Word several times each week.
  2. I approach the Bible as a living and God-breathed book, unlike how I approach reading a novel or a textbook.
    • For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. (Heb 4.12)
  3. I seek to connect the then and there (what the Bible says) to the here and now (how I need to directly apply it to my life). I don’t read simply for interest, but for life transformation.
  4. I read the Bible reflectively, slowly, and meditatively. In this post I write about a unique and fresh approach to Bible reading.
  5. I refuse to pick and choose the parts of the Bible that apply to me. I open up every part of my life and heart to God’s Spirit applying Biblical Truth to me.

The next time you open up your own refrigerator, ask yourself this question.

Does God’s Word have refrigerator rights in my heart? 

What has helped you keep your heart open to God’s Word?

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