Five Types of Listening

In a deleted scene from Tarantino’s cult classic, Pulp Fiction, Uma Thurman’s character asks John Travolta a searching question, “In conversation, do you listen, or wait to talk?” Travolta pauses, then replies, “I have to admit that I wait to talk, but I’m trying harder to listen.”

Pulp Fiction

Travolta’s character in the movie isn’t the sharpest tack in the box, but here he speaks wisely, and here he speaks for many of us. We struggle to listen. We don’t hear the end of other people’s sentences. We are very often eager to take the floor. Our thoughts and responses to other people’s thoughts and reflections, whether voiced or not, crowd out our capacity to really hear what the other person is saying.

The reality of this came home to me as a pastor, tasked with teaching people how to pray for other people. If you think about it, praying for someone, aloud, in their presence, isn’t the most natural of tasks. What do you say? How much do you say? How do you know when you’re done? And how are we supposed to speak to God for another person? But beneath these difficulties lies the problem of listening, and by problem I mean that we aren’t by nature very good listeners. We are good at judgment, and jumping to conclusions, and above all at choosing our responses based on words that make us feel better.

Let me give some examples. Perhaps we hear someone speak about a problem they are having at work or home, and our first impulse may be to address the problem, to fix the issue. But beneath a desire to fix things is very often an unsettling anxiety. If I’m honest, your story makes me anxious, and my proposed solution is less about your problem than it is about my personal anxiety. I am speaking to make myself feel better. Alternatively, we hear someone speaking about an issue they are dealing with—bad financial planning, or poor relational choices. What creeps into our minds in those moments is very often a narrative of judgment. “That was stupid,” we think. “If you’d done things another way you wouldn’t be in this situation, you know.” “You always get into these kinds of problems. Don’t you think you could learn your lesson by now?” These judgments similarly cloud our capacity to hear what is really going on the person’s life. They fill up the backlog of things we are waiting to say. And while we’re waiting, we’re not listening very well anymore.

Woman with her fingers in her ears

If we’re going to be better listeners, we’ve got to practice listening. Toward that end, today, I want to attempt to briefly outline five different types of listening. We’ll use questions to frame each of the types of listening, partially because asking questions is a great way to show that we’re listening. These five questions are designed to get us past our judgments, and to help us master our anxieties. Also, while the first three types apply to everyone, the final two are specific to Christians.

#1. What’s going on in you? This is the first area of listening. When someone comes to you and shares a concern, or tells a story about their life, saturating their narrative is a state of being, an often confused and intermingled set of feelings, emotions, and responses. A first task in listening well is listening to the person’s heart, to the story they, perhaps, aren’t articulating in their words. The person may know exactly how he or she feels, or the person may not know at all. But we can work to be attentive to the emotional subtext of their story. This should give us some idea of what’s going on inside the person speaking.

Black Lives Matter_Girl

#2. Where are you coming from? This is the second area of listening. Each person who tells you a story comes from somewhere. The story is rooted in a larger situation, with other actors and characters impacting the narrative, influencing the speaker’s responses and perception of events. A significant part of listening is listening to this where aspect of the person. Good listening involves an attempt to place the person’s story in a helpful and accurate context.

Pride parade portrait

#3. What is it you want? This is the third area of listening. Each person who discloses a narrative to you also wants things. The desire may be as simple as to offload the story, or to commiserate with a friendly ear. The person may want an honest resolution to the situation, or he or she may want a dishonest resolution! Independent of the merit of the particular desire, the person who speaks holds in his or her heart a goal, a purpose, masked or bald, which influences who they are and what’s going on in their lives at this time. We’ve got to attend to this desire.

Trump Supporter

#4. What is the Lord saying to this person right now? Here—and obviously this presumes a Christian conversation—we can prompt the person to speak about how God is speaking to them in their situation. We should always assume, in any conversation, that God is at work as a third party, nudging, whispering, shouting, drawing, blocking—doing the conversational things that God does through all of us, have we the ears to hear.

