Vulnerability: The Strength of Weakness

Aristotle wrote, “One … who [does not need others] … is either a beast or a god.”1  Dr. Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston, writes, “Connection is why we’re here.  We are hardwired to connect with others, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering.”2 The Bible, our greatest source of authority, describes Adam in full fellowship with God and animals.  Yet still God says “It is not good that man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18).  Even communion with God and creation left something lacking in Adam.  We are created for communion with other human beings.  Like Adam needed Eve for community so we need others.

But how do we create community?  In a word: vulnerability.  “Vulnerable” comes from a Latin word meaning “to wound” and is defined as “susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm.” 3  As scary as that sounds, it is necessary.  I want briefly to suggest two ways in which vulnerability helps to create community, both of which have a comparison to our relationship with God.

 

Give Up Control
First, in order to create community we must forfeit the attempt to control others.  We often try to control others by verbal manipulation and sometimes by force.  We do so in order to assure that things go our way, that any annoying habits or silly ideas others might have are quickly snuffed out so that we can go on enjoying our lives as we intend them.  Ultimately this is to create the world in our image, to coerce others to be like us.  This, however, assaults and offends the personhood of others and as a result will cause them to withdraw—the very opposite of community.

Should we expect anything different?  We only have communion with God when we allow him to be himself.  The biblical word for attempts to control God and fashion him in our image is “idolatry” (cf. Deu. 4:15-19), and idolatry precludes communion with God as he is.  On the other hand, if we allow God to be himself then we can have a relationship with him.  This requires vulnerability on our part.  There is no doubt that letting God work in our lives is, at times, uncomfortable, perhaps even involving mourning and weeping.  But when we relinquish control and “draw near to God” he will draw near to us (cf. James 4:8, 9).  That is communion.  And it begins in vulnerability.

The same vulnerability is necessary when dealing with people.  Allowing them to be gloriously “other” than us may involve some pain.  There may be quirks and habits that we do not like which cause discomfort when we invite them into our lives.  But only when we refuse to control them do we communicate our genuine love and respect for their personhood.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it well: “Human love constructs its own image of the other person, of what he is and what he should become.  It takes the life of the other person into its own hands.  Spiritual love recognizes the true image of the other person which he receives from Jesus Christ; the image that Jesus Christ himself embodied and would stamp upon all men.”4 When we create others in our own image, requiring them to be and act just like us, we are making idols of ourselves.  We destroy the “other” in a person and replace it with an image of “us.” By a work of self-centered alchemy we transform their brilliant “Thou” into a banal “I.”  So long as another’s behavior is in accord with truth and goodness we must allow him to be himself and appreciate him as an individual, like us, created in the image of God (cf. James 3:9).

Give Up “Perfection”
Second, in order to create community we must be willing to share our faults.  One study concluded that all parties involved in relationship must be willing to share their true selves in order to produce feelings of closeness and intimacy.5  If we are not willing to share ourselves we cannot be surprised if we do not feel close to those around us.  Holding back for fear of “committing too soon” obstructs the creation of intimacy. The fear of getting hurt may be the very thing which hurts us by leaving us lonely and withholding the one thing which can connect us to others. The tendency to put on a “Sunday face” and maintain our ideal image in the face of others inhibits the generation of genuine community.  To hide our broken selves is to give up all hope for intimate connection.

Again this is true in our relationship with God.  So long as we put on a show for God we can have no genuine communion with him.  The Pharisee who wore his “goodness” on his sleeve was not justified (cf. Luke 18:9-14).  The Israelites who “played church” were condemned (cf. Isa. 58:1-5), because “God opposes the proud” (James 4:6a).

But, thank God, he “gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6b).  When we genuinely share ourselves with God by confessing our imperfections He condescends to us and makes his home with us.  “Whoever conceals his sins will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy” (Pro. 28:13).  It is the “contrite in spirit” that God looks upon with favor (Isa. 66:2b).

