Tuesday, March 06, 2018

We Are Who We Are

Years ago I read a very insightful book called Desiring the Kingdom by James K A Smith. Smith makes the observation that The Enlightenment gave rise to the idea put forth by Rene Descartes of “I think therefore I am.” Fundamentalism, which manifested in America as a reaction to The Enlightenment countered with “I believe therefore I am.” However Smith argues that there is something much deeper going on in human existence and that is that we humans are fundamentally creatures of desire. (This is one of the reasons why you rarely ever see folks on social media actually coming around to another person’s way of thinking even when presented with overwhelming facts to the contrary. We humans are not primarily rational thinking or believing beings but rather at a deeper level beings of desire and we each desire for the world to be a certain way.) So in Smith’s estimation the best way to understand our existence is in terms of “I love therefore I am.” This is a brilliant statement because it recognizes both that we are creatures of desire and that the most noble of desires and the most central to our existence and thriving in the world is love. But what is also implicit in the statement “I love therefore I am” is that love itself requires a context. Love cannot exist as a merely solo endeavor but requires others. 

In Romans 12 the Apostle Paul notes that the formation of our desires is going to happen one way or another and he sets forth 2 ways in which this can happen in Romans 12:2 

Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature. 

The first way we are formed, or perhaps the default way we are formed is by external social pressure by society and culture. If we are not mindful and intentional with the shaping of our desires they will be shaped for us by what is going on around us. Advertisers know this all too well and so they show us pictures of the “good life” we could have if we just use their products. Marketing and advertising firms are just tapping in to the fundamental desire within all humans to keep up with the Joneses. The desire itself isn’t the problem because we humans are social creatures who learn by reflecting and participating in the desires around us and yet it is obvious that mindlessly trying to keep up with the Joneses is not truly a recipe for a fulfilling life. 

But fortunately that is not the only way our desires are shaped. Paul writes that instead of being squeezed into the mold of society and culture we need to experience transformation by renewing our minds (changing our thinking). How does this transformation happen? Paul’s answer for this is in the preceding verse: 
I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God (Romans 12:1). 
What does it mean to present yourself as a living sacrifice? I think maybe this is a matter of living sacrificially. Living sacrificially means that you don’t just do what you want when you want to but rather you give up something of great value to you in the moment for something of immeasurably more value in the future. Anyone who has ever been successful at getting out of debt or setting aside money for an emergency fund has encountered this principle. This is one of the reasons that sacrifice is such a major component of most religions because it is key to not simply surviving but truly living a virtuous life. 

However there is one more component that is easy to overlook in Romans 12 and that is the context of community in shaping one’s desires. This whole chapter (along with most everything Paul wrote) is not merely about a bunch of individuals with a private spirituality working on their own lives disconnected from one another but rather how we experience transformation individually as we live sacrificially together as we move towards something of infinite value (Christ). This is one of the most powerful aspects of groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. While AA is known for the 12 Steps, the context in which the steps are practiced are every bit as important as the steps themselves. No one serious about recovery embarks on the 12 Steps alone. Instead they find an AA meeting which is nothing more than a group of people who all wish to learn how to live life soberly. Though everybody in an AA meeting desires alcohol (that desire is part of the problem) they have surrounded themselves with a group of people who are trying to live sacrificially (not drink) so that they can experience life in a better way down the road. 

So to summarize a few ideas here…
  1. Humans are fundamentally creatures of desire 
  2. Humans learn and are shaped primarily through social interaction (we tend to desire what the ones around us desire). 
  3. The most virtuous ways of living (for the Christian this would be the teachings of Jesus) do not come naturally to us and require great sacrifice to attain.
  4. If the above statements are true, then one of the greatest acts of mindfulness and intentionality in which we can engage is in the company we keep. If you truly want to experience transformation then you must make an effort to invest in community and in relationship with others that desire the same things.
  5. The result of this process is that as we experience transformation within community we also help others experience transformation. We become wounded healers. 
Reflection questions:
How are my desires being shaped by the company I keep?

If I wanted to change something in my life whether breaking free of a bad habit, engaging in community service, or learning a skill, do I have people in my life who value the same things and with whom I could live more intentionally?

What are the relationships in my life that have the greatest potential of shaping my desires in a positive way?

What are the relationships in my life that tend to shape my desires in a negative way?

Invite the Holy Spirit to lead you through a time of reflecting on your relationships while asking for direction concerning the relationships in your life that you need to focus more on or those which you may need to spend less time on.

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