Wesleys Sanctification Narrative A Tool For Understanding The Holy Spirits

Wesleys Sanctification Narrative A Tool For Understanding The Holy Spirits

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Pneuma 31 (2009) 225-241

Wesley’s Sanctifi cation Narrative: A Tool for Understanding the Holy Spirit’s

Work in a More Physical Soul

Paul Shrier and Cahleen Shrier Azusa Pacifi c University, Azusa, California 91702, USA

[email protected]

[email protected]


Rapid advances in neuroscience during the past fi fteen years require Christians to rethink traditional understandings of the human soul, sin, salvation, and sanctifi cation. John Wesley’s understanding of means of grace and his theology of the Holy Spirit provide tools to integrate our understanding of the soul and sanctifi cation with current neuroscience. First, a new, more physical, Christian understanding of the soul is suggested. T en Wesley’s theology of sancti- fi cation through acts of mercy is explained and related to current concepts of empathy. The relationship between empathy and sanctifi cation, as understood by Wesley, is then compared with new neurological fi ndings about human mirror neuron systems that are prerequisite for empathizing with others. The fi nal section suggests a new sanctifi cation narrative based on the interactions of the Holy Spirit, mirror neuron systems, and empathy, and then makes recom- mendations for Christian actions based on the correlation of brain function and operations of the Holy Spirit.


Holy Spirit, sanctifi cation, John Wesley, mirror neurons, empathy, soul, neuroscience, physical


Recent advances in neuroscience are challenging our current popular Pente- costal and, more broadly, Evangelical Christian understanding of the nature of the soul. The current paradigm for the soul uses Cartesian dualism as the lens through which to interpret passages such as Paul’s discussion of the “fl esh” and the “Spirit” in Romans 7. This paradigm views the soul as a non-corporeal entity that exercises ultimate direction over our emotions, intellect, and other physical manifestations of our lives, the so-called “ghost in the machine.” The




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average Evangelical Christian will not quickly discard this paradigm, even if presented with scientifi c advances suggesting that the soul is in some way physical. We are invested in this paradigm because we have created causal salvation and sanctifi cation metanarratives that require humans to have a nonmaterial soul. According to these narratives, a person’s body and incorpo- real soul are weak and sinful until the person is “saved.” When the individual experiences salvation through acceptance of Jesus Christ, that person’s soul is immediately renewed, empowering her to exercise new control over her “fl esh” or physical being; we no longer walk after the fl esh but after the Spirit (Rom 8:1-13). Because we are “in Christ” our nonmaterial soul exercises free- dom to rightly choose behaviors that transform us by denying our physical cravings and instead fulfi lling the Holy Spirit’s desires. The physical body is gradually brought into submission to the newly renewed and Spirit-empow- ered immaterial soul (Rom 8.13; 1 Cor 9.27). To summarize, these narratives view sanctifi cation as the process by which the Holy Spirit empowers our non- material soul to bring our physical bodies, including our brains and “fl eshly” thoughts and feelings, into submission, so that we will live in a manner that pleases God.

Two recent neurological case studies reveal problems with this sanctifi cation narrative and its foundational belief in a non-material soul. In the first case study, a schoolteacher, described by friends and family members as a “good” family man, became obsessed with viewing pornographic materials.1 Eventu- ally, he sexually molested children and adolescents. This man, who had no prior history of sexually deviant behavior, was arrested, convicted of child molesting, and underwent therapy and group rehabilitation without success. The day before his fi nal sentencing he went to the emergency room complain- ing of a severe headache. At the hospital he was still unable to control himself, propositioning the nurses while awaiting treatment. An MRI revealed a large tumor impeding the function of the orbitofrontal cortex of his brain. Physio- logical abnormalities in this region are associated with poor impulse control and altered sexual behavior. When the tumor was removed, the patient’s obses- sion with pornography, his pedophilia, and other sexually deviant behavior disappeared. A year later he again experienced deviant sexual impulses. Medi- cal examinations revealed that the tumor had begun to grow again. Once the tumor was removed, the impulses again disappeared. This example suggests that this man’s physical condition guided his behavior. It was not his sinful


Jeff rey M. Burns and Russell H. Swerdlow, “Right Orbitofrontal Tumor with Pedophilia Symptom and Constructional Apraxia Sign,” Archives of Neurology 60 (2003): 437-40.


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nonmaterial soul but his sick brain that caused him to behave immorally. Responsible behavior was limited by a physical condition. Further, the solu- tion to his sinful behavior was physical; his “sinful behavior” was removed by surgery.

