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2 reasons why what you love matters


2 reasons why what you love matters

So how you change what you love also matters.

How we live is not primarily shaped by what we believe or what we think, but by what we love.

Really? Yes, really. I agree that James KA Smith is correct when he asserts this in several books.

The Lord’s Supper plays an important part in recalibrating what we love, as I have explored in a series of other posts starting here. But first…

Reason 1 why what you love matters: ‘Prove to me that my decisions are shaped mostly by what I love, not what I think or believe.’

Most every decision we make each day is not carefully thought through and evaluated against an ethical framework. It is not formulated with reference to a belief system. No, most choices are instinctual. It’s like when we drive round to a close friend. When we arrive we could not say whether we stopped at red lights, gave way at junctions or indicated when turning. We just did it instinctually. No conscious thought was involved.

The same is also true of moral decisions. When you are in a shop and, with a queue of people behind you, you are given an extra £20 note in change at the checkout, you’ll either offer it back straightaway saying it looks like you’ve had too much change… or you’ll walk away and pocket your gain. If you do the latter, then afterwards you may feel guilty if that behaviour did not correlate with your beliefs. That shows that the decision in the moment was not directed by your beliefs but, rather, it was directed instinctually by what you love most: money or honesty.

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I ordered online for pickup in store. When I went to Marks and Spencer at the Owlcotes Centre in Pudsey, West Yorkshire, the plastic bag I was handed seemed far too large. I stopped in store to check the contents and sure enough in addition to the three items I had ordered, there were three other items I had not ordered. I just went straight to the till to sort it out. I got chatting with someone in the queue and they straight out said they would have kept it all. And that prompted me to realise God’s grace in me. The idea had not crossed my mind. I’d resolved straightaway to return the items I had not paid for. These decisions are instinctual. And instinctual decisions are governed primarily by your desires, your affections, your vision of the good life.

(If you’ve read James KA Smith you will now be thinking that my choice of illustrations – consumer spending in shopping malls – is deeply ironic. So true!)

Let’s step back and consider: How does God sustain us in this new life?

Perhaps the best summary is in Acts 2:37-47 (ESV):

37 Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” 40 And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” 41 So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.

42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

The first half of this passage tells us how we are asked to respond to the call God makes through the good news of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, through which Christ announced the coming kingdom of God. Taken with other passages we can identify four aspects to this ongoing response:

  • Faith in Christ – his person and work (not mentioned in Acts 2 – but often elsewhere).
  • Repentance – a change of thinking about who I am and what I do.
  • Baptism in water – the entrance into God’s family.
  • Receiving the empowering presence of the Spirit, such that wonders and signs were being done (v.43).

From verse 42 we see a description of how the first church engaged with God’s grace in addition to the four responses just listed. They were:

  • Devoted to gathering to hear the apostles’ teaching — SCRIPTURE.
  • Devoted to gathering for fellowship — SHARED LIFE.
  • Devoted to collecting and distributing money to those who had needs — SOCIAL JUSTICE.
  • Devoted to gathering to break bread together — SUPPER.
  • Devoted to gathering for corporate prayer — SUPPLICATION.
  • Devoted to gathering for corporate praise — SINGING / PSALMS.

This list of ten actions can be helpfully sub-divided.

Faith and repentance are an initial response to God’s call which then become the posture of our ongoing orientation to God’s call. Arguably both faith and repentance are gifts from God. They are not ‘good works’ that merit God’s favour, but rather faith and repentance are the ways we connect to what God has done for us in Christ.

Of the other eight actions, six of them confer a benefit intrinsic to the activity.

For example, there is a logical, cause and effect connection that, when our minds lack knowledge, the truth of the words in Scripture — heard, read, or set out in sermons — illuminates the mind with the help of the Holy Spirit.

And again, in the case of Supplication, there is a logical connection between telling God about our need and the resulting intervention by our all-powerful God in response to our words requesting his intervention.

And again, there is a logical connection that when we share life with others, we gain the experience of sharing life with others. There is, in all six cases, an obvious way that the action can logically lead to the fulfilment of a need.

With two of these actions, however, Baptism and the Supper, there is little or no intrinsic benefit in the act itself.

There is no obvious logic of cause and desired effect, and so there is no reason why the action in or of itself would confer a benefit. Baptism could be a bath, but no soap is used. The Supper could be a meal, but insufficient food is consumed to truly nourish us physically. So what is going on with these actions. What benefit is in view and how is that benefit conferred? Traditionally the church has called such actions as ordinances or sacraments.

