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Reformed Christians tend to place a premium on the intellect. You may be inclined to call this a straw man since I’m not going to use any specific examples here. That’s fine. If you can hear this, you can have it. If not, you can’t. But my research in modern neuroscience and psychology points me toward a different kind of premium. Of course, so do Jonathan Edwards, John Owen, and even the preaching of Jesus Christ himself, but we’ll get to all that.
In his book, 7 Secrets of Persuasion: Leading Edge Neuromarketing Techniques to Influence Anyone, James Crimmins makes a good point: “[The mind] uses emotions to arrive at its preferences and to guide decisions. That reliance on emotion may make those decisions more, not less ‘rational.’ A focus on feelings need not lead to irrationality” (p. 132).
How do you feel about that statement? Does it make you nervous? Does it make you angry? Does it excite you? If so, you’re actually proving the point. You haven’t had time to reason about the statement. But it’s making you feel a certain way. And the way you feel is going to influence how you reason through what follows.
We Often Make Decisions Based on Tacit/Emotional Intuition
Crimmins backs up this assertion with several clinical studies. For example, experiments have proved that our subconscious minds are capable of “deciding advantageously before knowing the advantageous strategy.” This is an emotional process that involves the intellect. This is demonstrated by an experiment by scientists at the University of Iowa. In this experiment, participants were asked
to turn over cards from one of four decks placed before them in a simulated gambling task. Most of the time, turning over a card led to a reward, but occasionally and unpredictably, a card led to a loss. Participants had no way of knowing that two of the decks were more risky than the others. [But] participants began to avoid the risky decks shortly after the experiment began, even before they consciously knew the decks were risky. In fact, their perspiration revealed that these participants began to feel emotionally uncomfortable whenever they thought about choosing a card from a risky deck… (p. 23).
The study also included a set of participants who were patients with a type of brain damage that made them unable to feel emotion. These participants, who could not feel emotion, never began to avoid the riskier decks even though they went through the same procedure as the normal subjects (p. 132).
This is an example of the mind using emotions and intuition in order to reason on a non-conscious level. Far from being irrational, this is a major part of how we perform the process of reasoning.
We Often Make Commitments First and Come to Understand Later
As I’ve grown older and gained more experience in life both in the secular workplace and as a pastor, I’ve come to the conclusion that most of the time people tend to make decisions based on feelings and intuition. They will then reason to themselves about why that decision was correct. To put that another way, we make emotional decisions and then use our intellect to justify those decisions after the fact.
This lines up with St. Augustine’s idea of “credo ut intelligam” – “I believe in order to understand.” So I don’t feel (yes, I said “feel”) that I’m in strange company here.
It also seems to me to be in line with Christ’s teaching: “If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority” (John 7:17).
In other words, you must make at least a tacit commitment toward obedience before you can begin to understand Christ’s teaching. Or to state it another way: Until you make a volitional commitment toward repentance and faith, you will never begin to understand Christ’s authority with any depth. In this case, an act at the level of the will or affections precedes intellectual understanding. We believe first in order to understand later. And the Spirit of God delights to work in this way.
In some sense, I could describe my whole life as a Christian this way. I came to Christ because of his emotional appeal. In his death and resurrection, Christ carried the answer for my felt guilt and shame. That was enough for the Holy Spirit to draw me to him. I didn’t have all the answers. I hadn’t read all the books on apologetics. I hadn’t read all the counterarguments. But I’ve spent the past 18 years doing that after the fact. And the more I study, the more I’m convinced that my decision to place all my bets on Christ was rational. God gave me a sense of the emotional appeal of Jesus’ claims to be Savior. It wasn’t irrational for me to run toward that appeal. It was the most rational thing I could have done. But it wasn’t based primarily on reason. Emotion and reason play well together. They are both fallen and depraved (yes, the intellect is fallen and depraved along with the emotions) but they were also both created by God for a purpose.
