You Choose – Do What You Want or Be Truly Free


Have you ever been told you had to do something and immediately you wanted to do the complete opposite?  How about this; if I asked you to sign a petition about something you were mildly in favor of would you sign it?  You say to yourself, “Maybe or maybe not!”  Let me add this to the mix.  What if I told you someone was proposing a city ordinance limiting people from being able to sign petitions like the one I just asked you to sign.  Are you more likely to sign that petition?  You bet you are!  Madeline Heilman, a research psychologist demonstrated this very fact in her study called “Oppositional behavior as a function of influence attempt intensity and retaliation threat” in 1976.  Her study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and basically found the more you feel your freedom to choose something is threatened the more likely you are to perform the task.  Similar studies gave birth to a phenomenon psychologists call the “Romeo and Juliet Effect.”  If you ever had a son or daughter wanting to date someone you didn’t like and you insisted they weren’t allowed to do so you know what I’m talking about.  The more a parent insists their teenager is not allowed to date someone the more attractive that other individual becomes.

As interesting as these studies are anyone who has ever read the book of Genesis doesn’t find them all that surprising.  From the start of Genesis we read about restrictions being placed on freedom and when these restrictions are intentionally highlighted they become the downfall of the human race.   Adam and Eve are told they can partake of anything God created in the garden EXCEPT eating  from the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil (Genesis 2:17).  For the most part they obey that limitation.  However, when the serpent asks Eve, “Hey, what are you not allowed to do?  You mean God said you can’t eat from a particular tree?  That doesn’t seem fair.” (Genesis 3:4-5) a subtle shift occurs in Eve’s resolve.  Just like those individuals in Heilman’s study, once this limitation on freedom appeared more restrictive Eve’s perceived freedom to eat what she liked became more important than obeying God.  Basically human psychology hasn’t changed much since the beginning of time.

The spiritual lesson to learn from all this is not to confuse freedom with slavery.  If our reaction is to naturally rebel against what we perceive as limitations placed on our freedom we’re not really exercising a free choice, right?  In fact, we’re merely reacting to our natural inclination to do more of what someone says we can’t do in an almost deterministic way.  This is nothing more than slavery to the forces of our unconscious mind.  Too often we view our relationship with God as a relationship that places limitations on what we can and cannot do.  We tell ourselves, “I’m a Christian and I can’t do that, believe that, say that, etc.”  That’s a dangerous position to take because Satan is right next to you just as he was with Eve saying, “You can do that, you won’t die if you do that….”  When your Christian experience consists merely of instructions about what you should and shouldn’t do you’re more likely to do more of whatever you think is limiting your freedom.  There’s a healthier way to understand your relationship with God.  That healthier way is to experience God in the context of love.

God gave you freedom so you could use it to express radical love.  Freedom is really only freedom when you use it to choose love; anything less than that is probably a reaction against something else.  I can never force you to love me.  If I say you must love me, you can say no.  If I say you cannot love me guess what, it doesn’t elicit the Romeo and Juliet Effect, you still won’t love me!  Only you can choose to love me, I can’t command it, trick you into it,  and I can’t demand it from you.  God created us this way because to experience true love you have to be able to freely choose it.  It’s the one true act of freedom human beings can perform.  Everything else has some element of determining principles mixed up with the choice.

Don’t believe just because you can disobey God you’re able to exercise freedom.  All you’re doing is falling into a type of unconscious cognitive trap identified in the studies above.  If you want to experience true freedom learn to love well.  By loving God first and your neighbor as yourself you’re truly living in freedom, even when it feels like the most restrictive thing you can do.  The reason love is the only truly free choice you make is because it’s the one thing you were created to do.  You were created by a God who is love, to be an incarnational expression of love, and to love him and your fellow human beings in a radical way.  Being truly free occurs when you fulfill this vocation to love not by doing things you have convinced yourself you are free to do.  Live the vocation of love and experience what true freedom is all about.


You Can’t Reason Yourself to Do Things, Your Passions Matter More


Most every theory of psychology tries to describe an underlying motivating factor for human behavior.  For example, Freud believed the underlying motivating factor for all human behavior was a psychosexual drive he called the pleasure principle.  According to his perspective all human beings desire pleasure and it’s the job of your ego to temper the demands of the pleasure seeking entity in your subconscious (The id) so you can realistically interact with the world and get what you want. Other psychologists like Abraham Maslow believe the motivating force in the human person is the desire for self-actualization.  By meeting our most basic needs first and then moving through a hierarchy of needs we ultimately achieve a self-actualized state and a healthy human being is constantly motivated to achieve that state.  Each school of psychology believes there’s an underlying force of motivation and each proposes something different.  I find all these theories fascinating however I believe the motivating force in the human person is love.  As one who follows the Christian faith I hold this “force” in high regard but I also see it working and motivating people everywhere.  The things people value are the things they love, the people they will die for are those they love, and ultimately the things and ideas they will completely  invest themselves in are the things they love.  Human beings are motivated predominantly by their passions because we’re primarily affective creatures.  For the longest time thinkers in the western world have given primacy to reason.  From Plato to the modern rationalists, it has been believed if people reason well they’ll come to appropriate conclusions and act on those conclusions in a most logical and effective way.  In fact this worship of reason is so strong we often dismiss the passions (love being at the heart of them) as unhelpful and as a roadblock for making good decisions.  After all, look at what happened to Romeo and Juliet, certainly that’s passion and love gone wrong!  We should all be like Mr. Spock in the famous American science fiction series Star Trek.  If we got rid or our emotions we could all function in a psychologically adjusted way.  Not really, at least according to some of the latest research in psychology.

