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The Gospel in Words: Change: Whether it's selfish or spiritual, it's all up to you

The good news about brain plasticity is that it opens the possibility of fundamental change in how we think about behavioral change. As noted in earlier columns, we cannot change unless we believe change is a real possibility. The bad news is that in our self-absorbed, narcissistic, individual-worshipping culture, the nature and types of changes many will seek will only reinforce the selfish approach embedded in our society.

As noted in earlier columns, there is little in this new literature of neuroplasticity that hasn't been preached for decades in the positive mental attitude movement. Indeed, in one book review, the New York Times noted "the power of positive thinking finally gains scientific credibility, (this science) straddles the gap between science and self-help."

The PMA and self-help literature are dominated by "You are the creator of you … welcome to the magic of life and the magnificence of You!" Other insights include, "Whatever you choose is right, the power is all yours" and "you are the designer of your destiny; you are the author."

This "me, me, me," approach is exactly the antithesis of the pioneer, self-sacrificial, looking toward God spiritual and intellectual framework that laid the foundation of the culture of the United States. As such, it is further evidence of the modern decline of the social order. Emblematic of the dichotomy of these two approaches are two poems, "Invictus" and "My Captain."

From "Invictus":

It matters not how straight the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate;

I am the captain of my soul.

From "My Captain":

I have no fear, though straight the gate,

He cleared from punishment the scroll.

Christ is the master of my fate,

Christ is the captain of my soul.

A number of commenters on these recent columns have wondered about the role of religion in our lives as we approach changes. If scripture, as some have noted, is the owner's manual for our lives, what, if anything, does it say about change? It turns out that the scriptures are saturated with change talk. Indeed, individual change and the proper use of the God-ordained principle of agency are indispensable elements in the foundation of the entire scriptural approach to life. We all have the choice that Joshua gave the children of Israel, "Choose you this day whom ye will serve" (Joshua 24:15). Or as Elijah said to his people, "How long halt ye between two opinions? If the Lord be God, follow him; but if Baal then follow him" (1 Kings 18:21).

The idea of proper action or choosing is central to the Christian worldview. In particular it is essential that our hearts be changed so that we "might be partakers of the divine nature" (1 Peter 1:4). This requires overcoming our natural inclinations. Since the fall of Adam "the natural man (has been) an enemy to God" (Mosiah 3:19). This natural man must be overcome, but we can only do so if we "yield to the enticings of the Holy Spirit … and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon (us)" (Mosiah 3:19). This requires "yielding (our) hearts unto God" (Helaman 3:35).

President James E. Faust, former second counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, taught, "Each of us has been given the power to change his or her life. As part of the Lord's great plan of happiness, we have individual agency to make decisions. We can decide to do better and be better. In some ways all of us need to change. Sometimes we may need a jolt to propel us into changing" (Ensign, November 2007).

In addition, then, to all we have learned from the new literature of brain plasticity, Christians could consider two additional thoughts. First, "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me" (Philippians 4:13). Second, "For as he thinketh in his heart so is he" (Proverbs 23:7).

Joseph A. Cannon is editor of the Deseret News. E-mail: cannon@desnews.com