December 5, 2020

“More a matter of hungering and thirsting than of knowing and believing.”

Butterfly. Photo by Bald Wonder

In his book, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, James K. A. Smith says that “the first, last, and most fundamental question of Christian discipleship” is  “What do you want?”.

This is the most incisive, piercing question Jesus can ask of us precisely because we are what we want. Our wants and longings and desires are at the core of our identity, the wellspring from which our actions and behavior flow.

According to Smith, Christian discipleship is “more a matter of hungering and thirsting than of knowing and believing.”

Since he thinks this is the case, he criticizes our mostly intellectual and didactic approaches to forming disciples. Smith contends that this is because of our assumptions that human beings are, first and foremost, rational creatures. I would also argue that feeding heads by exchanging information is simply easier, and that many churches, particularly of the evangelical variety which emphasize “the sufficiency of scripture,” lack the imagination to consider that spiritual formation involves more than grasping the meaning of words on a page and following a well defined list of behavioral expectations.

We have often written here about how advocates of “spiritual” growth diminish the role of the body in our understanding of faith development. Smith joins a growing number of voices who also call us to recognize the place of our affections and intuitions.

In our recent series, Musings in Moral Theology, we reported how scholars like Jonathan Haidt and Richard Beck have concluded that many of our moral positions and church practices grow out of visceral responses to life rather than rational analysis (which serves a different purpose). In one post I wrote:

Our morality is determined rather by our intuitions, our visceral and emotional responses, our conscious or subconscious loyalty to the group to which we belong. Whatever moral reasoning we do tends to follow intuition and emotion, and its purpose is to (1) confirm what our impulsive self has already decided, and (2) to keep us on good terms with the group with whom we identify.

Now, as I read Smith, I see a similar perspective. He correctly observes that the discipleship models many churches use have failed. There is overwhelming evidence that more knowledge does not translate easily into personal transformation. Changing our minds does not automatically lead to changing our way of life.

James Smith is not suggesting we abandon thinking. Nor is he suggesting that the contemporary model of always following our feelings is the right way. “We don’t need less than knowledge we need more,” he writes. “We need to recognize the power of habit.”

An emphasis on habit recognizes that humans are more than minds needing to be filled with correct information. We’re also more than a bundle of emotional itches to be scratched. Instead, Smith encourages us to embrace “a more holistic, biblical model of human persons that situates our thinking and knowing in relation to other, more fundamental aspects of the human person.”

Following this, he then urges us to realize that we, as holistic human beings, are formed by habits that allow our hearts, minds, and bodies to be encountered by God’s supremely attractive vision of shalom that can captivate us and re-form our desires toward the life of the Kingdom.

Now here’s the crucial insight for Christian formation and discipleship: not only is this learning-by-practice the way our hearts are correctly calibrated, but it is also the way our loves and longings are misdirected and miscalibrated—not because our intellect has been hijacked by bad ideas but because our desires have been captivated by rival visions of flourishing. And that happens through practices, not propaganda. Our desires are caught more than they are taught. All kinds of cultural rhythms and routines are, in fact, rituals that function as pedagogies of desire precisely because they tacitly and covertly train us to love a certain version of the kingdom, teach us to long for some rendition of the good life. These aren’t just things we do; they do something to us. (p. 21)

Photo by Bald Wonder at Flickr. Creative Commons License


  1. Christiane says

    ” There is overwhelming evidence that more knowledge does not translate easily into personal transformation.”

    there is a story about Thomas Aquinas who wrote much that has been seen as an important ‘contribution’ to Western Christian thought. But in his old age, he reportedly experienced a vivid and powerful personal encounter with Christ while he was at worship, and this affected him so deeply that he ceased to write and never even talked in words about that powerful spiritual encounter with His Lord . . . . .
    his secretary encouraged him to pick up his pen again and to write as he had done before, but he never wrote again;
    instead he said
    “I cannot, for all that I have written seems like straw to me”

    Perhaps he neither spoke nor wrote about that ‘encounter’ because for him no words existed to describe it.

  2. What sort of habits does he suggest?

  3. James K. A. Smith says that “the first, last, and most fundamental question of Christian discipleship” is “What do you want?”

    Are you sure he’s not really Mr. Morden? 😉

    • This is the first thing that popped into my head as well 🙂

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > “the first, last, and most fundamental question of Christian discipleship” is “What do you want?”

      Regardless, I would revise this: this is the first, last, and most fundamental question of Life.

      Post-Values, life makes much more sense, and it is so much easier to understand other people who baffled me before. This is a great guiding question – and far more honest than “what do you believe”.