The second case shows a direct causal connection in the other direction; our actions can reshape our physical brains. In London, England taxicab drivers must spend two years learning every street, boulevard, and cul-de-sac in Lon- don before they can begin to drive. When the taxi drivers in this study began their training, the hippocampus area of their brains was normal in size and density. The hippocampus is responsible for our sense of direction. After two years of intensive training, the hippocampus of these drivers was larger and denser. This area of the brain was also larger and denser than it was in compa- rable non-cabbies. Intense memorization and training altered the hippocam- pus of these drivers. If the brain and soul are interrelated more closely than we believe, we could say that repetitive behaviors can reshape the soul. While most of us do not consider memorizing directions to be an explicitly moral activity, this case raises the questions concerning how other repetitive activities with more explicitly moral implications may be shaping or have shaped our brains or souls. As an example, members of Alcoholics Anonymous believe that although they may have been predisposed to alcoholism, they were not certain to become alcoholics. Instead, they believe that long-term, regularly repeated bouts of problem drinking reshaped their brains from being people who could have drink alcohol socially to people who only know one, unac- ceptable way to drink alcohol.2

The two case studies above indicate that physical structure and function of the human brains impact the process of sanctifi cation. First, negatively, sick- ness may inhibit our growth in Christ. Mental and emotional illness may limit the changes we experience through sanctifi cation. Alternatively, neurological health provides preconditions for faster growth in Christ. Second, sanctifi ca- tion is not a one-way, top-down process by which the Holy Spirit changes our nonmaterial soul, and then our soul changes our physical being. Sanctifi cation also has a very real bottom-up causal chain; as we practice Christian morality and spirituality our physical actions change the shape of our brain. Reshaping our brains and reshaping our souls are somehow the same. Both of these brain- soul interconnections indicate that our soul is somehow physical. If the soul is


Paul Shrier, “Stories of Faith: Comparison of ‘Bill’s Story’ and AA Recovery Narratives with T ree Healing and Deliverance Narratives in Mark,” Ph.D. diss. (Pasadena: Fuller T eological Seminary, 2002).



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in some way physical, then we must rethink our salvation and sanctifi cation narratives. Sanctifi cation is a holistic process; it does not occur top-down in simple cause-and-eff ect stages.

This paper argues that John Wesley’s understanding of means of grace and his theology of the Holy Spirit provide tools to integrate our understanding of the soul and sanctifi cation with current neuroscience. The first section of this paper introduces a new, more physical, Christian understanding of the soul. The second section considers how Wesley understood the relationship of acts of mercy with sanctifi cation. Although he does not use this term, Wesley’s explanation for the eff ectiveness of acts of mercy is that they create empathy, causing Christians to grow in love for their neighbors. After discussing Wes- ley’s central focus on empathy, the paper considers new neurological fi ndings that humans have mirror neuron systems that are required for us to empathize with others. The fourth section presents Wesley’s explanation of the Holy Spir- it’s sanctifying work in individuals and considers how this coincides with recent mirror neuron fi ndings. The fi nal section suggests a new sanctifi cation narrative based on the interactions of the Holy Spirit, mirror neuron systems, and empathy. T en it makes recommendations for Christian actions based on the correlation of brain function and operations of the Holy Spirit.

New Understandings of the Soul

Since neuroscience has revealed that emotions, thoughts, and choices have physical origins, several new explanations of the soul have been put forward. Some prominent biologists, such as Francis Crick, have responded to evidence of our physical human nature with a reductive materialist argument: there is no such thing as a soul. Human behavior is simply the manifestation of a series of complex neurological interactions.3 Alternatively, a radical dualist view main- tains that the body is a “temporary and disposable holding tank for the soul.”4 Holistic dualism moderates the views of radical dualism. This view understands that although there are diff erent parts to a human, including an immaterial soul, these parts “are highly interactive, they enter into deep causal relations and functional dependencies with each other”5 and humans are a unity of all of these parts. The parts, therefore, are inseparable. Monism is a fourth broad


Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994).


Joel B. Green and Stuart L. Palmer, In Search of the Soul: Four Views of the Mind-Body Prob- lem (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 13.