It is the same in our relationships with others.  In my own experience with vulnerability I can attest to the sometimes physical response of those to whom I confess.  After sharing some fault or struggle of my own with a trusted friend there is often a release of tension in the shoulders, a visible sigh of relief when he realizes, “You struggle with that too?!”  Our vulnerability gives others the permission to be vulnerable and, most importantly, to experience God’s mercy and grace through us.  Oscar Wilde is supposed to have said, “You can’t win; if you tell lies people will distrust you.  If you tell the truth people will dislike you.”  That is a lie that we (myself included) have often bought into.  If we hide our faults we can always justify the deception by telling ourselves, “I just want friends, and no one would like me if they knew the real me.”  In fact, it is only by taking the risk of sharing our(broken)selves with others that we offer them the opportunity to know and, finally, to love the “real us.”  Only then can we experience God’s love and forgiveness in the face of our brothers and sisters.  That is real community.

Conclusion
The church is a community created and sustained by nothing but the love of God (cf. Rom. 8:35-39).  Only when we “bear with one another in love” do we “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1-3).  But this requires vulnerability for, as C.S. Lewis put it, “[t]o love at all is to be vulnerable.  Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken.”6  One might ask, “Isn’t that scary?”  The answer is: yes.  Absolutely.  It’s terrifying.  But there is no other way.  The call to love is a call to vulnerability.  We need courage to allow others to be themselves, and we need courage to be and to share ourselves.  That is the vulnerability necessary to create community.  And so, praise God that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).  The strength of love springs from the weakness of vulnerability.

 


1. Aristotle, Politics, Trans. Carnes Lord (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), Book I.2.
2. Brené Brown, Daring Greatly, (New York: Gotham Books, 2012), 8.
3. “Vulnerable.” New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed. 2010.
4. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper One, 1954), 36.
5. Aron Arthu et al., “The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness: A Procedure and Some Preliminary Findings”, 364. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 23.4 (1997): 363-377. SAGE Social Science Collections. Web. Accessed 16 December 2015.
6. C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, The Four Loves: 2 Works, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), 316.

Simplicity and Time (Part 1)

 

With the arrival of the New Year many are making New Year’s Resolutions.  Yet, there looms behind us all the fear, indeed the almost certain knowledge, that most of us will fail to keep our resolutions.  Why?  Admitting that my evidence is anecdotal and unscientific, the most common reason (excuse?) I hear is, “I just don’t have the time to …” and fill in the blank.  “I don’t have the time to …” work out, cook healthier food, write my book, visit my mom, etc.

It is curious, however, that there are people in the world who do have time to work out, eat healthy, write books, and visit family.  Is it because they have more hours in the day?  Of course not.  Each one of us is granted the same 24 hours every day.  No more.  No less.  So, if the problem is “not enough time”, yet others seem to have it, what do they do differently than the rest of us?  They do not extend the day (though if you ever figure that one out, let me know), they just make the time.  Although making time does not magically effect working out, eating healthy, or writing books it does make those things possible and it takes away our excuses.  The question, then, is how do we make time?  Though I am no expert1, I want to suggest the practice of simplicity (often labeled “minimalism”) as the best way (only way?) to make time.

What the Heck is Minimalism?
First of all, it’s important to know that minimalism looks different in different lives.  Undoubtedly there will be some minimalist snobs who look at another minimalist and proclaim, “That’s not minimalism.”  But that assumes a rigid and shallow definition of minimalism.  For those people minimalism probably means something like “living with as few things as possible.”  Though living with fewer things is the most obvious characteristic of minimalism it is not its essence.  The foundation of minimalism is simply this: the commitment to ridding yourself of all superfluous things so as to provide the freedom you need to pursue whatever is most important.2  The key word here is “superfluous.”   Minimalism is not living without things; It is living without unnecessary things.  But how does one determine whether or not a thing is necessary?  That will have to be tackled in another article.  For now consider only this question: “Does this contribute to my purpose in life?”  If not, it is unnecessary.  Now let’s move on to consider, just briefly, how minimalism “creates” time.

