Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Why We Do What We Do!

Written by: on January 16, 2015

A few years ago, I sat in my campus ministry office talking with a young man who was having relationship problems. Over the next couple hours he poured out his heart, confessing to many sordid activities that he had been involved in. Now, I didn’t grow up in a protected environment, but what I was hearing made me very uncomfortable. The hard part for me was putting myself in the shoes of this young man. I couldn’t even image doing what he was describing. And I knew immediately why. For me, my strongest moral compass during my youth was the thought of my mother in particular, and my family in general, of how they would respond if they learned of my involvement in certain nefarious activities. My family was a clear restraint on my actions. So, I asked this young man about how his mother would react if she knew. His first response was a confused look. Then he said, “No, I never thought about that. I don’t think she would have minded.” I was dumbstruck! I realized immediately that I was wired very differently than this young man, possessing an entirely different inner guidance system. I also knew that our key relationships (or lack thereof) provides the basis for determining how we live.

This inner wiring of the individual is the core focus of David Brook’s The Social Animal: The Hidden Source of Love, Character and Achievement. Brooks demonstrates, through numerous stories and references to recent social and psychological studies, that our character and are ability to function in life is a result of our “inner mind—the unconscious realm of emotions, intuitions, biases, longings, genetic predispositions, character traits, and social norms. This is the realm where character is formed and street smarts grow.” Contrary to our recent mindset of “the triumph of reason,” where knowledge and reason guide our decisions and rule our actions, Brook demonstrates that there is something more going in the human animal. For those of us who have had any involvement in ministry, this does not come as any surprise. People—even smart, well-educated people from good families—do the dumbest things! Repeatedly! The reason for this is that we are guided, not so much by reason, but by “mental processes that are inaccessible to consciousness” that “organize our thinking, shape our judgments, form our characters, and provide us with the skills we need in order to thrive.” Or, just as often, to self-destruct.

What Brooks develops throughout the book is a complex picture of these inner guides that make up who we are. He suggest that they are formed from the numerous relationships from the womb to the time we die. “If the outer mind highlights the power of the individual, the inner mind highlights the power of relationships and the invisible bonds between people.” This focus on relationships and our complex inner wiring, I believe, is a helpful corrective for our modernist, rationalist mindset, and an important reminder for the Christian. First, it reminds us that God’s work of changing lives is not just about changing outward behavior. If our actions are based on our inner wiring, then attempting to regulate outward behavior—which has been the common practice of the Church–would be attacking only the symptoms but not the root causes. Considering the issues of the young man in my office: to tell him to stop his sinful behavior or to fix his relationships would not begin to deal with the his deeper issues of the lack of any moral guidance system, of the effects of disinterested parents, of wrong stories he has been taught about who he is and who others are, that wired him to participate in so many destructive habits. Here, it is important that the Church be reminded that Jesus came to change hearts and minds first and foremost, not just outward behavior.

Second, we can better understand the vital role the Church plays in people’s lives through the practice of liturgy, worship and story. Brooks helps us recognizing the complex nature of the self, made up of multiple relationships with friends, family and society, governed by the stories, history, memories, and messages that we’ve accumulated over time, that wired us to think and react. Throughout history, the Church has understood that we can be most deeply wired and transformed–not simply through reasoning–but through the involvement of all our senses and faculties in worship. In worship, the Church tells God’s story; the liturgy is repeated and learned over time till it reaches the deepest level of the worshiper; and movement and sensory stimulation (music, incense, the communion meal, standing and knelling) in worship all speak into the very core of the person of the things of God. As James K. A. Smith writes: “In short, liturgies make us certain kinds of people, and what defines us is what we love. They do this because we are the sorts of animals whose orientation to the world is shaped from the body up more than from the head down. Liturgies aim our love to different ends precisely by training our hearts through our bodies….every liturgy constitutes a pedagogy that teaches us, in all sorts of precognitive ways, to be a certain kind of person.” Finally, it is in our relationships that we grow in righteousness. As MaryKate Morse reminds us: “The primary means of experiencing holiness is in right relationships to God and others. The commandments in Leviticus are about maintaining right relationships…”

Though Brooks speaks very little about religion, his concept of the person clearly reflects a biblical view, especially in his emphasis on the centrality of relationships and the significance of our inner wiring—whether we call it our unconscious, preconscious, or hearts and minds—which more determines who we are than our mental capacities or knowledge.
1David Brooks, The Social Animal: The Hidden Source of Love, Character, and Achievement (New York: Random House Trade Paperback, 2011), viii.

