A large part of my reading the past few years has helped me understand theologically how Christianity and church is about training and ordering our desires. The Christian life is not just believing the ‘right things’ but in having our very passions and desires re-directed towards their correct location, Jesus.
It takes habits and practices, of worship, and ministry to re-train our desires, so we learn to love the world ‘rightly’ fully and deeply. Christianity in that respects is a deeply material religion, and about re-connection to the world, in the face of a post-modern culture that so often instrumentalises the world, using it for superficial experience. As Augustine would say, it’s not that we love the world too much it’s that we don’t love the world enough at all.
Our shopping habits, leisure habits, recreation are all ways we give time, energy and money to what we think life is about, and those practices are an ascetic that shape an forms us in certain ways. The saying, ‘when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping’ reveals that training and who we cope with stress and life and desire.
But beyond theological descriptions, can we see those habits playing out in other areas of life, described and evidenced in other ways? I came across this article about why will power isn’t enough for dieting. I think it brings a great deal to bear on how we understand our Christian and not so Christian habits, especially with the most vital of desires, eating and food.
Will Power is not enough
The premise of the article based on research is simple enough, our conscious will power is not enough to overcome our emotional and unconscious experiences of food. We are permanently overwhelmed by desires that are stronger than our decisions.
The article goes on to say, ‘the conscious mind is only able to process approximately 50 bits of information per second, while your unconscious mind processes approximately 11 million bits per second.3 This means your unconscious mind processes information about 220 THOUSAND TIMES FASTER than your conscious mind.’ There is so much going on inside that that overwhelms what we want to do and be.
Most immediately we might consider how despite our best intentions and decision about the Christian life, in some of the most profound moments of life, we are unable to follow through on them and have them become part of who we are.
The responses in the article offer hope for how we might begin to form life around the desires we deem as the most important.
Association, priming and ritual
Seems the keys are:
1) Association: consciously connecting what we are doing to why we are doing it. It’s not enough to read the bible instead of watching TV, we have to build associations and think about why reading the bible is good/enjoyable. Why? Because we have tens of thousands of hours of experiences of watching TV, that draw us to that instead of the bible. Have you notice how people who are really into the bible turn to the bible more easily? No wonder when they have great associations to draw on that are stronger than the desire for other things. You can scale this up against other practices.
2) Priming: What is around us determines how we behave. It’s why adverts are all around us. What we surround our lives with, set us up for behaviours. If putting unhealthy snacks out the way stops us wanting to eat them, it’s the same for all our other desires and behaviours.
3) Ritual: The old and true adage that practicing a behaviour for 21 days becomes part of who we are and what we do. That makes sense of people who can be a Christian and involved in church life, who after just a month or two of practicing a different way of life away from everyone, can seem to left their faith behind and find it so hard to establish and get back into their faith with others. And for those of us determined to order our lives around our faith, no wonder we find it so hard!
When we look at the diaries of people living in London, at what we give our time and energy and resources to on a daily basis, evening, weekends, and compare that what we give our attention to in terms of Christian faith, no wonder the habits of consumerism win out so often.
Yet we also see that all of us have almost ruthless abilities to bend all of life around practices and habits, and if we can tap into those resources our ability to centre our desires and life around Jesus suddenly seem also very possible. Least of all the promise and interaction of the Holy Spirit around those practices to help us.