When You Know Better, You Do Better?

When You Know Better, You Do Better? April 10, 2013

There is no question that ignorance can harm us; but I’m not sure knowing better is necessarily equated to doing better. When we are ignorant of something, we simply don’t know and we act in accordance. A great example is how in the first half of the 20th century doctors would recommend cigarettes to help ease their patients’ nerves. And it worked! But, it also gave people cancer. Ignorance. Knowing that smoking kills has no question motivated many people to stop, but you would think if we knew cigarettes can kill us we would have made them illegal by now and removed them from society. Yet, there is still a strong demand for cigarettes even though we all know better. This makes me think there must be a deeper power that compels what we do.

One of my favourite authors and Christian mystics, Richard Rohr, says it this way, “We don’t think ourselves into new ways of living, we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.” Let’s really consider this. When it comes to our Christianity – our believing about Christ – there are many statements we hold to, and ideals we subscribe to, both verbally and with our dogmas. Yet the glaring contradiction in the vast majority of us is in our actions – our actions betray what we think. We say we know how God wants us to live, yet we live another way.

I think that the power of our rationale is greatly underestimated. I don’t know about you, but I have the ability to rationalise almost any behaviour. Sometimes my rationale is as simple as “don’t think about it”.

So how do we subvert this system? How do we actually move from thinking that does not change our lives to another alternative? I think this is where the wisdom of the Monastic Movements over the centuries invites us.

The wisdom of the Monastic Movements in regard to transformation was not rooted in statements or dogmas, rather in a practice of living. They formed communities where they submitted themselves to particular ways of living and trusted the wisdom of those ways to produce in them the goodness that centuries later, when reading their stories and statements, it is evident how it really did create entirely new ways of living and thinking.

What would it look like for us to submit ourselves to some practices that would have the potential to create the goodness that we long for? Some of you might say there is no freedom in that. I push back and say true freedom is not the ability to do whatever we want, rather the desire to do what is good. 

There was a campaign in the 90’s called “WWJD – What Would Jesus Do”. I think there was wisdom to this campaign, but sadly, it was rooted in a rationale-based model that somehow if we asked the question, we would do better. I think a more helpful way of engaging this question would be to establish practices of living so that when moments of decision come, we have already submitted ourselves to ways that create patterns that free us from the burden of our rationale. The question is then no longer, “What can I get away with?” but rather, “Will this option violate my values?” This may seem confusing but I’ll see if I can sum it up in a simple way.

We are created in the image of God, and therefore our fundamental longing is to reflect that image. This is a soul desire or we could say our deepest and truest knowing. I believe practices help the soul bring the mind back into submission and has the power to relieve us from the burden of believing that if I just think “right”, I’ll do better.

I can hear the objection to this already, “What about the passage that says ‘be transformed by the renewing of your mind’?” For me, as a pragmatist, I don’t even bother with this anymore. I simply look at what it created in my life and recognise it wasn’t working. So have I given up on thinking well? Nope. I’ve simply decided I’d rather live well in line with what is most true in me – which is the image of God.

Here’s a question for reflection: What practices have you built into your life that reflect the image of God in you?

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  • John Snippe

    It’s a reasonably well-known phenomenon that if you can do something for six weeks, it becomes part of your reality. In other words, it takes six weeks to modify behaviour to the point of normalcy. So, those first weeks require cognition and will, but thereafter this becomes much less important.

    Not sure how this relates to any theological implications you were driving at, but it is certainly clear that the relationship between physiology and psychology is dynamic rather than ‘top down’ (with the assumption, of course, being that ‘thought’ is the top): action influences thought just as well as thought influences action (and maybe even more…)

  • Kevin Fusher

    Sean, good article, the mystery of our transformation into Christ-likeness for me is more rooted in John than Paul in this age of ours – we are information rich, knowledge light and wisdom poor. Preaching, bible study and mental gymnastics has not won the day for me. I, like a lot of Christians, am seeking to be less ‘oughtistic’ and idealistic. Unlike Augustine, I do not see myself as a pile of unredeemed poo who can only do good in the odd moment of ultra-sanctified, empty of self, Holy Spirit moment; but as a loved son hidden in the vine that is Jesus Christ. Where this touches into the Monastic is- seek God – peel the potatoes – pray – find forgiveness for the difficult customer – fail – try again – receive a sacred moment – don’t forget to put out the rubbish/trash. A former pastor once said to me – ”We are sanctified in our daily interactions with people.”

  • Another example is how most people eat. Some are killing themselves and ruining their health in ignorance, but most eat food that they KNOW is harmful to their health, and most have alternatives that they decline.

  • ngotts

    you would think if we knew cigarettes can kill us we would have made them illegal by now and removed them from society

    Yes, that worked so well with alcohol and is now working so well with heroin, cocaine and cannabis, isn’t it?

    What practices have you built into your life that reflect the image of God in you?

    None, because there is no such image, hence I have no desire to reflect it.