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Cara was in her early thirties when she came to see me. She sought help to ease the depression she had been battling since high school. She had friends, but much of what they had already achieved—marriage, professional advancement, and outward happiness—served only to remind her of what she had not.

Single, but longing to be in a committed relationship, Cara saw herself as less than desirable. She had already taken a year longer than most of her peers to finish the coursework for her doctorate in economics and was pessimistic about completing her dissertation within the next year. She wanted to teach in a university setting but hadn’t pursued this possibility very aggressively.

Although she had run track in college and claimed that fitness was important to her, she rarely exercised. She ate poorly and occasionally drank too much alcohol to try to disconnect from her feelings of sadness and shame. The wine did little more than put her to sleep, and she would wake up to the same dull drumming in her head the next morning.

Cara came to see me when the anxiety attacks began. They would waken her from sleep, and as her heart pounded and raced, she felt inexplicable fear coursing through her body and mind for what seemed an eternity. The wine clearly wasn’t doing its job.

She said she wouldn’t mind if she died in her sleep or got hit and killed by a bus, but she would never consider suicide. I asked her why. “I don’t want to go to hell,” she said, explaining how her life had changed in college when she began following Jesus. She had felt the first glimmer of optimism after becoming a Christian, but even her keen intellect and newfound faith could not keep the emotional wolves away from her.

She described her childhood years as a somber progression of grief. She believed her parents loved her, but she was frequently deeply sad without knowing why. Although conversations in her home were intellectually stimulating, they rarely, if ever, wandered into the realm of emotion or what members of her family were feeling.

When Cara was fourteen, her father died unexpectedly from a heart attack. Her mother responded by burying herself in her work as a physician. Her older brother responded by going off to college and never returning home. Cara responded by becoming an all-state athlete and honor student. Everyone she knew assumed that she was fine. But she wasn’t fine. Not then, and certainly not now.

As Cara sat in my office, her mannerisms put her troubles in plain sight. Though obviously attractive, she was slumped in her chair. She fidgeted with her hands. Her demeanor vacillated from nervous laughter to easily spilled tears, punctuated by moments of great effort to regain her composure—along with apologies for “being upset.” It was as though she was holding back an entire reservoir of grief and had little remaining energy to keep it in check. Perhaps she feared that if the dam broke, she and everything she knew would be swept away into oblivion by a tidal wave of emotion. 

Cara had tried psychotherapy. She had tried medication. She had prayed. She had read Scripture and devotional literature. She was part of a worshiping community and a small group of women who met regularly to deepen their spiritual lives. These helped, but nothing sustained any sense of stability or confidence. Most troubling to her, she could not understand why her relationship with Jesus did not seem to make a difference. Why was her psychological distress so unresponsive to prayer? Why was God so unresponsive to her plight?

Recent discoveries in neuroscience and related fields provide relevant answers to Cara’s questions. Still, she was skeptical when I suggested these findings might give her direction and help her make sense of her life. It is for Cara, and others like her—you and me—that this book is written. Written to announce a new way of understanding and experiencing our life with God, using the language of neuroscience and attachment—integral elements of God’s good creation—as our guide.

Over many months of therapy, Cara began exploring the connection between her mind and her relationships with God and others. The following concepts—many of which are functions of the human brain—were the key to her healing, and one or more of them may be the key to your own. Since each concept builds on the next, they also serve as an outline of the coming chapters:

Being known. Our Western world has long emphasized knowledge—factual information and “proof”—over the process of being known by God and others. No wonder, then, that despite all our technological advancements and the proliferation of social media, we are more intra- and interpersonally isolated than ever. Yet it is only when we are known that we are positioned to become conduits of love. And it is love that transforms our minds, makes forgiveness possible, and weaves a community of disparate people into the tapestry of God’s family.

Attention. What we pay attention to affects our lives. That may seem obvious, but what is often less apparent is exactly what we’re focusing on—after all, so much of it occurs automatically or unconsciously. Furthermore, we often direct our attention primarily on what exists outside ourselves. Neuroscience has much to tell us about why it is so critical for each of us to pay attention to our own feelings, physical sensations, and thoughts.

Memory and emotion. Neuroscientific research reveals how profoundly both memory and emotion, much of it below our conscious awareness, influence all our relationships. Awareness of these functions of our minds leads to greater intimacy with God, friends, and enemies.

Attachment. In order to fully engage our relationship with God, it is most helpful to be fully aware of the patterns by which we have attached to our primary caregivers. The ways we have connected have important correlations with the structure and function of our brains.

An integrated mind. We’ll explore how the mind, when left to its own volition, tends to disconnect. It often conspires to hide the truth (the depth of our emotion, memory, and relational patterns, as well as the reality of a God who loves us beyond belief) from ourselves and others. We then suffer the personal and communal consequences. And what does it mean to have the mind of Christ? I propose that it includes having a fully integrated mind—what the Bible calls “an undivided heart”—which draws us closer to and makes us more like Jesus. When we pay attention to disparate aspects of our minds that we sometimes (even often) ignore, we become more like him.

Sin and redemption. One way to comprehend sin is to see it as a matter of choosing to be mindless rather than mindful, which ultimately leads to our mind becoming dis-integrated. In fact, the story of Eden shows how, like Adam and Eve, we are more interested in knowing right from wrong (a dominantly left-brain hemisphere function used to cope with fear and shame) than knowing God, which requires the integration of all parts of the brain. Through our redemption, this inclination can be reversed, making it possible for each of us to live with an integrated mind and play a larger role in God’s larger redemptive plan. We can experience this as individuals and, more significantly, in the context of a community that is a living demonstration of God’s love, mercy, and justice.

Community. In his first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul lays out God’s vision for community, one that is more achievable than we might ever have imagined. When we attend to the various functions of the mind, we can experience God’s mercy and justice in the context of a community that is both differentiated and integrated. This is accomplished through giving and receiving love, which we experience most powerfully in the process of being known.  

Like Cara, we live in a world that seems more desperate than ever before for healing, awakening, and transformation. While this is often most apparent in our internal struggles and interpersonal conflicts, it shows up elsewhere. For instance, as we become more technologically advanced, we invariably become more intra- and interpersonally isolated, and so push against the irrevocable principle that states flatly, “It is not good for man to be alone.” Beyond that, global challenges such as terrorism, human trafficking, and global warming polarize nations, dividing us even further. As followers of Jesus, we believe that he is the answer to all forms of brokenness and division. New findings in the fields of neuroscience and attachment offer a fresh means by which we can understand and experience the abundant life to which Jesus has called us.

These new discoveries about how the brain and interpersonal relationships shape each other are a reflection of what has been passed down in the oral tradition; written in the stories, poetry, and instruction of the Scriptures; and experienced by the people of God for nearly four thousand years. In essence, God is using his creation as a signpost, supporting and sharpening our understanding of him, as well as pointing the way to Jesus. What we are learning is how part of God’s good creation—neuroscience and attachment—speaks to us, serving as a counterpart language that affirms and enriches our faith dialect, which is comprised of Scripture and our spiritual experiences. 

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