“When will I ever learn?” On over-spiritualizing our spiritual lives

September 9, 2015

Dwight rescues Jim from temptation.

Dwight ends up rescuing Jim from temptation.

One of my favorite episodes of my favorite television show, The Office, is called “After Hours,” from Season 8. In the episode, Jim and several employees from the Dunder-Mifflin Scranton office are in Tallahassee for a two-week business trip. One of these employees, Cathy, invites herself into Jim’s hotel room, telling him that her room’s thermostat is broken and can she hang out in his room while maintenance repairs it?

Reluctantly, Jim—made visibly uncomfortable at the prospect of being alone in a hotel room with a beautiful young woman—agrees. At first, he sits on the floor while Cathy lounges on the bed.

Throughout the episode, Jim tries to discern whether or not Cathy is coming on to him. When he decides that she is, he contrives a reason for Dwight to intrude on them, thereby rescuing him from temptation.

At one point, the lecherous Stanley, who is known to be cheating on his wife, enters Jim’s room, eyes Cathy on the bed, smiles knowingly, and says, “Careful, Jim. It gets easier and easier.”

Frightening words, and true: Any behavior, good or bad, becomes easier as it’s repeated, in part because of physical changes in our brain chemistry. New neural  pathways are carved out that facilitate the behavior, the way a riverbed facilitates the flow of water. Once these pathways are created, through habit, changing the flow becomes far more difficult. (I blogged about this a while back in relation to internet pornography.)

In After You Believe, N.T. Wright’s book on Christian sanctification—which is the formation of our character through our collaborative work with the Holy Spirit—Wright makes the same point:

Most people in today’s Western world, I suspect, think of their minds as more or less neutral machines that can be turned this way and that. When I drive down the road to London, and then when I drive up the road to Edinburgh, nothing changes in the structure  of the car. But supposing the car had a kind of internal memory, recording the journeys I’d made, so that when I set off in the general direction of London—a trip I make often—the car might click into “we’re going to London” mode and nudge me to take the London-bound road, even if in fact I had been intending this time to go to Birmingham? I would then have to make a more conscious choice to refuse the pathway the car had chosen and to compel it to do the things it hadn’t expected.

In the same way, supposing a decision to cheat on my tax return leaves an electronic pathway in the brain which makes it easier to cheat on other things—or people—as well? Or supposing the decision to restrain my irritation with a boring neighbor on the train, and to cultivate instead a calm patience, leaves a pathway which makes it easier to be patient when someone subsequently behaves in a  truly offensive manner?… [I]t seems as though the idea of developing “moral muscles” by analogy with people going to the gym to develop physical ones, may be closer than we imagined.[1]

In Wright’s book on the Psalms, which I read in preparation for my new sermon series, he refers back to this idea in After You Believe. In Psalm 23, for instance, when David speaks of God’s “restoring” his soul, we shouldn’t think of this restoration as merely a spiritual process; it’s also physical. Our soul, which exists independently of the body, is still shaped by the hard work of physical discipline.

Therefore, the more we read and meditate on the Psalms and the rest of scripture—the more we pray, the more we worship, the more we make time for devotional reading, etc., the easier it becomes to trust in the Lord and lean not on our own understanding; the easier it is to see that our cup overflows; the easier it is to find that, in God, we have everything we need.

Not surprisingly, the times in my life as a Christian when I’ve felt furthest from God are those times when I’ve most neglected the practices of the Christian life. I now see that I blamed God for this: I was waiting for him to make the first move—to strengthen my faith, to give me some new epiphany, to give me some new spiritual experience—after which I’d start “living it out” more faithfully. What a fool I was! I had it exactly backwards.

Wright continues:

If learning virtue is like learning a language it is also like acquiring a taste, or practicing a musical instrument. None of these “comes naturally” to begin with. When you work at them, though they begin to feel more and more “natural,” until that aspect of your “character” is formed so that, at last, you attain the hard-won freedom of fluency in the language, happy familiarity with the taste, competence on the on the instrument.[2]

The bottom line is this: God sanctifies us in part through physical changes in our body, which occur slowly and with practice, as we commit ourselves to the hard work of disciplined Christian living. The secret to “learning to live in God” is really no big secret: we learn it, in large part, on our knees.

1. N.T. Wright, After You Believe (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 39.

2. Ibid., 42.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s