Less Work=More Time
One reason people do not have the time to pursue the life they want is because they work so much.  But what if you didn’t have to work as much?  We work so much (often at jobs we hate) because we need money to buy stuff (that we often don’t need).  But what if you began to think in terms of time instead of money?  Next time you want to buy something take a moment to convert the price into time.  For example, say you earn $10 an hour at your present job.  That means that if you buy something that is $20 you have, quite literally, given away two hours of your life.  When you buy the $75 pair of jeans?  That’s seven and a half hours of your freedom.  That $5 coffee from Starbucks (guilty)? That’s 30 minutes you have to work off.

But what if you didn’t have so much to buy? What if you lived in a smaller house, with fewer luxuries?  That would mean that you need less money to live.  And if you need less money to live then that means that you need to work less to make a living.  Working less frees more hours in the day to pursue the things that you really love.

Less Shopping=More Time
One market research firm found that women spend 190 hours per year shopping for clothes, shoes, and window shopping.  Those same women spend only 95 hours shopping for food.3  That’s twice as long shopping for sport than for shopping for the necessities of life!  In addition to the time we must work to earn the money to shop, we also lose time doing the shopping.  If we shopped less we would have more time.  Granted, not all shopping is unnecessary.  But so much of it is.  While shopping it is helpful to keep in mind the Swedish proverb, “He who buys what he does not need steals from himself.”

Less Cleaning=More Time
Another way that “stuff” steals our time is the time we spend cleaning/maintaining it.  We have a lot of stuff so we need a bigger house to hold the stuff (much of which we don’t use).4  Because we have a bigger house we also have more to clean (assuming we clean).  This means that the time that we do have off from work is often spent maintaining order at home.  Depending on the size of the house cleaning could take up the entire day.  Vacation is spent cleaning instead of relaxing or pursuing our passions.   Whereas in a smaller house cleaning would take far less time and leave more time for doing the things we love.

Conclusion:
This blog was originally conceived as a minimalist blog and its former logo reflected its origin being a red spiral with a human figure at its center.  The red spiral symbolized paring away all that’s unnecessary.  The figure in the middle represented being human.  The idea is that we are only fully human by fulfilling our purpose but so often useless and/or unnecessary things distract us from fulfilling that purpose.  Living simply creates the mental and temporal “space” one needs to follow his calling.  The world is filled with people who live mediocre lives at best and outright unhappy ones at worst.  Those people work jobs they hate to buy stuff they don’t need to impress people they don’t like.  If you have already found your purpose and are living an immeasurably happy life then ignore the above.  But if you find yourself caught in the rat-race, maybe it’s time to get off the track.  Begin to ask yourself the hard questions about what is really important.  When you have your answer the question remains: what in my life distracts from my purpose?  Whatever falls into that category needs to go.  Only then can you give your full attention to living the life you are called to live.  So live simply.  Then, you may simply live.

 

©M. Benfield 2017


1. I consider Joshua Fields Millburn, Ryan Nicodemus, Colin Wright, Leo Babauta, Joshua Becker, and Courtney Carver, and Jessica Dang the experts. These have all inspired my minimalist journey in some measure, most especially Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus.
2. This is similar to Millburn and Nicodemus’ “elevator pitch” which goes as follows: “Minimalism is a lifestyle that helps people question what things add value to their lives. By clearing the clutter from life’s path, we can all make room for the most important aspects of life: health, relationships, passion, growth, and contribution.” They also affirm the previously made point that minimalism looks different for different people. See “Minimalism: An Elevator Pitch.” Available at http://www.theminimalists.com/pitch/ ; Internet; Accessed 2 January 2017.
3. Emma Johnson, “The Real Cost of Your Shopping Habits”, Forbes, 15 January 2015; available at http://www.forbes.com/sites/emmajohnson/2015/01/15/the-real-cost-of-your-shopping-habits/#55b3e61121ae ; Internet; accessed 2 January 2017.
4. Ibid.  Johnson documents how our shopping habits have required building bigger houses. She also cites one study which revealed that 3 out of 4 garages are so filled with stuff that they have no space left of a vehicle.