Emotions Are No More of the Devil than the Intellect is of the Devil
I started this little essay by asserting that Reformed Christians tend to give a prominent place to the intellect. I’ve had a church member regularly remind me that emotions belong to the devil. That emotions do nothing but lead us astray. “I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.” But doesn’t the name of Jesus sound sweet in a sinner’s ear? Is its draw only intellectual? Does make claims only to our minds? Or does he claim all that we are, mind, heart, soul, and strength?
Are your emotions any more fallen or sinful than your intellect? Is ‘total depravity’ actually ‘total?’ Or do you get to apply it selectively?
Does, “Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest” sound like a primarily intellectual command? I’ve actually heard a Christian say they came to Christ because they were tired and heard those words. “I’m tired. He offers rest. Sign me up.” There is some reasoning going on there, but there’s a lot more than reasoning going on there.
How often does the Bible tell us to rejoice? How often does it tell us to give thanks? How often does it tell us not to fear? How often does it tell us to love God and neighbor? How often does it tell us to rest? If you can pull that off with the intellect alone, then you’ll have to teach me how it works. Because it seems to me that joy, thankfulness, fearlessness, love, and rest are presuppositions of the Christian life. And with these as our starting point, we reason outward toward decisions and actions that justify these basic commitments of the soul. We take these principles into ourselves, we accept them without understanding, and then we spend our lives experiencing them and trying to figure out and explain how they work.
We commit ahead of time that we will be joyful in suffering. And then in our suffering we reason our way back to that commitment. And all along the way the affections/emotions are playing a crucial role.
Aim at the Emotions in Preaching and Help Your People Reason Through Those Emotions
With all that said, I think (and feel) we’d be better off as preachers if we embrace the central place of the emotions as we preach to our people. Just do it, and reason about it later. You’ll see that all signs point to it being the right move. But if you don’t want to take my word on that, I’ll close up with some points made by Jonathan Edwards and John Owen.
Jonathan Edwards once wrote,
I don’t think ministers are to be blamed for raising the affections of their hearers too high, if that which they are affected with be only that which is worthy of affection, and their affections are not raised beyond a proportion to their importance, or worthiness of affection.
I should think myself in the way of my duty to raise the affections of my hearers as high as possibly I can, provided that they are affected with nothing but truth, and with affections that are not disagreeable to the nature of what they are affected with.
Edwards is not arguing for pure emotional manipulation per se. He’s arguing for going after the emotions in a way that is in line with the truth that you are preaching. So if you’re preaching on a text demanding that people love Jesus, should you not preach Jesus in such a way that will make them want to love him? Shouldn’t you paint a picture of him that is emotionally charged? Shouldn’t you use metaphors that will show his beauty and loveliness? Shouldn’t you use everything you have to try to move people with the idea that Christ is worthy of our love? Or should you just say, “the Bible says it, now you go do it?” out of fear of being overly emotional or manipulative.
Face it – in one sense – everything is manipulation. If I tell you to sit down in a chair, I’m manipulating you. I’m trying to get you to do something. I’m trying to get you to do something that involves the manipulation of your body, position, and posture. Now I may scream, “Sit down!” Or I may say it in a soft, warm tone like Mr. Rogers. But either way, I’m still trying to get you to do something. The tone I use should be appropriate based on context and what is being requested or demanded.
When you tell people to stand for the doxology, you’re manipulating them. When you say, “You may be seated,” you’re manipulating them. And none of this is bad or wrong. It’s a standard aspect of life, communication, and order.
If you’re preaching on hell, shouldn’t you do your best to paint a picture that is scary? Repent or you’re going to hell doesn’t have the same ring to it as
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours (Edwards, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God)
Edwards’ picture of hell is in line with the truth. Hell is scary. You really should do your best to avoid going there. But notice it’s not only Jonathan Edwards who preached like this. Jesus Christ himself didn’t just say, “Hell is real. You don’t want to go there.” He says it’s a place with weeping and gnashing of teeth. He goes for emotional imagery.