Immigrant Protestor

#5. What is the Lord saying to me in all this? This final aspect of listening is crucial. It runs parallel to all of the other kinds of listening we do, because inasmuch as He is speaking and nudging the person we are listening to, He is also speaking and nudging us as we attend to the goings on of the person’s, the nature of this individual’s situation, and the expressed or unexpressed desires implicit in the narrative. Here the listening ear turns from the words the person speaks to a spiritual subtext, so that when we attend to the voice of the Lord, and when we learn the sound of His voice, He becomes the one who guides our attention to what matters, and when we trust Him we release to His care the anxieties that make us bad listeners in the first place.

Vietnam War

I want to make a few observations about listening in this way. The first is that none of these forms of listening require any judgment on your part, whatsoever. When you are listening to a person’s heart, you aren’t judging them. When you’re listening to the history of their story, you aren’t judging them. When you’re listening to their desires, you aren’t judging them. When you’re listening alongside them for the voice of the Lord, you aren’t judging them. To listen well almost never means agreeing with the person to whom you listen—it is more a journey of mutual discovery. You get to find out what they think and feel, and, very often, they also get to discover what it is that they think and feel. It is in this sense that listening is a validating activity. Validation is not to be confused with agreement. If I validate you, and I am affirming that you have communicated to me what you wanted, that I understand your emotions, your story, your desires. To listen in this way requires me to lay aside my control of the conversation, or, at least, my anxious control. I don’t have to win. I don’t have to get in the last word. I don’t have to change your mind. The best we might achieve is that you get to clearly state your mind.

You may note that I’ve chosen somewhat provocative examples for the images of each of these types of listening. I’ve chosen them, specifically, because I feel that they represent places where we’ve become especially bad listeners, places where our judgments and anxieties very often crowd out the real person who is trying to communicate something personal to us. It’s worth reflecting on those situations and mentally applying these principles of listening to them, to see what happens.

None of this means that we don’t speak. It also doesn’t mean that, sometimes, will won’t be required to offer judgments. There will be moments when a person needs to hear the words, “That was a stupid choice.” But this will never be before we’ve performed the difficult task of listening well. And altogether this means that listening, quite simply, is both a taxing and rewarding activity. It is hard work. It takes a great deal of energy, emotionally and physically. But when we succeed, we bless both the speaker and ourselves. If we become skilled, we are likely to grow in empathy. If we are obedient, then we might begin to hear more from God Himself.

Rethinking Accountability

I take it as axiomatic that Accountability—the business of caring for and guarding my fellow Christian—is a non-negotiable duty of the Christian life. I do not get to choose whether or not I will be accountable to others. Nor do I get to choose whether or not I am accountable for what happens to others. I am accountable in both directions, and every failure on this front is a serious affront to my faith.

cain-and-abel-1544_TitianThe story of Cain and Abel, of course, is my source material for this. The two brothers are out in the field one day and Cain, out of envy and lack of self-control, murders Abel in cold blood. The Lord then approaches Cain and asks a piercing question: “Where is Abel your brother?” The Lord doesn’t ask, of course, because He needs information—He’s not investigating Cain any more than he investigated Cain’s parents a short chapter earlier. No, God doesn’t ask questions because He needs information; He asks questions in order to give us opportunities to change our hearts. Cain’s response is unfortunate, and seems to echo throughout the rest of the Scriptures: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer, of course, is yes, and as someone else has observed, it seems as if the rest of the Bible from this verse onward is a kind of answer to that question. Yes, you are your brother’s keeper, and you have made a terrible muck of it.

If I am going to steer a path away from the folly of Cain then I must take seriously that I am my brother’s keeper, that we are each other’s keepers, that this business of keeping one another is neither optional nor selective. And we must remember that the neglect of brother keeping—as the first story of this neglect teaches us—is not far from a kind of murder. To refuse to keep my brother or sister in the faith is to either directly or indirectly contribute to his or her destruction. And for that destruction I am accountable.


A lovely retreat spot.

I had occasion to reflect on the significance of this passage recently when I attended, for the second consecutive year, the Men’s Retreat with my church. We had three sessions of teaching together over our weekend. The first was on our identity as sons of the Father, the second on our responsibility as brothers to one another, the third and final on our mission to bless one another after the pattern of the Father. During that second session we held a sustained gaze at this idea of accountability for one another, taking seriously the question of what it means to “keep” our brothers in the faith. Upon reflection, there seemed to be two clear areas where this business of “keeping” takes place. (And please note that while I may speak specifically of brothers here, this responsibility applies to all who are joined together in Christ.)