Crosses, Rainbows, Yoga, and Jesus

 

The implicit question posed by the title is, “What do crosses, rainbows, yoga, and Jesus have to do with one another?”  This article seeks to give an answer to that question and to show why this is immensely important to each of our lives.

It may be a shock to some to find that a Christian world view begins with creation, not salvation.1 In order for salvation to matter there needs to exist something worth saving. That something is creation, and not creation as narrowly understood to refer to Man only. Creation is valuable to God as evidenced by his constant care for it (cf. Ps. 104 where human beings are almost a footnote in comparison to the rest of creation). And because creation also shares in the curse of Man’s Fall (Gen. 3:17, 18) we ought to expect it to share in Man’s redemption, which is exactly what we find. The consistent witness of scripture points to the future restoration of all creation resulting in a New Heaven and a New Earth (Isa. 11:1-9; 65:17-25; Rom. 8:18-25; Eph. 1:10; Col. 1:15-20; 2 Pet. 3:8-13; Rev. 21:1-22:5).

This comprehensive redemption of all creation ought to be normative for our relationship towards creation, which includes that which we create, namely culture. Instead of regarding creation as bad and something to be fought against or suppressed we ought to regard it as something in need of redemption. A quick look at how this paradigm works itself out in practice will help to illustrate exactly what I mean. We begin with the very cross of Christ itself.

Crosses
The cross of the ancient world already had a symbolic meaning long before Christians gave it its contemporary significance. Insofar as it was the Roman Empire’s death of choice “It already had a social meaning: ‘We are superior, and you are vastly inferior.’ It had a political meaning: ‘We’re in charge here, and you and your nation count for nothing.’ It therefore had a theological or religious meaning: the goddess Roma and Caesar, the son of a god, were superior to any and all local gods.”2 The association of the cross with the horrific practice of crucifixion made the cross a topic not to be mentioned in polite company. Cicero, the Roman orator, speaks directly to this point: “The mere mention of the word ‘cross’ is shameful to a Roman citizen and a free man.”3 The cross, then, was a powerful symbol of shame as well as one of Roman power. This makes the Christian symbol of the cross all the more shocking and instructive.

The pre-Christian symbolism of the cross is what causes Paul to describe the gospel as “foolishness” to unbelievers. “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing” (1 Cor. 1:18a). However, Christ’s redemption, accomplished by the cross, redeemed even the symbolism of the cross itself. This is why Paul is able to go one and say “but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18b). We must be careful not to overlook the significance of this. If there were anything in the ancient world worthy of being completely abolished it was certainly the cross. But instead of rejecting the cross God recruited it to serve his purpose. Now, instead of being a symbol of shame and defeat the cross has become a symbol of victory and salvation. For this reason Paul is able to say, “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14). It is because of the redemption of Christ that Paul was able to boast about it. Without the work of Christ, the cross would have remained a symbol of shame. Many today still refuse to wear the cross, believing it to be horrific. They make it analogous to wearing a noose around one’s neck, or a charm shaped like an electric chair. And so it would be if it were not for the atonement of Jesus Christ. No part of God’s creation, even something so ghastly as the cross, is beyond the pale of Jesus’ reconciling work. “For in [Jesus] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:19, 20).  The blood of Jesus’ cross reconciled even the cross itself.

Rainbows
Consider another ubiquitous symbol of the present day: the rainbow. The rainbow, especially the rainbow flag, has become a widely recognized symbol of the Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender (LGBT) movement. Insofar as homosexuality is outside of God’s intention for Mankind (cf. Gen. 2:22-24; Lev. 18:22; Rom. 1:24-27; Jude 7) one Christian response might be to “give up” the symbol of the rainbow, as many have given up the cross. But, if we hold firm to the redemption of all of creation we cannot forfeit the rainbow. God is not willing to give up any part of his creation, and neither should we.