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category that tries to relate body and soul. Specifi cally, it suggests that there is no need to defend the view that we have a soul that is somehow separate from our bodies; Nancey Murphy, Malcolm Jeeves, Warren Brown, and others argue from this perspective that the concepts of soul and brain are simply two diff er- ent perspectives for observing and talking about the same thing.6

This paper rejects radical materialist and radical dualist views. While popu- lar Pentecostal Christianity will quickly agree to reject radical materialism, it has too often accepted radical dualism by default. For this paper, it is only important that readers are willing to consider that body and soul, brain and soul are more closely interrelated and interdependent than previously under- stood. This means they will be open to holistic dualism or monism models of body-soul interaction. This paper is more concerned to use Wesley’s theology to suggest directions forward for developing a more physical Pentecostal nar- rative of sanctifi cation. After all, the primary importance of our view of the soul is the way in which it helps us to understand our relationship with God. No one will alter her or his view of the soul unless the new view explains better how we relate to God. So we must create new relationship narratives before new models of the body-soul relationship will be acceptable.

John Wesley views sanctifi cation as our ongoing participation with the Holy Spirit’s work. The Holy Spirit initiates and Christians must act and follow. Wesley was primarily concerned that Christians develop the fruit of the Spirit through practicing ongoing acts of piety and acts of mercy. This model of sanctifi cation provides Christians with resources for dialoguing with neuro- logical advances. It agrees with and highlights advances that suggest that our actions can create new neurons even into adulthood (neurogenesis), and that actions can reshape neural pathways (neuroplasticity). Both approaches agree that a person’s thoughts, beliefs, and motivations are usually transformed over time. In contrast, Wesley’s view of sanctifi cation raises important questions about mental or emotional illness when we consider neurological conditions or states that could inhibit or preclude certain changes in a person’s personality or practices that we would describe as sanctifi cation.

Wesley’s Understanding of Sanctifi cation

John Wesley (1703-1791) was educated at Oxford University, where he cre- ated the “Holy Club,” whose members included Charles Wesley and George


Warren S. Brown, Nancey Murphy, and H. Newton Malony, eds., Whatever Happened to the Soul? Scientifi c and T eological Portraits of Human Nature (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998).



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Whitfi eld. Already an ordained Anglican minister, Wesley underwent an intense religious “conversion-type” experience in 1738, at the age of thirty- fi ve, while reading Luther’s preface to the Letter to the Romans. Wesley remained an Anglican throughout his life, but the Anglican Church did not allow him to preach that we are justifi ed by faith or that this justifi cation requires both a personal choice to believe and subsequent actions to develop a person’s faith. Wesley’s emphasis on personal justifi cation and sanctifi cation was unique in his circumstances, but it was not the radical individualistic view that is common in today’s American Evangelical church. For example, essen- tial elements of sanctifi cation through love as Wesley understood it included what today would be regarded as a legalistically strict form of small group accountability combined with regular community works of charity. Conse- quently, Wesley’s emphasis on individual sanctifi cation might be viewed as a corrective to the Anglican view prevalent at his time that membership in the national church resulted in salvation. One element of Wesley’s belief in per- sonal responsibility for salvation was the view that individuals could do certain things to participate actively in their sanctifi cation. T ese means of grace could eventually lead a person to some form of perfection, a term that is still disputed today.

Wesley had a therapeutic understanding of original sin as a force that weak- ened us, much as a bad cold does not kill us but can make us susceptible to more serious illnesses. Original sin incapacitated a person’s will to resist temp- tation, ensuring that every person will succumb to temptation and sin.7 When Wesley used the term will he was referring to the motivating center of moral action in human beings. Wesley “equated the will with the aff ections [emphasis added],” that is, emotionally motivating dispositions such as feelings of love, anger, and desire.8 He related the will and aff ections to tempers, which are a person’s habitual aff ection patterns, or their character. Wesley viewed both momentary and habitual emotions rather than, primarily, logic as a person’s motivator or will. Furthermore, Wesley believed that as a result of the fall humans had lost the liberty to exercise or train their tempers. For Wesley, the ultimate purpose of salvation was sanctifi cation, the renewing of the will.


Wesley subscribed to a form of holistic dualism. In his sermon “Heavenly Treasures in Earthly Vessels,” he likens the soul to a musician playing an instru-


Randy L. Maddox, Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical T eology (Nashville: Kingswood, 1994), 66ff .


Ibid., 69.


Henry D. Rack, Reasonable Enthusiast: John Wesley and the Rise of Methodism, 3rd ed. (Lon- don: Epworth Press, 2002), 395.