When we divorce ourselves from our passions, emotions, and love, we actually act in very unbalanced ways.  In fact, sociopaths are excellent at using logic and reason to justify the crimes they commit.  The common factor keeping sociopaths from acting in a more human way is they’re disconnected from their emotional self (Thus the phrase “cold and calculating”).  Their affect is often flat or expressed in very negative ways showing no empathy, feelings, or sense of connectedness with others.  People are merely objects providing a means to the ends they want to achieve.  They can effectively reason how to use that object to get the things they desire.  Logic divorced from reason causes some pretty poor decisions.

I’m reading a book by Jonathan Haidt called “The Righteous Mind” and in it he doesn’t just reemphasize the need for people to recapture the value of emotions, passions, and intuitions, he actually demonstrates through a number of psychological studies human beings are driven by their passions first and then use reason to justify why they do and think the way they do.  This post is too short to go into all the details but he makes a great argument summed up in the following way.  Haidt states our emotions are not lesser forces merely existing to serve our intellect, it’s in fact quite the opposite.  Our intellect exists to serve the passions and give justifications for why we’re drawn to certain items, ideas, and positions.  We’re primarily affective creatures given the gift of reason to articulate and share why those passions exist.

Now, if what Haidt states is true and our motivations are less about how we reason ourselves into things and more about how we’re motivated by passions and intuitions, I think the Christian idea that love is the primary motivating force for humans has some strong support given this recent research.  If we’re created in the image of God, and God is love as scripture teaches, we are primarily created as agents who desire to give and receive love.  When that love is not longer an essential part of who we are as in the case of the psychopath we tend to act more like demons reasoning ourselves into anything (Look at the good reasons Satan provides Jesus with while he is tempted in the desert) than humans acting in a way conscious of how our actions impact other people.  Yet, if we take this position, how do we account for the fact people often are motivated to act in ways that appear so unloving?  The good doctor of love himself, St Augustine provides a perfect explanation for why we commit sins contrary to love.

In the writings of Augustine of Hippo one reads frequently that love is the motivating force in the lives of people and when love is disordered sin emerges.  St. Augustine believes human beings are motivated to pursue what they believe is good, beautiful, and true. However, instead of loving God first (The ultimate understanding of the good, beautiful, and true) and our neighbor as ourselves, we love in a disordered way thus causing pathological behaviors.  For example, Augustine states the following in the Confessions, (book 13.9), “My weight is my love, and by it I am carried wheresoever I am carried.”  His point being that even within the pathological it’s love that motivates behavior.

If we want to live flourishing healthy human lives we must work hard to create feelings, emotions, and passions that develop into intuitions of properly ordered love.  I cannot think myself into something, I have to start with how I feel about it.  When I understand what I am passionate about I can then use reason and intellect to help steer these passions to their proper ends instead of distorted sinful ends.

Let me close with this.  We’re creatures that are first and foremost affective in nature and driven by what we love.  If we want a society that flourishes and develops what’s best for all its members we must teach children more than facts and ideas, we must develop within them the proper order of love.  They must enter into a living love relationship with Christ first and then because of that love, learn to love one another.  Only by becoming radically loving people who love in a proper way can we reason ourselves into a flourishing productive society.

Can There Be Duty Without Love?

Religious Practice

Is there a difference between love and duty?  In a sense there is but it’s the same as asking is there a difference between being rational and emotional.  We can be rational and make well reasoned choices (at least that’s what we believe) or we can be driven by passion and emotion merely listening to our heart.  This is what conventional wisdom would have you believe anyway.  In fact, the argument regarding whether or not the passions are served by the mind or the mind by the passions is as old as philosophy itself.  Before we answer the question about love and duty I think it’s important to explore this latter question because the first is built upon the last.

The western tradition has always valued reason.  Plato believed reason was the pinnacle of human expression and thought it best to rid oneself of the passions as much as possible.  In fact in his great work The Republic he demonstrates a philosopher king is the most effective ruler of a nation because the philosopher king rules with pure reason, the very gift of the gods allowing human beings to be most like the divine.  The less we’re driven by the passions the more we’re driven by pure reason and able to do what’s best for ourselves and others.  Not all philosophers have felt that way.  David Hume believed the mind (reason) actually exists to serve the passions.  He writes the following, “Reason is, and ought  only to be the slave of the passions, and never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”  Hume believed reason merely discovers ways to achieve whatever ends the passions (today we might say emotions or intuitions) desire.  So we find in philosophy these two extreme positions.  Platonic thought (as well as other Greek thought) valuing reason at the cost of the emotions and Hume who values emotions much more than reason, at least in regards to primacy of direction.  Which is it?

