Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

The Problem of Mixed Motives

I’ve been talking to people lately about a roadblock that I think I see in spiritual growth.  It looks like a two-step process: (1) “get” (understand) the principle and then (2) “apply” it, which means to incorporate it into our, attitudes and practices, to make it part of who we are.  Knowledge and application are both critical.  But there’s something missing.

I’ve also been thinking and writing a lot about emotions, lately, and I’m caught in a paradox.  On the one hand, I think we insufficiently understand the role and power of emotional tonality for spiritual maturity, because we have a much impoverished vocabulary.  We tend to reduce emotions to talk about “how we feel” about something.  On the other hand, when it comes to Christian doctrine, we tend to avoid feelings, because we’ve been taught that emotions actually muck up understanding.

Consider the connection between emotions, desires and motives and let’s try a little scenario.  I desire to grow spiritually in some way, let’s say, in prayer.  (Desire: I want a more intimate relationship with God.)  I can read a book, hear a teaching and gain a new understanding of the practice.  OK, so I’ve done step 1.  I understand better.  Now, I’m supposed to “apply” what I’ve “learned.”

(Hint: merely understanding a concept is not yet learning.)

Actually, when I start trying to “apply” the new “knowledge,” I discover that it’s really harder than it first seemed.  Prayer takes time.  And focus.  And persistence.   Persistence requires a degree of courage.  Notice the emotional tonality?

But I am busy.  I can’t get that song out of my head when I’m trying to pray.  I’m distracted by work projects and a million other thoughts.  I’m tempted to give up (discouragement – more emotional tonality).  And now comes the problem of mixed motive.  (1) I want to learn to pray fruitfully, effectually.  (2) I’m not inclined to demonstrate the persistence that fruitful praying takes.  So, (1) I desire to pray and (2) I desire not to go through the time-consuming process to get at the goal.

Actually, in reflection, I discover that I want the benefits of prayer (peace, confidence that I know God’s will, other benefits), especially as the book on prayer describes them.  It sounded so good there!  But prayer is interacting with God.  Well, I do want to interact with God, but on my terms, in my time frame, under my own schedule and with the envisioned benefits, as I’ve already mentioned.  When I discover that they don’t come that way, my desire for intimacy with God is tested.

And – dare I speak for God!? – God is more interested in my growing to maturity than in meeting my deadlines or other criteria for receiving the benefit of prayer.  And when I begin to realize this point, I’m challenged with awareness of my mixed motives.  I do want to pray and grow in intimacy with God.  I also want it to occur according to my designs.  What happens when the motives clash?

To grow spiritually, we need to think about and recognize mixed motives.  Where do your mixed motives reside?

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July 26, 2010 Posted by | Biblical Preaching/Teaching, Christian Spirituality, Religion | , , , , , | 2 Comments

Discerning Our Desires

People who read John Wesley and study early Methodism know quite well that the only criterion for joining a Methodist society was “the desire to flee the wrath to come.”  Sometimes this statement is used as an argument against doctrinal debate, i.e. Methodists shouldn’t argue about doctrinal differences because the ground of our unity lies elsewhere.  I’ve been mulling over what “the desire to flee the wrath to come” actually entails and it is stirring the waters of my soul.

Immediately, I notice that Wesley is using the language of John the Baptist: “Who warned you [brood of vipers] to flee the wrath to come?”  (See, e.g. Matthew 3:7.)  In the biblical context, it has an eschatological tone.  It points to the ultimate purposes of God loosed in the world and to a particularly definitive moment in history – the appearance of the Messiah.  In other words, we’re not just talking “revival” in the bland, presumptive sense we often use the word.  John the Baptist isn’t leading a “revival.”  He is evidence of the day of the Lord.  The more I read Wesley’s journal, the more I think he felt similarly about the Methodist movement.  In one sense, I just stated the obvious, but I think we’re not paying sufficient attention to this particular feature.