2Ibid., ix.


4James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 25.

5MaryKate Morse, A Guidebook to Prayer: 24 Ways to Walk with God (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2013), Kindle, 971.

About the Author

John Woodward

Associate Director of For God's Children International. Member of George Fox Evangelical Seminary's LGP4.

7 responses to “Why We Do What We Do!”

  1. Telile Fikru Badecha says:

    Hi John, You are very thoughtful as always.
    Your three points are well taken. I think one of the challenges of discipleship is, as I noted in my church, also related to the points you mentioned. Believers’ spiritual life is admired or judged based on their outward behavior. Like you say, it is in our relationship with God and other that we grow in righteousness. Thanks again!

  2. John…
    You captured insights from Brooks and applied them in such a discerning manner. “First, it reminds us that God’s work of changing lives is not just about changing outward behavior.” I sometimes wondered as I read that Brooks sees the involvement of God in our lives as tangible and present more than he ‘let on.’ It was significant as I read this book, that rather than be discouraged by what I read could have been or should have been to see how God has led and restored. One of the things I gleaned anew from the book was this picture again of the nature of life in relation to God. I am do not mean to diminish the significance of one accepting Christ, but that perhaps for many of us the transformation takes place in years and decades. Harold’s recollection at the end of his life seemed to recognize this inner work coming to culmination. I find that I am wondering how this awareness will translate into ministry and “presence” in ministry. Thanks John for your good work.

  3. John Woodward says:

    Carol, your point is excellent! I think you are right in that we do often focus on “conversion” above transformation (at least my church does), because conversion is concrete, transformation is messy and slow. But, I took from books that change and growth is possible, but it comes slowly because it is tied to the maturing and gleaning and sharpening that comes from the messy involvement with people. If we understood this in the church, maybe we would take more time to just interact, communicate, fellowship–and in so doing, see real transformation happen! It is beautiful picture of what (I believe) the church should be about! Thanks Carol for your kind words!

  4. John,

    Love your post! So spot on. It gave me a lot to think about, particularly your points on worship. “We can better understand the vital role the Church plays in people’s lives through the practice of liturgy, worship and story.” This really made me think. I wonder if it is true.

    Presently, my wife and I are not in a church body. It is a long and complicated story as to why we find ourselves in this position. We are hoping to find a place of community, but it is a long road. I miss liturgy that is fulfilling and meaningful. We are not giving up our search, but it is hard to find a place where there is balance. I have not been to a church for a long time that honors and understands the words “worship” and “liturgy.” So often today, worship is seen to be music only. And the music is often shallow and repetitive, not to mention devoid of any theological meat. We seem to think that singing emotional songs is what worship is. I don’t agree at all. In fact, I am very uncomfortable with this.

    What I am hoping for is that we might find a place where people are thoughtful about worship, a place where humility is seen as a positive trait in church leadership, and a place that honors God. Am I asking too much? Probably. But we continue to try different places to see if we might eventually find a place where we fit in. I appreciate your prayer on this for us as we come to mind.

    John, you are a good man. Thanks again for your good post. Thanks for listening.

  5. Hey John! I have to agree with you when you speak about the focus of relationships and complex inner wiring has been a helpful correction to a modernistic and rationalistic mindset as well as being very important for the Christian to understand as he engages in the attempt to minister to people. People are not just minds needing convincing with logic. We have more logic than what we know what to do with. As you said you have seen many smart people do stupid things. This includes me! I so agree with liturgy helping reach people by touching the emotions of people. Bells and smells along with preaching, teaching, and signing all work to help heal and reach the inner man. This is why I am attracted to the convergence movement where they intertwine the three historical streams of Christianity, Charismatic, Liturgical, and Evangelical. Bless you John!

  6. Richard Volzke says:

    As you pointed out, it is important for parents to guide their children as they grow. Unfortunately, many father and mothers have no moral compass, so they are unable to instill values into their children. This is why having a relationship with Christ is important for parents. We are and will be held accountable for how we raise our children. I have not always been the father that I need to be, but with Christ’s help I’m able to continuously do better in this area. I look to the Holy Spirit to be my inner guide.

  7. Stefania Tarasut says:

    John, I wish that Brooks would have spent some time talking about religion… Can you say more about the vital role the Church plays in people’s lives through the practice of liturgy, worship and story?

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