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The brain fascinates me. After my post last week on some neurological science, I read a book called Brain Rules for Baby. It is a fantastic read if you have children 5 and under. The premise is that most parenting books deal with ideological principles based on philosophical sciences. This book approaches what a 0-5 year old needs based on proven brain science. One of the biggest themes throughout the book is empathy.
Empathy is the ability to recognize emotion in another person and react appropriately. As Medina says, empathy is the “consistent willingness to turn down the volume of one’s own priorities and experiences in favor of hearing another’s.” And empathy has important neurological effects.
One, it helps children connect socially. This may seem detached from brain science, but it is not. The brain is wired for connection with other people. A healthy brain is one that has positive connections with other people. Empathy is a huge part of developing strong connections.
Secondly, empathy is important because it helps children understand their emotions. When empathy takes place, it actually relaxes the nerves in the body which calms a child down. This is important in adults as well. If we process our emotions and the emotions of others in the correct way our brain relaxes our bodies. If not, the stress on our nerves causes physical pain and nausea.
At this point, you may be wondering: Why do I care? But I think it this is an important point for how we read our passage in Deuteronomy.
I think most people read our section in Deuteronomy in one of two ways. The first is one I see all too often:
God has a set of arbitrary rules which God wants us to follow. When I keep the rules, God sends good things my way. When I break the rules, God sends bad things.
This reading has a lot of problems, and causes some very destructive ways of thinking about God. It calls into question the goodness and mercy of God and also makes life all about “getting it right.”
But there could be another way of thinking about this.
Jesus was not a neurological scientist. He did not give discourses about the importance of empathy in social connection. What he said was: Love God with all you have, and love your neighbor as yourself.
When we study neuroscience, we find loving your neighbor as yourself has actual physiological effects. Our need for connection with other people is a scientific fact. And another scientific fact is that the best way to connect is through empathy – putting yourself in their shoes. Or you might say: loving them as yourself.
This should not be a surprising finding for Christians. We assume Jesus manifests the God who creates the universe and everything in it. This includes the human brain. Since God made the universe, God knows exactly how the universe was intended to function. And while humans rarely get this right, God is constantly trying to show us the better path. God wants to show us the life we were meant to live. So Jesus comes and invites us into the very best possible kind of life. It may not be an easy path, but it will the be the best.
Which leads us back to a second way of reading Deuteronomy. The other way to see this is God saying God is in the business of leading God’s people down the best possible path. If you want to have full life, follow me. And it is not too difficult or too out of reach because it is the way you were intended to live. It may have times of difficulty and pain, but that pain leads you down the better paths.
I think the Psalmist understands this as well: Show me your paths!
The Psalmist doesn’t say this in fear. There is an aching within the Psalmist to have full life and he knows the only way to get that is to follow the paths of God.
We were designed to live in loving relationship with God and others. Jesus comes to show us how to do that. We weren’t designed to follow arbitrary rules, and I doubt God has any interest in those kinds of things. God is interested in full, abundant life and gives us the ultimate example of what that kind of life looks like in Jesus.
The paths of God are not a quid pro quo of right living and right blessing. The paths of God are designed to help us live the best possible kind of life.