The rainbow is a great example of the holistic redemption I am describing because the rainbow is explicitly mentioned as an original symbol of God’s mercy. After Noah and his family exited the ark which saved them from the judgment of the flood God said:

“‘I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’ God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.’ God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.'” (Gen. 9:11-17)

Whereas this was the original meaning of the rainbow another meaning was hoisted upon it by the LGBT community. This should not deter us, however, from consistently affirming the goodness of its original symbolism. The rainbow, then, illustrates in miniature what has happened to all of creation. All of God’s creation is good, just like the rainbow. But, just like the rainbow, God’s good creation has been put into services which are at variance with God’s good intention. And, just like the rainbow, we should refuse to forfeit God’s creation to such uses. We affirm the goodness of everything God created so long as it is line with God’s good intention. Whenever any part of the created cosmos is put into the service of anything but the Creator himself we do not abandon that bit of creation to misuse. We, through the power of Christ’s redemption, seek to take it back for God’s glory. We aim to help God’s good creation be all that it can be so that, once again, it might “tell the glory of God” (Ps. 19:1).

Yoga
I have been a regular practitioner of yoga for some months now.4 Because yoga is technically a religious practice some have wondered how a Christian can conscientiously participate in yoga.5 The answer, as you might have guessed, lies in the goodness of creation and the redemption of Christ. Our bodies are part of God’s good creation. The bodily movements involved in yoga are neither good nor bad. It is the meaning we attribute to those movements that determine its goodness (or badness). If the “Sun Salutations” are in fact performed as worship to the Sun then one finds one’s self firmly in the sphere of idolatry, worshipping “the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1:25).  Other poses are intended to honor gods of the Hindu pantheon or Hindu sages. If one performs them with that particular intention then, again, one is participating in idolatry. But if the asanas (poses) of yoga are viewed from the perspective of creation and redemption one is able to see how a Christian can practice yoga without fear of idolatry.

First, consider the asanas from the perspective of God’s good creation. If the Fall had never taken place and a human being, faithfully reflecting God’s image in the world, was to perform the exact same stretches and poses we would never think that there was anything inherently evil in the arrangement of his limbs in such a way. We might think that he was being a good steward of the body which is part of God’s good creation, but we would not think that there was something irreverent about his exercise.

Second, consider asanas through the redemption of Christ. A Christian worldview cannot ignore the Fall (even though imagining a world without it can sometimes be helpful). Man has consistently failed to submit himself to God’s rulership and, as a result, has used God’s good creation in service of idol gods, as is the case with some yoga. This does not mean, however, that we are content to leave his creation in bondage to idols. Just like we will not forfeit the rainbow to the LGBT community we will not forfeit yoga. And just like Jesus’ work on the cross was able to redeem even the cross itself, so Jesus’ atonement is able to reconcile yoga to God’s good intention.6 One may practice yoga (since the poses themselves are not inherently evil) with the intention of glorifying God and be successful. A Christian is expected to present his “body as a living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1, 2). Often the only difference in a Christian’s use of his body and an atheist’s is his intention. So it is with yoga. One may perform the exact same movements either to the gods of the Hindus or to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The choice is his.

Conclusion
Nothing, absolutely nothing, is beyond Christ’s redemption. This is because nothing is inherently evil. Evil is always derivative, never original. It is always a perversion of what is good. The goal of redemption is to “buy back” that original goodness. And good news, the price has already been paid by Christ. One might object, “Nothing is beyond redemption? What about idolatry or pornography?” Although certain things diverge farther from God’s original intention than others, and consequently (in some sense) require more “redemption” than others, we must still affirm that nothing is beyond reconciliation. Concerning idolatry, it is not golden images which are inherently evil but their intention. The Israelites made a golden calf and worshipped it as god (cf. Ex. 32). They were justly condemned for idolatry. Just before this incident, however, the very same Israelites were commanded to create golden images of cherubim (Ex. 25:17-22) even though images of “anything that is in heaven” were also prohibited in the Decalogue (Ex. 20:4). What made the difference? It was the intention. One was properly formed to the glory of God and the other deformed and reduced the image of God to creature instead of Creator. The things that made the golden calf into idolatry are absent in the construction of the cherubim. Moving on to pornography: there is hardly anything in all of creation as detestable as the sexual slavery involved in the production of pornography. But even it is merely a perversion of an inherently good thing. Sex is a part of God’s original creation and his good intention. This good thing was merely “hijacked” by those who have departed from that intention. All of the things that make this sex act into pornography are absent in the consensual sex between husband and wife. It is no wonder that new creation is often attached to the image of fire (cf. 2 Pet. 3). The things which “infect” the goodness of creation are “purified by fire” until all that remains is God’s unadulterated good creation. When all idolatry is removed from statuary they become works of art to God’s glory. When all abuse and exploitation is removed from pornography what remains is the joining of man and woman which itself mirrors the intimate relationship between Christ and the church.