Also notice Jesus doesn’t say things like, “I have come to give you an epistemological advantage in your understanding of God and creation.” Instead, he says, “I am the light of the world.” He doesn’t say, “I have come to create a teleological suspension of the ethic.” Instead he says, “I have come not to bring peace, but a sword.” He doesn’t say, “I am the micro-nutrients needed by your soul in order to sustain a healthy spiritual life.” He says, “I am bread.” Jesus constantly used vivid, emotionally-charged language and imagery.
He did this at least partly because people don’t simply need information. They need something to move them. Something to create desire. Something they can relate to their own sensory and emotional experiences.
Years ago, Jeremy and I read William Wainwright’s book, Reason and the Heart for a seminary class. The book had a major impact on both of us. The principle he demonstrates in that book is called “passional reason.” It’s the same idea I’m trying to get across here. He points out that Jonathan Edwards saw the human soul as existing in a basic unity. It’s one thing. Sometimes it’s called the ‘mind.’ Sometimes it’s called the ‘heart.’ When the soul is engaged in reasoning, we tend to call it the mind. When it’s engaged in the emotions, we call it the heart. But there’s a basic unity. It’s impossible the reason without passion. You realize we’re not robots, correct? You recognize that we don’t reason in a vacuum or test tube, don’t you? Can you even conceive a world where our intellects work independently from our emotions?
Because of this, humans need to be engaged in all sorts of ways if they’re going to be fully engaged. If you’re trying to get someone to quit smoking, information might do the trick. Just give them statistics about smoking causing cancer, emphysema, and death. But that might not do the trick. Most smokers already know this stuff anyway. Maybe they need to witness someone battling lung cancer. Maybe they need to see pictures of blackened lungs. When brute information won’t do the trick, a vivid, emotional appeal may hit the mark.
And notice that both approaches are ‘true.’ The statistics are true, though perhaps ineffective. The experience of knowing someone with lung cancer is also true. The image of a black set of lungs is also true. Neither approach is irrational.
I’ve written about this before, but in another place, Jonathan Edwards writes,
The main benefit obtained by preaching is by impression made upon the mind at the time, and not by an effect that arises afterwards by a remembrance of what was delivered. And though an after-remembrance of what was heard in a sermon is oftentimes very profitable; yet, for the most part, that remembrance is from an impression the words made on the heart at the time; and the memory profits, as it renews and increases that impression (Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 1, p. 294).
Edwards is saying here something to the effect that the hearing of the preached Word is profitable in the moment so far as it moves us emotionally. It leaves an emotional impression on us. We have an experience or encounter with the Word. Then after the fact we revisit that experience in order to make sense of it and tease it out into our lives.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones used this in his argument against taking notes during a sermon. Focusing on information, or treating the sanctuary like a school room, can actually detract from what the preached Word is meant to do. It’s meant to go after the emotions. Notice that it’s hard to take notes on a parable or an illustration or a story as it’s being told. But these are things Jesus used when he preached.
Don’t be afraid to use all your intellectual power to go after people’s emotions. Christ deserves their emotions. I’m not saying you deserve their emotions. Or that you deserve their money. Or their devotion. I’m saying that Christ does. Don’t use the fact that some hucksters that claim to be Christians manipulate people into hyper-emotional states or into giving them money. We’re talking about doing this strictly for the sake of the love of Christ and the truth.
Our Affections Are Our All: If God Doesn’t Get Our Affections, He Doesn’t Want Any Part of Us
We’ll wrap this up with a quote from John Owen. The quote from which this post gets part of its title:
Our affections are upon the matter our all. They are all we have to give or bestow; the only power of our souls whereby we may give away ourselves from ourselves and become another’s. Other faculties of our souls, even the most noble of them, are suited to receive in unto our own advantage; by our affections we can give away what we are and have. Hereby we give our hearts unto God as he requireth. Wherefore, unto him we give our affections unto whom we give our all,–ourselves and all that we have; and to whom we give them not, whatever we give, upon the matter we give nothing at all…
They are the seat of all sincerity, which is the jewel of divine and human conversation, the life and soul of every thing that is good and praiseworthy. Whatever men pretend, as their affections are, so are they… (John Owen, The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually Minded, from Sin and Grace, p. 396).
