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The Neuroscience of Generosity

I’ve been thinking about acts of giving, generosity and the jewish practise (adopted by many christians) of tithing. It’s a complex category of thoughts that often strike directly at the heart of some of the motivating factors of our lives. Safety, security, honour, freedom, identity and of course fear.

Recently I heard someone say that if the bible repeats something then God is trying to make a point. While I’m not entirely convinced by the logic of that, it is certainly extraordinary that the bible has over 2000 references to resources, wealth and money in it, while ‘faith’, a fairly central tenet of our, err…faith, is only mentioned around 200 times.

While the theology of giving has been repeated and debated a million times over in almost as many types of ways, I recently heard and then read about how giving affects us in our brains.

So…to the Neuroscience of Giving

Neuroscientists documented people’s giving, and found that there was a release of the happiness chemicals of the brain including dopamine and oxytocin. Dopamine is an endorphin that give people a sense of euphoria, while oxytocin produces feelings of tranquility, serenity and inner peace.

This reward system which exists in the brain is the same one that creates the type of joy that comes from eating, friendship and sex. It turns out even thinking about giving begins to produce these affects.

Other research has shown that giving can lessen the risk and symptoms of depression and day-to-day stress.

So is there any reason not give?

Well the short answer is, Yes, If don’t give if you don’t feel like are two of the researchers from this study talking about it;

VEDANTAM: The interesting thing about generosity is that it’s a double-edged sword. Giving up things can be painful. But it can also make people happy. Aknin and other scientists are studying the conditions under which generosity fuels happiness. One thing they found is that being forced to be generous is not a good way to make people happy.

AKNIN: If you force people to act generously you can really undermine those emotional rewards.

I know ‘not-doing-it-because-you-don’t-feel-like-it’ is the opposite ideas that I’ve espoused before (preferring the practise to virtue process I spoke about here), but speaking purely based on the neuroscientific and therefore felt benefits of giving, if you are coerced, give because you feel guilty, giving grudgingly then it will not produce the chemicals mentioned above. So even if you believe the research behind this post and decide to give in order to get rid of stress and feel good it probably won’t work. The reason it works the way it does is because the generosity relieves an incessant focus on self.

Here is what the researcher from this post says;

When giving selflessly, “people say their friendships are deeper, they’re sleeping better and they’re able to handle life’s obstacles better,” Post says. “On a scale of 1 to 10 – and 10’s a really powerful drug like insulin in the treatment of diabetes – this stuff is probably up there around a 7 or 8. And the amazing thing is, you don’t need to go to a drugstore for it.”

So as Science Mike says, “It’s not only God who loves a cheerful giver, but your brain too”

So what does this reveal about how we were made

Giving basically is an act of good-will that connects us in a meaningful way to a person or a group. It seems that in relationships we need some kind of traffic to cross the bridges of our relationships to keep them meaningful. For example, time, communication, service, gifts, something to express our felt-importance in the connection we have made. Giving is one of the ways we can create this, giving by it’s very nature dis-empowers the giver in a physical way but empowers the less tangible aspects of that persons felt-connection to the other.

In an age where independence is rampant and a self-reliance is a highly prized virtue giving reminds us that we are inter-dependent creatures even at a purely biological level. Humans thrive in inter-dependence. When we think of our lives then, we are most fulfilling and renewing our inherent God-image when we become persons in relationship, just like Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Bono and Eugene Peterson on the Psalms

Friday Link List | 22nd April 2016

Every week I’m (trying to) post links to things I’ve read this week that I think you might find interesting too,

…If you read something you think should be featured here submit it here, starting your message LINK LIST SUGGESTION.

What I’ve posted

Theology and Christianity

Brown…describes gratitude as a spiritual practice, which connects gratitude to doxology. As Brown writes, “joyfulness and gratitude [are] spiritual practices that [are] bound to a belief in human connectedness and a power greater than us.”

Margin is like oxygen— everybody needs some. If we have too little, we suffer from the shortage. If we have too much, the excess will not benefit us additionally. But having the right amount permits us to breathe freely.

