Experiencing the Gospel

Current research in brain science indicates that life change rarely occurs as a result of logical thinking. Change occurs when information is processed in the part of the brain not accessible to conscious thought... popularly referred to as the right brain.

Conscious, logical thought is sometimes referred to as left-brain function. It is sequential and slower than the processing speed of the right brain. These two types of mental processing complement each other. Each has its own advantages. I will use the popular terms of right brain and left brain to describe these mental processes, although the actual neurology is more complex than functions strictly located on the left and right hemispheres of the brain.

Face recognition software in a computer must process a huge amount of data. But how does our brain recognize a face? We do not consciously analyze the light and dark areas of the image, but somehow we quickly recognize the image of a human being. We even may discern something about the person’s mood. We can identify the person if we are acquainted. Most of these responses are not the result of logical thinking. They are the product of right brain activity.

Right brain function is associated with art, music, intuition, feeling, and relational skills. Because the processing speed is faster than that of the left brain, it is not perceived by the conscious mind. It sometimes is called the subconscious.

Years ago I read a book on the topic of “inner tennis” by Timothy Gallwey that actually did improve my tennis game using techniques from Zen-Buddhism. The idea was to distract the conscious mind so that the subconscious could operate without interference. Without conscious thought, the subconscious directs the muscles to grip the racket properly, adopt the proper stance, and many other technical details that can overwhelm the conscious mind of a beginner. When I return a volley four or five times, I begin to tense up. My conscious mind whispers to me that I am unable to keep this up, and it steps in to take control trying harder to return the ball. My coordination becomes worse, and I miss. A method to distract the conscious mind is to focus on the rhythm of the volley – bounce, hop, bounce, hop – or to focus on trying to see the seams of the ball. To my surprise, this technique worked! Evidently, the right brain is much better at athletics than the left!

A similar example of the value of right brain function I experienced as a Virginia Tech student in the Corps of Cadets. It was my duty as a sophomore to harass the freshman cadets. One of the freshmen had a stuttering problem. Most upperclassmen out of sympathy did not require him to recite all the nonsense the other freshman cadets were required to memorize. This cadet knew the material, but his problem was in articulating it. One day I impulsively attempted an experiment. I commanded this cadet to recite the guard orders. He appealed to me, “I can’t, sir. I stutter.” I replied, “I don’t care if you stutter. Stutter away. I’m ready to stand here all day.” I made him want to stutter on purpose just to spite me. Instead, to his own amazement, he recited all the guard orders fluently and perhaps a bit to his disappointment. Another acquaintance of mine with a stuttering problem was into drama. I noticed that when he was acting, he played the role flawlessly without stuttering. From these two examples, I theorize that stuttering is caused by the self-critical conscious mind (left brain) interfering with the subconscious (right brain) in its control of the muscles effecting speech. The trick is to distract the conscious mind as illustrated in Gallwey's book. When the left brain is not trying to keep from stuttering or is distracted by a focus on acting, the person can speak normally.

Jesus often addressed the right brain. Once when he said that we should love our neighbor in the same way we look out for ourselves, some people became uncomfortable. They asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus did not give a left brain answer. He could have given a definition of neighbor, or he might have analyzed the three Greek verbs for love. Instead, he told a story about a Samaritan. The hero of the story was a member of a despised racial group. The villain was one of their own, a religious leader. The story touched the conscience and the emotions. Jesus spoke to the spirit and not just to the reasoning mind. Because the right brain is relational, storytelling engages the right brain. Truth is communicated in a way that it is felt, not just conceptualized.

Throughout time God has spoken in various ways, but He spoke most profoundly through Jesus, whose life was experienced by others. John, an uneducated fisherman, was impacted by being with Jesus. His life was changed, not through academic study, but by a human relationship. He wrote,

Now the Word became flesh and took up residence among us. We saw his glory - the glory of the one and only, full of grace and truth, who came from the Father… No one has ever seen God. The only one, himself God, who is in closest fellowship with the Father, has made God known. (John 1:14,18)

John experienced grace and truth. What John related was not philosophical or conceptual. He was an eyewitness to a concrete, flesh and blood relationship that he experienced personally:

what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and our hands have touched (concerning the word of life - and the life was revealed, and we have seen and testify and announce to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us). What we have seen and heard we announce to you too, so that you may have fellowship with us (and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ). (1 John 1:1-3)

Truths can be life changing when we see them modeled and experience them in a relationship.  In other words, truths impact us when they address the right brain. Many times in the Gospels we see that Jesus first exemplified the truth before he verbalized it. I imagine you could hear a pin drop after Jesus washed his disciples' feet. Example first, then the teaching. 

