Stress and God’s built-in neuro-sabbath

Two months ago, a scientist from our congregation had a paper published in Nature Neuroscience, one of the world’s top neuroscience journals, on how our bodies deal with stress.

My first thought on hearing the news, was, “I want to preach on what she’s discovered!” In my mind, God had just spoken a new bio-parable, and I wanted to hear what He’d said.

So I met with the scientist, her researcher husband and my medical-school son to engage the neurological text. Our exegetical question was, “What does the specific stress-adapting nature of neurons in our hypothalamus uniquely say about how God thinks?”

We took our lead from Abraham Kuyper who once said, “[T]here can be nothing in the universe that fails to express, to incarnate, the revelation of the thought of God.”

Our first challenge was translating the neurological text from the original language (her scientific thoughts were not our thoughts). She came up with this paraphrase:

“By studying the brains of adolescent rats, I was able to uncover a brand new way in which brain cells communicate with one another during stress. I was able to observe how these cells in the hypothalamus can use substances - naturally produced versions of the active ingredients in painkillers like morphine (opioids) – as messengers to other brain cells. I found that opioids are made and released by cells to shut down communication lines. If you can imagine that during a stressful event, many brain cells begin to panic and yell at one another, opioids are used by these particular cells to lower the volume or hang up the phone so that neurons don’t become overwhelmed.”

God has built a stress-regulating mechanism into the very physiology of your brains.

Knowing that there would be times when stress would be overwhelming - up to your neck - he thought of a hypothalamic shut-down mechanism. A bio-grace that says, “This far and no more…” to stress. A physiological reminder that, “when you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you…” (Isaiah 43:2.)

God is a God who, knowing how much we could handle, made a way to save us.

For my sermon (which you can watch below), I started by connecting the idea of opioid-induced neuro-sabbaths to the sheltering ecstasy of times away with God. The brain’s way of lowering the volume by calming upstream stressors points to the God who holds all things, all bio-systems, all circumstance and all history. Sometimes God saves through a whole series of events that are quite outside of ourselves, that we have no control over.

I also connected the scientists’ joy of discovery with the epiphany the disciples must have felt when they finally recognized Jesus for who He really was (God’s mechanism of grace, His embodied hope for all stress, pain and suffering, the wisdom behind the universe). The scientist in my church discovered a mechanism that many great minds before her had long wondered about. The disciples saw what the prophets had longed to see.

It made me wonder if all of our moments of discovery were meant for this; a knowing of a way that leads to a knowing of the Way.

For a few moments, it felt like our little church community was surrounded by glory. The wisdom of Christ in the hypothalamus was illumining the wisdom of Christ in the prophets and gospels.

It was like Jesus was in the room.



Comments (6)

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So do I Esther. This all got started for us via an ecclesiastical intervention by the Templeton foundation. I was invited to join a Regent College Cosmos cohort and there first considered preaching science as text. Then we got a $30k grant to preach five faith/science sermons last year. If you want more, here’s the fruit of these efforts -

The pessimistic/narcissistic among us will, of course, ask: ‘Then why am I still so stressed?’ The flip side of this bio-parable speaks to the insidiousness of original sin: God created us, down to our very neurons, to adapt to stress, yet sin has warped things - biologically and culturally - in opposition to His perfect system. So in a way this discovery is a glimpse into the Garden of Eden: how things are supposed to work.

I think this parable also highlights the fact that things could be a lot worse Josh. It’s very difficult to account for, or measure, how much worse things could be in any situation. Often I think that there’s as big an evidence of grace in what’s unseen/held-back in this regard. And if you consider this truth, then there is solace in times of stress - at least for me. Even though things are not perfect, knowing that God is present in the holding-back of sin is a great comfort.

John - Love this series and am glad we got to chat in CA this May. Keep up the amazing work!

Thanks for the encouraging note Sarah.  (I miss CA about now!)

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