Too often our impoverished theology has forced us to reject certain parts of culture. What we need is to bring everything under the Lordship of Christ. What we need is a vision like Zechariah’s where everything is dedicated to God. “On that day there shall be inscribed on the bells of horses, ‘Holy to the LORD.’ And the cooking pots in the house of the LORD shall be as holy as the bowls in front of the altar; and every cooking pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be sacred to the LORD of hosts” (Zech. 1:20, 21). This is just a part of fulfilling our calling as human beings. So join me in being simply human. You were born to.

 

©M. Benfield 2016


1. Brian J. Walsh and J. Richard Middleton, The Transforming Vision, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1984), 43.
2. N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began, (New York: Harper Collins, 2016), 60.  All of chapter 3 is dedicated to explaining the ancient pre-Christian symbolism of the cross..
3. Cicero, Pro Rabirio 5.16, as quoted in The New Oxford Annotated Bible, fully revised 4th edition (Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010), 2002.
4. You can see my yoga practice on my Instagram Profile here.
5. This concern lead to the establishment of Praise Moves which advertises itself as “The Christian Alternative to Yoga.”
6. It is significant that Praise Moves recognizes the redemptive power of Christ in this regard, though they do not apply it consistently. E.g. they refuse to use the Anjali Mudra (prayer hands) because of its association with the Hindu religion, despite the fact that the prayer hands are a widely recognized Christian symbol. It seems that Praise Moves, while recognizing the redemptive power of Christ, considers some things to be beyond the pale of Jesus’ reconcialiatory power. You can read their explanation here.

How Then Shall I Live? (Part 1)

This article begins to bring together all of the ideas of previous articles.  We discussed how that we are embodied creatures.  This means that most often our minds do not run the show.  It is our non-cognitive affective part that guides our lives.  It is not perspective but passion, not conviction but concern, not our belief but our bodies that determine who we are.  We are not what we believe.  We are what we love.

We learned that we are teleological beings.  All of our loves are aimed at something.  We cannot merely love.  We always love something.  That something is a particular vision of The Good Life.  It is the social vision that we all work towards.  It is our own little kingdom.  We are desiring beings and we desire a kingdom.

Then we took a look at what the kingdom of God looks like by examining Revelation 21/22 (our “end”).  We also discussed what sort of person is aimed at that vision of the kingdom by defining what it means to be made in the image of God (our “beginning”).  Only a person who imitates God’s creative goodness, love, and justice is “aimed” at the New Jerusalem.  This leaves us with the question that will occupy this and upcoming articles: “How then shall I live?”  In other words, “How do I become that person?”

Aristotle offers insight in this regard.  First, he recognizes that education is not just about the right beliefs but about pleasures and pains, likes and dislikes.  In essence, he suggests that education is a bodily education of our loves.

“Thus ethical virtue is concerned with pleasures and pains; for we do what is bad for the sake of pleasure, and we abstain from doing what is noble because of pain.  In view of this, we should be brought up from our early youth in such a way as to enjoy and be pained by the things we should, as Plato says, for this is the right education.”1

Further, he views virtue from the beginning and from the end (as we did in previous articles).