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ment, which is the body. He argues that the health of the soul is constrained by that of the body: “. . . if these instruments by which the soul works are dis- ordered, the soul itself must be hindered in its operations. Let a musician be ever so skillful, he will make but poor music if his instrument be out of tune.”10 Wesley believed that sin both weakened the soul (the musician) and harmed the body and brain (the instrument). He explains that when we are saved our soul is regenerated. Our body and brain, however, remain out of tune. As a result, the musician can never play a perfect tune but must continuously rely on God’s grace for the tune to be played imperfectly and heard and accepted with its imperfections.11

To understand better how Wesley proposed the Holy Spirit and human interaction in sanctifi cation, it is important to recognize that Wesley com- pared the process of salvation with entering a house in which repentance is the porch, justifi cation is the door, and sanctifi cation is the actual experience of renewed relationship with God. Justifi cation is what God does “for us,” while sanctifi cation is what God does “in us.”


Justifi cation through acceptance of God’s gift of Jesus’ death on the cross instills God’s righteousness in us, par- doning our sins and opening us to life in the Spirit.13 Being opened to the life of the Spirit then allows Christians to participate in the necessary process of sanctifi cation that makes a Christian holy.


So a person can be “saved” and placed in a new relationship with Christ even though every person experiences physical limitations in his or her ability to participate with the Holy Spirit in the process of sanctifi cation. For Wesley, sanctifi cation is an inward and out- ward process of establishing God’s will in a person’s life. Inward sanctifi cation of aff ections and tempers is primary, but it is through outward behaviors that the inward sanctifi cation is both accomplished and displayed.


Wesley’s “Acts of Mercy”

While Wesley viewed the emotions as the motivating force or will of the per- son, he viewed external actions as the means or vehicle for transforming the


John Wesley, Sermon 129, “Heavenly Treasures in Earthly Vessels,” in The Bicentennial Edi- tion of the Works of John Wesley, Frank Baker, editor-in-chief (Nashville: Abingdon, 1984-. Here- after abbreviated as Works), Vol. 4, ed. Albert Outler, 1985, II.1, 165.


Ibid., II.4, 4.166.


Rack, Reasonable Enthusiast , 389, 394.


Wesley, Sermon 40, “Christian Perfection,” II.3, Works 2.106; “The Law Established through Faith I,” II.3-7, Works 2: 27-28; Rack, Reasonable Enthusiast , 390.


Wesley, Sermon 16, “The Means of Grace,” I.3, Works. 1.382.


Wesley, Sermon 35, “The Law Established T rough Faith, II,” I.2-3, Works 2:35.



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will. Wesley called human actions that participate with God’s sanctifying grace means of grace. He defi ned these as follows:

By “means of grace” I understand outward signs, words, or actions ordained by God, and appointed for this end — to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men preventing, justifying, and sanctifying grace.16

Means of grace included actions such as prayer, searching the scriptures, par- ticipating in the eucharist, gathering together in worship, and acts of mercy toward others. Love for God and love for neighbor were inseparable. Acts of piety such as worship and prayer increased a person’s love for neighbor, while acts of mercy such as visiting the sick and prisoners, or feeding and clothing the poor, increased a person’s love for God.17

Wesley wrote that few considered or understood that when God’s love is enthroned in the believer’s life the inner circle around that throne is the “holy tempers: long-suff ering, gentleness, meekness, goodness, fi delity, temperance and all others.” The next circle is composed of acts of mercy that benefi t our neighbors. Acts of piety such as reading the word of God, private, public and family prayer, and receiving the Lord’s Supper are next. The last circle sur- rounding this throne includes fellowship and encouragement with other Chris- tians. T us, for Wesley the development of good tempers and acts of mercy were closest to God’s love when that love was properly enthroned in the Chris- tian’s heart.18 Wesley supported this view in his sermon “On Visiting the Sick” by explaining that the means of grace are acts of both piety and mercy. If Christians neglect acts of mercy, he wrote, even if they faithfully fulfi ll acts of piety they will likely be weak and feeble in their Christian walk.

Empathy is central for Wesley’s belief that acts of mercy sanctify. He explained how to perform acts of mercy in his sermon “On Visiting the Sick.” He wrote that visiting the sick is every Christian’s obligation. Christians ought also to give money and other assistance, but not in place of personal visits. He explained that personal contact with the sick encouraged their souls. It also encouraged the visitor, who received grace through increased thankfulness to God for their health, increased sympathy and “tenderness of spirit” for the affl icted person, and increased interest and activity in matters of social action.