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How important are these practices?

We like to say that God loves us as we are but loves us too much to leave us as we are. We understand that he wants to change what we speak, what we do, what we think, what we will/choose, what we believe, what we love. And we need this ‘salvation’ because everything about us is disordered. This disorder is what we call sin. We don’t speak aright, act aright, think aright, choose aright, believe aright, or love aright.

How are we to be transformed in our affections, beliefs, thinking, actions and speech?

Above all, how will we love as he loves, as Jesus describes it in Matthew 22:34-40?

34 But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. 35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Spurious ideas of the Christian life propose schemes of behaviour modification by means of laws.

The teaching of the New Testament demonstrates that transformation (or salvation) by obeying laws does not work. So what is offered in the place of law? Grace. Yes, but how does grace work?

How can I be changed inwardly such that I love, choose, think, speak and do rightly. Your answer will depend on the emphasis you place on the diverse dimensions of human identity. We might ask: Are we primarily, Actors, Thinkers, Believers, Electors, or Lovers?

What has this to do with Acts 2:37-47 and the sacraments?

Reason 2 why what you love matters

The Acts passage lists what we can call the liturgical practices of the first church. Along with many others, James K A Smith argues that rhythms of worship — what we call liturgy — are formative. These actions, when repeated and habituated, shape our lives by giving us a story within which we find our true identity. And the Lord’s Supper is one of the most powerful of these rhythms of grace.

Liturgy literally means ‘the work of the people.’

The word ‘sacrament’ Webber explains “derives from the Latin sacramentum, made up of sacra, meaning “holy,” and the suffix mentum, meaning “to make.”” (Webber, p.139). In recent years many evangelicals have been reviving the traditional view, long held among more traditional Christian communities, that believes that liturgy and sacraments not only say something, they do something. The emphasis is not so much on what we do, when we obey the command to engage in the ordinances, but on what God is doing (Webber, p.140).

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Symbols, if we use that language, have a power far greater than themselves.

My wedding band is not just a quantity of gold like any other. Were I to take it off and throw it into the nearby River Aire that act, without any words, would be shockingly powerful. That act would be loaded with a freight of meaning worth far more than the weight of the gold.

Now consider liturgy. We might think that a prescribed liturgy is mere words?

This reveals how thin our cultural understanding is. Think of the chants of a football team’s fans, repeated week by week over decades. Those chants form identity, unite fans, affirm loyalty, reinforce affection — they literally enchant the participants. The choruses of charismatic worship surely work in a similar way. They say but they also do. Liturgy, at its best, achieves the same enchantment. Let’s not think that liturgy is merely a form of words to be followed, however ancient. It is rather a considered structuring of the Christian gathering such that the gathering tells a narrative that is coherent and consistent with the Scriptural account of reality.

Andrew Wilson summarises Smith’s arguments thus:

“Liturgy is not merely neutral, but positive. It is not just inevitable, but powerful. It can train us, shape our habits, and reorient our desires. So it is helpful for us to see how formative liturgy is and, more than that, how graceful—how full of charis—it can be… Further, our loves are shaped in large part by our habits. They involve our bodies and our emotions, not just our minds. Developing them is more like learning to drive or playing the piano or practicing a golf swing, than it is like learning algebra or history. They are shaped by our routines, our rituals, our practices, and particularly those “thick” practices—or, we could say, liturgies—that form our identities and aim at a particular vision of the good life.” (Wilson, pp. 76-78)

What has identity to do with discipleship?

We have been schooled to think that discipleship is mainly about changing how we think (repentance) and what we believe (faith) with a view to changing how we live.

Repentance and faith are crucial steps but, as Smith asserts, while changing how you think and what you believe is essential, God also wants to change what we love. This is because what we love will have the greatest impact on what we instinctually choose, and on how we behave.

How is that? Inspired by Augustine, Smith shows how human beings ‘are the sorts of animals whose orientation to the world is shaped from the body up more than from the head down’ (Smith, 2009, p.25). When we swallow Descartes’ view that we are thinking beings, mere containers for ideas, the consequence is a reductionist view that (1) the body does not count, only the mind/soul, and (2) the path to any change would be by means of ‘correct thinking’ (Smith, 2009, p.32). Smith rejects Descartes’ notion that human beings are essentially minds that happen to have a body. He asks:

“What if that [i.e. thinking] is actually only a small slice of who we are? And what if that is not even the most important part?” (Smith, 2009, p.32)

As Augustine observed, we human beings are Lovers first and foremost, in addition to being Knowers, Believers, Choosers, Actors, Speakers. The deepest transformation occurs when our loves, our desires, and our affection are aligned with God’s loves, desires and affections. This appears to be what Scripture is getting at when we read passages such as these:

Matthew 22:36-40 (ESV)

36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

John 13:34-35 (ESV)

34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

John 17:24-26 (ESV)

24 Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. 25 O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. 26 I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.