This is one of the most informative nonfiction books I’ve ever read:
Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney.
In this book John Tierney documents the results of years of research by Roy Baumeister on the subject of willpower. He gives tons of great anecdotes about experiments and observations. But this post will cover only my major takeaways.
1) You willpower is finite and becomes depleted each time you use it.
2) You use the same reserve of willpower for everything you do (see p. 35).
3) Sleep and glucose replenish the reserve.
I’ll unpack those points briefly. Like a car has a gas tank, the authors argue, you have a willpower tank. And it only has a certain capacity. Once you empty the tank any given day, you’re running on empty until you get food and sleep.
How do you empty the tank? Every time you do something that takes an act of willpower, you lose some from the tank. Acts that take willpower include anything that requires you controlling your thoughts, emotions, impulses, and performance.
The authors make a big deal of the fact that people tend to be more prone to pop off on spouses and children after an especially hard day at work. The willpower tank is empty at the end of the day. That’s when you need to be careful.
In order to refill the tank you need glucose and sleep. A glass of lemonade, or preferably a good meal, can do wonders. So can a good night’s rest.
I’ve started thinking about willpower in terms of a bucket. You need to know when your willpower bucket is getting low. Remember that every time you perform some act of self control (even if you fail at that act), you’re taking a ladle-full (or more) of willpower out of the bucket. When the bucket gets low, it’s not a good time to go grocery shopping. Or to have a disciplinary meeting with a child. Or to have a serious discussion with your spouse or boss. Sleep on it first. Or at least have a good meal.
The authors recommend a few things to help us in battles of willpower:
- Watch for symptoms (p. 245): Keep your mind on the bucket. If you recognizing that you’re close to flying off the handle, or binge eating, or whatever you may do when your willpower is depleted, take note. And get yourself out of the situation.
- Pick your battles (p. 248): Don’t try to do a lot of willpower depleting activities at once. If you’re trying to quit smoking (and that’s going to be a huge act of will), that’s probably not a good time to also go on a major diet.
- Develop steady habits: Once something becomes a habit, it no longer takes willpower.
One of the more interesting points (at least for me) the authors make is that repeat dieters often struggle because the body that has once experienced the depletion needed for a major diet will fight harder and harder to keep you from putting it through it again. The authors call dieting a major catch 22. Why? Because dieting takes willpower. And willpower needs glucose. And dieting restricts glucose.
Finally, the book gave me a new appreciation of Christ’s experience in his temptation with Satan. It’s not mentioned in the book, but I couldn’t help but think of it. Satan came to him while he was on an extended fast. When his willpower was at his lowest. But he had a food that Satan didn’t understand:
“My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34). That was his ultimate source of willpower. We need that type of communion with God to keep our buckets full as well.
Recent Reading: Instant Influence: How to Get Anyone to Do Anything – Fast by Michael Pantalon.
I’ve already used Pantalon’s technique in my counseling ministry. And everyone I’ve shared it with has found it helpful. On top of that, it’s really simple.
You use, “on a scale of 1 to 10, how badly/much..?” Then you follow up by asking the person why they chose that number instead of a lower one.
Here are a few examples.
1) Let’s say I’m counseling a husband who is neglecting his wife and ruining his marriage. I want to counsel this man to become a better husband. As a pastor, I would give biblical imperatives and pray for this man, of course. But then comes Pantalon’s instant influence technique. I would ask the man, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how badly do you want your marriage to continue and thrive?”
If the man answers something like “7.” I would then ask, “Why did you pick such a high number? Why didn’t you say ‘3’ or ‘4?'” This would set a context in which the man I’m counseling would then begin to reason with himself (out loud) about why he wants his marriage to work. You’re setting up a scenario where he can convince himself to make the right decision. He may begin telling you how much he loves his wife. And how he can’t imagine himself living without her. And how he realizes he’s been messing up and knows that he needs to do better. And by the time he leaves the office, he’s already preached a sermon to himself. You just played the role of instigator.