19 Visitors also grow in humility and patience. Encouragement of the sick through


Wesley, Sermon 16, “The Means of Grace,” II.1, Works 1.381. 17

Maddox, Responsible Grace , 215.


Wesley, Sermon 92, “On Zeal,” II, Works 3:312-13.


Wesley, Sermon 98, “On Visiting the Sick,” I. 2-3, Works, 3:387-88.


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personal interaction, increased “tenderness of spirit” and “sympathy,” can be described as empathy. T ere are many defi nitions for empathy. T is paper defi nes empathy as the ability of a person to experience and respond appropri- ately to the feelings of another person. Empathy encourages sick people who are visited to regain their health by allowing them to experience the positive feelings of the visitor. It enables visitors to grow in humility and patience toward those who are sick because, as will be shown, they have a more vivid experience and memory of the sick person’s suff ering and thereby a deeper understanding. So it can be argued that for Wesley, growth in love for neigh- bor and love for God are a function of growth in empathy. As the next sections will show, empathy has neurological origins involving specifi c brain structures and functions.

Emotions Research

Wesley emphasized that as we visit the sick we grow in “sympathy” and “ten- derness of spirit” for them — we grow in empathy. At the outset of this paper we said that our souls are somehow physical and that this has implications for how we understand sanctifi cation. This section discusses recent research that reveals the role of mirror neuron systems in empathy generation. With a basic understanding of the physical nature of empathy, the work of the Holy Spirit in sanctifi cation, particularly as it relates to empathy, can be considered. Wesley believed that tempers (our emotions) and our dispositions (our pro- longed mental and emotional states or conditions) motivate our behavior. He believed that by God’s grace our individual emotions and emotional character can be changed to refl ect the mind of Christ. In Paul Ekman’s book Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emo- tional Life, Ekman writes that observing physical manifestations of the emo- tions of others, such as their postures, facial expressions, or muscular skeletal tensions, activates our own related emotions. Emotional reactions are even triggered when watching movies and TV shows.20 Wesley’s belief that we grow in grace through visiting the sick and other acts of mercy relates to this mech- anism. Observing the sick generates emotions the other person is experienc- ing. T rough feeling these emotions, we are better able to understand their


Paul Ekman, Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2003), 32-36.



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situation and to generate our own responses. But how does observation gener- ate emotions?

Mirror Neurons

Mirror neurons have a primary role in generating empathy. Mirror neurons are a class of visual/motor neurons that are discharged when a person watches another person performing an activity. This neural activity occurs in the same neural areas that would be activated if the individual were actually performing the activity. Simultaneously, spinal cord excitability “changes in the opposite direction” to prevent the physical execution of the observed action.21 Rizzolatti and Craighero, co-discoverers of mirror neurons, write that “the mirror neu- ron system is the system at the basis of imitation in humans.”22 Mirror neurons perform two essential functions: first, they allow humans to “personally” under- stand observed actions; second, they are the basis for human learning by imita- tion. We need to personally “experience” another person’s emotions in order to understand or relate to the person; experience precedes empathy.

Mirror neurons facilitate action-understanding, an understanding that is a physical representation of the action in the pre-motor cortex of the observer. This motor representation of the action corresponds to the neural activity of the observer if she was doing the action, allowing the observer to “experience” the action and to know and understand its outcome. “T us, the mirror system transforms visual information into knowledge.”23 Mirror neurons will also transform the sounds of action, like the ripping of paper, into a mirror of the action that caused the sound.24 In other words, if a person watches someone swing a golf club or hears someone rip a paperback novel cover, their pre- motor cortex mimics that same action, just as if the observer were doing it. Mirror neurons will discharge actions even if the observer only has a suficient number of clues that the action is about to take place, or when the observer can imagine the action on the basis of perceived information. As an example, when we are watching a movie in which the protagonist is about to be sur-


Giacomo Rizzolatti and Laila Craighero, “The Mirror-Neuron System,” Annual Review of Neuroscience 27 (2004): 175.


Ibid., 172.




E. Kohler, C. Keysers, M.A. Umilta, L. Fogassi, V. Gallese, and G. Rizzolatti, “Hearing Sounds, Understanding Actions: Action Representation in Mirror Neurons,” Science 297 (2002): 846-48.


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prised by an intruder, our pre-motor cortex will be fi ring either to run or to fi ght before the protagonist is attacked.

