And God's commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. - 1 John 5:3
Sometimes people assume that when John compares things born of God and things born of 'the world' in both his letters and gospel, he is setting up a dichotomy between heaven and earth - the spiritual perfection of God versus the depravity of the flesh. But I've come to think of this frequent comparison as the way John describes the difference between being asleep in our lives as opposed to being intentional and faithful in them.
John uses 'the world' to describe what we might now call our 'reptilian nature.' We succumb to our reptilian nature when we take our cues from the reptilian brain, which, according to one website, "is made up of the basal ganglia and controls our involuntary functions: the beating of our hearts, the working of our organs, and our breathing. It’s in charge of our survival; for our flight, fight or freeze responses, for sexual behaviours, anger in response to danger, and most of all – fear. The actions and emotions that spring from the reptilian brain do so automatically, without us having to think about it."
Obviously, what the reptilian brain does is important - it keeps our hearts beating, our lungs breathing and it also gets us up and out of dangerous situations fast. But sometimes, we let our reptilian brains rule us into a stressful, reactive mode even when there is no true emergency requiring instinctive fight or flight. Our reptilian nature is the place out of which human knee-jerk, thoughtless and harmful behaviors come from - our most ignoble behavior.
The author of John - and all religious leaders - strive to teach people to turn away from being held captive by their reptilian natures and learn to live into a more mature emotional, intellectual and spiritual way of navigating the world - into our higher natures, focussed on compassion for others, creative vision, constructive ideas and a commitment to the greater good. In his letter, John proclaims that the 'ways of God' conquer the 'ways of the world.' I hear him saying that our higher natures are able to take the wheel from our reptilian brains when we put our trust in God.
When John uses the term, "God's commandments," he's not just referring to the 10 commandments. He's describing all the faith teachings and practices - the spiritual tools - that God provides to help us make this leap from being asleep and reactive to being awake and intentional. In the Episcopal tradition, we embrace the 'three legged stool' of:
2. Tradition and
These are our basic tools for coming into a more mature emotional and spiritual way of being. Leaning on these three tools is the way we follow God's commandments. They are what help us learn to love our enemy, to turn the other cheek, to not grab greedily for the best seat or the first place in line, and to serve others instead of always expecting to be served. Practicing God's commandments provide us with a much, much bigger picture than our own momentary urges, informing us how to be faithful in our day to day decision making and actions.
I love how John writes that God's commandments are not burdensome. They're not about meticulously following difficult rules. It is not an onerous task to become more curious about what the bible says, to try on a new spiritual practice, or to really take some time to think through what we were told as children about our faith and compare it with what we think about it now. It's not onerous to come together with others to explore some Bible passages or to break bread together or to share our thoughts about faith. Following God commandments is not about being ruled by our reptilian brain's assumptions about the past but about unfolding, like the petals of a flower, into who God is calling us to be into the future. Our spiritual tools, God's commandments for us, pull us out of simply reacting to stimuli and invite us into dancing with God and with our own existence.
Try this little practice this week: Whenever you fall into one of your habitual anxieties or bad habits, stop and take three deep breaths, acknowledging that your reptilian brain is trying to take over. Then intentionally ask God to help show you a new, more creative way. Then take three more deep breaths before moving forward with your day. The more you practice trusting and living into the wideness of God's mercy, the more you'll notice God's commandments conquering the world.