So we are not basically good in the sense that we – our own self-created egos – carry with us, independently, what we need. We are good in the sense that God is good, and has marked humanity with God’s image.

News and Miscellany

  • This is another brilliantly written piece from Fernando Gros on Prince, which was especially illuminating for someone like me who knew very little of his impact on music. Fernando seems to be able to write about things I don’t have much interest in and make them readable and engaging.

  • Always great Linked List // 15 April 2016 from mbjones

  • ISIS have been pushed back out of Palmyra and this piece from Big Picture shows the extent of the damage.

Productivity and Habits

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Paul’s communities are the audiovisual aids he can point to, giving credibility to his statements about new life. To people who ask, “Why should we believe there’s a new life?” Paul can say, “Look at these people. They’re… Read More

Richard Rohr

Have you ever been driven into the wilderness by the Spirit?

Have you ever been driven into the wilderness by the Spirit?

It was a significant time in Jesus’ life, but these days most of our experiences of being driven into the wilderness lead us to rebuke the devil. Now, I don’t believe that God is causing all the suffering in our lives, but often we’re not paying attention to the purposes of God in our discomfort.

these days most of our experiences of being driven into the wilderness lead us to rebuke the devil Click To Tweet

When Jesus is in the wilderness the scripture says that he is with wild beasts. People who have studied period of history know that there were no such wild beasts in the deserts around Palestine & Israel during those years.

So what could it mean? Well I wonder if you have ever tried to be silent and alone for an extended period? Soon, your mind is rushing with things that you have a long sought to be distracted from. Issues and anxieties that have never been dealt with and that have consistently been pushed aside through busyness.

When we go to the wilderness we experience these wild beasts. The anxieties, accusations, the desolateness and the fear that accompanies that. In a place where we are apart from the comforts that the world around us creates. The comforts of ego, position, celebration, affirmation. All of the things that life in the city offer us. Those things become uniquely attractive in the wilderness.

In the aloneness we can be tempted to run from finding a truer inner voice that wants to take hold of the authentic desire to become better without the audience of others. We are tempted by the ego to use the time to devise instruments of manipulation and projection for when we return from our wilderness. These temptations are the wild beasts of the wilderness.

To live out our kingdom call we do need to know we are loved, celebrated, know we have a good father in heaven; all the things that are so readily accessible in times of consolation and fullness. But when we are consistently nourished on a diet of felt-nearness we quickly wither and realise how fast this spiritual manna passes through us and leaves us once again empty.

when we are consistently nourished on a diet of felt-nearness we quickly wither Click To Tweet

Just as in the lives of children, endless comfort does not build the resources needed in them physically or emotionally to live a flourishing adult life. In our Christian walk we cannot just reside in ghetto’s of christians comfort and enjoyment. Sacrifice, and the surrender that it brings in healthy mature people builds muscles of reliance and trust in God when he cannot be felt or seen. It develops muscles of trust, expectation and longing that orders our inner selves to look for the coming kingdom of God, even when it isn’t immediately satiating our felt needs.

In this season I don’t feel like I am in a season of wilderness, but I am spending time pastorally with followers of Jesus who are often experiencing this. Sometimes for the first times in their lives, others in ways more profound and feeling more deeply abandoned than ever before. The physical signs of God’s goodness; possessions, direction, relationships and health quickly evaporate and we discover that at least in part, things from God have become our gods, in that we cannot have life without them.

In that sense I feel like this season is a season of living on the edge of the city of the spiritual life looking out onto the desert. The desert where many friends currently are and I catch the passing fragrances of this desert time. I catch them at least enough to empathise the weight and struggle of these times. Counter-intuitively this is also another gift of the wilderness, our ability to empathise. Even though each person experiences the desolation of desert times in their own way, there are issues that are common to all humanity as they experience it. In the wilderness we build capacity to navigate our spiritual desolation, we learn something of the way home and the longing to get there. This at least can offer some gift of empathy and understanding, even if it can’t be fully communicated, a loving hug, a knowing look can be offered.