I recently heard someone say, “No one will ever reject their own conclusion.” If you let a person argue himself into making a choice, he is not going to reject the conclusion he comes to in his own mind. So that’s the goal. You’re pushing the person toward a desired outcome.
2) Another example. Let’s say your daughter doesn’t want to do her homework. You ask her, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how badly do you want to do your homework?” Let’s say she answers with “3.” Then you would say something like, “So you picked a 3. That’s actually higher than I expected. Why didn’t you pick 2 or 1?” Her answer then may be something like, “Well, if I don’t do it, I know I’m going to get a bad grade, and I don’t need a bad grade right now. And, I guess I sort of do need to do it…” And before you know it, she’s working on her homework. Because she’s convinced herself (with your help) to do it.
As a pastor, I would obviously begin any scenario with counsel from the Bible. But I’ve found it rather easy to tie this process into biblical counseling situations. It’s especially helpful because you can use it in virtually any scenario. From counseling a husband who isn’t fulfilling his duties, to trying to get your child to do her homework, to trying to convince a committee to follow a plan you think is best, the instant influence process is helpful.
3) Another example. Let’s say you’re talking to someone who’s very discontent with their job and you want to nudge them toward contentment. You could ask them, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how much to you like your job?” If they say “2,” then ask them why they didn’t say “1.” This will at least provoke them to start saying a few things they actually do like about their job. Ideally, this would lead to the person convincing himself that his job isn’t really as bad as he thinks when he takes a step back and looks at the big picture. He may be so busy focusing on the negatives that he’s never taken the time to do this before.
If you give this a try, regardless of the scenario, give me a comment to let me know how this worked for you.
In his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini lays out six key principles of influence. Each of these principles describe key factors in how people are influenced. This post will list the six principles and give a brief description of each. I recommend the book highly. I’ve added it to our Recognizing Christ Recommends page. It’s a tough read but there’s a ton of good stuff in it.
The six principles are:
- Commitment and Consistency
- Social Proof
1. Reciprocation is the basic principle of quid pro quo (the voice of Hannibal Lecter shows up in my mind as I type those words): “I did something for you, now you do something for me.” People will use this on you all the time. I’m sure you’ve met people who you don’t want to take a favor from because you know they’ll expect something in return. The key to countering the principle of reciprocation (the way to say “no” after someone’s evoked something they did for you in the past) is to remember that if someone is using reciprocation as a “trick” in order to put you in their debt, then you have no obligation to go along with the trick. Cialdini calls this a simple act of “redefinition.” That person didn’t do you a favor. They tried to play a trick on you. Don’t be afraid to tell them so.
2. Commitment and Consistency is the principle that people will normally try to be consistent with previous commitments they’ve made. That is, let’s say, if you have previously committed to be a strong environmentalists, you’ll likely listen to the person who tries to get you to donate to some environmental organization. You’ll tend to be consistent with commitments you’ve previously made in your mind or with your words. But if that’s not a commitment of yours, then it’s not as big a deal. You will just tune them out.
Cialdini summarizes the principle: “Once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment. Those pressures will cause us to respond in ways that justify our earlier decision” (p. 57).
He uses a fascinating illustration involving American prisoners of war in WWII. The Chinese government knew that most of these soldiers wouldn’t betray their country. So instead of asking them to simply trash the U.S. in writing, they started with small requests and worked their way up. They started by saying, “Is America perfect?” The soldier would inevitably answer, “No.” Once the soldier made that commitment, they would force him to be consistent with it: “You admit America is not perfect, so could you give us some examples of how it’s not perfect.” And then the onslaught begins. Well, we’re materialistic. We have a lot of lying politicians. Our prison system is broken, etc. So by the end of the conversation, their words are construed to present America as nothing but a bunch of greedy, lying, no good scoundrels. And propaganda is born. That’s how commitment and consistency can be used in a negative way.