The actions of mirror neurons are not limited to torso and appendage imita- tion; they also imitate mouth and facial movements. Rizzolatti and others speculate that this imitation of facial movements may be one aspect of the mechanism by which human verbal communication initially developed.25 Fur- thermore, recent research indicates that echo neurons — the auditory equivalent of mirror neurons — transform verbally described actions into corresponding physical actions in the listener’s pre-motor cortex. T at this is not true when the listener hears meaningless sounds or words suggests that echo neurons transform understandable verbal action sequences into physical knowledge.26 As a consequence of the pervasive infl uence of mirror neurons on understand- ing, Rizzolatti writes, “Mirror neurons represent the neural basis of a mecha- nism that creates a direct link between the sender of a message and its receiver.”27 Mirror neurons make shared meanings possible between two people.

T rough mirror neuron systems, an individual visiting a sick person “expe- riences” the person’s physical perceived and described symptoms as well as their expressions of discomfort. Ekman and Levenson completed four studies indicating that when people make the muscular movements in their faces to create universally recognized expressions of emotions such as sadness, despair, anger, and joy, they experience the feelings.28 If this is true, then when some- one is visiting a sick person and physically mirroring their facial and other movements, the mirrored expressions and movements will recreate the emo- tions of the person who is suff ering. This is how mirror neurons “work”: they create understanding by mirroring physical actions that recreate another per- son’s emotions. As understanding of a person’s suff ering grows, love and com- passion may grow as well as gratitude. T us the understanding created by the mirror neuron system permits a person’s compassion for the sick to increase, allowing the visitor to grow in grace, as described by Wesley.


Wesley believed that visiting the sick was an important means of grace because it generated empathy or compassion. Mirror neurons are a key mechanism for


Rizzolatti and Craighero, “The Mirror-Neuron System,” 184-87.


Ibid., 187; F. Pulvermueller, “Brain Refl ections of Words and T eir Meanings,” Trends in Cognitive Science 5 (2001): 517-24.


Rizzolatti and Craighero, “The Mirror-Neuron System,” 183.


Eckman, Emotions Revealed, 36.



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understanding physically another person’s feelings. This understanding allows one to gain empathy. But mirroring and action-understanding do not insure that a person will become more empathetic. Empathy requires more than emotional awareness of an individual’s situation; it is a complex process that incorporates many neural functions.

Larson and Yao29 summarize the process of developing empathy as follows: The process begins when an individual perceives in another emotions such as sorrow, anger, pain, or joy. Perceiving these emotions causes motor mimicry and primary emotional identifi cation. Again, examples are helpful. Have you ever seen a person, even in a movie, get hit in the head with an object? If so, did you fl inch to escape being hit? Did you feel a tingle of pain in the area where the person was hit? Or have you ever talked with someone who was depressed and become aware that you were beginning to feel depressed? T ese are initial noncognitive experiences of the other, and they result from mirror neuron functioning; but they are only the first stage in the process of develop- ing empathy.

The second stage of empathy involves “rudimentary cognition.”


Within fractions of a second of mimicking and reacting to the situation of another person, we unconsciously search our memory for similar personal circum- stances and their outcomes. From an unconscious, emotion-laden comparison of our own experiences with the current observed one, we generate condi- tioned responses. For example, if you were ridiculed as a child for crying when you were hurt, you might feel hostility or contempt for a person who cries, screams, or whimpers after they have been hit. At this stage conditioned responses both alter and add to our total emotional appraisal of the situation.

The third stage of empathy generation occurs as conscious reasoning is recruited. This includes developing further associations through verbal descrip- tions of what a person is feeling, evaluating our conditioned responses for sim- ilarities and diff erences in situations, inferring what a person is experiencing, and placing one’s self in the other person’s position. Role taking is the most advanced process: “Cognitive role taking involves inferring about thoughts, motives, or intentions; aff ective role taking involves inferences about emo- tions.”31 At this stage of the process a person can decide to follow many paths,


Eric B. Larson and Xin Yao, “Clinical Empathy as Emotional Labor in the Patient-Physi- cian Relationship,” JAMA 293, no. 9 (2005): 1100-1106.


Ibid., 1102.




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including consciously dismissing the experience, opposing the feelings experi- enced, or entering into the situation and sharing it with the observed person. Empathetic response requires initial mirroring, the acceptance or rejection of conditioned responses, and a conscious eff ort to recruit the feelings being experienced in order to empathize with the suff erer. While the first stage is involuntary, the next two require a motivated desire to empathize. Roadblocks to positive empathic responses include physical tiredness, demands that con- fl ict with the time and attention necessary to be empathic, undervaluation of empathy, insuficient emotional coping skills, cynicism, overidentifying with suff erers, and lack of behavioral training.