The first area of brother-keeping is the keeping of my brother’s physical life. This is, perhaps, an area where we are most comfortable keeping one another. Physical problems are relatively easy to fix. Is a brother without food? Feed him. Is a sister without rent money? Take up a collection and solve the problem. Is a brother sick? Gather and pray. Is a sister being harmed? Step in to protect her. When we care for one another in the church—practically speaking—we are keeping our brothers and sisters in Christ.

But the second area of brother-keeping is far more difficult, because not only am I responsible for the physical life of my brothers in Christ, I am also responsible for their spiritual lives. Pause and reflect on that for a moment: as a keeper of my brother I am responsible for the spiritual life of my brothers in Christ. If my brother walks away from his faith, that is my problem. If my brother falls into sin, that is my problem. If my brother neglects his gifts and call in Christ, that is my problem. I am accountable. And so are you.

Jesus_BaptismAs part of our weekend together we attempted to narrow down what this business of spiritual brother-keeping really looks like in practical terms, and it seems clear that the main thing we are keeping—that is, protecting and guarding—is our identity as sons of the Father. This is the gift that God gives us when we accept the sacrifice of His son—to become sons and daughters of God. And to be a son of God is not mere sentimentality—it is a role that comes with responsibility and power. When the Father blesses Jesus the son at his baptism He speaks from heaven, saying, “This is my son, whom I love. With him I am well pleased.” From these short words Jesus gets four profound things. He gets identity. He is the son of the Father, and after the pattern of Psalm 2 this means that he is the designated king of Israel, the one who will bring God’s justice to bear on the world. Second, Jesus gets acceptance. Jesus is loved without condition by the Father, and this means that Jesus will never need to perform to earn the Father’s love—he has it already. Third, Jesus gets a mission. To be the “son of God” means to be commissioned for a task—the task of justice, of kingship, and of representing God in the world. Fourth and finally, Jesus gets an inheritance. The son, we learn in Psalm 2, asks of God and inherits the nations. Jesus will also ask of the Father and inherit the nations, receiving all authority in heaven and earth as the reward for his faithfulness.

When we become sons and daughters of the Father these four factors become ours as well. We get new identities in Christ—identities that give us power and responsibility. We get unconditional acceptance in Christ—we cannot perform to earn God’s love, but He gives it to us freely. We get a mission, participating in the Father’s mission in the world in the image of the son of God, continuing the work of Psalm 2. And we get an inheritance as well, particularly an inheritance of the Spirit, poured out on us who believe, filling us with power and gifts to perform the work, calling us to our future inheritance in Christ.

Above all else, these four factors are those I am called to “keep” in my brothers and sisters in Christ. Over our weekend together we framed a series of questions that we might ask one another as brother-keepers in Christ. They are as follows:

Identity: I am a son of God; Am I living like a son of God?
Am I drawing my identity from the world?
Am I drawing my identity from my own history of sin?

Acceptance: I am beloved by God; Am I living like one who is beloved of God?
Am I performing activities for God that are merit based?
Am I trying to win points with God?
Am I extending God’s acceptance to others?
Am I projecting the need for performance upon others?

Mission: I am called by God; Am I serving the mission of God in my work and service?
Am I seeking to serve Jesus at my workplace/school?
Am I serving the mission of God in Church?

Inheritance: I am an inheritor of God’s gifts; Am I accessing my inheritance?
Am I living in the Spirit’s power?
Am I living by my own power?
Am I using the gifts God has given me?
Am I aware of the gifts God has given me?

Rugby ScrumThese questions, of course, are imperfect, but I think they target an aspect of accountability that has been overlooked. For most men, the word accountability has become strongly associated with sexual purity. And while it is true and imperative that men must pursue and commit in relationship with one another to maintaining their sexual purity, I can’t help but think we’re a little out of order here. Accountability is not primarily about pornography; accountability is about preserving the life of God in my brother in Christ, of which porn may be a part. But to make accountability almost entirely about porn has robbed us of something important—even, perhaps, an important antidote to sexual temptation. If I am being asked tough questions on a regular basis by my brothers in Christ—questions about my identity, my acceptance, my mission, and my inheritance—then if my private sexual life is inhibiting my call to be the son of the Father that I am, then perhaps that sense of greater duty will lend strength to my battle for purity. Remember, purity is not and has never been an end in itself. It is a component of and stepping stone towards a deeper life in Christ. Men-who-don’t-look-at-porn is not the point of the Christian life—men in the image of the Son and in faithful service to the Father is.