3. Social Proof is the principle that we will look to the society or setting or context around us to validate whether or not we should do something. It’s the old “everybody’s doing it” idea. Cialdini uses the example of laugh tracks played during sitcoms. They’re cheesy. And I doubt anybody likes them. But all the research shows that they work. When we hear other people laughing, we’re more likely to laugh ourselves. Cialdini also uses Billy Graham as an example. He documents that Graham’s altar calls often involved “ringers” These people who were predetermined to go forward would serve to make other people feel more comfortable in going forward.
4. Liking is the principle that we are more likely to say “yes” to someone we actually like. Not much to say about this one. The way to counter this is that if you realize you’re only doing something because you like the person who wants that thing from you, you need to actually state that as your reason for saying no.
5. Authority is the principle that we will obey authority. If someone holds authority over you, you’re more likely to comply with what they want from you. The principle of defense here is to make sure someone is actually an authority before you accept their authority. If you’re inclined to listen to someone because they pose as an authority (let’s say they have a lot of degrees or have a big following or call themselves experts in their fields), do some digging to make sure they’re all that they claim to be. Fake degrees from garbage schools exist for a reason.
6. Scarcity is the principle that the possibility of losing, or not being able to acquire, something makes it more valuable. Cialdini actually starts this chapter with a quote by G.K. Chesterton: “The way to love anything is to realize that it might be lost.” The principle can be summarized with this quote: “The idea of potential loss plays a large role in human decision making. In fact, people seem to be more motivated by the thought of losing something than by the thought of gaining something of equal value” (p. 238).
Knowing these principles of influence is helpful for the purpose of influencing people. But it’s equally as important for resisting unwanted influence. Salesmen want to use the scarcity principle on us to get us to buy something at a higher price than it’s worth. Or to get us to buy it now instead of waiting. They’ll get us to make verbal commitments and then implicitly calls us to be consistent with those commitments. You get the idea. Knowing is half the battle.
In Pitch Anything, Oren Klaff stresses going after the “crocodile brain.” Allegedly, the three basic parts of the brain are the neocortex, mid-brain, and crocodile brain.
Proponents of this croc brain idea (or at least the ones I’ve come across) hold an evolutionary presupposition that this is how the brain evolved. The croc brain being the original brain of our earliest ancestors, the mid-brain forming next, and then the neocortex (which is highly involved in rational thinking).
I don’t hold the same presuppositions. I actually think you could use the basic traditional Christian understanding of the soul and come to some of the same conclusions about how the mind works. Klaff makes the point that the three parts of the brain work independently and together. That is, they are distinct but can’t be fully separated. This is how Jonathan Edwards viewed the soul. He presupposed and argued that the soul consisted of the mind, the will, and the affections. These three work independently and together. They are distinct but can’t be separated.
I make that point simply because Klaff’s main point is that when you’re pitching an idea, you should go for the croc brain as much as possible. I think you could just as easily say, “Go for the emotions or affections first” and get the same result. I’ve come to accept the idea that we rarely make decisions with reason/rationality first. It’s more likely that we make decisions based on our gut/emotions and then use our rationality to make arguments after the fact that we made the right decision.
Klaff’s simple description of how the croc brain operates is as follows. The crocodile brain is concerned primarily with boredom, danger, and complication. The croc brain says, If the idea is boring, ignore it. If it’s dangerous, fight or run. If it’s complicated, radically summarize it (p. 14).
If you’re going to make a pitch or presentation (or even preach a sermon) with this in mind, you need to remember the main points:
- People are going to ignore you if possible
- They’re mainly worried about the big picture rather than intricacies
- They will respond emotionally first, especially is something scares them
- They’re worried about the here and now with a short attention span that craves novelty
- They want concrete facts rather than abstract concepts (p. 16)
We want to use the intellectual mind to pitch and preach things with a lot of details and abstract concepts. But people will primarily pay attention to things that touch their emotions, deal with their fears, offer some type of novelty, and are more concrete/image-based than abstract.
While I don’t believe there’s really such a thing as a croc brain or a lizard brain (I’ve heard that term used of the same concept), I do know that Jesus, when he described the kingdom of heaven, didn’t give a theological treatise. Instead, he said things like, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field.” So often he went straight to emotionally-loaded imagery and narrative rather than giving logical syllogisms.