  4. In 2001 Haidt wrote about the emotional dog and it’s rational tail. This lead to his elephant and rider metaphor . And that was made famous and enhanced in the psychology world by Chip and Dan Heath in the book “Switch: How to Change when Change is Hard”. “The elephant’s hunger for instant gratification is the opposite of the rider’s strength, which is the ability to think long-term, to plan, to think beyond the moment( all those things your pet can’t do)….to make progress toward a goal, whether it’s noble or crass, requires the energy and drive of the elephant. And this strength is the mirror image of the rider’s great weakness: spinning his wheels. The rider tends to overanalyze and think things….a reluctant elephant and a wheel spinning rider can both ensure nothing changes. But when elephants and rider get together, change can happen easily.”
    What looks like resistance is often lack of clarity. Don’t say eat healthier. Say eat more dark green leafy vegetables.
    What looks like laziness is often exhaustion. Change is hard. Acknowledge it.
    What looks like a people problem is often a situational problem. Make sure to think about their environment and support system.

    • I like your “What looks like” statements.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says


      I can’t help but thing about this in terms of traffic.

      Everyone in the neighborhood contains about people who drive through too fast.

      They want more enforcement [of course, have no way to pay for that . . . and it generally doesn’t work, but everyone always wants it.] It is the American legalism solution-through-rules paradigm.

      A more effective answer make the street narrower. Then people drive slower; **very** reliably.

      But how can people make a street narrower? Park on each side a bit further from the curb.

      Intractable problem meets a small change in environment. There is a life lesson in there.

  5. Dear Chaplain Mike,

    “. . .Humans are more than minds needing to be filled with correct information.” was a key-sentence for me in “More a matter of hungering and thirsting than of knowing and believing.”

    My impression is that we have little evidence of saying that human beings are, first and foremost, rational creatures.

    I like your point about spiritual formation involving more than grasping the meaning of words.

    Life would be easy if knowledge automatically led to life changes – but as you correctly say, that’s not the case.
    It’s a sympathetic thought that we need a more actionable approach in our churches today.

    We need more do’ers – we have so many great thinkers.

    I’ve seen some interesting attempts to take a more holistic Biblical approach to the human person recently, for example in books by Gary Comer or Timothy Keller.

    This was an interesting read. I’ll share on social media Tuesday, September 5.

    Edna Davidsen

    • –> “My impression is that we have little evidence of saying that human beings are, first and foremost, rational creatures.”

      So true. Just look at what happened in Houston, TX. Reports said, “There’s gonna be a lot of water.” Rational thought would’ve been, “I should get outta Dodge.”

      This is not to pick on the people who stayed. I probably would’ve, too. It just points out that other factors in our thinking tend to outweigh those which are rational.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        > other factors in our thinking tend to outweigh those which are rational.

        Yep, and I’m not even sure those other factors are wrong.

        I probably would have stayed regardless of an evacuation order. This is my home, my ‘hood, and has been for four generations – and you want me to run away? Just sayin’ I get it.

        • Exactly. For myself, I think my “rational” sense of what I should do is often (as in 90% often) overcome by my OTHER senses of what to do.

          “It won’t be as bad as they predict” meets “I want to stay here with my stuff”. I would’ve stayed for sure.

          • I lost my stuff in Katrina. It’s just stuff. And now I sit in a west Houston suburb witnessing the stories unfold. Other factors play a huge role in our should I stay or should I go decision. Many places that flooded never had flooding before. This is pretty unprecendented. Sorry if my thoughts are all over the place. I live close to a reservoir that the Army Corps is doing a controlled release on. We are barely outside the zone of potential impact. Yea I’m stressed. But at least I have my years of natural disaster experiences to somewhat think rationally. My neighbors are clueless so I have been helping them think things out, don’t panic, etc.

            Sigh. Prayers appreciated.

  6. James K A Smith actually unpackages this quite a bit in public forums, you will find numerous videos on Youtube. Quite meaty stuff. Worth the listen, as in his book he takes a long time to unpackage it.
    Here is a link

  7. There is overwhelming evidence that more knowledge does not translate easily into personal transformation.

    It’s likely that this also applies to attempts to use the knowledge expressed in this article to correct faulty conceptions of how we are spiritually formed, and the practices that flow from them. All such attempts are working against ingrained habits, and the intuitions and affections we are accustomed to heeding. Not impossible to effect a course change, perhaps, but fraught with tremendous difficulty that requires extremely clear and critical thinking to navigate.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > that requires extremely clear and critical thinking to navigate.

      Maybe, or changes to the environment or circumstances; which I can be chosen, so certainly not a clean line. In any meaningful sense it is probably a wide blurry line.

      I have noticed in myself, other people, and even in animal training [I trained horses] that someone who feels safe vs. stressed, secure vs. vulnerable, gets basic needs met with regularity – can be a very different kind of someone then when those things are different. Many times it is the institutions around us, and their choices, which determine the states of those things. I’m on the fence if that is about clear thinking, or more patience. empathy, and space-giving – how often one produces the other. Just the power of having a quiet place is immense.