Cain turned his back on Abel and left a horrific legacy behind. May we spurn the negligence of Cain. “I am my brother’s keeper.” I am called to keep my brothers and sisters in Christ. I am accountable for their faith. They, also, are accountable for each other’s faith, and also for mine. I have invited the men of my church to ask me any of these questions at any time, in boldness and confidence, so as to mutually secure our identities, our acceptance, our mission, and our inheritance. I am a son of the Father. And you, O reader, my brother or sister in Christ, as your brother I pledge to keep you accountable. Will you do the same for me?

Thriving Faith in an Antagonistic World, Part 3

This is Part 3 in a series about the nature of faith. Part one dealt with what faith is and how we do our part of faith. Part two discussed God’s part in faith and the nature of doubt. This post concludes the series.

E. Why People Lose Their Faith

When we began this sermon I said that I would define faith, and that once I had defined it it would have three effects on you. First, I said that you would know what faith is so that you can do it. Faith, you now know, is saying “Yes, I believe” to God, placing your trust on the reality of Jesus Christ. You now know what you are supposed to do with faith; choose to believe. Second, I said that you would know what to do when faith was tested. And you know now that when your faith is tested the thing you need more than anything else is a community of faith around you. So many people enter into a test of faith and think, “I just want to figure things out on my own for a while.” And I just want to say to them, “Good luck with that; let me know when you get tired of being lost, alone, and unable to find your way out.” Faith never occurs in a vacuum. The third thing I said was that, knowing what faith is, you will have an answer for people who say, “I’ve lost my faith.” Let’s take a few minutes to discuss this phrase for a moment.

We’ve already pointed out that faith is not a feeling. And yet many people who say they’ve lost their faith only mean, “I’m not feeling it like I used to.” Having made their faith dependent on feelings, their faith is as fickle as their feelings. They need to learn what faith is first. They need to learn that belief is more than a matter of feeling a certain way. Other people say they’ve lost their faith because they’ve accepted the false vision of faith pressed upon us by our hostile world. They begin to learn about the universe, about science, and conclude that faith is impossible, or ridiculous, or both. But clearly the scientific vision of faith is a caricature. They don’t need the kind of faith that science ridicules; they need real faith in the God who stepped into history personally.

Some people genuinely begin to doubt the claims of Christianity but do this forgetting that it is the nature of faith to be tested. They begin to wonder if what we preach is true. But if you have accepted Christ and received the Spirit, you must cling to the Spirit and His influence more than your doubts. The Spirit is your flashlight when doubt’s darkness descends. Don’t forget to turn it on and use it! Faith, remember, is the concert of human and divine wills—don’t let your fickle human will be the only power you access, but turn to the Spirit. A life of faith, after all, is a life where you are trusting in God each and every day, hour, and moment. It is, in the most profound sense imaginable, a spiritual life.

"This way looks much easier!" ~ fateful words indeed.

All that said, I think there are three simple reasons why people walk away from the Christian faith. First, a person loses faith when they lose focus on Christ. When they turn their eyes to other things—sin, desire, passions, a girlfriend or boyfriend, a job. When Christ becomes secondary, faith fades. Second, a person loses faith when they step away from the Church. I have already pointed out the necessity of Church for faith. You cannot do this faith thing alone. You are not meant to. But if you run off on your own your faith has about as much chance of surviving as a naked man without water in the middle of the Sahara. In other words, zero. When someone says, “I’m losing my faith” there’s a good bet they’ve stopped being part of the church. Third and finally, people lose faith when they compromise on their commitment to doctrine. This is the least popular reason for losing faith today, but it is one of the subtlest and most pervasive. When we lose our commitment to doctrine it means is that we are choosing our own faith over the faith revealed to us. We are no longer accepting God’s revelation, but trying to bargain our way into a faith that we feel is more comfortable, less demanding, and perhaps more popular. Compromise on truth, however, and faith will fade as well. The Spirit who makes your faith live will not tolerate your willful rebellion against His ways.