Mirror neurons provide the initial impulses and the ongoing feedback that lead to behavior modifi cation in this process.

The Role of the Holy Spirit

Action-understanding from mirroring is a necessary but not suficient condi- tion for empathy. Wesley believed that the conscious decisions and actions to develop empathy as a result of initial identifi cation are motivated by the will, or a person’s habitual emotions. Since a person cannot shape her own will, he argues further, the initial experience of God’s love and God’s power provided by the Holy Spirit empowers a person to will to be compassionate. To use his musician and instrument metaphor, even when the instrument plays the right notes, it is necessary for the musician to put them together as a tune. And since our musician is weak, it is only by God’s indwelling grace that we can create loving melodies.

Love for neighbors, including compassion for the sick, is God’s will. But we cannot and will not do God’s will until we love God. Moreover, according to Wesley we cannot love God until we know God loves us. It is the Holy Spirit who testifi es or witnesses God’s love for us to kindle our love for God.


Once we have received the Holy Spirit’s initial witness of God’s love and responded to it, the Holy Spirit indwells us, empowering us to do God’s will.34 Our abil- ity to do God’s will through the power of the Holy Spirit is the ultimate source of Christian joy, which is “joy in obedience — joy in loving God and keeping


Ibid., 1100.


Wesley, Sermon 10, “Witness of the Spirit I,” I.8, II.5-13, Works 1.274, 279-283. 34

Wesley, Sermon 12, “The Witness of Our Own Spirit,” 15, Works. 1.309.



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his commandments.”35 Experiencing this joy motivates us to further obedi- ence, which can eventually become habitual.

The Holy Spirit, however, will not supersede our will to witness God’s love within us or empower us to God’s will. Wesley is clear that we must cooperate with the Holy Spirit. In “A Further Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion, Part I” Wesley writes that the word inspiration ought to be used to describe the Holy Spirit’s work in us. Further, “breathing into the soul” is a natural and organic metaphor that describes how the Spirit moves into us.36 T is organic relationship, this spiritual “respiration”37 is voluntary. Wesley argues that it is absolutely necessary for us to “breath back” what we first receive from God, in order to continue to abide in Christ and do God’s will. When we do this, we are fi lled with joy.


The initial breath of the Spirit in us, the initial impulse to be empathic, and our empathic response reveal Wesley’s sanctifi cation narrative to be consistent with holistic dualism. If our mirror neuron systems function correctly we will experience the suff ering of another person. It is the initial working of the Holy Spirit within us, however, that empowers us to respond to that person with a Christian love that places the needs of the other person before our own. Once we are empowered, we must still choose to act on the initial experience and the Holy Spirit’s empowerment. In the absence of the Holy Spirit, we can share another person’s experience but our empathy will be distorted by self-interest. Alternatively, if we are fi lled with the Holy Spirit but we have a fl aw in our mirror neuron system, then we can choose to love but we will not be able to experience the other person’s feelings, which limits the eff ectiveness of our identifi cation with and response toward the other person.

Wesley believed that God inspires us through God’s Spirit in order to unite us with Christ, transform our wills, renew our minds, reassure us of our salva- tion, and guide our actions.39 The term sanctifi cation describes these results. Further, when a Christian experiences the suff ering of another person and then responds to the initiative of the Holy Spirit, this response is “perceived” or mirrored by unbelievers, completing the circle. When the believer does God’s will in response to the inspiration of the Spirit, the believer provides a


Ibid., 20, Works 1.312.


Wesley, A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion , Part 1,” I.28, Works, 11.171.


Wesley, Sermon 19, “The Great Privilege of T ose T at Are Born of God,” I.8, Works. 1.434.


Ibid., III.2, Works. 1.442.


Maddox, Responsible Grace , 122-23.


P. Shrier, C. Shrier / Pneuma 31 (2009) 225-241


witness to the world. It is an external witness of God’s love, experienced by unbelievers internally through mirroring. When Christians do the acts of mercy that are so important to Wesley, they are vehicles of the Spirit’s initial witness.


