The Path to Right Behavior

Social systems, whether innate or learned, are the result of how our brains function. A 2012 Science article has revealed that social interaction produces similar neural-system responses across all vertebrates, from fish to mammals. “Animals evaluate and respond to their social environment with adaptive decisions,” the authors note. This social decision-making network governs the link between good feelings and actions, and leads to that common call to self-expression, “If it feels good, do it.”

Clearly, however, if we all did the things that simply stimulate our sense of feeling good, civilization would come apart. What is trickier is recognizing that even small compromises that feed one’s selfish desires can be societally debilitating. Although it is easy to justify actions by invoking catchphrases (“no one is getting hurt” or “we’re consenting adults”), our choices carry deep and enduring consequences. Consensual adultery, for example, remains a kind of fraud, a combination of lies and covetousness that undermines trust and commitment. It is a behavioral mindset that infiltrates, maligns and contaminates all relationships. And, of course, adult behavior sets a pattern that children imitate.

Jesus’ answer to temptation—the tendency to succumb to what might seem best at the moment—was straightforward and remains relevant, so much the more as we learn more about the human mind: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). While that moment of choosing isn’t always comfortable (if it were comfortable, the decision wouldn’t be so challenging), putting desire aside and yielding to a higher standard is both possible and necessary for us and our children.

Behind our decisions is a neural circuitry, an adaptive system that is “wired” through experience. The cells and chemical signals may be somewhat universal, as research has shown. But as pathways of thought are laid down, the choices we each make affect us individually. Our decision making, for good or for bad, becomes habitual because the lines of least resistance are those that we have followed previously. The circuitry becomes a deep mental groove; like a well-worn path, the easy way is the old familiar way. Paul’s letters to the first-century Church speak to this pattern and the need to reroute a faulty decision-making process. His Damascus Road experience (Acts 9) was that sort of mind- and life-changing event, and he referred to it often.

Paul wrote of such change in terms of going from death to life or becoming a new creation; the old man and his ways of thinking and behaving are left behind. Similarly the godly community, like a human body composed of many parts working together for the common good (1 Corinthians 12:14–26), becomes a coherent entity built on relationships governed by God’s Law: to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37–39; Leviticus 19:18).

When we set our own standards of conduct, we are likely to fall to our own temptations, which always focus on self. These standards are as fleeting as our emotions and sensations and wreak havoc in both the short and the long term rather than build human harmony.

Science can reveal matters of the flesh, the physical nature of our being (in this case, the neural circuits of stimulus and reward) and help us understand our decision-making dilemma. But we are more than flesh and we require more than physical bread. We are beings created in the image and likeness of God, endowed with a conscience and a self-consciousness that must be tuned and trained. Human sensation alone is not a good guide toward right, socially constructive choices. Children are at the height of mental plasticity; thus mental and social habits that are set early will have life-long effects.