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What You Love Shapes Who You Are
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. – 1 John 5:1-3
Those who are of God love what God loves. God loves His children and Apostle John in his letter directs Christians to do the same, to love one another. God is delighted when His children obey and live according to His will as revealed in His commandments. Believers do not see God’s commandments as heavy and vexatious. We are a new creation in Christ and therefore we love to follow our master’s decrees. However, we also recognize that loving others or loving what God loves is not an easy task and it requires our daily surrender and dependence upon God. We need the power of God’s Spirit working within us and our daily intentional meditation and application of His Word.
You are What You Love
James K. A. Smith has written a book called, “You are What You Love”, which I found to be helpful in bringing insight to the topic of love and the nature of Christian spiritual formation. This is the process of being conformed to the image of Jesus Christ for the glory of God and for the sake of others (2 Corinthians 3:17-18). I will briefly develop these themes and explain how they might be helpful in our pursuit of loving what God loves.
The first and main theme of Smith’s book that I would like to identify is that we are what we love. The second theme is that we do not always love what we think we love. What we deeply love ultimately shapes who we are and how we will live our lives. The desire, craving and deep yearning of our heart is what propels or draws us into certain actions and behavior. The scripture cautions that, “…out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander…[because] the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?…”1 This means that our hearts need to be changed and we do not always love what we think we love. The heart of every person born is deceitful and sick. The heart is our core being and in desperate need of a doctor. The good news is that God has promised “…I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh…”2 Jesus is the ultimate heart surgeon who can help a sick humanity with all the corrupt longings and desires.
What do you want?
That is why Jesus asked His first followers Matthew and John the pointed question: “What do you want?”3, because we are what we want and desire. This gives us a helpful insight into the nature of Spiritual formation, which presents opportunities to look within and become familiar with what drives and motivates us to live and act the way we do. For me to live a spiritual life, and see Christ continue to transform my heart, requires certain ancient Christian spiritual disciplines. Reading through Smith’s book I am again reminded about the importance and power of habit, and how daily practices often unconsciously shapes what we love. This is not just spiritual habits and disciplines, but also our cultural habits that we do not even consciously think about. For instance, “…American adults spend more than 11 hours per day watching, reading, listening to or simply interacting with media, according to a new study by market-research group Nielsen…”4 Without a doubt the habits surrounding social media and technology has had an immense effect on what our society craves, pursues and loves. This is a challenge for me as a pastor to help our congregation to wake up to the fact that their deepest desire is formed and revealed through our daily habits. There is nothing wrong with utilizing social media for good, but we have to be very careful not to be more connected online than we are in person. This means that people cannot enjoy the abundant life Christ has promised without examining and changing daily habits. Our actions and words, whether good or evil, come from the overflow of our hearts. We receive a new heart by God’s grace and through faith in Christ, but we are also required to imitate Christ and adopt His daily spiritual habits as described in the Word, because our loves are also gained and shaped through the practices we are engaged in and occupied by.
Our Wants are Located in Our Hearts
Our wants are located in our hearts and God wants His people to want Him above all else.5 When we repent and believe in Christ we are born again with a new heart capable of following and obeying Jesus’ commands and teachings. This is the beginning of an exciting but difficult journey of faith and now we need to daily, “…align our loves and longings with his – to want what God wants, to desire what God desires, to hunger and thirst after God and crave a world where he is all…”6 Like Apostle John mentions in our passage, “everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him” (vs. 1). Jesus teaches His disciples about God and gives us knowledge to fill and renew our minds, but He also forms and changes what we love. That is why God warns us to guard our hearts, for everything we do flows from it.7 The author points out an important factor about the Christian understanding of discipleship and how often the approach to following Jesus has been an educational and academic undertaking. Acquiring information and knowledge has been at the forefront of becoming more like Christ and spiritual growth. The majority of focus for some has been the discipleship of the mind. This is of course true, as we are taught in the scriptures about the importance of taking every thought captive to obey Christ and experiencing transformation through the renewal of our minds.8 We must be willing to learn, study, store up knowledge and delight in God’s Word. However, the truth of the matter is that we do not just think our way to holiness; we do not experience sanctification through information transfer. On the other hand, we do not want to slide into anti-intellectualism or emotionalism but to embrace a more holistic biblical approach to discipleship that takes into consideration the power of habit and encourages spiritual disciplines. This is where we see a helpful insight to the nature of spiritual formation and the power of spiritual practices in changing what we love.
In the same way Smith’s second major theme is that we are not always conscious of what we love because, “…the formation of my loves and desires can be happening ‘under the hood’ of consciousness. I might be learning to love a telos (an ultimate object or aim) that I’m not even aware of…”9 We often have an ultimate objective or aim that is governing our lives in unconscious ways. This is why the self-examination and confession of sins are crucial habits to the spiritual growth of believers. The author skillfully connects our unconscious loves with unrecognized cultural practices as cultural liturgies. The idea that our cultural practices are not just things we do, but like church liturgies, they are doing something to us. This is why it is so important for Christians to build healthy habits of assembling at church every Sunday and participating in weekly corporate time of prayer and gathering in small groups. Most of what we do everyday is the outcome of unconscious choices, or what psychologists refer to as automaticities –– what Aristotle called “second nature”. That is why it is time to stop underestimating the power of habit and start embracing the ancient spiritual practices that can help shape what we love. We need to put a healthy emphasis on practicing spiritual disciplines like; Silence, Fasting, Frugality, Chastity, Secrecy10, Sacrifice, Study, Worship, Celebration, Service, Prayer, Fellowship, Confession and Submission.11 To further study these disciplines I recommend Richard J. Foster’s book “Celebration of Discipline” and Dallas Willard’s book “The Spirit of the Discipline.” As we choose to engage in repeated formative practices over a long period of time they become habits and we start to inscribe them into our unconscious. This is how we intentionally acquire automaticities.
Spiritual Taste Buds
The challenge for all of us is to come alongside one another to learn together how to identify the negative and deformative cultural practices in our city and homes. We need to recognize the rival deformative liturgies in our city and communities that have been shaping what people love. For instance, the city of Vancouver is immersed in materialism, addictions and social consumption. There is a habit of greed and overspending on material things people do not need and/or cannot afford. The habit of pursuing wealth, possessions and physical pleasure has shaped and also reveals what Vancouverites love and live for. Our aim as Christians should be to help people find faith in Christ and teach them to start practicing spiritual disciplines with the hope that over a period of time these become habits that will shape what they love and hunger for. We need to realize our habits greatly impact our cravings or spiritual taste buds to hunger and thirst for Christ daily who is the only bread of life and living water that satisfies our profound existential and spiritual cravings.
Smith, James K. A. “You are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit.” BrazosPress: Grand Rapids, 2016.
Willard, Dallas. “The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives” HarperOne: New York, 1988.