You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit
This month's book response come from Vanessa Fischer. Though she currently lives in St. Louis, Vanessa spent many significant years at Cornerstone, was part of the administrative staff and school of discipleship, and still holds connections to many Cornerstonians.
As we read through book reviews, may our ears be attentive to the Spirit and may our minds discern and consider truth well. Also remember the words of the Preacher from Ecclesiastes: The writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body. The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments.
If you are interested in being assigned a book to review and respond to, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
What do you want?
The answer to this question is telling. It not only makes a statement about what we value, but what we love and the trajectory in which we choose to live. This is the premise of James K.A. Smith’s book You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit.
As Christians, we have been trained to say that what we want most is for God to be glorified and for His kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. Yet, in reality there are many other desires that take precedence in our lives. While we may confess with our mouths that we love God, our actions - or more specifically, our habits - often communicate a different story.
Smith’s thesis challenges us to view humans primarily as lovers (as opposed to the “thinking-things” we are often confined to). As lovers, what we pursue most are the things we love most. Though what we think we love may not be what we actually love. To make this a bit messier, many of the other loves we pursue beside God are not inherently evil, in fact they are often deemed good. These loves – such as family, friends, creation care, and work – become problematic when they are ordered wrongly and elevated to a place where they were never intended to sit. So, how do we remove the idolatry from within our hearts and order our loves appropriately? Smith suggests worship is at the heart of this transformation.
Worship is (or at least should be) at the center of the Church experience, for when we are worshiping God all the lesser gods that seek to dominate our lives are revealed for what they are. This then creates space for us to choose which God we will serve. We will always worship something and the something we worship will be what we love (for the theological types, you may pick up on the Augustinian influence). How then does worship form our hearts? Smith says...
“The practices of Christian worship train our love – they are practice for the coming kingdom, habituating us as citizens of the Kingdom of God.”
Habits are simply habits. They are not magical nor do they hold any power within themselves to change us. We all practice habits whether we realize it or not. Brushing our teeth, driving a car, checking Facebook, reading before bed – these are all habits we have been trained to do with automatically. However, if we want to tune our hearts to God and His kingdom our hearts need to be formed in the same manner that the routines of our lives have been. Spiritual habits are the avenue through which our hearts can be reoriented and re-calibrated to the beat of God’s heart and His kingdom. If worship is the avenue through which are hearts are formed, then discipleship is the curator for these heart-forming practices. Smith challenges us not only to engage more deeply in worship, but to adopt a new perspective on discipleship - a perspective that looks to form hearts through imitation and practice rather than simply through the intake of more knowledge.
How then do we go about forming these habits? First, we must recognize that we live in a world of liturgies. Nearly everyone who has any experience in the Church will have some immediate response to the world liturgy but it doesn’t need to be defined by the lifeless cycle it often gets trapped in. Smith encourages us to see liturgies as cultural practices or the rituals that happen all around us everyday that form us, for better and worse. These liturgies tell us who/what to love and who/what is worth loving. Heart formation requires worship through ancient practices and discipleship through imitation all while helping us become anthropologists of the world around so that we can call out the liturgies that inform our lives for what they in order for the work of deforming and reforming our lives around God’s liturgy to begin.
All that being said, I periodically found myself asking where the role of the mind fits within this framework. The Old Testament writers beckon us to love God with our minds. Paul invites us to “take every thought captive” and teaches that transformation comes “through the renewing of our minds.” While me may not primarily be thinking-things, our mind and the way we think certainly does matter. Therefore, I am left wondering how Smith would marry these two perspectives.
In the end, Smith’s book is descriptive more than it is prescriptive but he does provide some contextual examples of how embracing people as lovers with hearts to be formed can be engaged not only within the Church but also within our homes and our vocations. Sometimes, a book is just a book and leaves you with a few action points. Other times you connect with an author so deeply that the words of the page touch your heart, mind, or soul in such a way that you are compelled to see your life and the world around you differently. This is one of those books. If you want your concepts of worship, discipleship and disciplines to be challenged or refined, this book will do that. By the time you reach the last page I promise you will want to engage your relationships and the world around you differently as you are invited to receive the transformative power of Christian practices in a fresh, life-giving way.
“Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”
― Augustine of Hippo, Confessions
May the result of all our formation be the rest that can only come from a heart that knows and loves God above all else.