“The battle to be like Jesus is won or lost in milliseconds.”
That’s a quote from my recent podcast with Tim and David about “Why We Don’t Love Like Jesus.” I was making the point that our battle to follow Jesus is more emotional than intellectual. Intellectually, we know the point of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. We don’t, I expect, need a refresher course. Nor do we need to be reminded of the Parable of the Sheep and Goats from Matthew 25, how Jesus is encountered in the homeless, naked, hungry, thirsty, sick, and incarcerated.
Love isn’t an educational problem for us. We know what we need to do.
And yet we don’t.
We don’t love the way Jesus loves because our emotional reactions to people are so rapid and unconscious they hijack and override every Sunday School lesson we’ve ever heard about the Parable of the Good Samaritan. As the Nobel Award winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, emotions are “thinking fast” and intellectualization is “thinking slow.”
Thus, the battle to follow Jesus is won or lost in those milliseconds when we first encounter people, in the instantaneous flashes of contempt, irritation, anger, fear or disgust we feel toward others. Social feelings flood our brains with neurotransmitters and hormones, hijacking our theology before we even have time to think.
So if we want to follow Jesus we have to do battle with our emotions. And yet, emotions aren’t so easily changed. Feelings don’t flip off and on like a light switch. When you’re depressed, the advice “Don’t worry, be happy!” isn’t very helpful. And the same goes for our feelings about people!
So our problem isn’t education, but formation. Social reactions are changed through habits and practices that slowly, over time, rewire our emotions.
Now, we’ve all heard this before, how spiritual formation is vital to forming a Christ-like character. But when we think of spiritual formation we tend to think of practices that focus on the vertical, divine, transcendent dimension—the God and Me relationship. We think of practices like Sabbath, prayer, worship, fasting, Scriptural study and silence.
What is missing in most conversations about spiritual disciplines is attention to the horizontal, human, interpersonal dimension—the You and Me relationship. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says that if you are going to church and you recall that your brother or sister has something against you, turn around and go first be reconciled with your brother or sister. Then you can go to church. When it comes to spiritual practices, Jesus says privilege the human over the divine. And yet, that’s precisely what tends to get ignored in most calls for spiritual formation.
If we want to love the way Jesus loved we need to target our emotional reactions toward people by adopting spiritual formation practices that focus on interpersonal relationships.
So where can we find these interpersonally-focused practices?
In my book Stranger God (coming out this fall) I take a cue from the “Little Way” of St. Thérèse of Lisieux to describe small, everyday practices of welcome and hospitality.
Critically, these practices take the controls away from our “social autopilot.” When we’re on social autopilot we allow our unchecked feelings to pull us toward some people and away from others. Taking the controls away from our social autopilot involves moving toward those people in our lives—think of your workplace, church or any social gathering—whom we’d normally not welcome or speak to, often because these people are hard to like and love. But as Dorothy Day once said, we love God only as much as the person we love the least.
To give one example of a practice I borrowed from Thérèse of Lisieux, during Lent I like to adopt a “No Detour” practice. Thérèse described how in her convent she would detour around sisters she found disagreeable, but how her desire to love as Jesus loved caused her to stop detouring around to welcome the hard-to-love sisters with a kind smile and warm greeting. It’s a small practice, refusing to detour around hard-to-love people, but it’s a great example of taking the controls away from your social autopilot. A “No Detour” practice is an interpersonally-focused spiritual discipline that reshapes the social emotions that cause us to avoid and turn away from each other. In Stranger God I describe more of these small practices and how they changed my life.
But you don’t have to wait for the book. Be creative in thinking of interpersonal practices you can adopt to take the controls away from your social pilot. Become intentional in moving toward others to welcome the God who greets us in surprising acts of hospitality.
This post is a follow up to our recent conversation with Richard, which you can listen to here…
Naturally we’ll be collaring Richard for another interview when his new book Stranger God comes out!