How You Can Change in 2017

This is long post. I like to write four or five paragraph blog posts because I know our attention spans are short, but I also wanted all of this info in one spot. So here is a post that I think will be helpful for the New Year! 

The best book I read this year was James K.A. Smith’s You Are What You LoveThe basic idea of the book is to present the Augustinian model of how we function as human beings versus modern presentations, most importantly the fact that we, even in the church, are pitched a version of ourselves that we are primarily thinking creatures (the power of the mind and all that) and that therefore discipleship and transformation in our lives is primarily about changing and influencing our thinking. Thus, the solution to all of our problems are focused on things of the mind: reading the Bible more, sermons that transfer right information, etc., This seems plausible enough, and in some senses is true. Discipleship is a lot about the mind (Rom. 12:1-3). The very term disciple (mathetes) is derived from the idea of being a learner. But, Smith argues, we learn in far deeper and more profound ways than just our thinking. We make decisions and live life out of other, deeper level, ‘under the hood’ convictions. Some call it our “gut”, others our “heart,” others our “affections”. The Bible talks of Jesus feeling “compassion” for people, and it uses the word splagchnon, literally a feeling that comes from his bowels (Mat. 14:14).

Whatever one calls these feelings and compulsions they are arguably more powerful and more influential on our actions than just our conscious thoughts. So Smith says “we could say that human beings are fundamentally erotic creatures” (You are What You Love, p. 9). Not in the sense of eroticism, but that we are heavily controlled by our desires. We are controlled and driven by pleasure – by what makes us happy, not by what is most rational, or right, in any given moment. And to ignore this fact is tragic if you are looking to change or get better in any way, whether that is simply making new years resolutions (to lose weight, or be more disciplined in your devotions) or the bigger call in life for the Christian: to become more like Christ, to kill sin, and grow in godliness. It means we must go beyond our thinking and start to work that deeper part of ourselves.

Thoughts Aren’t Enough 

The bottom line, Smith says, is that “you can’t just think your way” to right living. A way of life is not arrived at by convincing the intellect alone, but by allure – our wants, and desires. Not just data, whether true or false. In fact, pleasure is likely more influential on our lives than just information. Which is why the culture around us sells us maps of ‘the good life’ that aren’t primarily information based, but appeal to us aesthetically; romantically, not rationally. Think of the car commercials, or the ads for Apple products. It’s not about data and information but about a look, a colour scheme, a feeling. Art, not science. They appeal to our imagination not our intellect.

(ASIDES: First, it is of course not even clear which, the ‘head’ or the ‘heart,’ influences the other first because, as science is now showing us, our brains are influenced by everything else going on in our bodies including our stomachs! Secondly, a point which Smith doesn’t draw attention to but which I think is important to talk about: I think the terms ‘head’ and ‘heart’ and the distinctions of brain versus ‘soul, or gut’, or even ‘intellect’ versus ‘imagination’ are somewhat flawed because we know there is not something called the ‘heart’ aside from the brain. We don’t actually have a ‘soul’ somewhere inside of our rib cage. It is all about our brain. Even our affections, and desires, are brain-oriented things. The point still stands, however, that there is a part of ourselves that is more information/data/intellect driven and a part of ourselves that is more affections/desires/wants driven, both which likely reside in our brain. Once we understand that then we can still talk about those parts of ourselves as ‘heart’ and ‘head’ if we like).

Our Longings are Learned

The next point Smith makes is that our loves, longings, and desires are learned. But how? We often say, through our thinking, and so we need more right information – theological or otherwise, and what we have failed to recognize, Ok, maybe you already knew this, so what I have failed to recognize, is that we learn to love “not primarily by acquiring information about what we should love.” Well then how do we learn to love something? What shapes our desires? I tend to emphasize right thinking, almost exclusively, or at least first, but Smith says, no, it’s not right thinking but right habits, “rituals that form and direct our affections.” These habits, Smith calls “pedagogies of desire”. So, we can’t counter the power of the cultural story over us, he says,

“with didactic information poured into our intellects. We can’t recalibrate the heart from the top down, through merely informational measures. The orientation of the heart happens from the bottom up, through the formation of our habits of desire” (p. 25).

So how do we get new habits? Again, we can’t think our way to them, he says, we must habit our way to them! You can’t just think your way to a better golf swing, or to losing weight, or to new tastes. These take certain habits. They are learned. That’s why golf teachers talk about ‘muscle memory’. Muscles that swing and do a certain shape over and over again until a person does it without thinking about it. And over time the habit produces a result which then produces a desire. Like someone starting to run. At the beginning running at 5:00 AM is not fun, but over time, the practice forms a habit from a desired result (literally an addiction to the feeling that the release of certain drugs in the brain gives to the runner). So,

A PRACTICE -> A HABIT -> A WANT

So, Smith says, our discipleship of Jesus is more like a Weight Watchers program, meant to retrain our hunger, than listening to a book on tape (which is what many preachers have made the mistake in thinking it is). If godliness is the end goal, which is all about God not changing what I do but what I want to do than habits are a key part of the way to get there! Our habits end up informing what we want to do.

Who knew?!

And that is how you are going to change this year.

The Bible, raising kids, and temptation

All of this has a thousand applications.

+ You want to start reading your Bible but just can’t get into it. Don’t try to get into it! You aren’t. Just read it. Make it a practice (everyday for 30 days say), and then that will give way to a habit, and over time the habit will create neural pathways forming the desire for more of it.

+ Raising our kids: we not only have to shape our children’s thinking by reading them the Bible at night, or by teaching them the Bible stories, and right doctrine. If we want them to love and follow Jesus, we need to also build into them certain practices, which will then create habits that will shape and create desires in them for more of God.

+ Having victory over sin: Temptation is not just a mental battle. “Because we tend to be intellectuals [we] assume…temptation is an intellectual reality, where some idea is presented to us that we then think about and make a conscious choice to pursue (or not). But once you realize that we are creatures of habit you’ll realize temptation isn’t just about bad ideas or wrong decisions; it’s often a factor of de-formation and wrongly ordered habits” (p. 54).

In other words overcoming temptation requires more than just knowledge, but rehabituation, a re-formation of our loves. How? By new habits that will form and inform that love.

So, how can you change this year? How can you become more like Jesus, or have a better marriage, or lose weight? Start from the bottom, not the top. Train the gut, not the head. Admit you don’t presently feel a particular way about someone or something, that’s ok, start by acting toward them the way you want to feel, and over time it will start to take shape.

Instead of starting by trying to force yourself to want something by thinking about it, reading about it, forcing your brain to want it, change your habits first, into one’s that will over time cause the change you want to want but don’t yet want.

I think that last sentence makes sense, and is the key to the whole thing.

I am excited about the new year, and how my life may change by new habits and rhythms of life that will in turn create in me desires that I have been trying to force myself to just have by sheer will for years.

Dummy.