Faith, then, is not a feeling, but a believing—a placing of our trust—in the revealed and real history of God, speaking for Himself in Jesus Christ. It is the combination of Divine Gift and Human Belief, aided and maintained by the Spirit of God. It is tested because God does not compel but desires us to freely choose Him. And it is lost when we deviate from Christ, the Church, or Doctrine. This, Church, is our faith.

Three Response Questions:

1. How does this change your understanding of faith?

2. How does this change your understanding of doubt?

3. If a friend came up to you and said, “I’m losing my faith.” What would you say in response?

The Two Aspects of Heresy

NB: I don't actually think we should roast the people we disagree with.

Heresy is, much like the word Christian, a term that is used to make an argument without saying much in particular; it is a convenient label, cunningly attached, and at this point so frequently misused that it is near to finding itself void of content. This emptying has so progressed that, today, identifying yourself as a ‘heretic’ is perceived as a badge of honor. As if calling yourself an idiot, fool, charlatan, or deceiver were a thing worthy of praise.

Let’s set the record straight and get a handle on this thing called ‘heresy’ so that we can know why we don’t want to be one. It will help to know, first, that heresy and orthodoxy are antonyms. If you are a heretic you are not orthodox, and vice versa. And this simple contrast sheds light on the cultural popularity of heresy today, because orthodoxy (right, traditional thinking) represents authority, and the rejection of authority is considered praiseworthy. To accept authority—orthodoxy—without reservation is to open yourself to the ironic accusation that you are small minded and unthinking. Authority and orthodoxy being the social pariahs that they are, any ‘thinking’ person who believes in orthodoxy is thus left with two alternatives: he must tacitly question authority (to prove that he isn’t a theological lemming), or rework it in such a way that while the beliefs are still orthodox, all the language of orthodoxy is eschewed (i.e., phrases like “I’m not a ‘Christian’ I’m a Jesus follower,” or, “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship,” or some other such hogwash).

Our word ‘heresy’ comes from a form of the Greek word ‘haireo’ which means ‘to choose’. Implicit, therefore, in the idea of heresy is this ‘choosing’ of an opinion which deviates from what is straight—i.e., ‘orthos’ (hence, orthodoxy). Heresy is deviation. But it is also willful deviation. And if you are a heretic, it is because you have chosen, in the face of all the authority the Church has to offer you—the Traditions of the Church, the Scriptures of the Church, the Dogma of the Church, the Reasons of the Church, and the History of the Church—in the face of all this you have chosen your own way against the way of the Church. And unless you are part of a tradition that has, as a whole, chosen its own way, nobody is ever a heretic by accident; you are always a heretic by choice. That in itself—the idea of choosing our own way—once again sounds appealing in our world today. Accusing voices thus resound with statements like: “Do you just do what people tell you?” “Are you just going to trust these unknown authorities?” But there is no virtue in choosing your own way if your own way leads to certain doom. Bridges are there for our benefit. Ignoring the bridge and driving off the cliff is not ignorant, blind submission to mysterious authority. You may not know who built the bridge, you may not understand its physics, but your personal understanding has no impact on the importance of that bridge for your ability to cross. Of course, learning the history and physics of the bridge may enrich your experience, and in the event that you must ever construct your own bridge it will certainly help you to have some experience of these. But my main point is that to remain orthodox—on the straight path—is simply good common sense.

The prevalence and acceptance of heresy today has created a culture of theological anarchy. Every blogger and pedant who wishes can feel free to spout off whatever they like theologically without reference to the historic, orthodox faith. This practice is obviously flawed. If you needed brain surgery, you wouldn’t appeal to a pianist, and if you needed to construct a bridge you wouldn’t contract a line cook. If you need theology, you need to listen to someone trained in the laws and history of theology. Otherwise the surgery will go horribly wrong, the bridge will fail when traffic begins to drive on it, and the theology will fail when tested against life. None of this means that questioning the reasons and history of orthodoxy is wrong. In fact, that process is precisely how one becomes a theologian in the first place. But the theologian who doesn’t respect orthodoxy is one not worth listening to. He’s like a theoretical physicist who thinks Einstein, Newton and Galileo are idiots because they lived in a previous time and are therefore archaic.