Wesley viewed sanctifi cation as a process rather than as a distinct event. T is gradualist view coincides with a new understanding that the soul and the brain are interrelated and that physical activities alter the shape and function of the brain. Specifi cally, the role of mirror neurons in empathy development and Wesley’s role for acts of mercy in sanctifi cation overlap. Wesley emphasized that transforming tempers and dispositions was a central process of sanctifi ca- tion. He believed that acts of mercy lead to greater love for people and God. Rizzolatti and others suggest that mirror neurons have primary responsibility for understanding the emotions of others and for initiating an empathetic response toward others who are ill. Acts of mercy and the physical process of empathy overlap, but they are not suficient for sanctifi cation. Sanctifi cation occurs as a person responds with God’s love to their experience of others. Wes- ley believes that the Holy Spirit’s work inside us draws us to act empathically and empowers us to do so once we surrender to the Spirit’s impulses.

Since recent developments in neuroscience agree with Wesley’s view that sanctifi cation is a process and acts of mercy are essential means of grace, what ought we to do? First of all, it seems obvious that we ought to focus more on teaching about and facilitating the regular practice of visiting the sick and those in prison, feeding the hungry, and doing other acts of mercy-in person. For example, the authors can attest that foster parenting has dramatically increased their empathy for children in the Los Angeles County foster care system. Surprisingly, foster parenting has also greatly increased our empathy for other foster parents and for the social workers, lawyers, and others who work so hard with so much compassion on behalf of these children.

We must also learn to recognize and “breath back” when the Spirit calls us to act compassionately toward others. We need to reprioritize our lives to do this, since research suggests that tiredness, anxiety, busyness and other physical obstacles can obstruct our response. Tese are simple in principle, but dificult to put into practice.

T ird, we need to understand that physical and neurological limitations have serious implications for the soul. When we are sick for a prolonged period



P. Shrier, C. Shrier / Pneuma 31 (2009) 225-241

of time, our illness can lead to depression that may not be overcome through praise and worship. Clinical depression will be a way of life for some Chris- tians; this is a physical condition that will inhibit their experience of the joy of the Lord. Asperger’s Disorder, autism, and other conditions stop men and women from experiencing emotions, sometimes both their own and those of others. As an example, UCSD researchers announced fi ndings that mirror neurons systems functioned abnormally in eleven subjects with autism. The study suggests that dysfunctional mirror neurons may be a key to understand- ing how autism impairs an individual’s ability to understand and empathize with others.40 People suff ering from these and other conditions will express their Christian love and other virtues very diff erently. Christians need to rec- ognize these diff erent manifestations of sanctifi cation. Christians also need to take the physical, psychiatric treatment of neurological disorders seriously, as a part of the process of sanctifi cation.

Finally, we need to rediscover and eff ectively present Wesley’s teachings, and ultimately the Bible’s instruction, that doing acts of mercy changes us to be more Christlike. This will not likely be as simple as it sounds. How can small group leaders, Sunday school teachers, pastors, and professors do this eff ec- tively? First, it might be fruitful to explain simply and clearly that while this process has supernatural and eternal benefi ts, it also eff ects physical changes in our brains. Second, and as a fi nal note, this study suggests that we ought to teach others about the importance of acts of mercy by mentoring them to practice these acts. We need to do them ourselves; we need to do them with others in our community, not as individuals; and we need to do them with others who have a clear expectation that in the future they will be doing them with apprentices. In this way we can expect to grow in love for neighbor and love for God.


Ekman, Paul. Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and

Emotional Life. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2003.

Green, Joel B., and Stuart L. Palmer. In Search of the Soul: Four Views of the Mind-Body Problem.

Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005.

Larson, Eric B., and Xin Yao. “Clinical Empathy as Emotional Labor in the Patient-Physician

Relationship.” JAMA 293, no. 9 (2005): 1100-1106.


Inga Kiderra, “Autism Linked to Mirror Dysfunction,” General UCSD News Release, March 2005: http://ucsdnews.ucsd.edu/newsrel/soc/Autism.asp.


P. Shrier, C. Shrier / Pneuma 31 (2009) 225-241


Maddox, Randy L. Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical T eology. Nashville: Kingswood,


Rack, Henry D. Reasonable Enthusiast: John Wesley and the Rise of Methodism. 3rd ed. London:

Epworth Press, 2002.

Rizzolatti, Giacomo, and Laila Craighero. “The Mirror-Neuron System.” Annual Review of

Neuroscience 27 (2004): 169-92.

Wesley, John. The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley. Frank Baker, Editor in Chief.

Nashville: Abingdon, 1984-.


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