Everybody’s God a Hungry Heart

By Jonathan Storment

Bruce Springsteen: “Everybody’s got a hungry heart.”

Last week I started a series, blogging through James K.A. Smith’s brilliant little book, You are What You Loveand today I want to continue with the 2nd chapter, “You Might Not Love What You Think.”

The premise of Smith’s book is that Christians are not good at making disciples of Jesus, because we have largely missed what it means to be human. During the past few hundred years, we’ve bought into the idea that humans are largely driven by information and ideas. We believe we can think our way into change. But Smith, following Augustine (and Don Draper), suggests we are driven by something more basic than ideas: we’re driven by what we love.

To illustrate this point, Jamie Smith describes his journey from a junk food junkie to someone who learned to care about his health. Smith’s wife spent years trying to convince him to eat well, educating him about the abuse of animals in our American farming system. Eventually, through her influence, Jamie began to look into it, reading people like the great Christian thinker and environmentalist Wendell Berry, who challenged his thoughts about food.

Smith tells the story of reading Wendell Berry’s book while eating a junk food lunch in the food court at Costco, when in a moment of great irony, he realizes what Berry is trying to say.

Here’s how he describes this realization:

There are so many things wrong with that sentence that I don’t even know where to begin. Costco, for those who may not know, is a retail chain specializing in big-box, bulk-sized, mass-produced food and other goods. Indeed, “the food court at Costco” might be a kind of shorthand for what Wendell Berry imagines when he pictures the sixth circle of hell. But here I was, munching on one of those Costco footlong hot dogs (almost certainly not from “happy” pigs) while nodding in agreement with Wendell Berry. What was going on? This was a tangible picture of the gap between what I want and what I think I want. More specifically, it clarified the gap between my intellectual convictions and my preintellectual desires, my knowledge and my habits

It was here that Jamie learned that he couldn’t know his way into new habits.

Full stop.

Consider that for a second. Do we believe that? That it’s impossible to know our way to new habits?

If we could step back from the church we serve/attend and look at our programs and assemblies, at what level do you think we are trying to address spiritual transformation?

In my limited experience, most church assemblies try to engage the intellect. It’s one of the reasons I spend a lot of time reading commentaries and the latest books, trying to interact with big ideas and figure out how to communicate this information to others.

Engaging the intellect is good and important, but is it enough? In the words of Dallas Willard, “Your system is perfectly designed to get the results that you are currently getting.”

To be clear, Smith is not suggesting a kind of anti-intellectualism, but he is challenges us to consider the limits of our intellect. We must love God with our mind, but our mind is not the most important part of who we are.

When Scripture talks about the importance of the heart, it’s not talking about what probably comes to most of our minds when we think of our heart.

We think that our heart is the thing that was broken at the end of the Notebook, or what swells when we hear the song played at our graduation, but this romantic notion of the heart is relatively new. In the ancient world, the heart was the seat of the will. It was the controlling center of one’s hopes and deepest desires.

When Jesus says love the LORD with all of your heart, He’s inviting us to orient our loves, will and habits around God. Jesus is appealing to our whole being, because Jesus doesn’t seem to think that we can think our way into the Kingdom of God.

Let’s go back to the story of Jamie reading Wendell Berry at Costco. It’s a good parable for Western Churches. We follow a Jesus who seems diametrically opposed to much of what we are for. There is a gap between who we say we are and who we actually are. Our discipleship is the existential version of eating at Costco and reading Wendell Berry.

That day in Costco, Smith realized meaningful change in his life would require a combination of desire, intellect, and habit.

There’s a reason that even people with PhD’s eat Twinkies and smoke, and it’s not because they lack the information that these things are bad for them; it’s because we’ve all been schooled and trained in our desires.

In that moment at Costco, Jamie realized in order to change behavior he was going to have to unlearn some things he had been taught at a subconscious level for most of his life. Here’s how he says it:

Our tastes, as we say, are acquired. But our tastes can be trained without our realizing it. For example, the widespread use of high fructose corn syrup in so many processed food products generates a desire for more of it, despite the negative effects of such processed food products. The result is a vicious circle of hunger that is the product of “engineered” tastes. We learn to crave things that aren’t good for us because we are immersed in systems and environments that channel us into this sort of eating. Our hungers are being trained and habituated (“automated”) without our realizing it. The same is true for our deepest existential hungers, our loves: we might not realize the ways we’re being covertly trained to hunger and thirst for idols that can never satisfy.

Smith adjusted his loves toward what he wanted to love, closing the gap between what he believed and who he was.

Since we can’t know our way into new habits, Smith discovered that in order to change such deeply ingrained behavior he needed to rehabilitate (as in re-habit) his life in regard to how he approached food. He needed to use his mind to see through the stories that were tugging at his heart and why they fell short. He learned to use his will to break the vicious cycle of bad habits and engineered tastes. He needed to re-train his appetite and his body to have a healthier relationship between his body and the food sustaining him.

But first he had to come to grips that he didn’t love what he thought he did.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.