“It should be noted that every virtue (a) makes that of which it is the virtue be well disposed and (b) makes it perform its function well; e.g., the virtue of an eye both makes the eye a good eye [its “beginning”] and makes it perform its function well [its “end”], for it is by virtue of the eye that we see well.  Similarly, the virtue of a horse makes (a) the horse a good horse [its “beginning”] and also (b) good at running and carrying its rider and facing the enemy [its “end].  So if such is the case in every instance, the virtue of a man, too, would be the habit from which he becomes good and performs his function well.”2

If we want to know how to be good (our “beginning”) and how to live into the vision of God’s kingdom (our “end) then we find ourselves firmly within the realm of habits.  For to be good and to live towards the right vision is to be virtuous, and virtue is a habit.  The following articles, therefore, will examine habits: #1 How we form habits. #2 How habits form us.  #3 and #4 How we may form bad habits without knowing.  #5 How we can be sure to develop habits which direct our love towards the kingdom of God.

Science has helped us to learn more about habits, how they are formed, and the “power” that they have to move our lives.  In recognition of this Charles Duhigg titled his New York Times Best Seller The Power of Habit.3 Duhigg describes what he calls “the habit loop” which consists of a cue, a routine, and a reward. To establish this he cites one study performed by MIT researchers in the 1990s.4 A rat was placed inside of a T-shaped maze. The rat was placed in the tunnel of the ‘T’ behind a partition. When a “click” sounded (the cue) the partition was raised. The rat then traveled slowly and cautiously down the tunnel at the end of which he was forced to turn either to the left where chocolate waited, or to the right which was a dead-end. When he successfully navigated the maze (the routine) he found the chocolate (the reward).  By sensors inserted into the rats’ brains the scientists were able to observe the brain activity of the rats as they repeatedly performed this exercise.  The results are important for our understanding of habits.  The first time each rat ran the maze the brain was wide awake.  The brain remained highly active in order to take in all of the new details.  Its high-alert status helped it to look out for potential dangers.  When it found the chocolate there was another spike in brain activity.  As the rat repeated the process he ran the maze faster and faster.  He knew the routine.  Run the tunnel, turn left, eat chocolate.  It no longer meandered or sniffed walls and corners.  It went straight for the goal with expert efficiency.  The amazing thing is what happened to his brain activity.  After the exercise had become a habit his brain activity bottomed out.  While waiting behind the petition his brain was still very active.  But the moment the cue sounded his body went into auto-pilot.  His brain knew the pattern so that it no longer had to exert itself.  Its decision making centers went quiet, even the memory went quiet!  The maze was not “remembered”, it was merely run.  The rat quite literally ran the maze without thinking.  Once he arrived at the chocolate the routine was completed and the habit-loop was closed.  His brain woke up again.

Each part of the habit-loop is important.  The cue is important because it indicates to our brain which pattern is appropriate for the scenario.  If the rat performed the same routine in response to a cat’s “meow” as it did to the “click” of the raised partition then the rat’s brain would shut down right at the time when it needed to be most alert and it would run right into the clutches of the cat.  The routine is important because thinking often impedes out actions.  Skills are performed most fluently when we do not have to think about them (e.g. typing, speaking a language, driving).  Also, when the brain is not focused on the performance of the routine it can think about other things.  This is what allows us to talk while we drive, make to-do lists while we get ready in the morning, and work through marital disputes while we take a mid-afternoon run.  Finally, the reward is important because it is what signals to the brain that the cue and routine are worth remembering.

Conclusions
1. As we have repeatedly emphasized, we are not primarily thinking-things or even believing-things.  We are desiring-things or loving-things.  What drives us is a bodily wanting not a cognitive believing.  Most of what we do is out of habit and a habit by definition is done without thinking.  This goes for our good habits as well as our bad habits.  This is why when we are insulted (that’s our cue) we often shift to a pattern of retaliation (routine) in order to gain revenge or equilibrium or some sense of “justice” (reward).  And after it’s all over, when we are apologizing for our insults and anger we say, “I’m sorry.  I wasn’t thinking.  I don’t know what got into me.”  It’s also the reason people like myself sometimes say things that make no sense.  On a number of occasions when the waitress has brought my food at a restaurant and said, “Enjoy your meal” I responded by saying, “You too.”  Even though the waitress has no meal to enjoy I have trained myself to respond to well-wishing (cue) with a benediction of my own (routine) in order to be polite (reward).  These good habits of well-wishing and good manners are just as reflexive and automatic as bad habits of anger and retaliation.

