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What Makes Us Change?

Posted by Van Barnhill on

In Season 3 of his acclaimed podcast, Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell (author of cultural insights like The Tipping Point and Outliers) poses the question as to when does new information change behavior. The episode is called “Burden of Proof and features Gladwell giving a lecture at the University of Pennsylvania. The lecture told the story about the long-ago fight over miner’s asthma and about the more recent and unforeseen death of a Penn student named Owen Thomas. Thomas had been a football player at Penn and had committed suicide three years earlier due to the effects of CTE. Through both stories, Gladwell pushes his audience to consider “How much evidence do we need of the harmfulness of some behavior before we act?”

In a wonderful book called You Are What You Love, James KA Smith wrestles with a similar question. “Do you ever experience a gap between what you know and what you do? Have you ever found that new knowledge and information don’t seem to translate into a new way of life? Ever had the experience of hearing an incredibly illuminating and informative sermon on a Sunday, waking up Monday morning with new resolve and conviction to be different, and already failing by Tuesday night? You are hungry for knowledge; you thirstily drink up biblical ideas; you long to be Christlike, yet all of that knowledge doesn’t seem to translate into a way of life. It seems we can’t think our way to holiness.”

While both Gladwell and Smith want to see people make improvements and changes for the better, their means to do so differ. Gladwell believes that with enough evidence, the burden of proof will compel people to change and get their act together. Smith, through personal experience and observation, sees a hard-to-bridge gap between knowing and doing...especially when it comes to the Christian life. Reminiscent of James 1:22-23, Smith recognizes the human tendency to hear something good and true, then never follow up with it again.

In Philippians 1, Paul prays that the recipients of his letter would abound in their love (v.9) so that they would/could grow in knowledge, discernment, and purity. So that they may be “filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (v.11). To think and act and be right, they had to first love and love well. Paul is saying that our actions and habits are formed more by our desires (ie. what/who we love) than what we know to be true. This is why Smith defines discipleship as “a way to curate your heart, to be attentive to and intentional about what you love.” He calls it “more a matter of hungering and thirsting than of knowing and believing.”

This is psalmist-type language. If you read Psalm 42 or 63, you’ll see words like thirsting and panting. You’ll see someone who longs for the Lord. If you read Psalm 119, you’ll see words like love and delight. You’ll see someone who finds joy in the Lord and considers His very words sweeter than honey (v.103)  and more valuable than riches (v. 14). Someone who has had their affections completely captivated by the goodness of the Lord. Sanctification is less about learning new information and more about delighting in the One who brings about life transformation. We shouldn’t settle for knowing the right things...our hope and prayer should be that we love the right things. That we are growing in the grace and knowledge of Christ. We need to consider how we can stir up our affections for the Lord. We need to consider how our hearts are curated.

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