In the wilderness we build capacity to navigate our spiritual desolation, we learn something of the way home and the longing to get there. Click To Tweet

Often we can find a sense of God’s pleasure and presence in the desert in ways we could never experience it in the city. I often think of the parable of the prodigal son as a beautiful allegory of the Spiritual life that God has given us. Our times in the city can be full, but an excess of the city leads us into deep soul sickness (such as in the case of the prodigal son). The long walk home through the desert to the homestead, is often the detox we need to truly experience the riches of the simple homestead we once despised.

The older brother in the homestead shows us that too long in the homestead as well leads us to take simple yet powerful things for granted; the love of Father, a grounded vocation, a community, an identity. When we spend too long taking the homestead for granted we experience the things that should be more truly understood as gifts, and transfigure them in our minds as rights. And rights are what we deserve.

This rights mentality in the kingdom leads us quickly to a place where everything we receive is what we deserve and things held back from us are injustices and a violation of our rights. Receiving the goodness of the homestead as gift instead of rights mean we have the resources to cultivate true joy. Gratitude is the watering of the soil that leads to plants of joy bursting forth. I know from personal experience, joy cannot be made up or brought forth through sheer willpower, it is only the discipline of gratitude that can bring it forth. It is a discipline I am struggling to conform myself to.

So, the deserts of our spiritual lives both detox us from the excesses of the city and sharpen our appreciation of the simple realities that we can often take for granted in our lives in God.

I see my brother | The Brilliance

Friday (on Tuesday) Link List | 12th April 2016

Every week I’m (trying to) post links to things I’ve read this week that I think you might find interesting too,

…If you read something you think should be featured here submit it here, starting your message LINK LIST SUGGESTION.

What I’ve posted

In other news we have had our last few weeks of summer here in the southern hemisphere, which means seeing live shows outside;


and Of Monsters and Men

Of Monsters and Men w/ @mrsrachelbyrnes | Last concert at #Kirstenbosch for the summer #OMAMSA

A video posted by Liam Byrnes (@byrnesyliam) on

and then some other fun stuff that keeps life fun..

Theology and Christian Life

  • Christ is our life – Living Lord from FirstThings | Leithart

Paul says, Christ is our life. Not, Christ gives us life, or Christ defends our life, or Christ supports our life. No: Christ is our life.

  • The thoughts outlined here – You Are What You Love from are becoming the defining paradigm change in the last two years in my thoughts on discipleship.

  • A push back to Universalism in Love Wins… Not from Jesus Creed

“Tell me how much you know of the sufferings of your fellowmen and I will tell you how much you have loved them.” – Helmut Thielicke via Empathy from Experimental Theology

  • Last year we spent some time in Istanbul thinking about early church father John Chrysostom who was famed for his ‘Golden-mouth’ preaching – here is what he has to say for an Easter Sermon via SKYE JETHANI

John Chrysostom

‘that terrible river of the wretched and the damned flowing through Europe is my family. And there is no time in the future in which they might be helped. The only time we have is now’.

The result of this religion of rights is that people feel unendingly hard done by. Every disappointment is met with a lawsuit, in the hope of turning material loss to material gain. And whatever happens to us, we ourselves are never at fault. The triumph of sin thereby comes with our failure to perceive it…That is why the psalmist enjoins us to direct our thoughts outwards, in praise and gratitude. ‘O go your way into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and speak good of his Name.’ Once we have made the decision to turn back to the ways of duty, gratitude will flow naturally into us, and – so the psalmist reminds us – gratitude is the precondition of joy. Only those who give thanks are able to rejoice, for only they are conscious that life, freedom and well-being are not rights but gifts. A gift is a reminder that others care for us. The doctrine of human rights is prompting us to forget that truth. And that is what it is leading to a world without joy. For if the good things of life are mine by right, why should I be grateful for receiving them?