2. Because habits are performed without thinking then the answer to bad habits is not to change our thinking.  Chances are we already think rightly about bad habits.  It is our right thinking that labels bad habits as bad.  The problem is not in our thinking/belief.  The problem is in our bodies’ learned responses.  Therefore, in order to become the people we are intended to be we need a sort of education that targets the body instead of the mind.  This will be addressed in future articles.

For now the most important thing is that we realize how large a part the body plays in who we are as human beings.  The education of the body is the education of our habits.  This is why we are encouraged to give our bodies over to God.  “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Rom. 12:1).  This is what it means to be simply human.  So join me in giving our bodies over to God.  Because you were born to.

 


1. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. H.G. Apostle (Grinnell, IO: Peripatetic Press, 1984), B.1104b.10.
2. Ibid, B.1106a.15-25, brackets mine
3. Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit, Random House Trade Paperback Edition (New York: Random House, 2014).
4. Ibid, 12-21.

To Thine Own Self Be True

 

There is a lot of concern today with identity.  People go on long trips to “find themselves.”  Teenage years are filled with angst over “figuring out who I am.”  And this is applauded.  Authenticity, i.e. “being true to one’s self”, has become one of the highest virtues with the authority of the likes of Shakespeare behind it.  “This above all: to thine own self be true”1 Problems arise, however, when “who I am” turns out not to be so good. The drunk says to his battered wife when she asks him to quit drinking, “Get off my back! This is just who I am.” The promiscuous son retorts to his disapproving parents, “I thought you were supposed to accept me for who I am?”  And the liar confesses when asked why he can’t “just tell the truth”,  “I don’t know.  I guess it’s just who I am.”

Another similar thing happens whenever a person makes a mistake and responds, “Well, what do you expect?  I’m only human.”  Addiction, sexual promiscuity, and lying are now identities and making mistakes has some how become synonymous with what it means to be human.  But the Bible tells quite a different story.

Man was not created for addiction and injustice, but for freedom, service, goodness, and creativity.  That is what it means to reflect the image of God into the world.   That is “who we are” and that is what it means to be “human.”  Whenever we fail to do and be these things we are being something other than what we were created to be.  Imaging God into the world by extending his dominion over creation is part of Man’s “glory” (cf. Ps. 8:5-8) and falling short of this sacred charge is the very definition of sin.  “[A]ll have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).  This means that I am “myself” when I live out God’s goodness in the world, not when I am giving into to my base impulses and fulfilling my carnal passions.  I am most “human,” not when I err from God’s glory, but when I fulfill it.

This is why Jesus, the True Human Being, is in fact sinless.  Or rather, because he is sinless he is the True Human Being, he is “the image of God” (Col. 1:15).  Therefore, if we would know what it means to be truly ourselves, indeed truly human, we must deny “ourselves” and follow Christ.  He will show us the way. By his own admission he is the Way (cf. John 14:6).

C.S. Lewis describes this marvelously:

“The more we get what we now call ‘ourselves’ out of the way and let Him take us over, the more truly ourselves we become … It is no good trying to ‘be myself’ without Him … Give up yourself, and you will find your real self.  Lose your life and you will save it”2

With qualification, then, we agree with Shakespeare:  “To thine ownself be true.”  But we must know that being true to ourselves does not mean giving into our weaknesses, quite the opposite.  And “finding ourselves” or “figuring out who we are” is not as much an inward journey as it is an outward one.  We do not find ourselves by following our inward impulses but by looking beyond ourselves to the roads of Nazareth and Jerusalem where walked the True Human Being, to the cross where he was crucified, and to the tomb from which he arose.  He will show us who we are, if only we are willing to follow him.  So, join me in being simply human.  You were born to.

©M. Benfield 2016

 


1. Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1 Scene III 78-82.
2. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 225, 226.