Or, How the Spirit shapes our hearts
This second chapter of ‘Good News for Anxious Christians’ is closely tied with the first chapter and addressed the question of what’s really happening when we listen to our hearts.
Cary’s basic argument in this chapter is as follows:
We sometimes have a gut feeling or intuition that we cannot explain. Because we can’t explain it we often attribute this feeling to something from the Holy Spirit. But sometimes our intuitions turn out to be wrong so therefore they can’t be the Holy Spirit.
The fact is that everyone has intuitions, all the time. Christians (who have the Holy Spirit inside them) and non-Christians (who don’t have the Holy Spirit inside them) alike. Cary suggests that instead of thinking of our intuitions as the Holy Spirit, they are more like skilled perceptions. Our intuitions are shaped by the set of skills that we have, such as a musician hearing a piece of music as sad. These skilled perceptions often run faster than our ability to explain them. But this inability is more about our lack of the necessary vocabulary needed to explain the intuitive feeling, rather than a sign that it is from God.
But intuition isn’t completely separate from reason either. It is not a process of reasoning, but the end result (even if you cannot explain the reasoning that got you to that point). Because of this our intuitions are worth testing and arguing over because they won’t always be right.
But just like in the first chapter, just because intuitions are our own voices rather than God’s voice doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t listen to them or take them seriously. The Holy Spirit does work in our hearts, even though the heart and all the voices in them are our own.
Cary then goes on to talk about a specific habit of the heart, just like the skills talked about earlier. This he calls virtue, and it shapes our hearts, how we act, feel, perceive and think, just like other skills. The fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22 are a list of virtues. And like all habits of the heart they can result in intuitions. But unlike skills that can lead to someone becoming a better musician or sports player, virtues are about becoming a better person. This is why the Holy Spirit gets involved in them.
This doesn’t mean that only Christians can have virtues but the Spirit does work in Christians to help them to become kinder, more patient etc. than they were before. This shaping of the heart enables us and gives us the freedom to do new things. The boundaries which shape a virtue are essential to the integrity of a good heart. These boundaries aren’t restrictions to a person’s freedom but the source of new possibilities. Just like the boundaries imposed by skills (like moving your fingers in the correct way on a violin) gives the freedom to play well and to play more complex pieces. Spiritual and moral disciplines work in the same way.
One of the freedoms of a virtuous heart is a new set of intuitions. Christian virtues are all about following and becoming like Christ. The Holy Spirit helps this happen in us, he sanctifies us. So the intuitions of a sanctified heart are definitely worth listening to. But we don’t have to pretend that they are the voice of God.
Our heart won’t get sanctified by listening for the Spirit, but by listening to the word of God.
This chapter has encouraged me to be more aware of the Spirit’s work, in me and in other Christians. It has also increased my desire to have my heart shaped by Christian virtues by the work of the Holy Spirit. And it has also encouraged me to test my intuitions and search for the vocabulary to explain them.
Next up is ‘Why you don’t have to “Let God take control” (or how obedience is for responsible adults)’.