When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you."(John 13:12-15)

In the encounter he had with the woman at the well in Samaria (John 4), Jesus could have told her up front that he was the Messiah. Instead he provoked her curiosity. She experienced grace in this interchange with Jesus. Although Jews would not go near Samaritans, Jesus related to her –  a woman, an immoral woman. It became evident that he knew all about her. When he did tell her that he was the Messiah, it made perfect sense in light of her experience of him. Sometimes words have little effect, but experiencing the Gospel - feeling grace in a relationship - can be powerful. Words exemplified are powerful because they are comprehended by the spirit, not just the mind. When Gospel presentations address the left brain, they may be conceptualized, but not necessarily felt.

…our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us…  (1 Thessalonians 1:5-6)

Paul hints at one reason why the Gospel proved so powerful and convincing to the Thessalonians. They knew Paul. He was among them, accessible, and they knew what kind of man he was. The truth was visual and authentic. It was not an exclusively left-brain communicated Gospel.

So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.  (1 Thessalonians 2:8)

Note the interaction Jesus had with the woman of the street who washed his feet.

One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee's house and reclined at the table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.” “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace." (Luke 7:36-50)

Jesus did not explain the “plan of salvation” to the prostitute. And she herself did not speak. Her communication was non-verbal. Yet Jesus pronounced her forgiven and saved. Truth was felt, not spoken. I can only speculate on what exactly she felt -- probably that she was a sinner. She was familiar with the scorn and disrespect of men. She knew constant shame. With Jesus she felt here was a good man, a man from God. But instead of shame, she felt valued. She also felt genuine love. As a result she felt gratitude, reflected by her tears. She also felt known and understood. While Simon interpreted her touch and actions differently, Jesus understood her correctly and valued her actions. She felt accepted by Him. The Gospel was not conceptualized - everything was felt. She was unaware of Jesus’s future death on the cross for her sins. The Gospel was communicated on the level of the spirit. She grasped the truths of the Gospel entirely through right-brain communication.

Consider as well the interaction of Jesus with Simon in this story. Jesus's words engaged Simon's emotions. How do you think Simon felt? Jesus communicated truth to Simon in a way that it was felt.

These examples may seem exceptional compared to how we think of sharing the Gospel. However, they were the norm with Jesus and his disciples.

As the Word became flesh in Jesus, God communicates today through His truths incarnated into the lives of those who constitute the actual presence of Jesus on earth because of the indwelling Holy Spirit. To put it another way, we are the Gospel!

And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Corinthians 3:3-6)

The value of life-on-life communication of the Gospel impacts not only how we view evangelism but also how we view church. The church is relational with diverse contributions. (1 Corinthians 12) What has happened to the way we do church? The early church fathers were Greek philosophers and orators. Nothing wrong with being left-brain types, but when Constantine tried to fashion the church into a human institution, public teaching was elevated and formalized. In the place of a intimate community, traditional meetings turned participants into spectators, attenders, and congregants.  The relational, organic aspects of Jesus's teachings about the Kingdom of God were obscured because of a focus on institutional structures. In the West, academic approaches, such as a Socratic seminary model and an emphasis on knowledge, replaced the modeling, mentoring, and apprenticeship practiced by Jesus and the apostles.  

God desires relationship -- intimacy with God, intimacy with our family and relatives, and intimacy with one another as his followers. Intimacy in relationships means authenticity. We can't hide our flaws behind a pulpit, a human system or a convenient structure we have erected. None of us are flawless. The Gospel we incarnate is not about us but about a treasure we have in a clay vessel. Relational intimacy with God and others means that the natural everyday events of our lives are spiritual, and the spiritual side of our lives is natural, no props needed.

"For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake. For God, who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.    —2 Corinthians 4:7


  1. http://media.blubrry.com/the_god_journey/s/www.thegodjourney.com/audio/2018/180330.mp3 - learning to relax. These guys don't call it "right brain," but that's what it is.

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