Next, I notice the word “desire.”  “Desire” suggests a positive pull of the heart toward an object that produces intentional action in order to realize the desire.  People did not get into Methodist society without actually desiring to do so.  Compare this thought with the tradition of “joining the church” so common to us now.  I’ve heard it said – and I’m inclined to agree more and more – that it should be a lot harder to join the church than it is.  It’s not too much of an overstatement to say that today’s version of church membership in generally meaningless.  I know some glorious exceptions, of course.  But not many.

Finally,  the desire is “to flee the wrath…”  Admittedly, Wesley’s journal is biased.  It’s aimed toward presenting certain features of Methodism, partly to disprove the charges leveled against Methodism and to make a defense of their legitimacy, and partly to instruct Methodists on how to perceive and feel their Christian experience.  But, even with these biases shaping the journal, we still read what people actually thought and felt.  They had a sense of God’s holiness that has almost totally vanished in our day and time.  Oh, we can pick up a stray reference to “justice” in various circles or to “morality” in others, particularly when someone is advocating a cause.   I’m talking about the awful, aching personal, heartfelt awareness of God’s purity and power.  We think too much of God as “our ever present help in time of need” and not nearly enough of God as “a consuming fire.”

And the words we use repeatedly; the concepts that dominate our thinking about God will shape our emotional lives.  “Desire” has emotional tonality.  In other words, the words that we use to describe our spiritual lives shape our hearts.

Those early Methodists wanted to flee the wrath to come.  What do we want?

June 25, 2010 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Doctrine/Theology, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Emotional Impact of Good Thinking

There is a long practice (or prejudice) in Christian history that separates “head” and “heart.”  It comes to us most strongly, perhaps, from the Pietist movement that began in Germany in the 17th century.  People who identify themselves as “evangelical” know this terrain very well.  We pietist evangelicals use this kind of language commonly to describe inauthentic religion (“mere” head knowledge) and authentic religion (heart knowledge).  I don’t like this trade-off and I’m sure I’m not the only one who doesn’t.  The head-heart trade-off is a false dichotomy.

It turns out that good thinking involves having the right kind of feelings, a point to which Christians need to pay close attention.  We need, therefore, to quit talking about “head knowledge” versus “heart knowledge.”

I rather feel like I’m stating the obvious here, but let me try out this idea anyway.  Let’s try to notice the difference between between two aspects of learning.  “Learning” can mean something like cognitive mastery – I “get” (i.e. understand and can manipulate) an idea and can make use of it in other ideas.  I’m afraid that, usually when we talk about learning doctrine, we put it in this framework.  But (by itself) it isn’t learning.  It is reductionistic and looks much like the “head knowledge” we decry.

If we follow the usual path, at this point we switch to “heart knowledge” for the corrective, but it is precisely here that we start going wrong.  We go wrong because with “heart knowledge,” sound doctrine (good thinking) tends to get downplayed.  Oh, yes, we know that believing the right things matters, but really it matters mostly to prove our orthodoxy, our being on the “right side” of a controversy.  For spirituality, by contrast, what  really matters is how one feels and what one does.  Does one feel love for Jesus?  Does one do what Christians are supposed to do (go to church, tithe, feed the poor, etc.)?

If we want to work on “heart knowledge” we tend to look to the spiritual disciplines to help us.  So, we read books on prayer and mysticism, or fasting, or some other practice.  We tend not to read books on theology, partly because “theology” has become so technical that only professional academics can use the lingo.

So we pietist evangelicals fall off the log the other direction and reduce the Christian faith to “heart knowledge.”   In truth – and it’s critically important that we “get” this point –  “learning” something means doing the hard cognitive work for understanding and being taken by, possessed by, the truth of God’s revelation.  It is still mental and conceptual, but it is more than mere mastery of concepts.  The ideas become personal – the will has yielded and “made it personal” in a more-than-merely-cognitive way.  In learning, I’m not merely manipulating an idea.  That idea permeates my whole being.   Clearly, this sort of learning affects our emotional tone and we become, over time, different, renewed, transformed people.

If my chain of thought is sound, it means we Christians need to spend a lot more time with doctrine/theology: reflectively, ponderingly, persistently, leisurely, slowly, prayerfully.

December 28, 2009 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Doctrine/Theology, Religion | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment