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Shaping Our Desires

Are we being formed as Christian disciples? Or are we only being informed?

This question lies near the heart of James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom, a book that has provoked a lot of discussion in the 6 years since it was published. Smith argues that our identity is not constructed primarily by what we know, or even by what we believe, but rather by what we love. And so the goal of Christian ministry—if we truly want Christian maturity—should be to shape one’s desires, rather than just to fill one’s mind.
How are our desires shaped? Smith invites us to look around us, since many of the entities that compete for our attention are generally more adept at this than the church. Consider the powerful symbols in ads and in store windows, offering us a version of the good life and inviting us to make sacrifices on the altar of commerce. Think of the rituals of patriotism: the allegiance we pledge to a flag and the song of homage we must sing (with hand on heart) before every sporting event. We are shaped by practices that we repeat unthinkingly, by stories we remember, by songs and images that captivate our hearts. All of these are often much more powerful forces in forming our desires than biblical “facts” that might be communicated to us on a given Sunday.
The implications for this observation are numerous, but I’ll mention just one. You and I need the practices and habits of the weekly church gathering—the church “liturgy.” It’s not enough just to podcast the sermon or read good books, for we are more than thinking creatures. We are desiring creatures, and our desires are formed by practices and rituals that often have a deeper effect than we realize. Simply the act of being present itself on a Sunday morning (when we could be doing otherwise) reminds our heart of what is most significant. To hear God calling us to worship him, to strain our (often sleepy) voices in adoration, to do the hard work of listening to the Bible, to humble ourselves in confession and eat and drink what Christ offers to us—these each are tools in the hands of the Holy Spirit by which he teaches our heart to love rightly. Often they feel ordinary (even boring) at the time, but when done rightly, their repetition, and their being done together in community, act like a river in our hearts, forming over time a deep canyon of Christian maturity.

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