      • Yes, but those institutions are being run by individuals as swayed by intuitions, affections and habits as anyone else. No doubt the power of having a quiet place is important for individuals and society, but how do we or it go about intentionally acquiring or providing them, short in supply as they are? It seems such places are getting less, not more, common. Perhaps it’s mostly a matter of good or bad luck, which I hope isn’t the same as grace or its dearth, though I sometimes have my doubts that they are different.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          > how do we or it go about intentionally acquiring or providing them

          We just do it. This is something that, behind the curtain of planning and bureaucracy, people honestly do talk about – a lot. Adding these places is very intentional and deliberate for many people, something they think about every day. There are even people who volunteer there time to go count trees. These people make me hopeful. It is often small and unnoticed, but every now and then I visit to a ‘hood I haven’t been to in awhile and I think “ah, those people have been here”.

          It is sad that longitudinal economic analysis is required by many to justify the trivial cost of a nice nook. It can be made, they pay for themselves in health cost savings, shocking – people with quiet green places are healthier. That the argument has to exist, and be endlessly reiterated, is kind of gross, IMO. That makes me sad.

          > it’s mostly a matter of good or bad luck

          Sadly, much of life is. There is no denying that.

          • I think a study of the differences between the operations of chance, as it plays out in luck, and grace would make a worthy, though challenging, theological exploration. Distinguishing the two seems like a formidable task.

      • The thing is, it’s often at just those moments when you are most in need of that quiet place, that it is hardest to find or keep, as many in Houston and its environs are experiencing at this very moment.

  8. According to the news a visiting assistant professor has been fired from the University of Tampa because he made a tweet about Hurricane Harvey being “karma” for Texans voting Republican. No idea what sense this tweet was issued forth in; sarcasm? irony? Anyway you’d think a smart fellow like that would know that there is precious little sense of humor to be had around right now. At least wait until the flood waters recede. But by the same token many of the outraged at our learned friend’s comments would raise nary an eyebrow if some minister had pronounced doom on Houston for harboring sympathy for gays. So it goes.

    The relevance? I don’t think we’re either rational or irrational. Our problem is that we’re both. An admixture. Amphibians. We can give a smart concise lecture about some highly technical subject in the morning and write a stupid thought less tweet that very afternoon. The same brains can design a probe that explores a new planet or fire a missile over Japan that scares the living crap out of everybody. Resulting in the sobering conclusion that the smarter we become the more dangerous.

    Joe Jackson wrote a great song with the apropos line “How can you get what you want if you don’t know what you want?” Isn’t that the spirit of our age? It seems the only people who know what they want are the fanatics an crazies. Isn’t it ironic? Knowing what you want not as a sign of maturity but as a sign of irrationality?

    • I jokingly posted during Saturday’s Brunch “Why aren’t evangelical mouthpieces saying that Hurricane Harvey is God’s judgment on Texas for supporting Trump like they would if some calamity had befallen a city/state that had supported Clinton?” I guess someone had to step into that stupid void, eh?

      • People seem to want a god or cosmos that always has to have his/its pound of flesh. To hell with that, I say.

        • I’m with you there 100%. God is not some cosmic smack-down master, taking notes, seeing who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.

          And if he IS like that, why do people feel they have some sort of inside knowledge as to who gets punished, and when and how…?

      • Or maybe Harvey is the fault of Houston’s mayor. Ann Coulter didn’t come right out and say it, but she suggested it.

        I don’t believe Hurricane Harvey is God’s punishment for Houston electing a lesbian mayor. But that is more credible than “climate change.”
        — Ann Coulter (@AnnCoulter) August 29, 2017

        • An assistant professor may get fired for saying something outrageous like that, but not Coulter; her bread and butter consists of uttering the most outrageous and morally execrable things. In fact, if she stopped doing it, she would soon be out of an audience and a job.

    • Apparently no retribution for the Texans in Dallas-Fort Worth. We have sunshine and eighty degrees.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      Fallout from living in an age if Values, rather than Vision. Values are little mean-spirited things; with little use for whimsy or fun.

    • Burro [Mule] says

      Having lived through Hurricanes Andrew, Ivan, and Katrina, I can tell you that hurricanes are a very imprecise tool if you want to deal out judgement. The wicked and the not-so-wicked suffer together, but the amazing thing is, they also pull together, for a time.

      Something kicks in after a big storm, or a fire, or a pestilence. Our we’re-all-in-this-together genes kick in and some really lovely, unselfish things happen that get quickly forgotten when better, more suspicious, times return. Not that I wouldn’t trade all of that for not having three feet of water in my living room, but…

  9. Overindulgence in feeling can result in a lack of judgment. Over dependence on intellect can result in a loss of touch. Feeling and intellect find their perfect union in the exercise of the virtues.