What Your Body Knows About God: How We Are Designed to Connect, Serve and Thrive
Paperback: IVPress, 2014
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Reviewed by Kristin Williams
As a mother and a runner, some of my most intensely personal experiences of God have happened during time when I have also been in the midst of the most intense physical experiences of my life. I felt God’s presence when I was in labor with both of my children, and especially toward the end of the long and difficult birth of my daughter. God meets me in personally significant ways when I am out running, especially when I feel like I am reaching my physical limits. This physical/spiritual connection has helped me understand why we encourage our children to fold their hands and bow their heads to pray or why we lift our hands in worship. Our bodies are made to connect with God.
Rob Moll explores these concepts, and the science behind them, in his compelling new book What Your Body Knows About God: How We Are Designed to Connect, Serve and Thrive. Moll’s engaging and readable writing style weaves together personal anecdotes, quotes from famous spiritual thinkers and leading scientific research. The message of this book is that our physical bodies are created to be in communion with God. Sounds obvious, right? Moll suggests that Christians spend their time emphasizing thoughts, ideas and beliefs without stopping to consider how spirit and flesh is connected. God isn’t just interested in “intellectual or emotional connection to him; he has designed our bodies to intimately participate in this relationship.” (17)
The first section of the book focuses on how our spiritual life is deeply connected with things that are happening in our physical bodies. Prayer, for example, causes permanent changes in the structure of our brains. As we connect with God we create new pathways that strengthen the relationship while, in a sense, paving over old ways that take away from our growth. In addition to the internal changes brought by increased connection to God, focused prayer can also make us more aware of other people. Prayer “enhances our brain’s ability to recognize the suffering of others and to respond in action.” (31) God uses prayer to change our brains and, in turn, change our thoughts and actions. This sanctification is not just a spiritual process, our physical selves are changed as well.
In the second section, the focus is on spiritual growth with an emphasis on the spiritual disciplines, worship and acts of service. Rob Moll describes the disciplines as ways we use our bodies to shape our souls. He describes how this works with a discussion of how our bodies shape our thinking. “Active practices change our minds by shaping our bodies.” (114) Frequently performing a behavior changes the brain and makes the behavior automatic, requiring little conscious effort. If we practice the spiritual discipline of fasting, the short term intentional exercise of self-control can change our subconscious thought processes and increase our overall self-control. This is just one example of how practicing the spiritual disciplines, which usually require some physical action, can lead to changes both spiritual and physical.
This concept of physical action leading to change helps explain why acts of service are so important, but it doesn’t provide the whole picture. God designed us to want to tangibly express compassion for others. The structure of the human brain “is designed not so much for thinking as for relating to other people.” (145) Compassion can be cultivated; by relating to others and responding to their needs, we can grow in empathy for one another. This is true because our brains act like muscles, the more they are worked, the stronger they get. And growing in compassion for others also changes our relationship with God. “We don’t have two levels of relationships, one horizontal with others and one vertical with God. The two are inextricably linked.”(152) I underlined and highlighted those sentences in my book, lest I forget that how I treat others is a reflection of my relationship with God.