Heresy is occasioned by difficulties which the Church encounters in the world. As a consequence there are two aspects, or faces, of heresy because there are two categories of difficulty which the church faces. The first category is primarily cultural in nature. The second category is apparent difficulties in Christian theology. Heresy, to its credit, is always an attempt to resolve one of these difficulties. To its discredit, it always resolves it wrongly.

The first aspect of heresy is cultural, and the word which highlights this difficulty is compromise. Here, the church falls into heresy because it accommodates culture rather than holding firm to Christ. Here we allow the tides of culture, in all their vigor, to shape our theology more than what we know about God in Christ. We become very temporal Christians, with temporary, popular theology. The claim, quite popular in the last century, that the historical Jesus was irrelevant while the Christ ‘of faith’ (whatever that meant) was what counted, was long entertained by a great many theologians and became very popular. It was, however, a product of a culture of religious skepticism and historical doubt. To the degree that Christianity caved to the demands of that culture (i.e., Schleiermacher), we fell into heresy. Today there is a claim that globalization demands a rethinking of the exclusivity of the gospel, a temporal claim resulting in a popularization of “Universalism.” There is also a claim today that research into human sexuality demands that we rethink our biblical ethics of sexuality, and this has resulted in a popularization of theologies which bend sideways to embrace homosexual behaviour. In each of these cases we are judging Christ by the standard of culture, rather than culture by the standard of Christ. We have compromised, and compromising (to resolve the difficulty of faithfulness in a hostile culture) we have become heretics.

The second aspect of heresy is more directly theological. Here heresy arises when we reject mystery and explain away a key difficulty in Christian theology. The key word here is false resolution. Within Christian theology there are, as I see them, three big categories of difficulty: first, that we believe in the Trinity—God three and God one; second, that we believe in the two natures of Christ—that he was fully God and fully man; and third, that we believe in the fallen nature of man, which creates distrust in all our knowing and effort. Heresy in relation to these difficulties has always followed from the false resolution of something that is meant to remain mystery. Heresy, then, is the denial of mystery. Regarding the Trinity, heresy is either demanding that God is one and not three (Modalism), or demanding that God is Three and not one (Tritheism), or demanding that God is one and Jesus is a creature (Arianism). Regarding the two natures of Christ, there are some who have claimed that he only appeared to be a man but didn’t really suffer (Docetism), and others that he was fully man but not God (Nestorianism). And regarding the sinful nature of man, we have people who believe the work of man is necessary for salvation (Pelagianism), and those who believe that man is so corrupt that he has no part in salvation whatsoever (Strict Calvinism. Yes, Calvinism—and to the degree that as a system it resolves the theological mystery of the interaction between God’s Will and human wills by denying the human will it is a heresy).

There is genuine danger in deviation.

It is worth observing, briefly, that the orthodox and heretical, in both aspects, are present from the earliest days of the church. The danger of compromise runs throughout the entire bible, and the danger of the false resolution of Divine mysteries is equally present. Nothing is new in the fight for orthodoxy in the Christian life. That, at least, ought to give us some confidence.

And so orthodoxy, the straight road, is the difficult path of avoiding compromise with culture while holding firm to the mysteries of the faith. It is not an easy path, but it is certainly the right path, and it is the only path that is safe. It is my pleasure to seek to tread it.

‘Zest’ versus ‘Excitement’

Lately I’ve been reading Baron Friedrich von Hügel’s “Letters to a Niece,” which are a series of letters of spiritual direction that the Baron wrote to his niece, Gwendolen Greene, early in the 20th century.  These letters are something of a classic in spiritual direction for their wisdom and perspicacity, and so far I have found them highly enriching.  In one letter B. von Hügel writes the following:

Zest is the pleasure which comes from thoughts, occupation, etc., that fit into, that are continuous, applications, etc., of extant habits and  interests of a good kind—duties and joys that steady us and give us balance and centrality.  Excitement is the pleasure which comes from breaking loose, from fragmentariness, from losing our balance and centrality.  Zest is natural warmth—excitement is fever heat. For zest—to be relished—requires much self-discipline and recollection—much spaciousness of mind: whereas the more distracted we are, the more racketed and impulse-led, the more we third for excitement and the more its sirocco [def: a hot, dry, and dusty wind from North Africa] air dries up our spiritual sap and makes us long for more excitement.” From a letter of 31 August 1920.

