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Dog Phobias and Feeling the Love of God

Hi River Church family!
I’ve been involved in worship ministries since I was in early high school and I love serving people by giving them the opportunity to connect and honor Jesus through praise. During my time in Bible school, I felt a real desire to grow in my ability to help others with really practical daily life issues that I couldn’t directly help with as a worship leader from the stage. So I went back to Columbia International University for seminary and completed my Masters in Ministry Care (2017), more commonly known as Pastoral Counseling. Today, I want to share a few thoughts about how our brains work, how that influences our faith journey and some of my personal story. I hope it will be an encouragement to you.

Our Brains

The prefrontal cortex and the amygdala are often referred to as the “head” and the “heart” in Christian circles. Knowing how these parts of the brain interact can help us identify issues that we deal with in our lives, and know how to target them. First, let’s talk about how our brains take in information and look at a few examples of how it relates to us experiencing the love of God that Jesus promised us when He said, “I have come to give you everything in abundance, more than you expect—life in its fullness until you overflow!” (John 10:10, The Passion Translation)

Information comes to us through our five senses and is neurologically processed through the automatic unconscious amygdala first, then onto the prefrontal cortex where we consciously decide what to do with that information. The order of that is important.

When we are little our amygdala is pretty much in charge. “While the amygdala is fully developed at birth, the prefrontal cortex does not mature until early adulthood.” This is why the terrible twos are a tangible reality for most parents. Children are asked to share a toy which they have built up a positive attachment too. Their brain tells them that by sharing they are losing their positive connection with that toy so their amygdala says, “Nope, not going to lose this, mine.” …often at significant volume. As they begin to understand that sharing doesn’t mean permanently losing positive connection with their toy, they become able to build a new positive connection beyond their own immediate experience with the person they are sharing with, called relationship. Pretty cool huh? The reinforcements that parents use in this process can make a negative or positive impact on their children’s prefrontal cortex development, but that’s for another article (for more immediate information on this, YouTube: “Danny Silk, ‘Loving Our Kids on Purpose’”, or pick up the book by the same name).

Phobias

Our amygdala’s job is to keep us alive and is directly responsible for behavioral/physiological responses elicited by threats. But sometimes the amygdala perceives a threat when there isn’t actually one there.

A person with an extreme phobia of dogs usually had some kind of traumatic physical or emotional experience with a certain animal. Trauma that isn’t dealt with basically stops us from growing (connecting these two parts of our brain) in that area of our lives. This is why a fully grown adult may see a small dog and then experience a massive amount of fear. Their eyes see, “small relaxed dog on a leash walking with a human,” but out of those six points of information the amygdala only hears the word “dog.” This instantly translates to “THREAT” and the amygdala then blasts out a truckload of neurons which fire chemicals into the body that trigger the survival response known as fight or flight. The prefrontal cortex isn’t even allowed to process the other information of “small, relaxed, with a human, on a leash,” because the amygdala is quite busy doing its job of trying to keep the person alive. So how does a person recover from something like this?

One way is called exposure therapy. While the amygdala will always win in a reactionary crisis against the prefrontal cortex, the brain can be trained, through repeated exposure and practice, to function through the initial fight or flight response. With the client’s consent, starting with a very small relaxed friendly dog on a leash, the therapist helps pace the client through their fear. The amygdala’s fight or flight response needs to be triggered and then given time for the amygdala to realize that it isn’t dying just because there is a dog in the room. There are also a number of techniques that the client can begin to use in their prefrontal cortex to help calm themselves down and stay attached to what is actually happening in the room.

God’s Love

So how does this relate to us experiencing the love of God? First, when you know what is blocking you from knowing and feeling His love deeper, you can start to target and grow in that area. Is it in your “head” or your “heart” that you need more of His love in this season of your life? Do you have a lack of information about who God is, or do you already know a bunch of Christian truth but have difficulty engaging with what you “know” to be true? You need the right tool for the problem, but first, you have to figure out where the problem is.

Knowing

Many people simply don’t know how good God is because they haven’t learned who He is from reading their Bible or being around a healthy Christian community. If you are in this camp I encourage you to:

  • Read the Gospel of John, First John, and Francis Chan’s book called “Crazy Love” (check out his stuff on YouTube.)
  • Get on Google and search “Bible verses about God’s love.”
  • Go to gotquestions.org and type in any question you can think of and see what God has to say about it in the Bible. (This ministry has responded to well over five hundred thousand questions from a Biblical perspective about God, sex, money, anger, love, culture, etc.)
  • Go to church
  • Get in a community group
  • Find a prayer partner

Hebrews 4:12 (The Passion Translation) says that “For we have the living Word of God, which is full of energy, and it pierces more sharply than a two-edged sword. It will even penetrate to the very core of our being where soul and spirit, bone and marrow meet! It interprets and reveals the true thoughts and secret motives of our hearts.” God is able to see where our core issues are, and He promises that if we seek Him we will find Him. To that promise, you can say, “YES AND AMEN!”

