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Bad Elephant

• Greg Boyd

In the third installment of our Crux of the Matter series where we’re looking at how to have difficult conversations with those we disagree with, Greg furthers the discussion of the relationship between our conscious reasoning and our subconscious feelings and emotional based instincts. Although we like to think of ourselves as rational logic driven decision makers, research continues to show that much of our reasoning is ad hoc and only serves to reinforce our already existing opinions and desires. In this message Greg tackles why these findings don’t need to lead to a deterministic world view as well as how to resolve the tension between being created in God’s image being and also born with a subconscious that pushes us away from Kingdom values.

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In a cultural moment when everyone seems to be using the world they find around them as evidence for their own rightness, Christians have an opportunity to shine through in a distinctive Jesus-looking way. But in order to do this, we have to understand our own psyche and who is driving the preverbal bus inside our head. The human condition is one of being conflicted. As Paul notes in Romans 7:19-20, we often end up doing the things we don’t want to do while avoiding those things that we know would truly bring life. In this context, sin can be seen not only as an individual choice down a path that we know better, but also as this cosmic force or separate entity that creates a downward pull on all of us. It doesn’t excuse our actions, but it does help explain them.

We can liken the brain to an elephant that operates on emotions and feelings, as well as a rider trying to steer the elephant by reason and logic. Unfortunately, in evolutionary history, our metaphorical elephant wandered around developing neural pathways for survival for a long time before reason came in to the picture. Although we like to think of ourselves as rational, well thought out individuals, it turns out just not to be the case. The brain secretes pleasure chemicals when we take an action to that is helpful for our survival, and unfortunately that has reinforced many activities that are antithetical to our kingdom call. The elephant is going around where it pleases, and reason’s job often becomes just looking forward for obstacles and how to avoid them, as well as justifying past actions. Much of our thinking simply becomes a rationalization. Wherever we end up, it feels right, almost by design.

Anything that gets in the way or challenges the rightness of the elephant’s actions are seen as bad, and even mistakenly labeled as something that threatens survival. The amazing thing about the human brain though, and one reason we shouldn’t view this discovery in a fatalistic way, is that humans have the ability to ask a 3rd question: should the elephant get what it instinctively wants? Is the map the territory? Sometimes we don’t recognize this ability we have because to go against evolution is very difficult. The elephant is hard to turn. There has to be something we want more than what the elephant wants. It turns out that Godliness can and must be chosen. It doesn’t come naturally.

Elephants are master judgers as this has been an essential skill for survival. But what has changed for humans is that we have turned this ability into a ranker of peoples’ value and worth. We have elevated being right as the highest goal and therefore assume we can define reality based on our own desires. Since reason often follows the decision, the thinking goes, “since I want to go this way, then this is the way reality must actually be.” But we as Kingdom people must see that Calvary did away with all brokenness comparisons of worth. The accuser nature has been destroyed. We were sick and found a healer. We were sinners and found a savior, and there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.

So how do we reconcile being made in God’s image, but also having inherited such a messed up self-centered brain? It turns out that nature as we find it is not as God intended it to be. One way to look at creation and evolution is as a cycle of spiritual warfare where God creates, the enemy corrupts, and then God brings about good even despite the evil corruption. In this case, the Genesis narrative is not so much a videotape of exactly how things happened, but rather a description of the nature in which we find ourselves. We are created in God’s image with a desire to be with him, but also with a temptation to define reality based on our wants and get our life from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This story is a perfect representation for how we relate to our elephant.

A couple quick principles were shared to help us steer our metaphorical elephant in the right direction. The first is to continually be getting all our life from Christ. We need significance, worth, and love, and if we’re not getting it from Jesus we’ll seek it elsewhere. The rightness of our beliefs is a tempting replacement, but ultimately fails to satisfy. Getting more information will not change the direction of the elephant. We need to create a new, experienced reality in our imagination. Lastly, when talking with others we need to always make loving the other person a higher priority than being right. Paul tells us to “above all, clothe yourself in love,” and “let everything you do be done in love.” This is clearly to be our highest priority and is a way for the rider to steer the direction of the elephant little by little over time. This can create a big difference of the lifetime of an individual.

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Topics: Creation, Discipleship, Free Will, Imagination

Sermon Series: Crux of the Matter


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Focus Scripture:

  • Romans 7:19-20

    For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

  • Colossians 3:14

    Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

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