Following Jesus: What Really Shapes Our Decision and Desire?

Is it a question of God empowering our reason and will, or is something more fundamental at work?

Godsight labelYou are praying for your children/siblings/spouse and suddenly you find yourself no longer praying but “writing the book” on how their challenges will sweep them away. The book ends in court or the hospital or the cemetery. Your stomach knots up. Will you give way to fear?

How do you picture that decision-making process between choosing fear or choosing to trust Jesus? Do you see it as I have often seen it—a daily taffy-pull between what our hearts fear here and what God promises over there? Between what the culture rewards over here and what God wants over there, leaving our souls feeling thin and stringy in the middle?

If you’re like me you’ve been taught to view our decisions to love and follow Jesus in three stages:
We perceive a threat: I may lose my job, my husband, or in today’s culture, my child. Our candidate may not win. America will go in the wrong direction. We face a choice: Will we give way to fear?
We perceive a temptation: More time dialed in to our phones. Eating fat instead of healthy. An attraction to someone besides our spouse. Will we indulge our desires?
I submit what I perceive to logical reflection. Will my desire/choice honor the Lord Jesus? Does it line up with Scripture? Is it loving to others? Will it help me move toward the long-term joy Jesus has for me?
Life is a contest between a torrent of sinful desire and the way of God. My heart wants this, but my will chooses that. On a good day, my will is stronger than my sinful desires. But not always. (See Romans 7 (“what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do”)

We focus and teach our kids so much about surrendering our will to Jesus. Logically processing our decisions through the grid of God’s Word.

But what if our battle is not primarily fought at the level of our will, or even our reason? What if our greatest battle is fought at the level of our perception?

This is sobering because so much of what happens at the level of perception is subconscious and yet so powerful. In his #1 New York Times book The Social Animal, sociologist and columnist David Brooks reports on what the latest research tells us about the role of perception in moral decision making.

Perceiving isn’t just the action of taking in a scene. Seeing and evaluating are not two separate processes. They are linked and basically simultaneous. We see something and immediately evaluate it and wrap it into an emotional response.

Researchers have found that “evaluative feelings, even on complicated issues like euthanasia, can be detected within 200 to 250 milliseconds after a statement is read. You don’t have to think about disgust, or shame, or embarrassment, or whether you should blush or not. It just happens.”

Isn’t that our experience? I so desperately want to be a “kingdom kind of person.” In meetings, in discussions with Jack over finances, in conflict when my will is crossed, so often I don’t even think about logically analyzing my threats and temptations. I don’t respond from a default setting full of confidence and joy in God and his promises.

Too often my first emotional impulse is *^$@%*, and I have to constantly edit myself. Or ask forgiveness. My flesh seems set on a hair trigger, and the Spirit arrives on the scene when things are already in flames.

Perception is where the action is. It’s where the image of God and our conscience have universally programmed evaluations and desires like our Father’s into our souls—desires for love, goodness, fairness, loyalty—desires corrupted by the fall which also beset us with that infamous torrent of evil desire with which we are all so familiar—our “flesh.”

The instruction from God’s Word and the example of others also sinks down into our subconscious, as well as what we learn from experience, especially experiences with other people. Research shows that the greatest determiners of perception come from our relationships with others, especially our families while we’re growing up. No doubt our relationship with God as well.

With that in mind Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians takes on new depth and meaning. “I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe” (Eph 1:17-19).

We need God’s Spirit to work, remolding our perceptions according to his wisdom and revelation. We need God to open and enlighten the eyes of our hearts to perceive his true value and desire him and his riches.

What simply looks like daily Bible reading and prayer is really reshaping our windows of perception to value the hope and future he provides. What appears to be little kids memorizing Bible verses for Awana is really hiding God’s Word in their hearts where it molds their perceptions and desires.

What looks like merely spending face time with God is opening our eyes to see what a living Treasure he is—all that power wrapped in love. What seems like just “going to church” is reshaping the habits of our hearts to enjoy the riches of his community and our inheritance.

One day we will see all the hidden ways our Heavenly Father is constantly sharpening our perception, redeeming our imaginations, re-shaping our desires, lovingly superintending our transformation at this deep-soul level to be the kind of person we long to be and that he is delighted to see us become.

We live from our affections—our desires, our passion. They are “the spring of our actions,” Jonathan Edwards said. What we may not realize is that our perceptions shape our desires before any reasonable review of the facts or our wills even engage. Not that they can’t make a powerful difference. They can. But perception is primary.

What can we do to partner with God in this process of opening the eyes of our hearts? Of enlightening our perception to see what is really real and valuable? Of fanning the flames of good desires?

In my book Godsight: Renewing the Eyes of Our Hearts I wrote at length about how God has done this in my life. Some of it he has sovereignly done to me. Much of it he has done with me.  In thirty-six years of living with rheumatoid arthritis it has made all the difference between living in duty and resignation and living a joyful, kingdom  building life. I’ll unpack it more in my next post, but here’s a peek:

God renews the eyes of our hearts through…
…fulfilling our worldly dreams and letting us feel how insufficient they are
…the clarity of pain and loss
…the messengers God brings into our lives (just the friend/verse/book we needed!)

…the joy of partnering with God on mission with our gifts and talents
…seeking his face in his Word, prayer and worship
…exposing and shattering our pride…and…`
…focusing on the future he has promised us


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4 thoughts on “Following Jesus: What Really Shapes Our Decision and Desire?

    • Our transformation is a great mystery. I look forward to understanding how God works in our souls, minds and bodies to make it happen. So much we don’t know.