In You Are What You Love—one of the most formative works for how I think about the shape of discipleship in my life—philosopher James K.A. Smith emphasizes that, for the human species, worship is not an optional activity, one that people of faith choose while others avoid. Instead, “to worship is human.” As human beings we are always driven by what fills our heart. Every day, whether we identify as people or faith or whether we do not, our lives are shaped around our loves. The things that fill our hearts with wonder and joy. “To be human is to have a heart. You can’t not love. So the question isn’t whether you will love something as ultimate; the question is what you will love as ultimate.”
Sometimes, Smith wryly observes, we tend to believe that “we can think our way to holiness—sanctification by information transfer.” But studies in human behavior reveal the opposite—that much of, even the majority of, our behavior isn’t driven by conscious reason but by unconscious longings and habits. By the ways in which our hearts are shaped from day to day—by our surroundings, by the things that fill our spirits, by the kind of beauty we experience.
That’s why when Paul prays for believers to experience transformation in Christ (Philippians 1), he doesn’t pray for them to have a more accurate set of ideas. He prays for them to experience love at the core of their being (v. 9). “Instead of the rationalist, intellectualist model that implies, ‘You are what you think,’ Paul’s prayer hints at a very different conviction: ‘You are what you love.’”
When it comes to daily discipleship, what matters most isn’t our good intentions or willpower. What will truly transform us is the countless ways our lives are shaped either towards the power and victory of Christ, or towards what cannot truly satisfy.
And our lives are also lived in the context of a wide variety of what we might call “competing liturgies”—spaces, practices, and visions of human flourishing designed to win our hearts without us even realizing it. In my North American context, consumerism might be the most pernicious and pervasive example of this. To effectively sell products, savvy companies know they need to do more than argue for an item’s efficiency. They need to sell a vision of life characterized by constant consuming itself as the path towards joy, creativity, and flourishing. So the marketing industry crafts images meant to move our hearts, to make us believe that spending our time in certain spaces—say the mall—is the kind of practice that will carry us into the good life.
My husband and I moved across states recently, something challenging not just because of the physical work involved in packing and unpacking, but because of the questions the process raises—about how we’ve shaped our lives, and how we want to shape our lives moving forward. Sorting through the items we’ve chosen to fill the space around us with is a reminder that what we choose to surround ourselves with will shape our hearts, for good or ill. When you’re relocating, certain questions, which we might have avoided thinking about before. become unavoidable: What do we bring with us, and what is best left behind? What do we want to be a part of the spaces in which we live our lives? What kind of qualities does what we choose to surround ourselves with cultivate in us? (And why did we ever include some things in our lives in the first place??)
In reality, these are the kind of questions we are living every day, whether we realize it or not. Physically relocating is just another reminder that every day who we are is shaped by the spaces, objects, and daily habits of the places in which we are located. Whether we’re consciously aware of the forces and realities that are surrounding us or not, we are still being shaped and formed in definite ways.
Augustine of Hippo once memorably described love as a “weight”—“wherever I am carried, my love is carrying me.” Smith explains, “Our orienting loves are a like a kind of gravity—carrying us in the direction to what they are weighted. If our loves are absorbed with material things, then our love is a weight that drags us downward to inferior things. But when our loves are animated by the renewing fire of the Spirit, then our weight tends upward. . . . Discipleship should set us on fire, should change the ‘weight’ of our love.”
We don’t just worship in church on Sunday; every day we worship. May our hearts be shaped in daily worship of the love that has changed and is changing the world. “For “we all, who . . . contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
In a world carrying the weight of sin and death, seeking solace wherever it can, may our hearts instead find rest carried by the deeper weight of Christ’s love and victory over death. He is alive and at work, and carrying us—indeed, creation itself—from death into the glory and joy of resurrection life.
Monica La Rose