There is a brilliant and critical simplicity in this distinction.  Where Excitement is the pleasure of the new, Zest is the pleasure of excellence—the pleasure brought about by faithfulness, commitment, and the accomplishment of a goal.  The pleasure of Zest takes longer to attain, but is purer and lasts longer.  The pleasure of Excitement is easily attained at first, but becomes more elusive as our senses are dulled (in much the same way that more and more salt added to food renders the taste buds incapable of taste).  Excitement, bluntly, is the pleasure of adultery; Zest is the pleasure of marriage.

The essential but oft ignored truth embedded in this comment is that every worthwhile undertaking demands a period of disenchantment.  The excitement of ‘the new’ fades, and we are left with the mundane plodding, the fog, the cloud of obscurity which tempts us strongly to abandon our goal and pursue something which brings us excitement again.  We become addicts for the rush of the new and never truly attain to excellence, let alone proficiency, in any matter of consequence in our spiritual lives.  And against this von Hügel calls us to a daily faithfulness, to an attention to and rejection of the distractions which keep us from right service in our lives.

C.S. Lewis wrote something similar in an essay titled, “Talking about Bicycles” (it can be found in the collection Present Concerns).  There he speaks of four stages—a first where we are unaware of the bicycle, a second where we are introduced to it and it becomes the most wonderful thing in our lives, a third where it becomes a plodding boredom, and a fourth where we rediscover a hint of our original pleasure and, with wisdom, are enabled to see that it pointed to something significant beyond itself.  This fourth stage (which he terms ‘re-enchantment’) is a stage of maturity.  There we are enabled to take the good with the bad, the plodding alongside the original joy, and move toward something more fully realized and satisfying.  Maturity in matters of faith and life comes as a product of our journey through these four stages—we have stepped beyond excitement and plodded into zest.  In zest lies true joy and enjoyment.

Interestingly, there is a physiological component to Von Hügel’s comment as well.  Dr. Archibald D. Hart in his book Adrenaline and Stress writes in one chapter about the interplay of adrenaline and creativity.  He there addresses the commonly held myth that creativity increases with stress—quite the opposite, he observes that in moments of stress the mind is most likely to fall back on old habits of thinking, and never stretch into new, truly creative areas.  Our most creative moments occur, physiologically, when we are at rest, and this is in part because “High arousal is the stage of efficient action, but of inefficient creativity for the obvious reason that the brain is focused on engagement”—in other words, it is focused on accomplishing the task, rather than being creative (191).  The rush of excitement is a rush of adrenaline—we enjoy the way it makes us feel and we can become dependent upon it.  The irony is that when we depend upon excitement to trigger creativity we end up sabotaging the very rest we need to be truly creative.  True creativity, then, is a product not of excitement but of zest—it is not the byproduct of frenetic energy and constant new experiences, but of slow and plodding perseverance.

There is a great and insipid tyranny of the new that runs throughout our spirituality.  We grow weary of faithfulness and chase novelty; we tire of obedience and seek thrills.  Our wandering hearts betray our adulterous idolatry—or perhaps I should say our idolatrous adultery—against God.  A flash of this chronic confusion appears in our frequent misreadings of John’s Revelation.  We peruse its pages searching for the new—for the future—searching for excitement.  When what John desired to create in our hearts was zest—not novelty, but faithfulness.  Eugene Peterson wisely remarks about John’s book that “Everything in the Revelation can be found in the previous sixty-five books of the Bible.  The Revelation adds nothing of substance to what we already know… There is nothing new to say on the subject.  But there is a new way to say it” (Reversed Thunder, xi).  John’s purpose is to create in us a renewed passion (zest, re-enchanted, truly creative) for God by offering us a reframing of well-known truths.

This delineation between excitement and zest runs down the centre of all our spiritual activities.  And so we must query ourselves: if we were to look for zest, rather than excitement in the Church, how would that change our commitment to matters ecclesial? Of worship? Of attendance? If we were searching for zest, rather than excitement, in our private devotions, how would that change the standards by which we evaluate our daily walk with God? Our scripture reading? Our prayers? If I, as a preacher, am striving to create zest, rather than excitement, in my hearers when I preach, how will that change the planning and execution of my sermons? If our goal in these matters is to be zest, re-enchantment, and true creativity, then attaining that goal will demand a profound reevaluation of many of our motives and methods.