Interestingly, Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist wrote a wonderful book called “The Righteous Mind” in which he presents a great number of psychological studies demonstrating we’re more driven by our passions and emotions than reason.  In fact he demonstrates we’re awful at reasoning when left to do it alone.  We’re better at coming to the truth when we reason in a group but when merely reasoning by ourselves we fall into a number of cognitive traps (I talk about this a great deal when discussing spiritual discernment.  You can watch that webinar if you like here).  So from a psychological perspective evidence seems to imply we tend to move toward our passions, intuitions, and emotions first and then use reason to justify that movement.

Here’s an even more interesting aspect of the connection between passions and reason.  While Plato believed disconnecting your emotions from your reasoning mind would benefit you and the world tremendously most research says otherwise.  Mr. Spock was way off base when he tried to ignore the human emotions bubbling up inside him.  One key factor connecting almost all sociopaths is that they can reason exceptionally well but have little to no emotional experience around the decisions they make.  Their sense of empathy or emotional connection to their life experiences is almost completely gone.  Haidt goes through a number of psychological studies demonstrating how ineffective we become (and actually quite immoral) when we disconnect the heart from the head.

How does this relate to duty and love?  Well, love impacts the affective element of who we are.  It’s our passions, our drives, it’s a human act drawing us toward what is loved.  Duty, is a cognitive act in which we decide to fulfill obligations and requirements toward something other than ourselves.  It’s our duty to defend our country.  We have a duty to give worship to God.  These are our obligations brought about by cognitive decisions we make.  Yet, if we’re merely fulfilling our duty we might perform acts that in the end are not productive or fruitful.  If we disconnect duty from love it can be merely acts of obedience.  Acts of obedience can then become unfulfilling and in the end used against us to do immoral things or hurt others.  Stanley Milgram did experiments showing that people will administer lethal shocks to others merely because someone in authority convinced them to do so.  It was a type of duty (You can see a reproduction of that experiment here if you like) that removed a person’s sense of responsibility for what was happening.  They indicated they were “Merely following orders.”  Duty without love is a dangerous disposition to maintain just as cognition without emotion can be detrimental for how we act in the world.  I once counseled a couple and the wife felt completely emotionally disconnected from her husband.  However, he believed it was her duty to make love to him and because she would not do so he believed he had the right to get a divorce.  He wanted duty without love, a terrible thing to ask of another person.

If we’re to be dutiful we must foster love for that which we are to serve.  Love your God first and then be dutiful to your religious practices.  This is how we avoid legalism in religion.  Love your neighbor first and then serve his or her needs.  That’s the virtue of charity and avoids turning acts of love into acts of condescension toward someone in need.  Love your country first and then serve it as a good citizen, that’s true patriotism.  Likewise, love your spouse and your children and then dutifully care for them for that’s nothing more than love in action, a wonderful expression of duty done in love.

Duty and love are good when they exist together with love driving us first toward that which we desire and duty guiding the actions we perform in response to that love.  If we separate these we take the heart from the mind and become distorted legalistic creatures instead of the wonderful human beings God created us to be.

Weep my Fellow Christian


“The spiritual person frequently experiences pain.  The spiritual life, at least for the Christian is not an escape from this world but one meant to be leaven to this world.  For leaven to do its work it must be kneaded into the dough, pushed, pulled, stretched, and turned over and over again until it permeates unbaked bread.  Then, along with the dough it’s placed in an oven and subjected to high levels of heat.  This is the Christian’s spiritual life.  A Christian who doesn’t weep for the world feeling its pain is one who is not engaging the world bringing Christ wherever he or she goes.  We are in the world but not of it, yet we are engaged in it because that‘s exactly what our master desired.  Weep fellow Christians, for many suffer because of sin.  Wars rage, refugees seek shelter, disease impacts families, hunger causes aches in the stomachs of children, death finds its home everywhere people dwell.  Don’t think you can develop a spiritual life free from pain and suffering, that’s not the Christian way.  Rather allow yourself to weep while maintaining hope.  All of this will pass and its only remedy is in the return of Christ.  This is why a detached spiritual life isn’t a Christian spiritual life.  We must weep with those in pain, but also laugh with those experiencing joy.  For the pain we feel reminds us of the brokenness of the world, but laughter is a foretaste of heaven, our eternal dwelling and the place in which our hope resides.  The Christian lives life; the good, the bad, the joyful and the sad.  Live life my fellow Christian in all its many ways.  Don’t fear its sufferings and always enjoy whatever peace God provides in the midst of its storms.” – Dominick D. Hankle