Robert Jenson

  • Some thoughts on cultural ism’s making their way into our theology in “What’s for you will not go by you…” from revkennyblog

  • I am always impressed and fascinated at how people compress narrative and thought, none so much as when you can do that for a biblical passage. This is an interesting summary of Philippians in 1,000 Words from Think Theology

  • This somewhat critical review on a book about a possible third way in the complentarian vs. egalitarian gender debate has some helpful moments –Kingdom Challenges to Leadership from Jesus Creed. The writer of the book says that complementarians are focussed on hierarchy and egalitarians on rights, and argues for an alternative vocabulary that might open up the conversation.

  • This is an extraordinary list in its breadth, but also that it is focussing on the much negelect voices of the majority world – read it here – Global Church Missional Reading List Thanks to mbjones for posting this!

  • The Archbishop of Canterbury discovers who his biological father is and Kenny Borthwick reflects on identity in – I am who I am to I AM…. from revkennyblog
    Boko Haram

  • It is not only Christianity that struggles with syncretism, Leithart summarises a book on Boko Haram in this post – Islamic Syncretism from | Leithart

  • Hell was a hot topic (couldn’t resist) in past years – here is a review of the Eternal Conscious Torment section of “Four Views on Hell” from Jesus Creed

  • The Theology of Thrift Stores from Experimental Theology


Productivity and Habits

  • Apple invented a product recycler and named it after me (kind of) – take a look Inside Liam from Federico Viticci – MacStories


As we sat there continuing our conversation, at times marked by quiet yet welcoming pauses, I started embracing the message she was trying to convey, about living life more slowly. There’s a peace in the mundane and the silence and the immediacy of the moment that brings about questions I never thought to ask myself, having always been caught up in the hustle and bustle of modern life. I stopped making time to take life more slowly, to see things more clearly, to spend time more casually. I stopped living at the cost of my happiness. Why do I always need to be going somewhere? Why do I always need to be doing something? Why is it that I never slow down every once in a while to enjoy my life?

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Why Evangelicals LOVE Donald Trump

Im almost embarrased to be jumping on the “donald trump” train of conversation here, but it is, as I mentioned last week, a car-crash-type spectacle that no matter how hard you might try you just cannot look away.

The most insightful thing I have heard regarding the reason for his reported evangelical base backing is from Robert Cunningham of Tates Creek Presbyterian;

I think we aren’t giving the convictions of evangelicals enough credit. They know enough to know what Trump is saying and doing is wrong, and yet they are still supporting him.

Why? Because we are never compelled by our ideals like we are by our loves. And when you look at Donald Trump through the shared loves of the evangelical Culture, he starts to make perfect sense.

What politicians and advertisers know that the church has forgotten, is that before we are thinkers we are lovers and desirers. Advertisers then offer us liturgies and practises that form us in deep ways, deeper than our thinking. In short, our affections can catch us before our intellect. Cunningham offers some ways in which the evangelical church practises may have contributed at a pre-cognitive level to the evangelical support of trump;

What happens when the liturgies of our greedy culture train evangelicals to love money and power? What happens when the liturgies of talk radio train evangelicals to love anger and paranoia? What happens when the liturgies of social media train evangelicals to love sensational sound bites more than thoughtful discourse? What happens when the liturgies of modern worship services train evangelicals to love novel, flashy, and glib emotional experiences that feel more like a rally than corporate worship? What happens when the conference culture of the church trains evangelicals to love the big celebrity leader? What happens when preaching that prioritizes relevant, shocking, and brash sermons trains evangelicals to love “tell it like it is” ranting? What happens when the liturgies from the days of the Moral Majority train evangelicals to love America as much as Jesus, which then leads to an incessant longing within churches to “make America great again!”

What happens? Evangelicals in love with Donald Trump happens.

and finally;

…what if the boisterous confidence and the television lights and the waving arms [of donald trump] are precisely what evangelicals have been trained to love? What if they can’t listen because they are enraptured? What if they applaud, not because Trump has given them a speech, but because Trump has given them what they love?