The Neuroscience of “Spiritual” Disciplines

Fasting. Intentionally going without food for long periods of time. That’s always been a difficult concept for me. Lots of people in this world go without food because they don’t have any. Why would I do that to myself on purpose?

In a recent Christianity Today article, Rob Moll argues that neuroscience can help us understand why spiritual disciplines like fasting are so important. It’s not just about giving up food (or other things) for a time. It’s about engaging in practices that can help shape us into being who we are called to be.

He begins by pointing out that many Christians today struggle with the spiritual disciplines because we shy away from anything that looks like self-denial. We’ll fast for a cause–e.g., solidarity with the poor–but we avoid fasting for other reasons. “But as we relearn to fast, we should remember that these disciplines are very much about us and our own personal faith.”

But why? What is the relationship between fasting and my “own personal faith”? Moll argues that neuroscience gives us some insight into this question:

Neuroscience sheds light on how fasting and other spiritual disciplines work by training our subconscious mental processes. We think of ourselves as entirely the activity of our conscious thoughts. In reality, our brain has thousands of sub-conscious processes going on all the time. These processes are often pushing and pulling different ideas, concerns, or cravings into our consciousness. What this means is your conscious self is far less in control over who you are and what you do than you realize.

So fasting and other disciplines serve to “train and shape these processes, giving us the ability to exert control over other desires.” They are not simply methods that we use to remind ourselves of deeper truths, as though spiritual disciplines were primarily cognitive acts, but they “shape us in deep ways.”

This subconscious self is not wholly controllable. It can be trained and shaped. Fasting and other spiritual disciplines train these processes, shape them, and thereby shape us into spiritual people….We slowly become people who are less drive by temporary cravings.

And he concludes, “a habit of denial strengthens our ability to take up the cross as even our very bodies are molded into the likeness of Christ.”

Although I appreciate much of Moll’s argument, I would have liked to hear a more about the relationship between the spiritual disciplines, the Gospel, grace, and faith. I completely agree that we are “embodied” beings and that all of our actions affect our bodies in ways that guide future actions and shape who we are as people. So I appreciate his emphasis on the embodied nature of the disciplines, reminding us that they are not purely “spiritual” actions. But read by itself, this article could leave the impression that we should view the spiritual disciplines in almost mechanical terms: Cause A (fasting) produces Effect B (spiritual growth) resulting in Goal C (spiritual maturity). This borders on the kind of merely ritualistic approach to the Christian life that is always a temptation for Christians. (I say “merely” here because I actually affirm the importance of rituals rightly understood.) If we’re not careful, we can shape ourselves into the kinds of people who do all of the right things in all of the right ways but who lack a deeper understanding of God’s grace, the transformative power of the Spirit, and the Gospel.

By the way, I’m sure Moll would agree with this. His article only looked at the neuroscience of the disciplines, and he wasn’t trying to offer a full theology of the role of spiritual disciplines in the life of the believer. I just think it’s always good to remind ourselves that as powerful as “discipline” and “ritual” can be for Christians, we need to make sure that we always talk about them as flowing form the power of the gospel lest they become a mechanism for replacing the gospel.




  1. Samuel Conner says

    Perhaps the way to think about this is in terms of Romans 8:28-29. The “spiritual disciplines” are a subset of the “all things” through which God works to accomplish His good purpose to conform His people to the likeness of Christ, that Christ would be pre-eminent among a society of righteous image-bearers. God is not absent from the “mechanical” things; He is always near. And motives matter. Bad motives spoil prayer, make communion perilous, and mar every seemingly righteous visible work.

    • Samuel Conner says

      So, for example, the “mechanical” discipline of prayer could be understood to be mostly about conforming us to the likeness of Christ by (gradually, progressively) bringing our will into alignment with the Father’s will. We tend think of “prayer” as being about getting what we want, effectively enlisting God into the service of our desires. It seems to me that a more consistently biblical understanding would reckon that prayer generally functions to change us toward conformity with God’s purposes. God enlists us, He changes us. An outstanding biblical instance of this might be the first chapter of the book of Nehemiah. But life abounds with similar illustrations, in which God moves us to concern and then to action, with our prayers functioning as part of this process.

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