The Motivation for Perseverance

Neuroscience is on the right path in seeking to understand perseverance.

What gives some people the ability to stay on task in whatever they do, while others give up easily and move on to something else? 

The question of how to sustain perseverance is an important one for Christians. Scripture teaches that, unless we persevere in our faith to the end we can have no assurance of salvation: “And we are his house indeed if we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in hope.” “For we share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.” (Hebrews 3.6, 14)

Coming to faith in Christ is not the end of our race, but the beginning (Heb. 12.1, 2). Only if we are faithful, day after day, in every situation in our lives, staying the course, running our race, and fighting the good fight – only thus can we be assured of truly belonging to Jesus. We do not, by such persevering, earn our salvation. Rather, we prove it, and the more we prove it, the more certain it becomes to us, and the more we are strengthened and encouraged to continue our race, come what may.

Scripture thus treats perseverance as a spiritual ability, at least insofar as our relationship with Christ is concerned. The joy we experience in knowing the Lord, together with the peace that passes understanding, the pleasure that comes from worship, and the satisfaction we may know in serving others, are the fruit of God’s Spirit making the presence of Christ real within our souls.

According to neuroscience, however, that overall sense of wellbeing that comes from persevering in the Lord may not be entirely spiritual, or even spiritual at all. Christopher Bergland reported on December 26, at the Psychology Today website, that a chemical manufactured in our brains is the actual cause of the good feelings that come with persevering on any task (“The Neuroscience of Perseverance”).

That chemical is called dopamine and, according to Mr. Bergland, each of us has the ability to generate a flow of dopamine simply by “changing your attitude and behavior.”

Is that like becoming a millionaire by, first, getting a million dollars?

As this relates to perseverance, the more we can get dopamine to flow into our brains while we are exerting ourselves in some task or project, the greater is the likelihood that we’ll see the thing through to completion, and then can relax in an additional dopamine rush.

According to Dr. Jean Wiecha, a professor at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, learning to control the flow of dopamine can enable us to turn unpleasant and demanding tasks into welcome and rewarding ones – which she describes as “a type of ‘conversion’ experience.” According to Mr. Bergland, “We have evolved to have hard work, sweat and perseverance trigger the release of dopamine.” The way to get this to work is to picture ourselves like a lab rat, wired to stimulate our brains, lounging around at the Skinner bar and soaking up the good vibes each little jolt of electricity provides.

But how can we do that? Is there some “trigger” to get us to envision such an image?

The motivation for perseverance, according to neuroscience, is nothing more than a rush of good feelings: “When famed correctly, the process of perseverance becomes a hedonic experience.” Wow.

Neuroscience knows this because this is the way animals – lab rats – exists and find pleasure, therefore, it must be the way we do as well. So our highest motivation for staying on task toward a job well done is merely “hedonic,” only a desire to drug ourselves and chill. Just like any good lab rat.

When you factor out spiritual motivations – such as knowing the presence and pleasure of the Lord, drawing on the power of God’s Spirit, serving as an agent of His grace, standing for His truth, anticipating the eternal rewards of seeing the face of Jesus and living in glory forever – all you have left is, well, brutish self-centeredness and drugs.

Neuroscience is on the right path in seeking to understand perseverance and how it works. But if all we have to go by are materialistic impulses and measures, we’re going to end up a little higher than the lab rats, rather than a little lower than the angels.

Relate texts: Hebrews 3.1-4.11; Hebrews 12.1, 2; Revelation 12.17

A conversation starter: “Do you think it’s true that the motivation for perseverance in life comes down to nothing more than drugs?”

T. M. Moore, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT. 

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