Feeling

But what if you’re like me, a church kid who grew up with a ton of right knowledge about who God is, but often feel distant from God. Maybe it seems like you don’t really matter to Him. Maybe there are some specific fires in your life that you aren’t sure how to put out. Maybe you struggle with a specific sin that even though you’ve tried over and over to do the old school church advice of, “Stop It!”, the “It” shows no sign of slowing down. Ideas or songs like “Victory in Jesus”, “Freedom from Sin”, or “Victorious Christian Living” may seem like a pipe dream.

If you have difficulty in this area, it’s possible that the problem isn’t in your thinking. So adding more thinking oriented ideas and activities may not work. Maybe you don’t actually need more Bible time, another church service, or to get involved with serving in a new area. In John 8:32 Jesus said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Turns out I didn’t have a problem in my prefrontal cortex knowledge, I had a disconnect in my amygdala, and no matter how much I studied and took in new info I simply wasn’t getting better.

I thought my 11 year battle with lust and pornography was my primary problem and if I could just get that under control everything else would be fine. Maybe then I could be a good obedient child of God and He would bless me. The Passion Translation puts John 8:32 like this, “For if you embrace the truth, it will release more freedom into your lives.” I knew my sin was wrong, but seriously, how was I suppose to embrace the truth in a way that would bring freedom? God is invisible! How do I connect with something I can’t even feel? I was so tired of “confessing and repenting” just to have to do it all over again with no change in my life. I remember crying one night and telling Sarah, “At least the disciples got to live with Jesus for three years! I am literally jealous of them.”

Eventually, I got desperate enough to get healthy or pick a new career path apart from ministry. I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to stop, but I decided to try. I went to counseling and got involved in a 12 Step group, where over the course of a year and a half I eventually learned that I didn’t really trust God, that I was actually trying to control God with my good behavior, and that I was codependent on other people for my emotional needs. Porn was my amygdala’s chemical solution to disappointment, and even though I knew it was wrong in my “head,” my “heart” had a pretty strongly ingrained sin pattern that I continued to make stronger in my brain every time I acted out. I simply didn’t know how to deal with my emotional issues of fear, shame, and sadness in a way that worked. I didn’t even know those were my real issues! Yikes.

I kept working the steps. Replacing the lie of “I’ll never get over this, this is impossible” with acknowledging that I had a real problem that was killing my marriage and the future I wanted. Surrender. Dependence on God. Taking healthy responsibility for my emotional needs. Practicing confession and repentance one day at a time. Learning to identify my feelings and calling my sponsor instead of acting out. The scary dog of temptation would come in the room, and I eventually learned that I didn’t have to be afraid of it. Instead of temptation being something I tried to put a lid on and run away from, the temptation became a dashboard warning light telling me something was wrong inside of me that I need to address and fill with love. A reminder to reach out and connect. I started to build a level of connection with God, myself, my wife, and the people around me that I had never been able to experience before. I started to be able to hear God and Jesus’ voice through the Holy Spirit in ways I had never before. Eventually, that turned into a full year of sobriety which I NEVER thought would be possible for me! I now get to live in peace, which in turn produces a lot of joy.

So, what can you do if you think your area of growth in God’s love is something other then just not knowing enough? Short answer?

Get. Really. Honest.

Make an appointment with a friend, a pastor, or a counselor, and tell them where you are and what’s going on with you and God.
What are the sins in your life and what solutions are they trying to accomplish?
Get involved with a 12 Step group or Celebrate Recovery.
Make the phone call.
This takes a lot of vulnerability. Your amygdala and your past experience may tell you that being vulnerable is a stupid idea because you will just get hurt again. No lie, that may happen. But you know what else is on the other side of vulnerability? Intimacy. (“Into-me-see.”) In John 17 Jesus prays that God would help us be united with each other JUST LIKE Jesus and the Father are united, even going so far as to pray that He would not only be with us but even IN us (verses 21 and 26). That is legit into-me-see. Amazing.

Take the next step and let Him help you build a connected brain, so that you may become more and more fully alive (John 10:10). For His glory and your benefit, amen.

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