Where do you want to go today?
This was the question posed to humanity by the tech giant Microsoft in ancient Internet history (1994). Before our computers could go with us in the form of smartphones in our pockets, Microsoft tantalized us with the capability of a desktop computer to take you somewhere else — anywhere but here.
The opportunities were endless, the ad campaign suggested. You could “go” anywhere. The only limit was your wants. So it turned out the pivotal part of the question wasn’t “going”; it was wanting. Asking someone where they want to go boils down to asking them what they want.
Embedded in this question is actually an important insight into the kinds of creatures we are. Even in our information age, the quest for information is governed by our wants. What you look for is a reflection of your desires. What you want to know is an indicator of your wants. For a brief time Google even maintained a metasearch engine that asked,
We like to imagine ourselves as enlightened, rational, truth-seeking knowers — “thinking things,” as Descartes put it. But in fact, the engine that drives us under the hood of our conscious awareness is our loves. You aren’t defined by what you know. You are what you love.
And here’s the disconcerting reality we need to face: our loves and longings and wants and hungers are not the result of our conscious, rational choices — they are the drivers of those choices.
We like to imagine that our wants are consciously chosen: that we hear an illuminating sermon on Sunday that convicts us about the truth, then wake up on Monday morning and choose what to love. Now that you know what you should want, that’s what you’ll want from here on out, right? Right?!
What Do You Really Love?
My hunch is that, if we’re honest, we all know it’s never that easy. The apostle Paul himself testified to the internal contest that is the space of sanctification: I don’t do what I want, even when I know what I should want (Romans 7:18). And I do the things I don’t want to do because, on some register, a part of me still wants that (Romans 7:15).
I am a terrain of contested desires. Or, as Augustine put it, my own interior life can be a foreign country, a region of dissimulation, a terra incognito. You are what you love, but you might not love what you think.
Why is that? How does that happen? It’s because our hearts are inscrutable things; the mysterious, conflicted core of who we are; an interior depth that sometimes eludes us and deceives us (Jeremiah 17:9). More specifically, it’s because our loves and wants and hungers are habits that we learn in all kinds of unconscious ways.
Holiness Is Not an Algorithm
We tend to assume that we are what we think, so we assume our wants are like conclusions to an argument. Our minds are information processors into which we deposit the right beliefs, so then we expect the machine to spit out the right behaviors and actions — as if holiness was an algorithm.
That sort of picture overestimates the power of thinking and underestimates the power of habit. And our loves are heart habits — dispositions and inclinations that are more caught than taught. Our hungers and wants are heart habits that we absorb through the rhythms and routines we give ourselves over to. The things that we do do something to us, even when we don’t realize it — maybe especially when we don’t realize it.
How Are You Curating Your Heart?
Scripture constantly portrays the center of the human person as the heart — the seat and engine of our loves and desires. That’s why Proverbs counsels, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23). Here is the Bible’s crucial psychological insight about human action: What you do isn’t the conclusion to some syllogism you process in your mind; rather, what you do more often bubbles up from the unconscious hungers that characterize your heart.
You can’t simply think your way to holiness. Sanctification isn’t just about the acquisition of the right information; it’s about the rehabituation of our heart habits. It’s a matter of learning how to love (rightly) again. And that takes practice.
“Where do you want to go today?” is a stock-taking question. It is an occasion to ask yourself, “What do I want?” And that is an occasion to ask yourself, How am I curating my heart? What liturgies and rituals am I giving myself over to? What cultural practices am I allowing to shape my heart habits, perhaps without realizing it? What am I learning to love without realizing it?
Walking Down Desire Paths
In a remarkable book about walking called The Old Ways, British writer Robert Macfarlane says that “paths are the habits of a landscape.” Paths are the grooves humans cut into the crust of the earth, the channels we forge through our environment. City planners, of course, design such paths: we call them sidewalks. But Macfarlane says that town planners can look at the city from above and recognize what they call “desire paths”: the lines of packed dirt and flattened grass across the middle of parks that signal a population wants to go this way, even though the defined, designed path takes a different route. A plan says, “You should go this way”; desire paths are the result of people saying, over and over again, “Too bad; we want to go that way.”
The adventure of sanctification is learning to walk on the right desire path. A million cultural rituals are training us to go wherever we want, to “blaze our own trail.” The gospel doesn’t tell us to overcome desire; it calls us to rightly ordered desire. Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will show you the desire path you’ve spent your whole life looking for (Psalm 37:4).
Hearts Made for the Body
Our gracious Creator knows that we are creatures of habit. “You have made us for yourself,” Augustine prays, “and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” That’s also why our Redeemer doesn’t just give us knowledge and information; he invites us into his own body, the church, which is where we learn to love again.
The rhythms and practices of the body of Christ are the tangible gift of a God who loves us and wants to recapture our hearts — to love God and to love what God loves. Come to me, Jesus says, and learn how to love again. And devote yourself to my Body, because there you’ll find the grooves where your heart goes. There you’ll find the desire paths your heart was made for.