1 Corinthians 13:13 (ESV)

13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

1 John 3:23 (ESV)

23 And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.

1 Corinthians 8.3 (ESV)

But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.

Can what we love really affect our behaviour? Surely yes. Jesus himself said:

John 14:23-24 (ESV)

23 Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. 24 Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me.

A popular way in which this notion is expressed is when we speak of the need to move knowledge from our heads to our hearts. When we say this, we are saying that how we think is not enough.

So how does our worship, our liturgy, change what we love?

The dualistic worldview that we have inherited from Plato and Descartes, by viewing us as primarily ‘thinking beings’, assigns to our bodies only a secondary role as containers for our minds, that one day we will jettison to be truly ourselves.

In contrast, Scripture tells us that we were created as part of a material universe. Embodiment is essential to what and who we are. A Biblical anthropology points to how essential it is to engage in physical practices of worship that train our bodies what to desire, as well as to engage in mental practices that reshape our thinking.

In Western society we think that changing what we love is out of our control, indeed that we are the plaything of Eros who points our hearts where he wills. We think we look at what we desire. The truth is we desire what we look at. Our desires, in other words, are not out of our control. On the contrary, our desires can be managed, redirected, formed. It is on this very assumption that advertising operates. This brings hope to us because we can now see that our desires as well as our thoughts and beliefs can be reformed, recalibrated, restored — even restor(i)ed (as Smith likes to put it). And it is to this end that Christian worship serves as a tool.

Smith writes:

“We are ultimately liturgical animals because we are fundamentally desiring creatures… We are embodied, practicing creatures whose love/desire is aimed at something ultimate.” (Smith, 2009, p.40)

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Scripture gives us a story, and calls us to community rhythms and practices that shape and reshape our desires towards God’s vision of the good life for his creatures. Those desires truly align with the grain of the universe, constructed as it has been by a God who is maximally powerful, holy, rational and benevolent.

Acts 2:37-47 sets out in brief an overview of those community practices.

And the Lord’s Supper is one of the key practices that reshapes our loves/desires.

So what is happening when we break bread. This I will explore in some further posts.

Meanwhile some questions arise:

What makes our liturgy Christian?

Is it enough that Jesus gets a mention, even a frequent mention? Probably not. We accept that the consumerism implicit in the world’s efforts to adjust our desires is all too easily imported into the church. No, to be Christian, our liturgy will tell a narrative that is coherent and consistent with the Scriptural account of reality.

Where do we see the practices set out in Acts 2 in our church?

It appears that in modern evangelical churches we privilege those practices that address the mind, rather than the body, and we give least esteem to those practices which least address our thoughts and ideas. For the purpose of this series of posts, I suggest that includes the Lord’s Supper.

And even with those practices which are enchanting, our singing of songs (that surely do address our affections directly), the unending quest for novelty by means of abandoning old tunes for new tunes, suggests that possibly our liturgy may be shaped more by the restlessness of modern culture than by Scripture and tradition. To be continued…


The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.

Holy Bible, New International Version® Anglicized, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Gregg R ALLISON, Historical Theology, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2011

Frederick Dale BRUNER, Matthew, A Commentary: The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2004

John CALVIN, The Institutes of the Christian Religion (based on the 1559 Latin edition), translated and abridged by Tony Lane and Hilary Osborne, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1986

John CALVIN, The Institutes of the Christian Religion (The First English Version of the 1541 French Edition), translated by ELSIE ANNE MCKEE, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2009

Millard J. ERICKSON, Christian Theology: 2nd Edition, Baker Book House Co, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1998

Gordon D FEE, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1987

James K A SMITH, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2009

James K A SMITH, You are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, Brazos Press, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2016

Leonard J VANDER ZEE, Christ, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 2004

Robert E WEBBER, Blended Worship: Achieving Substance and Relevance in Worship, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Massachusetts, 1994

Andrew WILSON, Spirit and Sacrament: an invitation to eucharismatic worship, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2018


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